Thursday, January 1, 2015

Francis Lynde, Empire Builders (1907)

There are train spotters and railroad enthusiasts, but so far as I know, no one today writes fiction for this particular market. Anyway, not since Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1933). Travel by railway was still novel enough at the turn of the last century, however, to keep writers like Francis Lynde (1856–1930) selling books with plots about railroading.

This one is typical of his others and concerns a young superintendent of a line running from Denver into the Rocky Mountains. Stuart Ford is an ambitious fellow, who hatches a plan to extend the line to eventually connect Chicago and the West Coast. His chief competitor is the Transcontinental with its eye on hauling freight to and from the same regions of the West, profiting from the mining and crop-raising industries. In other words, there is a lot of money to be made for the railroad that can first lay its tracks there.

Ford and the Board of Directors
Plot. Ford’s main difficulties, though, are right there in the company that owns and operates the railway he’s hoping to expand. First he has to persuade the line’s Board of Directors that they should invest in his scheme. Then he has to outwit an immediate superior, General Manager North, who doesn’t like Ford and sabotages his efforts.

Ford is not without friends, however. He gets help from Charles Edward Adair, a wealthy nephew of the Board of Directors’ stubbornly crotchety chairman, Sidney Colbrith. And then there is Adair’s pretty sister, Alicia. Both coach Ford on how to deal with their Uncle Sidney and how to take advantage of the political factions on the Board. Adair’s wealth also comes into play.

The plot thickens as money, politics, corporate greed, graft, espionage, and stock market manipulation complicate Ford’s efforts. Suspense builds on several levels as Ford and his handful of allies work to outmaneuver their rivals and the unpredictable Uncle Sidney.

Ford and Alicia meet on a train
Women and romance. Lynde, as we see in this and an earlier novel, The Grafters (1904), is especially adept at creating interesting women characters. They are intelligent, clever, and sharp-witted. They more than hold their own in dealings with men. Born into genteel society at a time when women were expected to be no more than pretty and gracefully empty-headed, his women must hide their intelligence and exercise diplomacy in making their opinions known.

You admire their ability to bring this off, while artfully nurturing the growing interest of a worthy and honorable mate—in this case Stuart Ford­—without seeming to. Romance actually plays little more than a leitmotif in the novel. The real action is about youthful ambition and opening new markets (building empires) with capital investment, foresight, and honest business practices. They don’t write novels quite like this anymore.

Wrapping up. Francis Lynde was a prolific writer, with short fiction appearing in magazines like Munsey’s as early as 1894. In 1904 he began a long relationship with The Popular Magazine, and in a lifetime career as a writer, he published over two dozen novels and well over 100 works of short fiction and serials. During the Silent Era, three of his stories were adapted to film.

Born in New York, Lynde attended public school in Missouri and went on to study literature at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. A biographical piece in a 1917 issue of The Rotarian describes him as having lived “about half of his life in the West,” settling in Chattanooga after 17 years of railroading, most of that time as an employee of the Union Pacific.

Empire Builders is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive and in paper and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks.

Shameless plug: For an in-depth analysis of Francis Lynde’s The Grafters (1904) and a survey of his contemporaries as writers of frontier fiction, read How the West Was Written (click here for details).

Further reading/viewing:

Who Was Who Among North American Authors, 1921–1939, 1976.
Maury Klein, Union Pacific: 1894–1969, 1989.
FictionMags Index
Internet Movie Database

Image credits: Illustrations from the novel by Jay Hambidge

Coming up: Richard Prosch, Devil’s Run


  1. Like western author Dane Coolidge, Francis Lynde has been unjustly forgotten. I've read many of his novels in my collection of THE POPULAR MAGAZINE including this one.

