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Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers

Author(s):Harwood Jr., Herbert H.
Reviewer(s):Smith, Fred H.

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Herbert H. Harwood, Jr., Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. xii + 342 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-253-34163-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Fred H. Smith, Department of Economics, Davidson College.

Americans do not think of Cleveland, Ohio as one of the nation’s great cities. Indeed, many — perhaps most — Americans think of Cleveland as “the mistake by the lake.” Although twenty-first century Cleveland is a small city battling urban decay, this has not always been the case. Cleveland was once the fifth largest city in the United States, and, in 1930, it appeared that Cleveland was poised to become one of America’s premier cities. Few people know of Cleveland’s flirtations with greatness; fewer still know the story behind the city’s rise and fall. Ultimately, Cleveland’s path parallels that of two of its most influential sons, Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen. The Van Sweringens (along with Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson) remade downtown Cleveland into what it is today. Thus, in order to understand modern Cleveland one must know the story of the Van Sweringen brothers. In Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers, Herbert Harwood expertly tells us their story.

Invisible Giants contains twenty-five chapters, yet there are actually three distinct sections in the book. The first section, chapters one through six, provides the reader with an overview of the Van Sweringen family history as well as a comprehensive discussion of the foundation of the their business empire. It is also in this section that Harwood introduces the reader to the fundamental Van Sweringen paradox: The brothers were shy, unassuming men who loathed attention, yet they were also forward-thinking businessmen who created the nation’s first planned community and who nearly succeeded in controlling the first coast-to-coast railroad network.

The second section of the book, chapters seven through nineteen, tells the story of how the Van Sweringens created and operated one of the nation’s largest railroad networks. Harwood pays special attention to the methods they used to finance the railroads they acquired for their network, for he argues that they were early pioneers in the use of the leveraged buyout. This section of the book also reveals Harwood’s expertise as a railroad historian. Specifically, he uses his extensive knowledge of American railroads to describe the Van Sweringens’ railroad empire in painstaking detail. By the end of the second section of the book the reader is intimately acquainted with the Van Sweringens’ railroad and financial empires, and having a thorough understanding of how they built these empires makes the story of their collapse, told in the third section of the book, much more poignant.

Ultimately, the Van Sweringens’ financial empire collapsed because of the Great Depression, and Harwood does an excellent job of linking the Van Sweringens’ fortunes to the economic conditions of the day. The great irony of the Van Sweringens’ story is that the collapse of their financial empire came at the same time as the completion of their projects to remake downtown Cleveland. Thus, the Van Sweringens faded from the scene just as their most significant physical monument — the Terminal Tower complex — reshaped Cleveland’s skyline.

Invisible Giants is well written and expertly researched. It successfully achieves the goal that Harwood has set out for himself — to tell the story of the brothers Van Sweringen. Nonetheless, after completing the book I was left wanting more. There are two changes that I would like to have seen Harwood make.

First, the book does an excellent job of laying out the facts of the Van Sweringen story, but it does not solve the fundamental Van Sweringen puzzle. Namely, how is it possible that these two men — so forward thinking in the majority of their business dealings — failed to understand how profoundly the automobile would change America? The Van Sweringens were pioneers of the leveraged buyout, they created Shaker Heights — the nation’s first planned community — and yet they failed to grasp the impact that the automobile would have on urban spatial structure. So, as the automobile was becoming more and more popular with Clevelanders, the brothers were busy building the Terminal Tower complex to handle train and rapid transit passengers. It seems impossible that these intelligent, perceptive men would not have seen that passenger trains and public transportation were destined to diminish in importance.

While Harwood very explicitly states at the outset of the book that he will not speculate on the reasons behind the Van Sweringens’ actions, his decision makes the book feel incomplete. Harwood surely has as good an understanding of the Van Sweringens as any historian alive, and it would have been interesting and very worthwhile to hear his thoughts on why they failed to understand the importance of the automobile. For example, in chapter sixteen Harwood tells us of the brothers’ paradoxical behavior in Cleveland and Shaker Heights. On the one hand, they actively tried to find a tenant for the new department store they planned to build in the terminal tower complex. (In fact, they ended up overpaying for the Higbee department store in order to ensure that they would have a tenant.) Yet, on the other hand, they were simultaneously engaged in laying out Shaker Square as a “local” retail center for residents of Shaker Heights. It seems incomprehensible that the Van Sweringens failed to recognize that they were sowing the seeds of destruction for their downtown department store when they created Shaker Square. Harwood might feel uncomfortable speculating on the reasons behind the Van Sweringens’ paradoxical behavior, but his insight would surely have added a great deal to the book. At a minimum, he should have alerted the reader to the contradictory nature of the brothers’ actions.

The second change I would like to have seen is an expanded discussion of the impact that the Van Sweringens had on the city of Cleveland. The second section of the book, chapters seven through nineteen, focuses on the formation and operation of their railroad empire. It is understandable that Harwood chose to focus so much of his energy on the story of Van Sweringens’ railroad empire, for he is an expert on railroad history. Harwood’s thirty years of experience in the railroad industry, and the vast knowledge of the American railroad system he has obtained while researching the eleven other books he has written on railroad history, serve this story well. The chapters covering the railroad empire are clear and concise, and they make for interesting reading. However, after the first section of the book, the chapters covering the brothers’ activities in Shaker Heights and downtown Cleveland feel almost tangential to the story. If Harwood had structured the book differently, then his choice to focus on the railroad empire might have been understandable. But, the introduction and chapters one through six seem to promise equal treatment of the Van Sweringens’ impact on Cleveland and the nation’s railroad system. This promise goes unfulfilled.

Nonetheless, this book is a great success. Harwood tells the fascinating story of two of the most influential figures in the history of Cleveland, and he does so in a way that makes his book an entertaining and informative read. Invisible Giants is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand early twentieth century Cleveland.

Fred Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Davidson College. His most recent publication is “Decaying at the Core: Urban Decline in Cleveland, 1915-1980,” Research in Economic History (2003).

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII