Invisible Giants

Invisible Giants

The Empires of Cleveland's Van Sweringen Brothers
Jr.Herbert H. Harwood
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 02/07/2003
Format: Hardback 72 b&w photos, 15 maps
ISBN: 978-0-253-34163-1
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2003 Railroad History Award, Railway & Locomotive Historical Society

Invisible Giants is the Horatio Alger-esque tale of a pair of reclusive Cleveland brothers, Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen, who rose from poverty to become two of the most powerful men in America. They controlled the country’s largest railroad system—a network of track reaching from the Atlantic to Salt Lake City and from Ontario to the Gulf of Mexico. On the eve of the Great Depression they were close to controlling the country’s first coast-to-coast rail system—a goal that still eludes us. They created the model upper-class suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, with its unique rapid transit access. They built Cleveland’s landmark Terminal Tower and its innovative "city within a city" complex. Indisputably, they created modern Cleveland.

Yet beyond a small, closely knit circle, the bachelor Van Sweringen brothers were enigmas. Their actions were aggressive, creative, and bold, but their manner was modest, mild, and retiring. Dismissed by many as mere shoestring financial manipulators, they created enduring works, which remain strong today. The Van Sweringen story begins in early-20th-century Cleveland suburban real estate and reaches its zenith in the heady late 1920s, amid the turmoil of national transportation power politics and unprecedented empire-building. As the Great Depression destroyed many of their fellow financiers, the "Vans" survived through imaginative stubbornness—until tragedy ended their careers almost simultaneously. Invisible Giants is the first comprehensive biography of these two remarkable if mysterious men.

Author Bio

Herbert H. Harwood, Jr., has concurrently been a railroad historian, writer, photographer, and working railroader. A history graduate of Princeton University, he received his MBA from Columbia University and then spent 30 years in various management positions at the Chesapeake & Ohio and Baltimore & Ohio and their successor, CSX Transportation. He has written 11 books on railroad and electric railway history.


“One of the most dazzling business phenomena of the 1920s, Cleveland's two bachelor Van Sweringen brothers seemingly came out of nowhere to control the country's largest railroad network—while simultaneously creating the model upper-class suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Cleveland's landmark Terminal Tower building, and an innovative "city within a city" complex unduplicated in 20th-century urban design. Personally, though, they were enigmas to almost everyone—quiet, conservative, self-effacing, and reclusive, they were also formidably aggressive, expansive, and highly creative. ”

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Table of Contents

Oasis in a Gritty City
The Ideal Suburb
Mr. Smith Sells a Farm
Mr. Smith Sells a Railroad
Shaping Solid Forms
A Difficult Birth at the Public Square
The Beginnings of an Empire
To the South, East, and North
Taking Stock: 1924
A Horseback Ride in the Park
Building, Rebuilding, and Juggling
Consolidation Anarchy (I): The General and the Bear
Consolidation Anarchy (II): The Street Fighter
The Summit (I): An Appalachian Peak in the Rockies
The Summit (II): Filling Out the Railroad Map
The Summit (III): Consummation in Cleveland—and a Jolt
Completions and Complications
Taking Stock: 1930
Sudden Darkness
The Rails Head Downgrade
A New World
The Cruelest Year
The Last Train
Epilogue (I): New Empires from Old
Epilogue (II): The Ghosts
Sources and Acknowledgments