Reading Railroad's First Bankruptcy
The United States was roiled repeatedly throughout the nineteenth century by financial panics and resultant economic recessions, each with transatlantic dimensions. The Panic of 1837 was pivotal for the Reading Railroad. After the road's optimistic startup on a foundation of American capital in 1834, because it was "constructed without financial stint... the income from the company's operations had to be maintained at an unusually high level just to stay in the black." During the American economic contraction following the 1837 panic, management turned in desperation to London for fresh capital and credit. The resulting influx of badly needed cash made the Reading the first American railroad to come under direct English influence as to its management. From well prior to Gowen's presidency, and continuing through it until the Reading Railroad came fully under J.P. Morgan's sway, these London interests exerted great influence.
The Reading better weathered the panics of 1847 and 1857, but under Franklin Gowen's management and expansionist programs, the Panic of 1873 and its follow-on depression were once again of instrumental importance. The railroad fell deeper and deeper into debt until, finally, in May 1880, the well was dry: the Reading had gone bankrupt.
Despite the harsh realities of the depression that ran from late 1873 into 1879, it was significant misjudgments on Gowen's part that led to the Reading Railroad's collapse in 1880. His determination to dominate, through the Reading Railroad, the overall supply/demand dynamic of anthracite was hemmed in by insurmountable bounds from the outset.
The mining theory behind the ultimately wasteful development of the Pottsville Twin Shaft operation was not well grounded in the geologic science even of that time. But that theory alone did not make up Gowen's rationale for the massive expenditures of the Coal & Iron Co. He believed that the Schuylkill Valley—which from colonial times until the Civil War had been the center of American iron-making—would, because of the importance of anthracite iron, continue to hold that preeminent position indefinitely. He stated this belief forthrightly in the Reading Railroad annual report for 1870; but already the use of lower-cost coke made from more widely available bituminous coal, together with expanding markets in the Midwest and West, was driving the center of the iron industry (and soon, steelmaking) to Pittsburgh. Already the importance of anthracite as an indispensable industrial fuel was slipping.
Even Gowen's anthracite combination, successful at maintaining profitable market prices even as depression set in, was not able to continue long in unity. Internecine squabbles and continued deteriorating business conditions all around undermined the effectiveness of this pooling effort, and coal prices and revenues fluctuated year by year. The combination unraveled in August 1876, with Gowen angrily denouncing erstwhile coal pool member Asa Packer by name. Meanwhile, earlier in the year the Coal & Iron Company's retail marketing operation at Port Richmond was transferred to an independent concern. As the Philadelphia coal market continued to decline, Schuylkill County mine operators sent Thomas Baumgardner, who had given Franklin Gowen his first introduction to the coal and iron businesses during his apprenticeship, as part of a committee to get a read on Gowen's intentions. Still out of sorts over the larger anthracite combination's falling apart, Gowen would not commit to any new price-fixing arrangement.
Finally, Gowen did not well discern the special nature of the Reading, as compared to other railroads of the time, in terms of its underlying capitalization. As noted above, the road was "constructed without financial stint"; specifically, it was laid out at a cost per mile that far exceeded that of other lines in the coal region, or even of such trunk lines as the B&O and Erie. Carrying costs for this capitalization was the issue that first drove the Reading into the arms of English lenders and investors. Somewhat a relief on both sides of the Atlantic, then, was the period 1861–1867, when the railroad managed to cut its funded debt roughly in half—from $11,819,400 to $5,902,300.
This was the fiscally sound, but still burdened, Reading Railroad whose presidency Gowen assumed in 1869. Instead of gleaning insight from the railroad's successful struggle to bring its overhead under control, he turned the enterprise in the following decade into a mysteriously accounted borrowing machine. In 1874, a former Gowen friend turned enemy by Gowen's organization of the anthracite industry, accused Gowen in print of dishonest and misleading financial representations in the Reading's annual report and its prospectuses. Though Gowen was able to easily slough off such accusation at that time, it was renewed more powerfully in 1876 by Charles E. Smith—Gowen's direct predecessor as president, who had recommended the young man for the position in his absence. Even following Gowen's election to the post in his own right, Smith had remained on the corporation's Board of Managers. After hearing from Gowen of a US$7 million floating debt that had never been discussed in any board meetings, Smith inspected the unpublished books of the subsidiary Coal & Iron Co., which issued no annual report of its own. He found that the parent corporation's floating debt was being transferred to the subsidiary before the parent's fiscal year end in November, to avoid appearing in year-end statements; only to be shifted back to the parent prior to the subsidiary's own fiscal year end in December, thus effectively masking the joint enterprise's precarious condition overall. Smith raised the issue to the Reading's principal source of funds, the McCalmont Brothers investment banking firm in London, seeking Gowen's ouster, but was rebuffed. Though Gowen remained as president, and Smith resigned from the board, the incident forced Gowen's 1876 annual report to approximate frankness. It indicated the corporation's funded debt as US$65 million, resulting in US$5.5 million annually in carrying charges, compared to just over US$3 million in earnings for the railroad and a US$600,000 loss for the Coal & Iron Co.
From that time, through fresh sanguine predictions for improvements in the business climate and the Reading's overall performance, which allowed him to borrow more funds on a less grand scale and to get the McCalmonts to defer interest payments due; and maneuverings such as periodically paying workers in scrip—essentially promissory notes—instead of cash, Franklin Gowen continued to run the Reading. In early 1880, employees were paid in cash for the first time in sixteen months. Then, on Friday, May 22, 1880, two Coal & Iron Co. checks, intended to transfer cash to the railroad, bounced. Gowen offered railroad promissory notes to make the checks good, but the bank turned him down. McCalmont Brothers ignored Gowen's plea by cable for a fresh loan of a half million dollars. That same day the Reading announced suspension of payments on debt.
Reading Railroad stock dropped from 23 to 12½ in one hour of trading. An anonymous statement from the corporate offices predicted resumption of payments in thirty days, without bankruptcy. Ex-president Smith, however, predicted that the company had "no future but bankruptcy, and it must get rid of Mr. Gowen, or bankruptcy won't help it. Should he be made receiver, it will be the same old story."
The following Monday, a formal declaration of bankruptcy was filed at the U.S. Circuit Court in Pittsburgh. Franklin Gowen was appointed as one of three receivers; the others were Philadelphia bankers with no personal ties to the corporation.
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