Clifton Forge, Va. (VR) – The Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society is deeply saddened by the passing of the legendary Hays T. Watkins, Jr., our friend for many decades and our biggest champion. He was also one of the key players in creating the modern system of American railroading. His support of the C&O Historical Society’s mission led to the creation of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Archive we administer today. Over the years, his actions for C&OHS directly supported our ability to preserve and publish the history he not only cherished, but lived throughout his career.
Hays, as his autobiography’s title encouraged us and others to call him, was elected by the C&O Railway board to be President and CEO of the combined C&O and B&O in 1971. The Kentucky native later became the first president of CSX Transportation in 1980.
According to C&OHS Founder and Chief Historian Thomas W. Dixon, Jr., “Hays took a liking to the C&O Historical Society in the late 1970s and became our mentor. He had always liked trains and at our 1982 conference in Richmond, where he was the keynote speaker, he said, ‘I am a dedicated railfan.’ No other high railroad executive had ever said this, anywhere. He followed it up by seeing to our support in many ways not just by the company but by him personally. At that meeting he became our first Honorary Life Member.”
Dixon further explained how Hays helped create the modern C&O Historical Society, “He ensured that we were given the most important surplus materials including over 250,000 original C&O mechanical and engineering drawings, over 1,000 linear feet of engineering records, over 200,000 official public relations photos, corporate minutes of 139 predecessor companies, and much other material no longer required as CSX was created. This material is now the backbone of the C&OHS archives and is used in everything we do: magazines, books, pamphlets, restoration, and memorabilia. The C&O Historical Society would not exist today in any way as it does without the guiding advice, the grants and the donations from Hays Watkins while he was head of Chessie System and CSX and in the years since his 1991 retirement right up to the present. Several cars in our museum collection were donated to the Society by his direction.”
C&O Historical Society President Mark Totten reflected on the time he knew Hays, “He was a gentleman with a genuine, down-to-earth demeanor, and a character of the highest integrity. Hays never lost interest in C&O Historical Society news, publications, and current projects. I will miss our conversations on railroad history, leadership, and the Society.”
C&O Historical Society Vice President Clifford Clements stated, “Hays was as good of a friend and supporter to C&OHS as we have ever had. Couple that with his integrity, honesty, and being a gentleman, we have a man who was transformative to the railroad industry and in his support for C&OHS.”
Hays Watkins was born in Fern Creek, Kentucky, Jan. 26, 1926 and graduated from Western Kentucky University with an MA Degree in Accounting in 1947. He received his CPA from Northwestern University in 1948 and went to work for C&O Railway in 1949.
Mr. Watkins was hired into the Special Assistant to the President’s office in Cleveland, where he worked with several others on special issues until 1950 when this office was eliminated. Afterward he moved to Richmond as an internal auditor in the C&O accounting office. From there he returned to Cleveland as staff assistant to the Comptroller and progressed through several steadily more responsible positions there. He was recognized for his thoughtful and intelligent approach to problems and was a very well-liked staff member. He held the following positions over time:
1956-1958 – Senior Budget Analyst
1958-1960 – General Auditor
1960-1964 – Treasurer C&O and later Asst. Vice-president C&O/B&O 1964-1971 – Vice-president, Finance, C&O/B&O
1971-1973 – President & CEO C&O/B&O
1973-1975 – Chairman and CEO Chessie System
1975-1980 – Chairman, President, and CEO, Chessie System, Inc.
1980-1982 – Chairman and co-CEO, CSX Corporation
1982-1989 – Chairman and CEO, CSX Corporation
1989-1991 – Chairman, CSX Corp.
Feb., 1991 – 2022 Chairman Emeritus, CSX Corp.
Because of his recognized abilities in the financial arena and detailed understanding of how railroading was changing over the years he was a key person in the affiliation of C&O/B&O, its metamorphism into Chessie System, and leading up to the CSX merger. In fact, he began with detailed passenger train studies and covered most train-by-train. He foresaw the collapse of Penn Central and arranged to protect C&O/B&O financially during the collapse of eastern railroading.
As a financial leader during the C&O/B&O affiliation years he was positioned to help guide the company through some of the worst years in eastern railroading following the Penn Central collapse. Had he been able to accomplish his plan for the takeover of Conrail in partnership with Norfolk Southern later on, the whole complexion of modern railroading might have been different.
One of his first moves upon assuming position of CEO of C&O/B&O was to rename the company to Chessie System Railroads, and give it an entirely bright new livery on all its locomotives and cars. This was done in the face of declining fortunes for eastern railroads and did much to instill a new esprit de ‘corps in the employees of the company and to give it an all-new face to the people of the region of its service.
In his introduction of employees to the new Chessie System name, Watkins mentioned the heritage of the kitten back to 1934, and then said “Now Chessie System says to the world that two great railroads are as one in their commitment to carefulness in handling freight and decent consideration in all human relationships.”
He was recognized as one of the most honest, ethical, even-handed, and thoughtful executives ever to sit behind a desk. He was simply in a league of his own in how he took the time to look at all sides, see things from others’ perspectives, and maintain an even hand in all dealings. This is reflected in the statement above where he says the company was to have “decent consideration in all human relationships.” He lived this and through his evenhanded and straightforward dealings, made many important things happen.
C&OHS Director Matt Crouch reflected, “People who reach lofty positions, as Hays did, often receive titles and honorary titles. However, if Hays Watkins could be summed up in one word, the simple title of Railroader would be the one we should use most often.”
C&OHS President Mark Totten concluded, “American railroading, and the railroad historical community, has lost a titan. The C&O Historical Society and its 2,400 members worldwide have lost a friend the likes of which we’ll never see again.”
The C&O Historical Society’s Business Office & Archive is open Monday through Friday from 9 AM – 5 PM and may be contacted by telephone at 540-862-2210 or by email at email@example.com. The C&OHS archive database is available online at archives.cohs.org. Updates and additional information can be found on Facebook under @cohs.org or on Instagram at @ChessiesRoad.
The Virginian Review has been serving Covington, Clifton Forge, Alleghany County and Bath County since 1914.