Auto Truck Aid to Railroads

When railroad-truck competition began to heat up in the early 1920s, trucks were seen as a means of getting unprofitable short-haul “less-than-carload” freight off the rails, freeing rail capacity for more profitable long-haul business. Today, shippers and truckers are increasingly shifting over-the-road freight to intermodal rail, which allows truckers to get less-profitable long-haul shipments out of their trailers. The following article from 1922 looks at rail-truck competition in the post-war (World War I) economy.


The Traffic World, Saturday, Jan. 21, 1922

THE MOTOR TRUCK has already become a necessary supplement to the railroad and will undoubtedly become more and more important to them as times go on, said Mr. [Alfred Joseph] Brosseau, president of the International Motor Co. [later Mack Trucks, edit.] and secretary of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, in answer to the question, “Is Highway Transportation an Aid to the Railroads?” before a meeting of the Shippers’ Conference of Greater New York, held in the rooms of the Merchants’ Association, last week. Mr. Brosseau outlined the value of the motor truck as a method of helping the railroads get rid of some of their expensive and unremunerative short haul traffic, and went so far as to predict that in the coming business revival the motor truck would be the means of saving the railroads from government ownership.

“If it saves us from government ownership of the railroads, the motor truck will again have justified itself.” — Alfred Joseph Brosseau.

Touching upon the question of taxes, the speaker said that the motor truck had paid its share and that, in the opinion of men who were supposed to be familiar with the problem, the truck ought not to be taxed any more than the freight car. He said in part:

“If you ask the question, ‘Did motor truck transportation over the highways help the railroads during the busy war years?’ I am sure the answer will be ‘Yes.’ Without the motor truck, transportation would have broken down utterly. Many industries would have been seriously embarrassed, and the country would have faced the possibility of hunger.

No one who is at all well informed regarding traffic conditions during 1917-1920 will deny this. On the contrary, they will agree that the motor truck was a great help to the railroads during this period. It goes without saying it served the public also.

As you all know, business has been poor for the last year and the railroads can now handle all the traffic that is offered. We are asked if the railroads are now helped by the motor truck. My answer is ‘yes,’ for business is going to be good in the near future, and when it is the railroads will again be unable to handle the traffic. We shall then have delayed shipments, embargoes, blockades and the truck will again save the situation for the railroads and for the public. It may also save the railroads from the fate they so narrowly escaped during the last traffic jam — permanent government ownership.

If the motor truck is eliminated now and is not available when the next boom is upon us, the railroads will fall down so hard that government ownership advocates will have an excellent argument to prove that the government should take over the railroads. If it saves us from government ownership of the railroads, the motor truck will again have justified itself.

I do not know the exact proportion of the existing terminal facilities needed to handle l.c.l [less-than-carload shipments by rail car, edit.] package freight moving less than 50 miles, but we are all sure that it is a very considerable part of the whole. It may be one-half, or one-quarter, but whatever it is, it should not be devoted to the handling of the non-profitable l.c.l package freight that can best be moved by motor trucks. And again, if the railroads were relieved of this n0n-profitable l.c.l. package freight, the terminals would then be ample to handle the long-distance freight. The railroads would not need $1,000,000,000 a year for additional terminal facilities and would have enough equipment to move all long distance freight, even during boom times. That is the answer to the question, “Is highway transport an aid to the railroads?’

— 30 —

Alfred Joseph Brosseau was the president of Mack Trucks for 17 years in the 1920s and ’30s and notably said, “The forgotten man in transportation is the man who pays the freight.”

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A Merry Motor Cargo Christmas!


With thanks to good friend “Turkey23” in Ohio.

— wbc

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(Re)Introducing FREIGHT magazine


Before the The Traffic World saw print, there was Freight, The Shippers’ Forum, published in New York between 1904 and 1912 and replete with excellent early shipping artwork, like the 1906 drayage scene above. Freight joins the growing number of publications used as sources for this blog, including The Traffic World (1907-2009), The Horseless Age (founded in 1895 and still published as Automotive Industries), Power Wagon and The Commercial Vehicle.

