Poor's Manual of Railroads of the United States

Before the days of the internet, the only way to get information on the railroad industry was through documents, photographs, maps and books on the railroad industry. One of the most comprehensive books on the industry came from Henry V. Poor, of what is now Standard & Poor's, or S&P.

"Poor's Manual of Railroads" was a reference book that was published in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Poor began publishing a manual on railroads in 1868, which was geared toward investors at the time, and included information railroad companies and their capital, rolling stock, expenditures, and other financial information on any particular railroad in the United States. The Poor Manuals remained in annual publication until 1924.

Before the days of the internet and being able to access company reports in seconds, the "Poor's Manual of Railroads" was an essential resource for those in the railway industry, including investors, operators, and engineers. The book provided comprehensive information about individual railroads, including their routes, equipment, finances, and management. It also contained a directory of railroad officers, as well as a list of railway-related businesses and organizations.

A 1909 Volume I own, in relatively bad shape, but as old and large as the book is, I'll take it!
I discovered the Poor Manuals in my search for abandoned railroads, as they include a treasure trove of information on even the most obscure railroads. Many of the editions are digitized and available in eBook format for free on Google Books. Reprinted editions, as well as very old reference copies, such as mine from 1909, are available on both eBay and Amazon.

Most of the editions include over 2,000 pages of information, and not just of financial documents, but sometimes maps and descriptions of the routes as well, which is invaluable for the preservation of railroad history. In spite of the amazing and hard work by railroad museums, historic preservation groups, railroad historical societies, and just plain railfans, nonetheless, there's work to be done to preserve the history of the railroad industry on the internet. Indeed, books and non-digital photographs are a large part of our historical record, even if they are harder to access.

So with that in mind, let's take a look at this behemoth of a railroad book!

Like I said, huge.

The first few pages are your typical acknowledgements and introductions, followed a few ads for banks and railroad companies, and then comes an index of all the railroads covered in the book, which is extremely helpful, as again, this is a huge reference, and looking for info on one railroad would take forever otherwise. The index itself is over 100 pages long!

Looking at one page of the index, you can see many of these were very obscure. It also shows street and interurbans railways as well.
Following the index begins the real meat of the book. In the 1909 manual, the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad is the first railroad mentioned. It references the miles owned by the company, any lines in which it leases, a corporate history, a map of operations, a description of the rolling stock owned by the road, its miles of operation in the previous year, funding, financing, profit or loss, accrued interest on bonds, debt, capital stock, and finally directors.

Needless to say, there is a fantastic amount of information that can be gleamed from this book. My copy has several pull out maps, including one of the entire Pennsylvania Railroad system, which was nearing its peak in 1909.

New York State map. (Poor's Manual of Railroads, 1909)
One of the most interesting things about the book is that, as a corporate reference, it makes reference to many railroad proposals and startup companies, many of which never got off the ground. One particular example is the Alva, Buffalo & Colorado Railroad, who's charter was revoked in 1915 without ever building a connection between Buffalo and Rosston, OK, as was proposed. It's thus probably the best resource for unbuilt railroads, which usually do not attract much interest from railroad historians or fans.

Alva Buffalo & Colorado in 1921, out of existence from the 1921 Manual.
This list is also great for finding the predecessor railroads of larger companies, as railroads have continuously consolidated themselves over time.

The unbuilt route in black on our abandoned railroads map.

In addition to its practical information, the "Poor's Manual of Railroads" was notable for its sophisticated data analysis and presentation. The book was well-regarded for its accuracy and comprehensiveness, and it was widely used by both industry insiders and members of the public.

While the book is obviously a tough read and has very dry subject matter, it's not a novel, and it's not to be judged as such. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it has information that you're going to get in almost no other place. I'm still poring through the obsolete companies list to find more obscure railroads to add to my map! It's incredibly interesting to see how data and information was portrayed back then, and it is a valuable historical account of each railroad year that provides insight into the growth and development of the railway industry in North America. 

The book remains an important resource for researchers and historians, and it continues to be widely used as a reference for those interested in the history of transportation and infrastructure, such as myself.

As always, thanks for reading!


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