This week we present another very brief “bullet point biography.”  A classic story of shattered dreams.

At the American Business History Center, we focus our energies on those companies (and their founders and leaders) which became household names or large businesses.  Yet history is littered with smaller “bit players” on the economic stage. Some of them, like the unique, tragic Van Sweringen brothers of Cleveland, left lasting marks on their cities.  While we hesitate to give such interesting people short shrift, we figure it is better than no shrift at all.  Illustrations follow the bullets below.

  • 1879 – Oris Paxton Van Sweringen, always known as OP, is born near Wooster, Ohio.
  • 1881 – Younger brother Mantis James Van Sweringen, MJ, is born near Wooster, Ohio.
  • 1900 – The family moves to Cleveland, the 7th largest US city.
  • The two brothers are known as “the Vans.”  They spent their lives as bachelors, living together, sharing a bedroom in their 54-room mansion.
  • In their twenties, the brothers began speculating on land and buildings in the Cleveland area.
  • 1909 – The Vans begin acquiring land east of Cleveland which had formerly been owned by the Shaker religious community.  The Shakers believed in celibacy, and thus did not grow and prosper.  This land is developed by the Vans into the Shaker Heights community, noted for curved streets, an early shopping center, and high design standards.  But the lots sell slowly, so the Vans decide they needed better transportation to downtown Cleveland.  They plan a high-speed (50 mph) electric rapid transit line from Shaker Heights to the center of Cleveland, where they acquired land.
  • 1915 – The Vans acquire the Nickel Plate Railroad, which runs from Buffalo to St. Louis via Cleveland, in order to have trackage rights connecting their suburb to the city, yet away from city streets.  They use debt and holding company structures to control their expanding empire.  For example, one company would own 51% of another, then that company would own 51% of the next, with the Vans in control of all the companies.
  • 1923 – The Vans announce they are building Terminal Tower in the center of Cleveland as a terminus for their Rapid electric line, but also to serve the New York Central passenger lines.  The most famous American train, the Twentieth Century Limited, will stop there enroute between Chicago and New York.  The complex will be topped by a tall office tower.
  • During the booming 1920s, the Vans continue to build their financial empire, buying up more railroads to connect to the Nickel Plate and coal mines to provide coal for their trains.  By 1929, they control the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Erie, the Missouri Pacific, and the Texas & Pacific, giving them a system which reaches from New York and Washington, DC to El Paso, Texas, one of the most extensive rail systems ever created in America.
  • 1929 – Their empire is valued at $3 billion.
  • 1930 – The Terminal Tower complex opens, built at a cost of $179 million.  The tower, at 771 feet, is the second tallest building in the world when it opens and remains the tallest American building outside New York City until 1964.  To avoid vibrations from the trains running underneath, the building’s foundations drive 200-250 feet below street level.  The office building and rail terminal are joined by the 1918 Hotel Cleveland, owned by the Vans, on one side and Higbee’s, Cleveland’s leading department store, on the other side.
  • The stock market crashes and the Great Depression sets in.  The Vans’complex stock and debt structure collapses.
  • 1935 – Seeking a savior, they find George Ball of Muncie, Indiana.  He and his brothers’ Ball jar company is a major customer of the Nickel Plate.  He, like the Vans, dislikes and distrusts the eastern bankers to whom the Vans are indebted.  Ball and another investor buy the entire empire at auction for $3.1 million, with the agreement that the Vans can buy it back for that amount when they have that much money again.
  • December 1935 – MJ dies of a broken heart (literally) at the age of fifty-four.
  • November 1936 – On a train enroute to New York to negotiate with the bankers, OP dies of a heart attack, following his brother by less than a year, at age fifty-seven.
  • The seventy-four-year-old George Ball never expected to outlive the two men who he was trying to help.  He has no real interest in empire building, and the Vans vast business interests are purchased by Wall Street speculator Robert R. Young and Woolworth fortune heir Allan P. Kirby.  Young is the brother-in-law of artist Georgia O’Keefe.
  • 1950s – With the support of Texas oilmen Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, Young gains control of the big New York Central Railroad.  But, suffering from depression, he commits suicide in 1958 at the age of sixty.
  • Despite this tale of repeated tragedy and broken dreams, the Terminal Tower complex continues to shine brightly over Cleveland and Shaker Heights remains one of the most beautiful American suburban developments.
OP, MJ, and a business partner
Van Sweringen Railroads in the East
Robert R. Young

We invite you to send us any questions or thoughts you have by commenting here on LinkedIn.

As always, we appreciate your time and interest. Please pass this email along to anyone you think might find it of interest. Donations to support our cause, learning from business history, are always welcome!Gary Hoover
Executive Director
American Business History Center

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