— wbc

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1915: Beer, Whisky & Brandeis

CapdomeTopicsWashIn 1915, two years before the U.S. entered the First World War, the brewing industry and railroads “battled” over the freight classification for beer. A change in classification would affect the rates pegged to that class. The Brandeis mentioned in this Traffic World article, chosen mostly for its subject matter and style, I’ll admit, is none other than future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis, whose progressive stance on social issues and fight against industrial monopolies, including railroads, apparently didn’t endear him to the editors of The Traffic World (see note below).

The Traffic World, July 3, 1915.

Beer and the Brandeis Theories. — “The Charge of the Teutonic Allies Against the Brandeis Salient of the Official Classification Labyrinth” is the unofficial title of the case made by the brewing interests the early part of this week against the proposed change of beer rating from fifth to fourth class, led by Luther M. Walter, with Warren Burkhart, Richard Muehlbuerg, William Pister, Louis Feickert, Charles Bertachy and “Cupid” Zielke as lieutenants. It was one of the best-natured fights imaginable. E.S. Ballard, in charge for the railroads, only occasionally put a frown on his face and “went after” a witness. It was a happy family, because all the men concerned have met around the table at classification meetings and fought out similar questions without the aid of the Commission. Mr. Ballard’s amiability was attributed, in large measure, to the mass of facts brought forward by the traffic managers of the breweries tending to show that the Brandeis suggestion that beer does not pay its share of the cost of the service performed by the railroads is a conclusion drawn from shipments that were not typical. They showed car-mile and ton-mile earnings of 8 cents and 5.4 mills on 112 cars, three of which were oysters. The fact, however, taken from more than 32,000 shipments, is that the car-mile earnings are 15.2 cents and the per ton per mile 9.4, both of which are way above the average. The severity of the attack upon the honesty of the so-called Brandeis list of “unremunerative” commodities thus far made (it is not yet complete) tends to strengthen the query as to how much the Brandeis service for the Commission was really worth. The result thus far shown is a large accumulation of suspicion, on the part of shippers, as to the fairness of exhibits prepared for the Commission under the direction of such a man as Brandeis.*

“If the charge of 35 cents is allowed to become effective, whisky in bottles sent in small quantities will probably bear the highest transportation rate to be found in the world.”

Whisky in the Next Room. — While the hearing with regard to the proper rating of beer was going on in the small ballroom of the New Willard, the query as to whether it was proper to make a minimum charge of 35 cents on a bottle of whisky, expressed into dry territory, was going on in a small room adjoining. But the brewers were not interested in the troubles of the mail order liquor houses. Nor were the latter losing a single wink of sleep on account of the proposal of the railroads to hoist the rating on beer in carloads from fifth to fourth class. It was possible to induce the brewers to listen to objections to rating skunks at one and a half times first class, but they did not care a continental about the minimum on the hard liquor. If the charge of 35 cents is allowed to become effective, whisky in bottles sent in small quantities will probably bear the highest transportation rate to be found in the world. There is nothing to compare with the rate on a single bottle of whisky. But the charge is not imposed with any idea that any great amount of revenue will come from it. The express people are not caring for the business, because it gets them into too much trouble with local authorities. Their lawyers believe that many of the state laws are unconstitutional, but they do not care to test the question, for the simple reason that if they should do so the “drys” would charge them with being in partnership with the “liquor interests.” They believe that charge would be made, in the event they fought, even if they could show that the revenue resulting from the “partnership” amounted to a small fraction of one per cent of the total.

— 30 —

* As special counsel to the Interstate Commerce Commission, Louis D. Brandeis argued against a general rate increase sought by U.S. railroads in 1914. The future U.S. Supreme Court justice advocated “scientific management” by railroads to better understand the cost of shipping various commodities.  “Railroads which make and sell a most varied transportation service do not know the cost of any of the services which they furnish,” he wrote. “Without knowledge of the cost of a particular service it is impossible for railroad officials to protect the company’s revenues against unremunerative rates.” [pp. 47-48 of “The Passenger Train in the Motor Age: California’s Rail and Bus Industries” by Gregory Lee Thompson, Ohio University Press, 1993.] Not knowing true shipping costs is still an problem today, if not for railroads, for many trucking companies.

