and here’s the background on the man the T.F. Oakes was named for.
Story from John Vonderlin
Email John ([email protected])
Thomas Fletcher Oakes
(July 15, 1843-March 14, 1919)
By W. Thomas White
James Jerome Hill Reference Library
CAREER: Purchasing agent, assistant treasurer, general freight agent, vice-president, and general superintendent, Kansas Pacific Railroad (1865-1879); general superintendent, Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf Railroad and Kansas City, Lawrence and Southern Railroad (1879-1880); vice-president, Oregon Railway and Navigation Company (1880-1881); vice-president (1881-1888), general manager (1883-1889), president (1888-1893), receiver, Northern Pacific Railway (1893-1895).
Thomas Fletcher Oakes was an important, if largely unrecognized, figure in far-western railroading. Born into a well-established Yankee family, he nonetheless worked up from an entry-level position to president of the Northern Pacific Railway. As a railroad executive he was often overshadowed by Henry Villard, but Oakes did make important contributions by actually completing the Northern Pacific’s main line, thereby opening the interior Northwest to settlement. Oakes also reorganized the railroad and made it a more effective, efficient corporation, although his contributions did not prove sufficient to save the road from bankruptcy following the panic of 1893.
Thomas Fletcher Oakes, railroad executive, was born on July 15, 1843, in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Francis Garaux and Ruth Page Oakes. A member of a long-established New England family, he was educated by private tutors and at Boston’s Eliot School. At the age of twenty he was hired by Samual Hallett and Company to work on the construction of the Kansas Pacific, which was the eastern division of the nation’s first transcontinental railway line, the Union Pacific Railroad. He married Abby Rogers Haskell of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and they had five children. In 1865 he began working directly for the Kansas Pacific as purchasing agent and assistant treasurer. Oakes proved a quick study and an industrious employee and, as a result, was quickly promoted to general freight agent, vice-president, and, in 1879, to general superintendent of the line.
[p. 4] Oakes distinguished himself well in his performance during the general disintegration and reorganization of the western railroads that occurred in the late 1870s. James F. Joy of Detroit and prominent members of the Boston investing community particularly were impressed by Oakes’s work, and consequently they worked to have him appointed general superintendent of the 600 miles encompassed by the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf and the Kansas City, Lawrence and Southern railroad companies. He served in that capacity only one year, however.
In 1880 Henry Villard, after obtaining control of the troubled Oregon Railway and Navigation Company, which operated along the Columbia River, recruited Oakes to manage that enterprise. When Villard obtained control of the Northern Pacific Railway the following year, Oakes was named vice-president and director of the line which had yet to fulfill the terms of its congressional charter to link the Midwest with the Northwest coast. Working, essentially, as Villard’s executive officer, Oakes played an important role in Villard’s domination of river and rail traffic along the strategically vital Columbia River, the principal east-west thoroughfare in the Pacific Northwest.
When Thomas Oakes assumed his new duties, a gap of 1,000 miles of unconstructed railroad line remained on the Northern Pacific. From the west the railroad extended only to Sprague, Washington Territory, on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. From the east the line had reached only to Dickinson, Dakota Territory, leaving much of the northern Great Plains and all of the Rocky Mountain cordillera yet to be traversed.
To complete the Northern Pacific’s main line, which would make the railroad a transcontinental line and allow it to claim the massive land grant authorized by Congress, Oakes played a pivotal role. Within two years, at Oakes’s direction, construction crews closed the 1,000-mile gap and laid an additional 1,000 miles of branch line for the Northern Pacific, Oregon Railway and Navigation, and Oregon and Transcontinental companies. In 1883 at Gold Creek, Montana Territory, Henry Villard orchestrated the last-spike ceremony as part of a system-wide celebration of the long-awaited completion of the Northern Pacific, which now ran from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. That fundamentally important new axis of trade and commerce which the Northern Pacific represented resulted in large measure from Oakes’s efforts.
That same year he was promoted to vice-president and general manager of the newly-completed railroad, followed by terms as president and general manager (1888-1889)and president (1889-1893). In 1893 the Northern Pacific was forced into bankruptcy, a victim of the severe depression of that year that threw all transcontinental railroads, aside from the Great Northern, into receivership and generally ravaged the nation’s economy. Meanwhile, Oakes confronted other challenges, including the ongoing dispute over the railroad’s attempt to claim much of Montana’s rich mineral lands-a claim hotly contested by mine owners, laborers, merchants, and nearly everyone else in the territory (after 1889, state). As president, Oakes did not resolve that dispute, which intermittently raged into the twentieth century, nor did he do so as one of the railroad’s receivers. He was involved in other significant events that were resolved in the Northern Pacific’s favor, however, and included the railroad’s alliance with other roads and the federal government to combat the Coxeyite movement and to smash the industrially organized American Railway Union in the 1894 Pullman Boycott and Strike. Two years later Oakes retired when a new management team took over, dominated by allies of the Northern Pacific’s longtime rival, James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railway, and the House of Morgan The records are vague, but Oakes seems to have retired from all active association in the railroad industry, moved to Concord, Massachusetts, and confined himself to working with the New York banking firm of Taylor, Cutting and Company and the directorships of various companies. On March 14, 1919, Thomas Fletcher Oakes died in Seattle, Washington.
Thomas C. Cochran, Railroad Leaders, 1845-1890: The Business Mind in Action (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953)
Railway Age (March 21, 1919): 794
Louis Tuck Renz, The History of the Northern Pacific Railroad (Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1980)
Eugene V. Smalley, History of the Northern Pacific Railroad (New York: Putnam’s, 1883)
Material concerning Thomas F. Oakes is located in the Northern Pacific Railway Company Records of the Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota, and in the Henry Villard Papers of the Houghton Library of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.