The World's Fair Special hurtled south through the rain and the Illinois cornfields. For just over five hours the train had clipped off the miles at the rate of one a minute; now it was nearing the end of its journey. Behind lay wet tracks gleaming softly in the gray morning light and coal smoke lingering in the warm air. Ahead lay Eads Bridge across the Mississippi, then a double-track railroad tunnel that led into St. Louis's Union Station.
Two hundred and six passengers had boarded the nine coaches in Chicago at three o'clock that morning. Now they began preparing for their arrival -- collecting their belongings, buttoning their jackets, and waking their children. The quiet anticipation of the journey was building into a great excitement, for at the cost of only twelve dollars, each man, woman, and child on this train had purchased a round-trip ticket to the future and back. They had come to St. Louis to see the Centennial Exposition of the Louisiana Purchase, better known far and wide as the World's Fair.
The official purpose of the fair was to commemorate the Jefferson Expansion; the actual purpose was to celebrate the arrival of the twentieth century and the promises it held in store for all mankind. It was Friday, May 6, 1904, and an editorial in a St. Louis paper that very morning read:
Our city is like unto the new age. It is modern in every way, humming with industrious energy and as full of hope and promise as the century we have so recently begun. All St. Louisians, indeed, all Americans can take pride in the fact that the greatest of all World's Fairs has been impressively opened and is being attended and praised by persons of the most important stature.
The train roared over the bridge onto the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, then plunged into the darkness of the tunnel under Washington Avenue. For eighteen city blocks it ran under the center of the city, finally emerging on one of the huge network of tracks at Union Station.
Outside, a forest-green Victoria carriage, pulled along by a team of high-stepping, matched grays, turned west onto Market, the street side of Union Station. The hollow clopping of prancing hooves made a staccato beat on the glistening wet pavement as the driver maneuvered the carriage through the traffic, then brought it to a stop under the Union Station porte cochere. The passenger was carrying a newspaper under his arm as he stepped from the covered carriage.
"Abwarten Sie, Herr Petzold?" the coachman asked.
"Nein," Thomas Petzold replied. "Don't wait. I'll take the streetcar back to the office."
"But the rain. Ist nicht gut an important man like you get wet."
"It's okay, Otto, I'll be all right, danke," Thomas said, smiling at his own and Otto's mixture of languages.
"Sehr gut, Herr Petzold." Otto snapped the reins, and the team of grays pulled away.
A rather smallish man of thirty-one, Thomas Petzold had a high forehead, close-set gray eyes accented by pince-nez glasses, and an oversized nose. If one had only photographs to go by, one might think him quite unattractive. But those who were around him all the time were so caught up by his wit and vitality that they never really thought of him as a homely man.
Though he had come from Germany only ten years earlier, Petzold could speak nearly accentless English. But the high proportion of German-speaking immigrants in St. Louis made a German accent and the ability to speak German a decided asset. Because of that, Petzold had developed a chameleonlike ability to tailor his form of speech to fit the need, reverting to either German or a German accent when it was advantageous, but most of the time speaking English with the same flat Missouri twang as the other business leaders of St. Louis.
Heading into Union Station, Petzold passed through the golden entrance arch, under the mosaic-glass window, then climbed the great staircase to the Grand Hall, from whose sixty-five-foot-high vaulted ceiling hung an enormous, heavy chandelier. At all hours of the day and night the marble floor of the Grand Hall teemed with humanity: men and women moving to or from trains, children laughing or crying, and redcaps scurrying about under the burden of passengers' luggage. On one of the arcades overlooking the Grand Hall, a group of mustachioed men -- all identically dressed in red-pinstriped white shirts, red bow ties, and red sleeve garters -- were singing what had become the fair's anthem, "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis."
The Chicago and Alton World's Fair Special was just pulling into the station, and as it arrived, Petzold could feel the floor rumbling underfoot. With other things on his mind, though, he was hardly aware of all the bustle and activity as he continued up the stairs to the relative quiet of the third floor, where the offices of all the railroads that served St. Louis were located.
Until just over five months before Petzold had been a reporter for the German-language Westliche Post. Then on a cold, wet day in January he had stood with a small group of people at the steps of the St. Louis courthouse to attend a public sale of the bankrupt Evening Standard.
There hadn't been many bidders. A handful of the paper's employees who had remained loyal had been there, hoping that someone would see something in the defunct paper worth buying and thus save their jobs. But none of the major newspaper owners of the city had shown up. To a man they had believed The Standard was dead and were perfectly willing to let it be buried.
