Daniel F. Longstreet (1850-1937) was a Gilded Age pioneer in labor-management-customer relations on the Providence street railway system. He later invented improvements for streetcars and helped to establish some of the national managerial organizations in the public transit industry.
Longstreet participated in the Civil War by joining the Fourth Rhode Island Infantry at age 15 (more than one-hundred of his wartime letters are catalogued at Brown University). After the conflict he worked as a a conductor for the Union Horse Railroad Company in Providence. In less than a decade he rose through managerial ranks to become superintendent of operations. Despite tension with the Sprague family, owners of the horsecar system, Longstreet insisted on paying the highest wages in the country to attract an honest and intelligent workforce while also implementing a system of organizational accountability. He instituted one of the first ten-hour workdays in the nation as well.
During the Panic of 1873, a particularly severe blow to the state’s economy, Longstreet continued to pay premium wages. Furthermore, he took the opportunity in tough economic times to actually increase the state’s urban track mileage by fifty percent. He also provided the latest amenities for vehicles and waiting stations to win the hearts and minds of grateful passengers.
Longstreet invented improvements to railway operations, including snow plows, brakes, fortified wheels, and even the “Longstreet Rail,” a widely admired steel track. He conducted some of the earliest national experiments employing petroleum fuels and storage batteries. Organizationally, he was a founder and president of the American Street Railway Association where he endorsed progressive personnel policies. In conjunction with the Sprague family, Longstreet was instrumental in founding the American Thoroughbred Association, an organization that exercised jurisdiction over horseracing in the United States and helped to eliminate cheating and fraud in that sport.
In 1888, after more than twenty years at the helm in Providence, Longstreet took a similar job at one of the country’s largest operations, the West End Street Railway in Boston. Later in the century he supervised the building of the streetcar system in Denver, Colorado. He eventfully returned to Rhode Island after 1900 and spent much of his retirement participating in Civil War veterans’ activities under the auspices of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). When he died in 1937 he was the last surviving member of his GAR lodge.
In the age of the Robber Barons, Longstreet practiced labor-management-customer relations that presaged the reforms of the New Deal.