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Long Beach and Los Angeles: A TALE OF TWO PORTS by Charles F. Queenan and Stephen Sato (Windsor: $24.95; 208 pp. illustrated) : The Southern Pacific, 1901-1985by Don Hofsommer (Texas A & M University: $44.50; 373 pp. illustrated)

July 26, 1987|Martin Ridge | Ridge is co-author of "Westward Expansion" (Macmillan)

Books about American business and its leaders deserve more serious attention than they usually receive. They are often unread by a public tired of authors who simply ignore the complexities and dynamics of modern economic institutions and depict businessmen as either plundering "robber barons" or selfless visionaries who devote their wealth to society's betterment.

Often overlooked is the fact that businessmen are individuals trying to make money in a competitive marketplace. That they try in so far as possible to control the physical or economic environment in which they do business seems to shock many people; that they fail perhaps more often than they succeed is frequently unrecorded, and rarely does a book show the impact of just plain dumb luck on success.

"Long Beach and Los Angeles" is a strange book by modern standards. It has two distinct parts. The first is a lively account of the struggle to establish a secure port for Southern California. The author, journalist Charles Queenan, weaves his story around various business leaders and boosters, from the Mexican period to present. He deals as handily with the Southern Pacific's efforts to make Santa Monica the port of Los Angeles as he does with the plan to establish Long Beach as the center for container vessels. He has read the sources with a feature-writer's eye. "The city's bluenoses had a fit," he chides, "but the average citizen and the tourists loved it" when movies were made in Long Beach.

From shipwreck to earthquake, Queenan tells a good story. His style gives life and vitality to social and economic activity. Moreover, the pictures that he incorporated--whether of port scenes or maritime disaster--are worth the cost of the book. Advocates of Long Beach and San Pedro will find information aplenty if they want to argue about which is more progressive. Queenan is not scholarly, but he is interesting and informative.

Unfortunately, the last part of the book is an incongruous epilogue. It contains one-page snippets of company histories and biographies of business leaders and managers who either established the local port area firms or ran them. The items are too brief to be very valuable. More's the pity that Stephen Sato, who prepared this segment, could not have presented full-length portraits of the present-day breed of port builders. It would be an interesting and highly useful study.

Don L. Hofsommer's "The Southern Pacific" is not only a model business study but also a significant book. Hofsommer gained access to the closed archives of the railway and was given a free hand. The railway, proud of its heritage, supported his research but did not censor his work. As a result, although parts of his story may be expanded or challenged, it is unlikely that anyone will attempt to elaborate a work in the future. The SP's archives contain tons of material, and Hofsommer was compelled to be selective. He may have a pro-business bias, but he does ask critical questions.

He begins by looking at the condition of the road at the close of Colis Huntington's era, but quickly turns to the enormous impact that E. H. Harriman had on the consolidation of railroads. For the SP, these were halcyon days because he effectively eliminated competition, until the U. S. government forced a breakup of the line to restore competitive rates. The SP's management, Hofsommer makes clear, lived in deadly fear of losing out to rivals. It struggled to deny competitors access to its marketing areas because dividing freight and passenger traffic meant splitting meager profits and limiting the amount of money available for modernization. This meant fighting off especially the Union Pacific and the Santa Fe and persuading the government to allow it certain routes so it could function competitively. Hofsommer reiterates that from management's viewpoint, the government was a more serious threat to successful railroads than opposing lines.

Much of the book, which is essentially chronological, deals with building, acquiring, and abandoning lines, making and breaking deals with other lines, and introducing new technology. Hofsommer gives too little space to the social impact of the SP or its public image. Managers, managerial style and practice loom large in the book, but so does the role of luck. It is hard to show a profit in the face of floods, earthquake, and indebtedness acquired before a depression. Hofsommer assesses management on its own terms. SP leadership that was farsighted, profit making, and effective receive praise; timidity and losses earn negative comment.

This is not a continuing success story. SP is about to merge with its bitterest rival and perhaps lose its identity. Hofsommer is recounting the last half of the life cycle of a great American company. When the book ends, the reader can see railway history from a different perspective and understand why there was so much gloom at the SP when Los Angeles welcomed the Santa Fe.

This is a fine interpretive study and a lavishly produced book with four-color pictures, maps and photographs. When its companion volume on the company's early years, currently being written by Richard Orsi at Cal State Hayward, is available, we will have a complete history of one of the West's great enterprises.

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