John Fishwick; railroad leader helped create Norfolk Southern

By Jad Mouawad
New York Times / August 20, 2010

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NEW YORK — John P. Fishwick, a retired railroad executive who paved the way for a merger that created one of the nation’s top railroad companies, Norfolk Southern, died Aug. 9 in Roanoke, Va. He was 93.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Ellen Blair Martin.

Mr. Fishwick, whose career in the railroad business spanned nearly four decades, was chief executive of the Norfolk and Western Railway from 1970 to 1981.

Near the end of his tenure, he opened negotiations to merge with Southern Railway, which led to the formation of the Norfolk Southern Corp. in 1982.

John Palmer Fishwick graduated from Roanoke College and Harvard Law School. He went to work for the New York law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore as an associate in 1940 and then served in the Navy from 1942 to 1945, first as captain of a submarine chaser, then as commander of a destroyer.

He joined Norfolk and Western in 1945 as assistant to the general solicitor and rose through the ranks.

In 1968, he was sent to manage two rail companies that Norfolk and Western had acquired, the Erie Lackawanna Railway and the Delaware and Hudson Railway Co.

For decades, Norfolk and Western served as the lifeblood of much of the coal region in the eastern United States. Mr. Fishwick was a strong proponent of consolidation in the fragmented rail industry, at the time a heavily regulated business that was also coming under pressure from other modes of transportation.

In an interview in 1971, Mr. Fishwick said, “Our objectives are just as sublime in the railroad industry as in any other industry, but we have more difficulty getting there because we have somebody looking over our shoulder and sometimes putting glue on our feet.’’

As the government started to deregulate the rail industry at the end of the 1970s, it was the mergers of rivals, especially the Chessie System and Seaboard Coast Line Industries, that forced Mr. Fishwick to seek a defensive alliance.

After several failed discussions with other companies, he spent six months negotiating a merger with Southern Railway. Those talks failed. But Mr. Fishwick was credited with laying the grounds for the alliance that was completed a year after he retired.

Norfolk Southern’s routes now total 21,000 miles in 22 states.

Mr. Fishwick’s first wife, Blair Wiley, died in 1987. Besides his daughter Ellen, he leaves his wife, Doreen Hamilton; another daughter, Anne Palmer Posvar; a son, John Jr.; a stepdaughter, Patricia Doreen Hamilton; a stepson, H. David Hamilton; and six grandchildren.