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Lines, Sails and Spars

RiggingRigging refers to the cordage (ropes or lines) as well as the sails and spars (masts and yards) on a ship like this one, the USS Constitution. Launched in 1797, Old Ironsides is the oldest commissioned warship in the U.S. Navy, a living reminder of the days of wooden ships and iron men. And yes, the U.S. Navy keeps her seaworthy. I snapped this photo last July, drawn to the view of the ship’s lines in the diffuse light overhead on a cloudy Boston morning.

— wbc

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It’s Big. It’s Red. It’s Vim.

VIMMy choice for best truck ad of 1922. From the April 1922 edition of “Power Wagon,” another great magazine from the early days of trucking. More on Vim Motor Truck below:

The Day (New London, Conn.), Tuesday Afternoon, April 4, 1916


“The advance made by The Vim Motor Truck Co. in the past two years is almost phenomenal. From a small beginning, the Vim Motor Truck Co., through sheer merit, has become and is now recognized as one of the largest exclusive producers of commercial trucks in the world, and it is safe to say that when the new million dollar plant, now in course of erection at Twenty-third and Market streets, is completed, it will be the largest. Thus will Philadelphia add new laurels to its already rich crown.”

Alas, those laurels would soon fade. Vim Motor Truck, founded by Harold B. Larzelere in 1915, reportedly was building 13,000 trucks a year at one point, but the company did not survive long. Apparently, it was acquired by the Standard Steel Car Co. of Pittsburgh in 1921 and was shut down by 1923, when news reports surface of bankruptcy-related litigation.



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1901: Heavy Trucking, New York Style


This article from The Horseless Age offers a glimpse into drayage trucking in New York harbor at the turn of the last century, when horses provided the essential hauling power. Those familiar with drayage today will find much that is familiar — especially the low rate of pay for independent contractors engaged in the business. Also note the resistance to new, as yet unproven technology — in this case the automobile — despite its potential promise.


WISHING TO LEARN the exact field for heavy automobile trucks in this city and also the present outlook for their introduction in heavy trucking work, we have recently made a most thorough investigation of the subject. In this investigation we have obtained the opinions and experience of companies and individuals in practically all lines of business connected with trucking. Some of these were steamship companies (trans-Atlantic and coastwise) steamboat companies, railroad companies, express companies, transfer companies, truckmen, coal dealers, etc. In the case of the steamship, steamboat and railroad lines, all of them, with a very few exceptions, have their trucking done for them by certain truckmen at a regular contract rate per 100 pounds. As all through freight, as for instance a shipment from a Southern point to a Western or New England point, via New York city, has to be transferred (carload lots by lighter and smaller quantities by truck) there is always a charge for transfer added to every through freight rate, which covers the cost of the transfer. On this account, the companies are not directly interested in any plan to reduce the cost of transfer. The only way in which they would gain by such a reduction would be by its enabling them to slightly reduce their charge for transfer, which would make only a very slight reduction in the whole rate.

“The only chance for the introduction of automobile trucks in this line of work is through these truckmen or transfer companies.”

Owing to the peculiar local conditions that at present affect this work (delays through the blocking of the narrow streets in the lower part of the city with teams, and more particularly the waiting in line for chance to load or unload at the crowded dock or freight house, which frequently causes a delay of an hour or two), this rate for transfer by truck is rather high, being usually from 60 to 75 cents per ton.

Lower Manhattan skyline from New Jersey, circa 1900. Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

Lower Manhattan skyline from New Jersey, circa 1900. Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

It would, therefore, seem that the only chance for the introduction of automobile trucks in this line of work is through these truckmen or transfer companies. While they all seem to have given the subject more or less thought, very few have given it any serious consideration. They all look upon an automobile as an untried, expensive experiment, a good investment, perhaps, when considered as an advertising medium, but not a practical business wagon for their line of work.

