German-born railroad engineer Albert Fink (1827-1897), became known as the father of railway economics and statistics through his work with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad where he published information regarding the real cost of transportation. He standardized freight rates during a time of confusion and brought organization to the railway industry.
Albert Fink was born on October 27, 1827 in Lauterbach Germany, a town located in the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt. He was the son of architect Andres S. Fink and Margaret (Jacob) Fink. The young Fink received his education at the Polytechnic School at Darmstadt, and graduated with honors in engineering and architecture in 1848.
Fink had little sympathy with the German government that emerged after the revolution of 1848 and, in the following year, he emigrated to the United States. That same year he began work in the drafting office of Benjamin H. Latrobe, chief engineer of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. His skills as an engineer were soon recognized and he was given responsibility for the design and erection of bridges, stations and shops for the section of the railroad that ran from Grafton, Virginia to Moundsville, Virginia (now West Virginia)
Invented the Fink Truss
During his time at Baltimore and Ohio, Fink studied bridge construction and applied his engineering skills to his occupation. He designed a bridge truss that ultimately bore his name, the Fink Truss, which was used in the 1852 construction of the bridge that spanned the Monongahela River at Fairmont, Virginia. (now West Virginia). This bridge, with its three spans, each 305 feet long, created the longest iron railroad bridge in existence at this time in the United States.
Louisville and Nashville Railroad Challenges
The successes Fink experienced brought further recognition and he was soon promoted to section engineer and later to division engineer. In spite of his accomplishments at Baltimore and Ohio, he left the company in 1857 when offered the position of construction engineer of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad at Louisville, Kentucky. In this capacity, Fink first oversaw the erection of a freight and passenger station and followed that closely with the challenge of bridging the Green River.
The location identified for the placement of this bridge is approximately 74 miles south of Louisville. The challenge that Fink faced was to design a bridge that would span a wide gorge at considerable height above the river. In addition to the height, Fink was challenged to build the bridge at an angle to the direction of the stream. At the time of its construction, it became the largest iron bridge in North America with the exception of the Victoria Bridge at Montreal. While facing the design and construction challenges placed before him, Fink also designed and built a new courthouse for Louisville. In 1859 Fink took on the responsibility of the machinery of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in addition to his bridge assignments and by 1860 he was promoted to chief engineer.
The Civil War and its Aftermath
Much of the property belonging to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad was destroyed during the Civil War and at the conclusion of the war, Fink found himself facing the prospects of reconstruction. Although the property was lost, the company itself was in good condition, much to the credit of Fink who maintained exceptional records. The company settled accounts with the government with little or no trouble, a feat that can not be said of many of its competitors.
By 1865 Fink had become general superintendent of the railroad and began the task of rebuilding. He spent the next decade building business relations with other railroads while rebuilding the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. During this rehabilitation period, Fink designed and completed his greatest work, the bridge that crossed the Ohio River at Louisville. At its completion, this bridge was one mile in length and stood 400 feet above the Indiana channel of the river. It was the longest truss bridge in the world. In 1869 the president of the railroad died and Fink was appointed vice-president and general superintendent.
Birth of Railway Economics
With the disruptions of the Civil War now a thing of the past, Fink focused his attention of the economics of transportation. He began an in-depth analysis of the real cost of transportation and standardized freight rates based upon accounting and statistics. In 1874 he published a report generally referred to as "The Fink Report on Cost of Transportation," which has come to be regarded as the foundation of economics of the American railway industry. The report was referred to as "the fullest investigation into the cost of railroad transportation ever published in our country or language." ( Railway Gazette, May 30, 1874). While conducting his studies and preparing his report, he did not lose sight of the daily operations of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and expanded its business as far as Montgomery, Alabama. To accomplish this required considerable financing which he negotiated beyond the confines of American banking and through connections in England. His insight into this financial activity proved successful when, during the 1873 panic, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad was able to maintain loan payments and escape the fate of bankruptcy.
Called Out of Retirement
With intentions to retire from his very active life, Fink resigned his position in 1875 and planned to pursue railroad problems on a literary level. The plan was short-lived when Fink received an offer from the newly formed Southern Railway and Steamship Association in Atlanta, Georgia, where he served as president during 1879-1880. In the decade between 1870 and 1880, widespread warfare existed among the railroads in America and the association recognized the need for a negotiator whose respect among the railroad leaders was unquestioned. The man they named was Albert Fink and the leaders relied upon his ability to identify, analyze and resolve the existing differences in the industry. He agreed to work with the over two dozen southern railroad companies to help them resolve their many issues. His attempts were successful, resulting in set and stable freight tariffs on which the American public could depend.
Second Retirement Plan Failed
In 1877, after achieving success with the Southern Railway and Steamship Association, Fink once again set his mind to retirement. His plans, however, were once again foiled when he was approached by the heads of four trunk lines centered in New York City, requesting his help in resolving a rate war that was currently in progress. He took the challenge and established the Trunk Line Association . He was named its commissioner and given powers similar to those he held with the Southern Railway and Steamship Association. Again, his diligence to his work proved successful.
Failing Health and Final Retirement
With the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, a period of government regulation began, requiring less involvement on Fink's behalf. This combined with his failing health led to his retirement in 1889.
Fink had married in Baltimore as a young man. After the death of his first wife, he married a second time to Sarah Hunt on April 14, 1869. After his retirement, he spent most of the rest of his life at his home in Kentucky doing research and study. Fink died in Sing Sing (now Ossining), New York on the Hudson River on April 3, 1897.
Johnson, Allen and Dumas Malone, Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959.
Middleton, William D., Landmarks on the Iron Road, Two Centuries of North American Railroad Engineering, Indiana University Press, 1999.
Who Was Who in America, A. N. Marquis Company, 1963.