The President’s Son and the Railroad

November 24, 2021

By John Ferrell

If historians were asked to list similarities between Robert Todd Lincoln and John Coolidge, they would quickly answer that both were sons of presidents from humble beginnings. Further, they might point out that the two were tragically the only offspring of their parents to reach adulthood. What is not generally known is that both Robert and John were quite involved in the railroad industry. Robert worked for the Pullman Palace Car Company for more than three decades as general counsel, a board member, and eventually president.

John Coolidge charted a humbler course for his career in railroading. As a 22-year-old son of the sitting President, Amherst graduate, and engaged to the governor of Connecticut’s daughter, John could have had any job or never worked at all. His upbringing instead demanded that he “get along without being pushed, without being the boss’ son.”[1] Making his own way was exactly the sort of life John’s father would have wanted for him. John eventually applied to work at the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, and on September 11, 1928, he started work as a clerk in the freight department.[2] Even though John could have pressed for a higher position, he insisted on working his way up from the bottom. New Haven board chairman Edward Buckland confirmed this in a press interview, stating that it was John’s “. . . desire to work from the bottom, and, depending solely upon his own efforts, to work his own way up and learn railroading.”[3]

The New York, New Haven & Hartford, colloquially known as the “New Haven,” was a transportation juggernaut in New England, dominating the state of Connecticut while maintaining a considerable presence in Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts as well.[4] John had doubtlessly made good use of their train, streetcar and, steamboat services over the years and likely considered the massive transportation company a source of stable and secure employment. Through a process of mergers and acquisitions overseen by J. P. Morgan, the New Haven had become the dominant transportation corporation in New England.[5]

Despite the New Haven’s long-established empire in New England that spanned over 2,000 miles of track, John’s decision to work for the company came as a surprise to some.[6] The prospect that the railroad would continue to be the king of commerce was being called into question. “[John Coolidge’s] choice is an unusual one . . . The outlook for the railroad industry is anything but rosy.” wrote the Chicago Tribune.[7] This was due to the rising popularity of automobiles on the ever-expanding network of roads, and more recently, the advent of air transportation. The major railroad companies even began to demand that the federal government intervene and regulate the new trucking companies.[8] These issues would ultimately come to a head over the course of the ensuing decades, and the role of the train in America’s economy would greatly diminish. In that early fall of 1928, however, John Coolidge was clearly not deterred from beginning the next chapter of his life on the New Haven’s payroll.

Being the son of the President naturally meant many Americans would be curious and word of his new job soon spread. Much to John’s embarrassment, a throng of people crowded the street in front of the New Haven’s headquarters on the morning of his first day on the job. A similar crowd also awaited him after he returned from his lunchbreak.[9] Like his father, John was uncomfortable with public attention and initially refused to pose for any photographs. Eventually, he relented for a very brief session.[10] At his side throughout was secret service operative William Wood, who was tasked with guarding John for the next six months.[11] Despite the crowds and added security that John brought with him, the young Coolidge reportedly made a very good impression from the start, having a good eye for numbers and schedules.[12] The New Haven paid John a respectable starting salary of $28 per week.[13]

There is little record of John’s time with the railroad after the start of his employment.[14] Sometime after being hired as a clerk in the freight office, John was promoted to serve as a traveling passenger agent for the New Haven. This was the position that he held when he left the railroad in the summer of 1941, nearly 13 years after his initial hiring.[15] True to character, John then settled into a small form-printing company in Connecticut, where he served as president.[16]  He occupied himself with this profession until 1958, when he retired. John then reopened his grandfather’s cheese company in Plymouth, Vermont two years later.[17]

Calvin Coolidge championed honest work and the practice of self-sustenance. His son achieved both in a fashion that would have won Coolidge’s approval. While some were dubious of John’s decision to spend his prime years in the lower echelons of a railroad company, it was an honest way of life. As a presidential scion, John could have likely obtained something at least resembling the kind of power, influence, and wealth of Robert Todd Lincoln. John, however, had other plans and was not ashamed of his choice. He abided by the words of his father:

“I cannot think of anything that represents the American people as a whole so adequately as honest work. We perform different tasks, but the spirit is the same. We are proud of work and ashamed of idleness. With us there is no task which is menial, no service which is degrading. All work is ennobling and all workers are ennobled.”[18]

[1]    “John Coolidge Cuts Own Niche in Small Town,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1947.

[2]    “John Coolidge Lands A Job as Railroad Clerk,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 11, 1928.

[3]    “John Coolidge Lands Job,” Los Angeles Times, September 08, 1928.

[4]    Oliver Jensen, The American Heritage History of Railroads in America, (New York, NY: American Heritage/Wings Books, 1993),150–51.

[5]    Herbert Harwood, Jr., “J. P. Morgan,” Encyclopedia of North American Railroads (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007),720.

[6]    Port Series No.18: The Ports of Southern New England, (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1928), 62.

[7]    “John Coolidge’s Career,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 15, 1928.

[8]    Theodore Keeler, Railroads, Freight, and Public Policy (Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution, 1983), 26.

[9]    “New Haven Crowd Storms John Coolidge as He Begins Work as Railroad Clerk,” New York Times, September 12, 1928.

[10]  Ibid.

[11]  “John Coolidge and Bodyguard Start Work,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 1, 1928.

[12]  “Praise for John Coolidge,” New York Times, September 13, 1928.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  J. J. Perling, Presidents’ Sons (New York, NY: Odyssey Press, 1947), 300.

[15]  “John Coolidge Cuts Own Niche in Small Town,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1947.

[16]  Ibid.

[17]  Doug Wead, All The President’s Children (New York, NY: Atria Books, 2003), 356.

[18]  Calvin Coolidge, Foundations of the Republic (New York, NY: Scribner, 1926), 75.

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