They had had every right to think the newspaper was beyond salvage. Deeply in debt and its credit exhausted, it had been steadily losing circulation. And the physical plant had been in worse shape: Type was badly worn, the flatbed press was continually breaking down, and the building itself was in danger of collapse. There had been so little interest in buying such a disaster that Thomas Petzold had bought the building, equipment, circulation list, and Associated Press membership for his opening bid of five hundred dollars.
He had offered jobs to all the employees who wanted to stay, but he had changed the name of the paper from The Evening Standard to The St. Louis Chronicle. At the first meeting of his staff he had pledged that his new paper would "be a servant of the people, would oppose all fraud and corruption wherever it might be found, and would champion truth and principles over prejudices and partisanship."
A glutton for work, the new publisher had won the immediate loyalty and admiration of every one of his employees. He had made them feel as if they were a part of the paper, that they had a vested interest, beyond mere employment, in the newspaper's triumphs.
From the very first issue The Chronicle had been exciting, provocative, even shocking; a quality of sensationalism had caught the interest of all who read it. Circulation had grown by leaps and bounds, and in less than half a year The Chronicle was a threat to the major newspapers of the city in daily numbers.
When the editor of one of the other newspapers had realized that The St. Louis Chronicle was rapidly gaining ground on the majors of the city, he had accused Thomas Petzold, in print, of "crass sensationalism bordering on the obscene." Petzold had made no excuses. In his own editorial he had replied, "I believe that The Chronicle has, in addition to the obligation of informing its readers, the right to amuse and entertain them as well."
What Petzold hadn't said but was proving in his daily operation was that he also believed The Chronicle had the right and the obligation to become St. Louis's most successful newspaper. Today he was taking a step that he believed would help him reach that goal.
His first stop at Union Station's third-floor suite of offices was at the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad, better known as the Frisco Line. By telephone earlier today he had arranged a meeting with General B. F. Yoakum, the president. As Petzold was already becoming one of St. Louis's most notable figures, he was recognized immediately by Yoakum's receptionist and ushered into the General's private office the moment he arrived.
The St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad did not go to San Francisco; it never had, and it never would -- though that had been the original intention when Missouri endowed the line with 1.2 million acres of land and one million dollars in bonds. But marauding bands of outlaws had so terrorized the line during the Civil War and in the years immediately following that the line went into receivership. The bankrupt line was ultimately purchased and reorganized by a group of investors represented by General Yoakum, and he had surprised everyone by announcing that he wasn't even going to try to reach San Francisco.
Yoakum greeted Petzold warmly, then offered him a chair and a Havana cigar. The newspaperman sat in the former, and when he accepted the latter, the general prepared two of them by snipping off the ends with the elaborate silver-plated model guillotine that perched on the corner of his desk. He held a match first to his visitor's cigar and then to his own before sitting back in his chair, surrounded by a cloud of aromatic smoke.
Petzold admired the gold-plated model of an engine and tender flanked by tiny flags of the United States and the Frisco Railroad that sat on the front of Yoakum's desk. This was the impressive desk of an important man, for the publisher knew that in America, presidents of railroads and captains of industry were more powerful than were the titled nobility of Europe.
"I'd like to thank you very much, General, for agreeing to see me," Petzold said, opening the conversation.
"I must confess, Mr. Petzold, that I've been looking forward to meeting you. I think it's amazing what you've accomplished with your paper in such a short time. People are always talking about your stories, you have very good pictures, and I've been most impressed with your editorials."
"Thank you for the compliment."
"That isn't a compliment, Petzold, it's a statement of fact. Compliments are for ladies who wear ostrich feathers in their hats. Now, what is all this about?"
"General Yoakum, I have a proposition that I believe you'll find very interesting."
A piece of loose tobacco leaf stuck on the tip of Yoakum's tongue. The railroad man pulled the cigar away to spit it out before he replied, "Then by all means let me hear it."
Petzold smiled. General Yoakum was a man who got right to the point, and he appreciated that. "My staff tells me your trains carry an average of seven hundred and fifty passengers per day. Is that true?"
Nodding, Yoakum replied, "Yes, I would say that's a pretty accurate figure."
"With that in mind I have come here to suggest a new service for your passengers. I think you should provide free copies of The Chronicle to everyone who rides your trains."
"Is this a onetime thing, a promotion of some sort, or do you mean every day?"
