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The political legacy of the railroad barons

By Laurie Bennett

April 16, 2014 at 10:06am

Now that the tech sector has reached voting age, it’s starting to play politics.

Tech millionaires and billionaires who can’t easily be pigeonholed as liberal or conservative have begun pouring money into campaigns, advocacy groups and lobbying efforts. Sean Eldridge, husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, is even running for office.

We can’t begin to predict how the politics of the future will be changed by all those ones and zeroes.

Charles Crocker
Charles Crocker

But we do have a model from the past.

The great fortunes of 19th-century railroad barons still reverberate. Not all titans sired future politicians or diplomats, but their money and their networks certainly provided opportunity.

We’ve created several interactive Muckety maps tracking such legacies.

The map below shows descendants of Charles Crocker, co-founder of Central Pacific Railroad and president of Wells Fargo.

Crocker moved to California during the gold rush, figuring out quickly that money was to be made, but not in mining.

He also dabbled in politics, serving as a state legislator before managing construction of the Union Pacific.

His great-great-grandson achieved higher office. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006.

Whitehouse’s father, Charles S. Whitehouse, Crocker’s great-grandson, was assistant secretary of defense and U.S. ambassador to Laos and Thailand.

Here’s a map showing a partial family tree of Jay Gould, majority owner of the Union Pacific Railroad.

One great-grandson, Stuyvesant Wainwright II, was elected four times as a Republican congressman from New York.

Another, Kingdon Gould Jr., took the diplomatic route, serving as ambassador to Netherlands and Luxembourg.

One of the earliest political careers growing out of the railroad boom was that of W. Averell Harriman, son of Union Pacific founder E.H. Harriman.

The younger Harriman, who also served as chairman of the rail company, was governor of New York, commerce secretary during the Truman administration and ambassador to the U.K. and the U.S.S.R.

W. Averell Harriman
W. Averell Harriman

An adviser to four presidents, he was described by historian Theodore H. White as the “last tall timber of the New Deal.”

His wife, Pamela Harriman, was ambassador to France.

More recently, Amanda Burden, his daughter’s stepdaughter, headed the New York City Planning Commission. Her tenure ended with Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaving office. She now works for Bloomberg Associates, a consultancy launched by the former mayor.

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