Michigan Transportation History

Tom L. Johnson

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Tom L. Johnson (July 18, 1854 – April 10, 1911) was a street railway entrepreneur (mostly in Detroit), U.S. Congressman, and mayor of Cleveland, Ohio.

Family & early years

Thomas Loftin Johnson was born in Georgetown, Kentucky. His father was a Confederate officer during the Civil War. After the war, the family moved around between Arkansas, Virginia, and Kentucky. Tom's father's family lived south of Louisville, Kentucky, and this is where the family settled, almost penniless, as Tom entered his teen years. It was in Louisville that Johnson began his adult life working in a variety of firms such as steel and streetcars. (Alexander)

Business Life

Johnson began his career in streetcars as an office boy for the horse-drawn Central Passenger Railway Company of Louisville, Kentucky. Proving himself, he had, by 1873, worked up the corporate hierarchy through cashier and secretary to superintendent. Johnson had quickly grasped the basic relationship between technology and management. Managers needed accurate and reliable information in order to plan for the future. Most importantly, they needed to know accurate numbers of riders. This data was often difficult to get because both passengers and employees had a practice of cheating the company: passengers tried to ride without paying and conductors would often supplement their income by pocketing fares. The technological solution was the fare-box that Johnson invented. It greatly increased the reliability of ridership data. The fare-box counted coins as they were dropped into the box. Johnson patented the box and system in 1872 and created the Tom L. Johnson Farebox Company to manufacture the device. (Massouh 1977, 205-209)

Johnson's other innovation in street railway management was the introduction of the single-fare transfer ticket.

Because the fare box so completely met the needs for streetcar companies, it became standard equipment on nearly every streetcar operating in the U.S. and Johnson became wealthy from it. He began investing his wealth in a variety of street railway-related concerns. Mostly these were municipal systems in Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Detroit. But he also bought into a steel mill in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The Johnstown Steel Company was for many years the nation's leading supplier of street railway rails. It was probably because of this investment that in 1889, following the disastrous Johnstown Flood, Johnson became very active in the flood's relief efforts.

Johnson also invested in the construction of a steel mill in Lorain, Ohio, but sold his stake in the company to Federal Steel when the factory was completed.

After Johnson left Congress in 1895Congressman, he became more active in his street railway interests, in particular the Detroit City Railway (DCR). Between 1895 and 1899, he fought with Hazen Pingree over the regulation of the DCR. Johnson sold his stake in the DCR to the Everitt-Moore syndicate? in 1899 when he decided to re-enter Cleveland politics.

Johnson was also one of the founders of the American Street Railway Association.


In 1889, Johnson sold to the St. Louis Car Company his share of the farebox company. He then moved to Cleveland to pursue politics. (Massouh 1977, 205-209)

In politics, Johnson was an advocate of Henry George's Single Tax and a DemocratDemocratic. The statue of Johnson in Cleveland's Public Square has him holding a copy of George's Progress and Poverty. He was first elected to Congress representing the 21st Ohio district which was located in Cleveland. His two terms in Congress kept him from managing his many business affairs. When he left Congress in 1895, he became the chief nemesis of Hazen Pingree in his fight to control Detroit's street railways. Johnson did not give in to Pingree's politics but eventually sold out his interests in Detroit in 1899.

In 1901, Johnson was elected mayorMayorCleveland of Cleveland and served four terms until 1909. In 1903, he sought and got the Democratic nomination for the governorship of Ohio but was defeated in the general election.

As mayor of Cleveland, Johnson advocated for many of the same policies that Pingree had advocated in Detroit, including greater control over the street railways, the construction of public baths, inspection for milk and meat, and the expansion of the city's park system. His principal railroad planks were Pingree's: "three-cent fares" and municipal ownership. While he, like Pingree, was unsuccessful in accomplishing these, the Cleveland City Council did create in 1910 the nation's first municipal street railroad regulatory commission. (Massouh 1977, 204) Johnson's successes in these areas of reform and his success in increasing the efficiency of Cleveland's municipal government won him great popularity at the time and the respect of historians since. (Holli)


Johnson died in 1911 less than two years after leaving the mayoralty of Cleveland.


By Johnson

Johnson, Thomas L. My Story. Edited by Elizabeth J. Hauser. New York: 1911.

Available online through the Cleveland Memory Project.

About Johnson

Alexander, James R. Chapter I, "Tom L. Johnson, Inventor and Entrepreneur," from Jaybird: A. J. Moxham and the Manufacture of the Johnson Rail. Johnstown, PA: Johnstown Area Heritage Association, 1991.

Alexander is a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Holli, Melvin G. The American Mayor: The Best and Worst Big-City Leaders (Penn State Press, 1999).

Massouh, Michael. "Innovations in Street Railways before Electric Traction: Tom L. Johnson’s Contributions." Technology and Culture 18, No. 2 (April 1977): 202-217.

Massouh, Michael. "Technological and Managerial Innovations: The Johnson Company, 1883-1898." Business History Review 50 (Spring 1976): 46-68.

Massouh, Michael. "Tom Loftin Johnson: Engineer-Entrepreneur 1869-1900." Ph.D. diss., Case Western Reserve University, 1970.

Murdock, Eugene. "Buckeye Liberal: A Biography of Tom L. Johnson." Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1951.

Bremner, Robert H. "Tom L. Johnson." Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 59 (January 1950): 1-13

Lorenz, Carl. Tom L. Johnson. New York: 1911

Phillips, David Graham. “Tom Johnson." Appleton’s Booklovers Magazine 7 (April 1906): 457-60.

Post, Louis F. "Tom L. Johnson." The Public 8 (January 1906): 646-57

Johnson in Broader Context

Warner, Hoyt Landon. Progressivism in Ohio 1897-1917 Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1964.

Moley, Raymond. 27 Masters of Politics in a Personal Perspective New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1949.

Citation: When referencing this page please use the following citation:

R. D. Jones, "Tom L. Johnson," Michigan Transportation History (Ypsilanti, MI: 2020), www.michtranshist.info/.

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Page last modified on February 11, 2020, at 12:40 PM EST

Page last modified on February 11, 2020, at 12:40 PM EST