John Joseph Bernet

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John Joseph Bernet
John Joseph Bernet in 1915.jpg
BornFebruary 9, 1868
DiedJuly 5, 1935 (1935-07-06) (aged 67)

John Joseph Bernet (February 9, 1868 – July 5, 1935) was president of the Nickel Plate Road, Erie Railroad, Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and Pere Marquette Railroad in the United States. He was known for bringing railroad companies back from bankruptcy to solvency, earning him the nickname "Doctor of Sick Railroads".[1][2]

Youth and education[edit]

Bernet was born in Brant, New York, on February 9, 1868, to Bernard and Emma Greene Bernet. John's father, Bernard, had emigrated from Switzerland and had taken up the blacksmithing trade.[2] After a public school education, John entered an apprenticeship at his father's blacksmith shop, but John was not able to perform the craft as well as his father had hoped.[1]

Railroad career[edit]

When the blacksmithing apprenticeship didn't work out, Bernet learned telegraphy and was hired in 1889 on the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway. He worked his way up through various positions with the railroad to eventually become a Vice President for New York Central Railroad where he was in charge of the lines west of Buffalo.[1]

Soon after the Van Sweringen Brothers purchased the Nickel Plate Road from the New York Central, Bernet was asked to lead the Nickel Plate in 1916.[2] By the time he left the Nickel Plate, the railroad had grown considerably thanks to Bernet's work at upgrading the system. He is credited with doubling the railroad's total freight tonnage and average speeds systemwide while cutting fuel consumption in half.[1][3] Bernet was succeeded at the Nickel Plate by Walter L. Ross at the end of 1926.[2]

Bernet served as president of the Erie Railroad, another of the Van Sweringen's holdings, from January 1, 1927, through May 1929.[2][4] His presidency of the Erie was characterized by a series of cost-cutting measures that included replacing much of the railroad's by then outdated rolling stock with new, more efficient equipment such as the Erie's Berkshire 2-8-4 steam locomotives, which were larger and more powerful than Lima's then current L-1 model Berkshires. Erie's Berkshires were of a design that included 70 in (1,800 mm) drivers, larger boilers and full-length locomotive frames; these locomotives helped change the Erie from a drag-freight railroad to a fast-freight railroad.[5] After leaving the Erie Railroad, Bernet became president of Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.[6][7]

The Van Sweringen brothers had gained control of the C&O and its then subsidiary Pere Marquette Railroad in the 1920s, so Bernet was already familiar to the rest of the management team there. Under Bernet's guidance, the C&O was one of the very few profitable railroad companies during the Great Depression, even going so far as earning and paying dividends in 1932. In 1933, he returned to the Nickel Plate Road's presidency. In that position he ordered the Nickel Plate's first 80 Berkshire locomotives.[3] He served in that position until his death on July 5, 1935; he died at his home in Cleveland, Ohio.[1] He was succeeded as president of the Pere Marquette, C&O by George D. Brooke;[8] Bernet was succeeded at the Nickel Plate by W. J. Harahan who served until 1937 before himself being succeeded by Brooke.[9]

He was greatly admired by his peers for his business acumen and after his death a privately printed biography, with an Appreciation by the Van Sweringens, was brought out.[10]


Bernet very strongly encouraged John Carroll University to build a dormitory rather than a gymnasium and when the first dormitory on the university campus was completed in 1935, Bernet Hall was named in his honor. The residence hall still carries his name.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e Jandura, Greg. "Roll of Honor Inductees: John J. Bernet". Western New York Railroad Historical Society. Retrieved 2007-05-29.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Out and In". Time. 1926-12-27. Retrieved 2007-05-29.
  3. ^ a b "Nickel Plate History". Classic Trains. Kalmbach Publishing. 2003-07-25. Retrieved 2007-05-30.
  4. ^ Stratton, Fred. "Presidents of the Erie Railroad". Fred's Erie Railroad History Page. Archived from the original on 2005-03-18. Retrieved 2007-05-29.
  5. ^ Drury, George H. (1997). "The Berkshire: Steam's fast-freight legend". Trains Magazine; Kalmbach Publishing. Retrieved 2007-05-29.
  6. ^ Brown, Randolph R.; McCourt, John P.; Obed, Martin E. (2007). "Erie's Heavyweight Steel RPOs: 1927 Through Retirement". The Diamond. 21 (1): 4–5.
  7. ^ Hungerford, pp. 235, 242 and 244.
  8. ^ Steamtown National Historic Site (2002-02-14). "Nickel Plate Road (New York, Chicago and St. Louis) No. 759". Archived from the original on 2007-05-10. Retrieved 2007-05-30.
  9. ^ "Comparison of NKP Leadership Through the Years". Nickel Plate Road Historical and Technical Society. Retrieved 2007-05-30.
  10. ^ Probert, L. C., "John Joseph Bernet." Undated.
  11. ^ John Carroll University. "Residence Life - Residence Halls: Bernet Hall". Archived from the original on 2007-03-21. Retrieved 2007-05-29.


  • Hungerford, Edward (1946). Men of Erie: A Story of Human Effort.

Further reading[edit]

  • Shepherd, Stephen K. (Summer 1989). "The "Doctor" Paid a House Call". Nickel Plate Road Magazine.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
W. H. Canniff
President of Nickel Plate Road
1916 – 1925
Succeeded by
Walter L. Ross
Preceded by
Frederick D. Underwood
President of Erie Railroad
1927 – 1929
Succeeded by
Charles E. Denney
Preceded by
President of Chesapeake and Ohio Railway
1929 – 1932
Succeeded by
George D. Brooke
Preceded by
President of Pere Marquette Railroad
1929 – 1932
Succeeded by
George D. Brooke
Preceded by
President of Nickel Plate Road
1933 – 1935
Succeeded by
W. J. Harahan