Samuel Rea (1855-1929)

The following biography of Samuel Rea comes from: George H. Burgess and Miles C. Kennedy, Centennial History of the Pennsylvania Railroad (Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 1949).

"James McCrea resigned from the presidency of The Pennsylvania Railroad Company at a meeting of the Board on November 13, 1912, effective on the last day of the year. His health had been poor for some years, and his duties arduous, and he lived only until March 28, 1913, at which time he still lacked a month of being sixty-five. His successor was Samuel Rea, who had already come to fame through his handling of the New York tunnel and station construction, and who was now Vice-President, and the ranking officer of the Company, at the age of fifty-seven. Mr. Rea's election also took place at the meeting of November 13.

Samuel Rea was a man of great versatility. Known in the world over as a great engineering executive, he was also an expert on corporate organization and finance, and many other talents were called into play in the difficult years of his administration.

Born at Hollidaysburg, on September 21, 1855, Rea was forced by his father's death to give up further schooling at the age of thirteen. At sixteen, he launched his railroad career as a chainman on a Pennsylvania engineering corps working near his home. When the depression of 1873 put a stop to this activity, he found work at the Hollidaysburg Iron and Nail Company, and returned briefly to the Pennsylvania in 1875. Following this, he was an assistant engineer on the construction of a highway bridge across the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh in 1877, and was then employed in the construction of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad. He came back to the Pennsylvania in 1879, and after four years more of surveys and construction, he was brought to Philadelphia with the title of 'Principal Assistant Engineer' and the duty of assisting the Third Vice-President, J.N. DuBarry, who was in charge of all construction work and the surveys of new lines.

Though now well established in the line of promotion, Mr. Rea resigned his position with the Pennsylvania in 1889 to become Vice-President of the Maryland Central Railroad Company and Chief Engineer of the Baltimore Belt Railroad. Illness terminated his engagement after about a year and he returned to the Pennsylvania in 1892.

At this time he was placed in general charge of all construction work, purchases of right of way and other real estate, the promotion of new lines, and all the corporate and financial work incident thereto. His investigation of tunnels and underground railroads abroad, and his comprehensive study of the New York terminal station, have already been described.

Mr. Rea became Fourth Vice-President of the Pennsylvania on June 14, 1899, Third Vice-President on October 10, 1905, Second Vice-President on March 24, 1909, and First Vice-President on March 3, 1911. In 1912, the company discontinued the practice of designating its vice-presidents by numbers and substituted the present mode of describing them in accordance with their duties, such as 'Vice President in Charge of Operation.' At that time, Mr. Rea's position as heir apparent was made even more clear, for his title became simply 'Vice-President,' with no departmental designation.

The administration of Samuel Rea saw the end of railroad expansion in the United States as far as mileage is concerned. The frontiers had disappeared. According to Moody's compilation, miles of road operated in the United States increased from 163,000 to 193,000 between 1890 and 1900, even though economic conditions were depressed during most of this period. From 1900 to 1910, the increase was 47,000 miles, or nearly 5,000 miles per year. From 1910 to 1916, the increase was slower-at the rate of 2,300 miles per year-but 1916 marked the peak, at 254,251 miles of road. From that time on, abandonments exceeded new construction in mileage. The mileage of the Pennsylvania system increased only slightly after 1916, but did not reach its highest point until 1920, when there were 11,107 miles, operated exclusive of trackage rights.

This does not mean that railroad progress had ceased. The truth is quite the opposite. It does not mean that from this time on, attention was centered on internal improvements, facilities to handle a still growing traffic and to handle it more expeditiously and more efficiently. The investment in the property had to be continually increased for these purposes, and this involved difficult problems of finance, since competition on the one hand, and public regulation on the other, had a continuous tendency to lower the rate of return on the new investment, and competition for capital by new and growing industries made new money harder to come by for the railroads. Between 1913 and 1928, conditions were never at any time sufficiently favorable to obtain money by the sale of stock, and interest rates sometimes as high as seven per cent had to be paid on bonds.

Other difficulties, which Mr. Rea had to meet and solve as well as might be, were the growing strength and solidarity of railroad labor, greatly aided by the government during the Federal control period, and a great inflation in the price of all the materials which the railroad had to buy. The latter movement had its beginning in the demands of the European allies for American goods, starting in 1915, and reached its peak during the period of Federal control, but, though prices receded thereafter, they remained far above the 1914 levels for many years, and far above the proportionate increases the railroads were allowed to make in their rates and fares. How well these difficulties were solved by Mr. Rea and his organization is shown by the fact that the company was able to continue its unbroken record of paying dividends on its stock, even though the rate had to be reduced on two occasions.

We have mentioned only indirectly the period of Federal control, when for two years and eight months, beginning December 28, 1917, the Pennsylvania along with the country's other railroads were taken from their owners and operated by the United States Government in supposed furtherance of the war effort. Of this period and its effects on the Pennsylvania Railroad, more will be said in due course.

Samuel Rea served the company faithfully and well until he reached the age of seventy, when retirement was mandatory under the company's rules. This was on October 1, 1925. Unlike any of his predecessors in office, he lived to enjoy several years of well-earned leisure, but his death occurred at his home on March 24, 1929."

The following information about Samuel Rea was provided by researcher John Leach, to which the Johnstown Flood National Memorial is forever grateful:

"Samuel Rea was the son of James D. Rea and Ruth Blair (Moore) Rea and the grandson of U.S. Rep. John Rea, who represented a district in south-central Pennsylvania for 10 years.

Rea married Mary Miller Black in 1879, and they had two children. Her father, George Black, worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and was a director of the railroad when he died in 1872.

When Rea took over the Pennsylvania railroad, it had 12,000 miles of track and 250,000 employees.

A statue of Samuel Rea stands at Pennsylvania Station in New York City. Penn Station was completed in 1910, and he defended it against claims that there would be little demand for it. By 1919, it was busier than the nearby Grand Central Terminal, thanks to a Rea-led project that built tunnels to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into New York City starting in 1910.

He died in the Philadelphia suburb of Gladwyne in 1929."

6.) Profile in Time Magazine, April 1, 1929.

Last updated: November 14, 2017

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