"Western Railroads and Eastern Capital: Regional Networks on Railroad Boards of Directors, 1872-1894"

In spite of the corporate organization of railroad boards of directors, the business of running a late nineteenth-century railroad depended heavily on friends and family. A seat on a board of directors connected the railroad to influential investors, bankers and politicians, but it also gave members of the board access to financial and investment information that could be put to lucrative personal use. Tracking the connections between companies by shared directors creates a kind of map showing the flow of information and power among the railroads throughout time, especially as important investors tended to move among railroads in insider groups.

Railroads built and operated in the Western United States consistently saw Boston and New York insider groups dominating their boards. While Western railroads might have a token Westerner sit on the boards each year, Eastern directors consistently had the longest tenure across the most boards. When a seat on a board meant access to information, a high number of years on multiple railroad boards meant consistent insider access to investment information. Through network diagrams, one may examine how closely these Western railroads were to Eastern money and interests.

The selection of the railroads included was not random. Significant railroads in the Chicago and Burlington system (Burlington and Missouri (IA); Burlington and Missouri (NE); Chicago, Burlington and Northern) show the close connections among local Chicagoan roads. Other companies make up the most powerful and expansionist railroads of the late 19th century (Union Pacific; Missouri Pacific; Atlantic and Pacific; Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe; Chicago, Burlington and Quincy). The time period selected, from 1872 to 1893, tracks the first years of the transcontinental railroads (the first was completed in 1869), the year when many of the selected railroads were bankrupt or reorganized.

Network Diagrams

Large nodes represent railroad companies, and railroads have consistent color and placement in the networks. Smaller nodes represent individuals. A line between an individual and a railroad means individual sat on that railroad?s board for at least one year between 1871 and 1894. Neither line length between railroad and individual nor distance between railroad companies hold any significance.

Director-Years Histograms

Director-years indicate the length of time an individual has served on a railroad board. If an individual serves on the board of Railroad A for 10 years and the board of Railroad B for 5 years, he has 15 director-years. The director-years histogram reveals the spread of director-years for each particular network diagram.
Regional Railroad Networks

Flash visualization


Produced in collaboration with Emily Brodman, Stephanie Chan, Erik Steiner, and Richard White.

All materials are property of The Spatial History Lab at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford University.