The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Perkins, Charles Elliott
(November 24, 1840–November 9, 1907)

and his son

Charles Elliott Perkins Jr.

(February 21, 1881-June 19, 1943)

–railroad executives—played important roles in the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Charles Sr. was the eldest of five children born to James Handasyd Perkins and Sarah (Elliott) Perkins in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was a lawyer and later a writer and Unitarian lecturer, who died when Charles was only nine years old. Charles was educated in public schools only to the age of 16, but then finished high school in Milton, Massachusetts, returning to Cincinnati in 1857 to work as a clerk for a wholesale fruit grocer. Perkins was fortunate to be related either directly or through marriage to the Forbes family in Boston and other luminaries such as William Ellery Channing, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, William Graham Sumner, and the Higginson, Bowditch, and Cabot families. On September 22, 1864, he married a second cousin, Edith Forbes. They had seven children, Robert Forbes, Elsie Alice, Edith, Margaret, Charles Jr., Mary, and Samuel.

    In 1859 Perkins began his railroad career when a cousin, John Murray Forbes, secured a position for him as a clerk on the Burlington and Missouri River (B&M) Railroad for $30 a month. He took up residence in Burlington, Iowa, and lived there during his entire railroad career. The following year he was promoted to land agent and assistant treasurer, and early in 1865 became general superintendent. During the next four years, he oversaw the completion of the B&M road across Iowa. From 1869 to 1872 he directed the construction of a 200-mile extension of the road into Nebraska. In 1872 he was named vice president of the B&M.

    In 1875 the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad absorbed the B&M. That same year, Perkins and Forbes forced several directors off the CB&Q board after a construction scandal was uncovered within the company. Perkins then became a director of the company and the following year became vice president and general manager. In September 1881 he was elected president of the CB&Q. He would remain in that position for the next 20 years and on the board of directors until his death in 1907.

    In 1881 the CB&Q was operating 2,924 miles of track in Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri. Under Perkins's leadership, extensions were built to Denver (1882) and St. Paul, Minnesota (1886). Lines were later extended to Kansas City, and Billings, Montana, with a general increase of feeder lines through the whole region from Chicago to the Rocky Mountains. The Hannibal & St. Joseph, which had been lost to Jay Gould in 1871, was bought back at a reasonable price by Perkins in 1883. By the end of Perkins's tenure, the CB&Q network had been increased to 7,992 miles.

    Troubles began to mount after 1887. The Interstate Commerce Act passed that year prohibited pooling among the Chicago lines and limited their freedom to set rates. The maturing of the general railroad network across the nation increased competition among all roads and caused the CB&Q to lose money for the first time in 1888. A dividend was paid that year anyway to stabilize the company's stock price.

    Competition remained intense through the 1890s and was further exacerbated by the depression of 1893-1897. Perkins wanted to create a larger combination of lines to limit cutthroat competition and local regulation, but the company's directors opposed that approach. As an alternative, he began to seek a larger combination to buy out the CB&Q for $200 per share. E. H. Harriman and James J. Hill both bargained with Perkins, with Hill eventually succeeding by obtaining financial backing from J. P. Morgan in April 1901. At that point, Perkins resigned as president but remained on the board of directors. In 1904 the U.S. Supreme Court broke up Hill's holding company in the Northern Securities case, and the CB&Q returned to independent status.

    Perkins's philosophy and leadership style were typical of late-19th-century leaders of business and industry. He emphasized the wisdom of laissez-faire and vehemently opposed government regulation. He was also a social Darwinist who favored combinations among business leaders while opposing combinations of workers in labor unions. One railroad historian, Richard Overton, ranked Perkins's position and accomplishments as comparable to those of Cornelius Vanderbilt, James J. Hill, Leland Stanford, and others, but he has been relatively unknown historically because he always shunned publicity.

    Perkins established residence in West-wood, Massachusetts, about 1905 and lived there until his death. He was buried in Boston. A monument was erected in his memory several years later at Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington. His mansion, The Apple Trees, still stands in Burlington. His widow, Edith, survived Perkins by many years but died in an earthquake in San Francisco on June 29, 1925.

    Charles Elliott Perkins Jr. was born in Burlington and completed an A.B. at Harvard in 1904. He married Leita Amory on June 14, 1904, and they had one son, Charles Elliott. He married Isabel Sheridan on September 26, 1925, and they had one son, Kennedy McGunnegle.

    Perkins had a variety of business interests, serving as president of the Lincoln Land Company, president of the International Products Company, and co-receiver of the Uruguay Railway Company and the Brazil Land, Cattle, & Packing Company. He also served as president of the Colorado and Southern Railway Company, the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway, the Burlington Vinegar and Pickle Works, and the Northwestern Cabinet Company, and as director of two banks in Burlington: the Iowa State Savings Bank and the First National Bank.

    In 1914 Perkins was appointed to the board of directors of the CB&Q. In July 1918, when Hale Holden, president of the CB&Q, stepped down temporarily to serve as director of the Central Western Region for the U.S. Railroad Administration in order to deal with expanded rail traffic during World War I, Perkins was elected president. In 1920 he resigned, and Holden resumed the presidency. Perkins then served as vice president for one year and remained on the board until 1928. At that time, Holden resigned to become chairman of the executive committee of the Southern Pacific, and Perkins also joined the Southern Pacific at that time as a director.

    Perkins changed his residence to Santa Barbara, California, about 1933-1934 and then retired to a ranch at the nearby town of Solvang. He was interested in western literature and wrote two novels, The Pinto Horse (1927) and The Phantom Bull (1932). Owen Wister, the author of the groundbreaking western novel The Virginian, wrote that The Pinto Horse "is the best Western story about a horse that I have ever read.... He [Perkins] has the power of natural, direct expression, and has used this to tell of a life which he must have lived with all the enthusiasm of youth."

    Perkins died at Santa Barbara in 1943.
Sources Papers from both Charles Perkins Sr. and Charles Perkins Jr. are in Special Collections, Donald C. Davidson Library, University of California at Santa Barbara. For Charles Sr., basic biographical information is in Dictionary of American Biography vol. 7 (1958). See also three works by Richard C. Overton—Perkins/Budd: Railway Statesmen of the Burlington (1982); Burlington Route: A History of the Burlington Lines (1965); and "Charles Elliott Perkins," Business History Review 31 (1957), 292–309—and two articles by John Lauritz Larson: "Charles Elliott Perkins," and "Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad," both in Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography: Railroads in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Robert L. Frey (1988). See also Thomas Hedge, "Charles Elliott Perkins," Annals of Iowa 8 (1908), 367– 81; Des Moines Capital, 2/20/1901; Des Moines Leader, 2/21/1901; Des Moines Register, 11/10/1907; and Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, 5/27/1955. For Charles Jr., basic biographical information is in successive editions of Who's Who in America, starting with vol. 11 (1920– 1921) and continuing through the 1934 edition. He is also listed in Who Was Who in America, vol. 2 (1943–1950). Several references to Charles Jr. are in Overton's Burlington Route . Background information on the CB&Q in the 20th century is in George H. Drury, "Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad," in Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography: Railroads in the Age of Regulation, 1900–1980, ed. Keith L. Bryant Jr. (1988). In the same book, see Don L. Hofsommer, "Hale Holden." The quotation from Owen Wister is from a foreword in The Pinto Horse (1960).
Contributor: David Holmgren