"I mean every day, General." Petzold held his cigar over a polished brass ashtray and bumped off an ash.
Yoakum clasped his hands together and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the edge of his desk. "That sounds like a damn fool thing to do," he said, the cigar clamped between his teeth. "Why would I want to do that?"
"I know about you, General Yoakum. I know how, when you bought this railroad, you abandoned the idea of going west to the Pacific and instead set about spanning the midcontinent from the Twin Cities to the Gulf of Mexico. And I know how, at first, there were many on your board who thought you were wrong."
"Wrong? Mr. Petzold, there were some who thought I was downright blasphemous," Yoakum said with a laugh.
Thomas laughed with him. "Quite so. And yet, under your direction this railroad has not only recovered, it has prospered, doubling in passengers, tonnage, and track mileage. That is true, is it not?"
"Yes, I'm happy to say, it's true," Yoakum answered, beaming proudly.
"Then you and I are alike, General, for we have each taken businesses that were failures and made successes of them. And, because we are alike, I know what you feel and how you think. And I know that once I explain it, you will understand the wisdom of providing the service of newspaper delivery to your passengers. Not only is it good public relations on your part, but news of our city will also be projected to all areas of your route. People will read of the exciting events going on here, not just during the World's Fair, but all the time, and they'll make plans to come for a visit. And when they do visit St. Louis, General, they'll ride on your trains."
Yoakum narrowed his eyes as if in deep concentration. Finally he smiled. "I have to admit, Petzold, your idea has merit. Visitors spend money, and that's good for the merchants. I'd not only be generating passenger revenue, I'd also be doing a good thing for the city."
"Exactly," Petzold agreed.
"What would you charge me for seven hundred and fifty newspapers per day?"
The publisher examined the fiery tip of his cigar for a long moment. Then he looked up at General Yoakum with a sly smile. "For you, General Yoakum, I will charge nothing."
Yoakum's mouth and eyes opened wide in shock. "What? You will give me the newspapers? But I don't understand, man. Why would you make such an offer?"
"Simple," Petzold replied. "Besides the Frisco Line, there are twenty-one other railroads that serve St. Louis. I intend to --"
Yoakum interrupted him with a peal of laughter. "Why, you clever old fellow, you!" he exclaimed, still laughing. "I understand now what you're going to do. You're going to tell the others that I am already using the newspapers on my trains... and that will force them to make The Chronicle available on theirs as well."
"Precisely," Petzold confirmed. "The price to you, General, is nothing. But you must promise not to tell anyone else the terms of our arrangement."
General Yoakum put his hand across the desk and took Thomas Petzold's in a vigorous handshake. "Mr. Petzold, you have a deal... and a partner in your bamboozlement. Now would you like a suggestion? Go see the KATY line next. I'll telephone Bill Crush and tell him you're coming. I'll also tell him what a good thing this will be for the city. With the Frisco and KATY lines both taking your papers, no other railroad would dare refuse." He picked up the telephone, cranked the handle, then when the operator came on, spoke into the mouthpiece. "Central? Get me one nine two nine." He cupped his hand over the mouthpiece and looked at his guest. "My God, Petzold. Do you realize you could increase your circulation by more than five thousand papers per day if all the railroads take you up on this?"
"Yes, and more importantly, extend the reach of The Chronicle to far beyond the city limits of St. Louis."
"What a brilliant idea you've conceived!"
"Thank you," Petzold responded modestly.
"Hello?" the railroad magnate abruptly shouted into the phone. "Hello, this is General Yoakum from the Frisco line. I would like to speak with Mr. Crush, please." While he was waiting, he resumed his conversation with Petzold. "You know, in the short time since you started The Chronicle, you've shown the other newspaper people of this city what a fierce competitor you can be." He chuckled. "I certainly hope you have no interest in the railroad business."
"Only that the trains run on time and get me where I am going," Petzold said.
"By the way, when do you start supplying us with your papers?"
"Oh, we started that this morning," the publisher answered with a smile. "I took the liberty of having today's newspaper delivered to your passengers."
"You mean you did this even before you had my permission? What if I'd said no?"
"You are a very intelligent man, General Yoakum. I knew you wouldn't refuse the offer."
"You don't say. I -- Oh, hello?" he called back into the phone. "Mr. Crush? General Yoakum here. There's a gentlemen coming over to see you, a Mr. Thomas Petzold. Yes, the newspaperman."
Copyright © 1992 by Robert Vaughan