The Norfolk and Western: A History

by E. F. Pat Striplin

published by the Norfolk and Western Railway Company, 1981. 396pp.

Review by Dannielle Hall

In this day and age, corporations making billions of dollars no longer possess the ability to inspire the American public with feelings of awe. The reason is simple: successful corporations are ubiquitous. However, the public often tends to neglect the arduous history that fashioned these industrial Leviathans into their modern status in society. With the scent of a large merger in the air, the Norfolk and Western corporation realized that they should commission a company history to inspire and remind their employees of the path to railway domination and ultimate success. With this aim in mind, the company president appointed E.F. Pat Striplin to play the instructive role of Benjamin Franklin to coal miners and desk clerks.

Though he never asserts his thesis explicitly, Striplin's hope is that he will present a history of high interest to the average reader, i.e. the employee or friend of Norfolk and Western, using informal interviews as a way to humanize his statistics. This point taken as a substitute for a thematic argument, one could assume that he constructed a narrative that placed the experiences of the common railroad man as the focus of analysis. Apparently, Striplin ignored his original hopes for the bulk of his lengthy narrative does not convey the experiences of the employees but rather describes the efforts of company presidents and directors.

Striplin begins his analysis in post-bellium Virginia with William Mahone and Henry Fink - two men he sees directly shaping the future Norfolk and Western. Their significance is clear - they forced the budding Norfolk and Western to be prim and efficient thus placing the corporation on the path to wealth. According to Striplin, the Norfolk and Western continued to conduct great business through several depressions and government takeovers solely because of its efficient and honest leaders . For example, Frederick Kimball skillfully guided the corporation through the more turbulent times of the 1940-1950's while simultaneously expanding the railroad and its gross profit. Striplin attributes this to Kimball's administrative ability but also to his character and reputation. He eulogizes Kimball as a great leader who never forgot the importance of integrity in business. Interestingly, Striplin applies this gentle description to the majority of presidents and CEO's who held the reins of the Norfolk and Western. His sugary descriptions render his history bland and weak in content for his never fully describes the internal tensions inherent in any corporate history.

The only point at which Striplin leaves this too perfect rendition of company history is his chapter on the 1970's. When analyzing the turbulent strike by the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks (BRAC), his attention shifts only briefly to the actual employees who started the strike. He lists the events as such, "Thousands of employees were jolted out of their accustomed jobs and routines and many non-union employees spent months living in strange surroundings, working a strange job, and having strangers as company" (364). He briefly accounts for the results of the labor strikes: decreased numbers of employees, longer hours for all, and frequent picketing by labor unions. However, his analysis fails in two respects. Primarily, he neglects to account for the events that led up to the strike and why the employees picketed for their jobs. Secondly, even as he discusses a movement started by employees, he looks at the events from the viewpoint of the administration; noting their "generous" cooperation and support of the strike. Striplin does inject first person narratives of employees but he constricts these interviews to people who both praised the administration and remained loyal to the company throughout the strike. While tackling one of the more interesting events in recent railway history Striplin limits himself, as he does in all aspects of his historical account, to a description of a few carefully chosen and unapproachable leaders.

The "average reader" can easily pick up these flaws in Striplin's history of the Norfolk and Western. Indeed, what may be more interesting than digesting Striplin's account is to ponder what stones he left unturned in his analysis. For example, he glosses over the real social changes caused by the Norfolk and Western, particularly those in the city of Roanoke. He also neglects to show how the decisions made by these beneficent presidents and directors changed and affected the lives of those within the corporation. He seems content to merely list numbers, statistics, and mergers. Striplin should have asked himself the more difficult questions: those focusing on the external and internal changes the Norfolk and Western inflicted upon society and its institutions. Since Striplin did not ask these questions, Norfolk and Western: A History remains a slew of well-strung facts to "the average reader".

--Dannielle Hall