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
Budd, Ralph
(August 20, 1879–February 2, 1962)

–leading 20th-century railroad executive—headed both the Great Northern Railway (GN) and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (Burlington). He is perhaps best known for sparking the diesel-electric revolution with the introduction of the Zephyr streamliner.

    Born on a farm near the village of Washburn in Black Hawk County, Iowa, Budd was one of six children of Charles Wesley Budd and Mary Ann (Warner) Budd. The young Budd was raised in a staunch Presbyterian and Republican household where learning was emphasized. When Budd was 13, his family moved to Des Moines. There he thrived in a progressive public school system. A bright and ambitious lad, Budd combined his later education at North High School and the Presbyterian-affiliated (now defunct) Highland Park College in only six years. Following in the footsteps of an older brother, he participated in the engineering program at Highland Park.

    After graduating in 1899, Budd joined the Chicago Great Western Railway as an assistant engineer to the division engineer in Des Moines and quickly mastered the basics of railroad construction and maintenance. In 1903 Budd accepted a better-paying position with the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad and participated in the building of that carrier's route between Kansas City and St. Louis; later he served as the first division engineer of this new piece of trackage. Typical of civil engineers employed by railroads, Budd became a "boomer" of sorts, for in 1906 he participated in the construction of the Panama Canal, where he assisted in the rehabilitation of the woebegone Panama Railroad. Three years later Budd took an engineering position with the Oregon Trunk Railway (OT), an affiliate of the GN, which was then locating and building a line in central Oregon.

    While involved with the OT, Budd, who not only was a crackerjack engineer but who possessed superb "people skills," developed a close relationship with James J. Hill, founder and president of the GN. Then in 1913 Budd, at age 33, moved to GN headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, to become Hill's assistant. There Budd prospered. Before Hill died in 1916, he told board members that in time Budd should head the railroad. And that is what happened. In 1918 Budd became executive vice president; a year later he assumed the presidency. At the throttle, Budd followed Hill's philosophy, namely, to make the road efficient and competitive. A highlight of Budd's tenure at the GN was the opening in 1929 of the new Cascade Tunnel, one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of the period. Much less apparent to the public was Budd's understanding of the need for intermodal endeavors, explaining why the GN entered the commercial bus business under the banner of Northland Transportation Company, future core of Greyhound Lines.

    In 1932 Budd changed jobs. He became president of the larger Burlington, a company that since 1901 had been part of the so-called Hill Lines. This sprawling Chicago-based Granger road, particularly sensitive to downswings in agricultural traffic, needed strong leadership as the Great Depression deepened. For the next 17 years Budd provided just that, contributing much toward making the Burlington a prosperous property, ranging from launching a truck subsidiary to the building of the "Kansas City Cut-off."But his greatest accomplishment, at least in the eyes of the public, involved the development and deployment, beginning in 1934, of lightweight, diesel-powered passenger streamliners known as Zephyrs.

    Although Budd retired in 1949, he continued to be involved in the transportation industry. In 1949 Mayor Martin Kennelly of Chicago asked Budd to chair the board of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). In some ways a more difficult assignment than any of his previous positions because of the political environment, Budd forged ahead with modernization of the CTA and offered efficient, honest management. In 1954 he "retired" again, moving with his wife, Georgia (Marshall) Budd, to Santa Barbara, California. It was a happy home life, and the Budds remained close to their three children—Robert, Margaret, and John, the latter a president of the GN—until his death at age 82.
Sources include Richard C. Overton, Perkins/Budd: Railway Statesmen of the Burlington (1982); Richard C. Overton, "Ralph Budd: Railroad Entrepreneur," Palimpsest 36 (1955), 421–84; Who's Who in Railroading in North America (1954); and Who Was Who in America (1961–1968).
Contributor: H. Roger Grant