Their only opportunity to judge of the success of automobile trucks has been through seeing the electric wagons in use in the city and learning the opinion of those who operate them. Their opinions, in most cases, were strengthened by the fact that a large number of the truckmen, about a year ago, were induced to give options on their businesses to an autotruck company, which stated that it would revolutionize the trucking business in the city with its patent autotruck. They have been waiting in vain for that company to start up or even to operate its one experimental truck successfully with loads. They cannot consistently be blamed if they have their own opinion of that sort of stock jobbing operation and place all automobile trucks in the category of experiments. In their work they feel they could not take the chances of trying to use a truck that was still an experiment. It would injure their business and cause them considerable trouble were such a truck to break down while hauling mail or baggage to a steamer or train. While some of them state that they would never invest in any kind of automobile truck, preferring to sell out their business when that time comes and let someone else make the experiment, others are perfectly willing to make the change, whenever they feel it can be done profitably.

“They (automobile trucks) were of too small capacity, being able to carry less than many horse trucks, though costing much more.”

In speaking of the faults of the present types of automobile trucks, some of the criticisms made were as follows: They were, first of all, untried and unreliable, the chances of their breaking down while hauling freight being too great; they were altogether too expensive, their first cost being about four times that of a good team and truck, and no one knew the cost of operating and maintaining them; they were too complicated, increasing the chances of getting out of order and necessitating the employment of more expensive men to operate them; they were of too small capacity, being able to carry less than many horse trucks, though costing much more, and they cannot be handled in a small space as easily as a horse truck. To meet the conditions in this line of work and to overcome the objections of the men in the heavy trucking business, any automobile truck would have to fulfill the following requirements: It should have proved, by a sufficient trial in actual business work, that it is a practical truck, and has passed through its experimental stage, being as reliable as a horse truck in hauling freight daily on all conditions of pavement and in any weather; its first cost should be so high as to be prohibitive to a truckman of moderate capital, and it should have proved, by a sufficiently long trial in actual service, that its cost of operation and maintenance is low enough to enable it to haul freight cheaper per ton mile than a horse truck; it should be free from complication in construction and operation, in order not to require expert men as operators and to allow of any machinist making ordinary repairs; the machinery should be so placed as to be readily accessible for oiling and inspection, and it should never be necessary to unload or shift the load in order to reach some bolt or part of the machinery that is liable to cause trouble on the road; the engine, gears, etc., should all be cased in to protect them from dust and to reduce all noise possible; it should be capable of being handled in a cramped space, by an ordinary operator, as easily as a horse truck, and should be able to exert full power in backing up, in order to get up to a platform to load or unload; it should have a capacity of at least 6 tons, or better still, 8 tons, as many of the present horse trucks have a capacity of 5 to 7 tons, and extra large trucks carry even heavier loads; and it should be designed so as to remove all liability of setting fire to any kind of freight or dock flooring.

“At that price (65 cents per ton), he (the truckman) would have to handle nearly 6 tons every working day in the year to pay expenses.”

Until automobile trucks have been given a thorough trial in actual business service, so that reliable data can be obtained as to their cost of operation and maintenance, it would seem as if the manufacturers would be obliged (in making any sales) to give a guarantee as to this item of expense to the user of their trucks. While they give figures showing the comparative cost of hauling freight per ton mile between their truck and horse trucks, figures which show a great saving, we do not know whether any of them give such a guarantee. The capacity of a truck could be greatly increased by the use of a trailer behind each truck. While in some lines of business this method could possibly be used with good results, the employment of a trailer about a crowded dock or freight house in this city is impracticable. The cost of a heavy two-horse truck (capable of hauling 5 to 7 tons) in this city is from $800 to $1,000, the truck costing from $350 to $450, and the harness, blankets, etc., from $50 to $100. The cost of running a truck is from $1,100 to $1,200 per annum, the feeding and shoeing of the horses being about $480, the repairs on the truck about $150 and the balance being the wages of the driver. If the truckman gets 75 cents per ton for hauling, he nets only 65 cents, as he has to pay a uniform charge of 10 cents per ton for loading at the dock. At that price he would have to handle nearly 6 tons every working day in the year to pay expenses. The only way in which the business is made to pay is by running a large number of trucks (sometimes as many as 12 to 75 trucks), having numerous large shippers as regular customers, and arranging the work so as to have loads in both directions.

