This single exploit pictures the man. Everything that Whitney did and was his house, his financial transactions, his Wall Street speculations, the rewards which he gave his friends assumed heroic proportions. But these things all demanded money. The dilapidated horse railways of New York offered him his most convenient opportunity for amassing it.
But Whitney had not proceeded far when he came face to face with a quiet and energetic young man who had already made considerable progress in the New York transit field. This was a Virginian of South Irish descent who had started life as a humble broker's clerk twelve or fourteen years before. His name was Thomas Fortune Ryan. Few men have wielded greater power in American finance, but in 1884 Ryan was merely a ruddy-faced, cleancut, and clean-living Irishman of thirty-three, who could be depended on to execute quickly and faithfully orders on the New York Stock Exchange--even though they were small ones--and who, in unostentatious fashion, had already acquired much influence in Tammany Hall. With his six feet of stature, his extremely slender figure, his long legs, his long arms, his raiment--which always represented the height of fashion and tended slightly toward the flashy --Ryan made a conspicuous figure wherever he went. He was born in 1851, on a small farm in Nelson County, Virginia. The Civil War, which broke out when Ryan was a boy of ten, destroyed the family fortune and in 1868, when seventeen, he began life as a dry-goods clerk in Baltimore, fulfilling the tradition of the successful country boy in the large city by marrying his employer's daughter. When his father-in-law failed, in 1870, Ryan came to New York, went to work in a broker's office, and succeeded so well that, in a few years, he was able to purchase a seat on the Stock Exchange. He was sufficiently skillful as a broker to number Jay Gould among his customers and to inspire a prophecy by William C. Whitney that, if he retained his health, he would become one of the richest men in the country. Afterwards, when he knew him more intimately, Whitney elaborated this estimate by saying that Ryan was "the most adroit, suave, and noiseless man he had ever known." Ryan had two compelling traits that soon won for him these influential admirers. First of all was his marvelous industry. His genius was not spasmodic. He worked steadily, regularly, never losing a moment, never getting excited, going, day after day, the same monotonous dog-trot, easily outdistancing scores of apparently stronger men. He also had the indispensable faculty of silence. He has always been the least talkative man in Wall Street, but, with all his reserve, he has remained the soul of courtesy and outward good nature.
Here, then, we have the characters of this great impending drama--Yerkes in Chicago, Widener and Elkins in Philadelphia, Whitney and Ryan in New York. These five men did not invariably work as a unit. Yerkes, though he had considerable interest in Philadelphia, which had been the scene of his earliest exploits, limited his activities largely to Chicago. Widener and Elkins, however, not only dominated Philadelphia traction but participated in all of Yerkes's enterprises in Chicago and held an equal interest with Whitney and Ryan in New York. The latter Metropolitan pair, though they confined their interest chiefly to their own city, at times transferred their attention to Chicago. Thus, for nearly thirty years, these five men found their oyster in the transit systems of America's three greatest cities--and, for that matter, in many others also.
An attempt to trace the convolutions of America's street railway and public lighting finance would involve a puzzling array of statistics and an inextricable complexity of stocks, bonds, leases, holding companies, operating companies, construction companies, reorganizations, and the like. Difficult and apparently impenetrable as is this financial morass, the essential facts still stand out plainly enough. As already indicated, the fundamental basis upon which the whole system rested was the control of municipal politics.