    THE EMPIRE BUILDERS was a complete novel in the October 1905 issue and was expanded for book publication in 1907. My notes dated August 1982 say:

    "Part of the series dealing with the forces that made America great. Prior stories in POPULAR dealt with journalism, cotton, oil, gold mining, finance, wheat, the navy, cattle raising, and the army. This one has as its theme the building of a railroad by an ambitious young man. Mainly a business tale emphasizing stockholder meetings and office politics instead of action. Well done except for the girl, with her "adorable chin". Read this just before buying Claude Held's 23 early issues from this period at $12.00 and $15.00 each."

    I must apologize for my complaint about the girl character. I'm sure Ron is right about her. POPULAR just had too many adorable and pretty girls and it finally got on my nerves!

    1. The use of female characters to "flesh out" a plot is rarely handled very artfully in these early novels. They are typically window dressing and rarely woven well into the plot. Lynde's women would make an interesting study.

  2. As a long-time Francis Lynde fan,I am very glad to see him remembered.Empire Builders was the first Lynde book I read over 40 years ago and it started a lifelong search for his books.I feel the books involving railroading were where he did his best work.The railroad involved in Empire Builders was the Pacific South-Western and he wrote about it for the next twenty years.In fact Lynde wrote the first book about a railroad detective and railroad mysteries that I am aware of.It was called Scientific Sprague and first appeared as a series of connected stories in Popular Magazine around 1912.It was published in hardcover and was mentioned in the long article that developed the idea of Queen's Quorum (the 100 best detective stories ever written) that was written I think in the 1940's.There was a Wall Street plot to put the Pacific Southwestern into bankruptcy and Calvin Sprague was instrumental in thwarting it.Lynde wrote more then 50 complete novels for Popular from 1904 to 1929.And when I say novels I mean novels.They were not serials ,but usually covered 80 or 90 pages in one issue.I have most of them and also most of his hardcovers.I am very glad to see that he is not forgotten.

    1. Thanks for this informative footnote to Empire Builders. Maybe I came across Scientific Sprague in the listings at FictionMags Index. The name is familiar, but I haven't read any of the stories. I have several Lynde novels in my Kindle and plan to get to the rest of them. Coolidge and Lynde (also Rex Beach) deserve more attention.

  3. Digges and I have had many discussions over the last 40 years about Francis Lynde. Fortunately he lives only 20 minutes from me in Lambertville, NJ. We will be meeting Sunday for one of our brunches and I'm sure we will again be talking about Lynde and other pulpish topics.

  4. I only had one train trip in my life but I really liked it.

    1. Living and working in the Eastern Corridor for many years, I have logged countless hours on trains, MetroNorth and Amtrak. More recently, I've taken commuter trains here in Southern California, which had me passing through LA's handsome Union Station. I really enjoy the experience and hope one day soon that the long promised expansion of rail service in CA will become a reality

  5. As an employee of the UP, he had first-hand knowledge of the workings of the railroad when it was in its heyday. I'm sure this provided lots of material for his writings.

  6. Thank's for the cover of this, Ron. I'll have to get a copy of this and perhaps some other Lynde works.
    As for writing about the railroad, my first novel, "The Great Liquor War" is actually about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad (it became the CPR) in 1884-85. It's out of print now but I hope to have it available POD in the next few months.
    In the '60s I made 6 trips across the country from or to the country where I was born (Ontario) with and end or start in Edmonton, Alberta. In those days the CNR put on quite a show of service with a full "formal" setting in the dining car. It's a great trip today but not as "high tone" as it was then.

    1. I would definitely enjoy a journey like that.

  7. i enjoyed the part about Francis Lynde’s, The Grafters, from your book,How the West Was Written. No shameless plug needed for me. It was a most interesting read.

  8. Ron, I like reading western novels about the American railroad. I have seen it being used both as a central and peripheral theme in many books including Wolf Lundgren's "The Renos" which I read last year. There is atmosphere and excitement in railroad stories, not to mention a certain charm. I have not read any of Francis Lynde's novels. In fact, I didn't know he specialised in stories set in and around railroads. It was interesting to read the informed comments about the author's work.

  9. Trains are an iconic feature of western movies, for sure. Less so, to my knowledge in frontier fiction. Where there are train robbers, though, you need trains for that.