It has been a practice with some of the railroad and steamship lines carrying freight from this city to Western and Southern points to make a freight rate that includes delivery at the store door of the consignee. The general manager of one of the steamship lines running to some of the Southern cities stated that if this practice of making store door deliveries of freight was continued and extended, as he believed it would be, it might result in the steamship lines adopting automobile trucks for that service in several Southern cities. He thought that, with the great improvement in roads which would necessarily be made were such trucks adopted, the steamship lines might eventually be able to deliver freight 25 miles or more from their docks. They would, in that manner, be able to recover a part of the freight business which has been taken from them by the railroads.

One of the transfer companies, though having had a very discouraging experience in their experiments with electric delivery wagons, state that they are having built for them a gasoline delivery wagon, which they expect to have in regular service, hauling trunks, in about two months. One of the largest retail coal dealers, who operates about twenty coal trucks, has just ordered three Massachusetts steam trucks, having a capacity of 5 ½ tons. These trucks are to be delivered in July and August, and are to be used in their regular service, delivering coal from their yard to different parts of the city. Should they prove successful in that work, the firm will remodel their present trucks and use them as trailers behind the steam trucks.

*** 30 ***

Note: The Horseless Age is still with us, as Automotive Industries. Its name was changed to Automotive Industries in 1917.

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Trucking’s Eclipsed Electric Age

And now for a word from our sponsors (in 1916) …


IN THE EARLY YEARS of the “horseless age,” electric trucks vied with gasoline models to replace the ubiquitous horse and wagon on American streets. This advertisement, which continues below, appeared in The Traffic World in 1916.

“The superiority of the Electric for city work is already appreciated by the more experienced users of motor vehicles. In numbers the Electric is just beginning to make itself felt, but in proving certain economic laws it has already made history. You can call “white” “black” for a while but when it comes to a show-down somebody loses.

“Experienced motor truck users have ceased to buy motor trucks on price alone. You can buy a pleasure car by-product for half  what you pay for a good Electric, but it will last one-third as long and in most cases it will be out of commission so often that the necessary reserve equipment will eat up any possible saving. That’s not exaggerating — just talk to the older users.

“Honestly now, did you ever seriously set out to learn why an Electric truck is different from a gasoline truck for city work? Another question: How big a premium in operating costs are you willing to pay for your prejudice or indifference to efficient delivery in the city?

“Would you be interested in learning what G.V. users say about G.V. efficiency? Then write today for Bulletin 104.”

YOU MAY DETECT a note of desperation in the ad copy above. The General Vehicle Company, owned in part by General Electric since 1906, was facing stiff gasoline-powered competition by 1917. Improvements in engine design, including the invention of the electric starter, and Henry Ford’s mass production of comparatively cheap gasoline-powered vehicles eventually pulled the plug on the electric competition, though the industry’s battery charge lasted some time.

“New York is probably the greatest market for the electric road truck in the country,” Electrical World reported on Feb. 5, 1921, as the city prepared for an electric vehicle show. “More than five hundred enterprises are now using in the aggregate in the metropolitan district almost 5,000 electric trucks and delivery wagons, some of which have been in service 20 years and more. The largest installation is a fleet of 319 vehicles.”

It wasn’t the gasoline truck that killed GeVeCo, however, but the Great War. The company built Gnome aircraft engines at its Long Island City factory, but apparently couldn’t churn them out fast enough to support the war effort.

“The production of 5,000 large Gnome engines was entirely beyond the capacity of the General Vehicle Co.,” says the post-war U.S. Army Aircraft Production Facts published in 1919 (page 13). “Therefore negotiations were entered into with the General Motors Co. to take this contract.” The two companies agreed to combine resources, with General Vehicle “producing as many of the 110-horsepower Gnome engines as it could with its existing equipment.”

According to the U.S. Army publication, the GeVeCo plant in Long Island City was later leased by the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation from the U.S. government, which apparently nationalized the plant to speed production.

The end of the First World War, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, was also the end of GeVeCo, though some of its operations may have been assumed by the Walter Truck Company, which had produced gasoline-powered trucks since 1909. By 1921, Walter Truck had entered the electric truck market, producing trucks of 1-ton to 7-ton “heavy-duty sizes,” according to Electrical World.

After decades of neglect, electric vehicles — especially gasoline or diesel-electric hybrids — are enjoying something of a resurgence. Concern over carbon emissions, congestion and noise pollution is reopening markets to electrics, especially in New York, where companies such as Duane Reade and Frito-Lay are using battery-powered trucks built by Smith Electric Vehicles, and California, where UPS deployed 100 electric package vans earlier this year.

Plugging city-based fleets back into the power grid can lead to substantial fuel cost savings — as much as 80%, according to some operators — but electric trucks still cost much more than diesel-powered ones, and their owners often rely on government subsidies to purchase them. Electric trucks are also competing against surging interest in compressed and liquified natural gas vehicles fueled by an historic natural gas boom.

If their price becomes more competitive and fuel savings more apparent (and more quickly realized), electric trucks may yet make a comeback on city streets.

— wbc

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The Traffic World Washington Bureau

Of the 39,913,296 cars of revenue freight loaded in 1921, 32.8 per cent was miscellaneous freight, 27.7 per cent was merchandise, LCL, 20.4 per cent was coal, 6.3 per cent was forest products, 5.8 per cent was grain and grain products, 3.8 per cent was live stock, 2.3 per cent was ore and 0.8 per cent was coke, according to an analysis, accompanied by charts, made by the car service division of the American Railway Association.

Of the 45,864,309 cars loaded in 1920, 36.6 per cent was miscellaneous freight, 19.9 per cent was merchandise, LCL, 22.4 per cent was coal, 6.8 per cent was forest products, 4.1 per cent was grain and grain products, 3.5 per cent was live stock, 5.3 per cent was ore and 1.4 per cent was coke.

Of the 41,684,052 cars loaded in 1919, 57.8 per cent was merchandise, LCL, and miscellaneous (no separation of merchandise, LCL, and miscellaneous loading having been made), 21.4 per cent was coal and coke (no separation of coal and coke having been made), 7.1 per cent was forest products, 4.7 per cent was ore, 4.9 per cent was grain and grain products and 4.1 per cent was live stock.

Discussing the analysis, the division said: “The outstanding feature of the performance of the last year is a relatively extraordinary increase in the loading of merchandise and LCL, and miscellaneous commodities combined, and the marked decline in the raw materials entering into manufacture — coal, coke, ore and forest products. Simultaneously, in 1921, there was a heavy increase in grain and grain products loading and a smaller increase in the loading of live stock, but in the latter case, this was not sufficient to bring the figure up to the percentage of all loading in 1919.”

— Jan. 28, 1922, Vol. XXIX, No. 4

Note that in 1921 less-than-carload merchandise and miscellaneous loadings represented 60.5% of rail freight while bulk commodities such as coal, grains and forest products accounted for 39.5%. That LCL freight increasingly would become “less-than-truckload” freight as the trucking industry and national highway network expanded.

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Overnite’s J. Harwood Cochrane: Talking With a Trucking Pioneer

This June, I had the good fortune to interview J. Harwood Cochrane, the 100-year-old founder of famed trucking company Overnite Transportation, for The Journal of Commerce, along with Jack Holmes, the president of UPS Freight. Below are the first two episodes  in a JOC video series about Cochrane’s career, Overnite and trucking history, “Present at the Birth of Trucking.”

Cochrane was born in November 1912, shortly after Woodrow Wilson was elected president. In the same year, The Traffic World launched a column dedicated to “Increasing Efficiency on the Short Haul” through use of “the motor truck,” an invention the Chicago-based magazine predicted “will exert a profound influence upon our industrial progress.”

The motor truck did just that, and J. Harwood Cochrane grabbed the “guiding wheel” for a long and wild ride. He founded Overnite in Richmond, Va., in 1935 with two trucks. Overnite expanded across the country by acquiring more than 50 competitors. The company was sold in 1986 to railroad Union Pacific for the stellar sum of $1.2 billion. Cochrane then founded another company, Highway Express, which he sold in 2003 — at the age of 91.

These two videos look at the early days of trucking and how Cochrane founded Overnite. More episodes are on the way.

For more on the topic, see “Trucking through Time” on the website, where a full transcript of the Cochrane-Holmes is also available (for paying JOC members only, at the moment). My thanks again to Jack Holmes and J. Harwood Cochrane for their time, their interest and their insight.

— wbc

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September 24, 2013 · 10:17 pm