Erie War – Causes & Lessons for Today’s Portfolios

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Written By
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Written By
Dan Buckley
Dan Buckley is an US-based trader, consultant, and part-time writer with a background in macroeconomics and mathematical finance. He trades and writes about a variety of asset classes, including equities, fixed income, commodities, currencies, and interest rates. As a writer, his goal is to explain trading and finance concepts in levels of detail that could appeal to a range of audiences, from novice traders to those with more experienced backgrounds.

The Erie War, a notorious series of events that unfolded in the late 1860s, serves as a cautionary tale for modern traders and investors.

This intense financial and corporate battle involving some of the wealthiest individuals in the United States was not only a struggle for control of the Erie Railway but also a reflection of the era’s economic and political landscape.

We look into the causes, key players, and implications of the Erie War, examining its significance for the American economy and the lessons it offers for today’s investment portfolios.


Key Takeaways РErie War: Causes & Lessons 

  • The Erie War demonstrated the power of a few wealthy individuals over the American economy, highlighting the vulnerabilities of the stock market and the need for regulation and oversight.
  • The conflict underscored the influence of technological innovation in disrupting markets and industries, emphasizing the importance of staying attuned to emerging trends and technologies.
  • Investors/traders should diversify their portfolios, be aware of the outsized impacts of powerful individuals or entities, and consider the broader economic, political, and legal landscape when making trading/investment decisions.


Overview of the Erie War and Significance for the American Economy

The Erie War was a financial and corporate battle that took place between 1866 and 1868, centering on the control of the Erie Railway, one of the largest railroad systems in the United States at the time.

Its significance for the American economy lies in its demonstration of the power that a few wealthy individuals held over the nation’s economic development.

The war highlighted the vulnerabilities of the stock market, and how the actions of a few could impact the livelihoods of many.


Causes of the Erie War

The primary cause of the Erie War was the fierce competition between railroad magnates Cornelius Vanderbilt, Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, and James Fisk.

Their battle for control of the Erie Railway was fueled by their desire for financial gain and control over the railroad industry.

Additionally, the rapid expansion of the American economy and the increasing importance of the railroad as a means of transportation made the Erie Railway a valuable asset.


The Erie War was marked by numerous legal and political disputes, as the involved parties used their wealth and influence to manipulate the political and legal systems.

Allegations of bribery, stock manipulation, and fraud were rampant throughout the conflict.

The struggle was also characterized by a series of court battles, leading to significant changes in corporate law and regulation in the United States.


Key Players in the Erie War

The main players in the Erie War were Cornelius Vanderbilt, Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, and James Fisk.

Vanderbilt sought to consolidate the railroad industry under his control, while Drew, Gould, and Fisk aimed to prevent his domination and protect their own financial interests.

Their tactics and relentless pursuit of control over the Erie Railway defined the conflict.


Impact of the Erie War on the Stock Market and Investors

The Erie War had profound effects on the stock market and investors.

Stock prices fluctuated wildly as the involved parties manipulated the market, and the broader financial system experienced instability.

The war exposed the vulnerability of the stock market to the actions of a few powerful individuals and raised questions about the need for greater regulation and oversight.


Role of Technological Innovation in Disrupting Markets

The Erie War occurred during a period of rapid technological innovation, particularly in transportation and communication.

This innovation fueled economic growth and development, but also disrupted existing markets and industries.

The railroad industry, which was central to the Erie War, exemplified this disruption as it transformed the American economy and created new opportunities for wealth and power.


Influence of Government Policies on the Economy and the Stock Market

The Erie War underscored the importance of government policies in shaping the economy and the stock market.

Throughout the conflict, the involved parties sought to use their influence over politicians and the legal system to advance their interests.

The government’s role in regulating and overseeing the railroad industry, as well as the broader economy, was brought into question as a result of the Erie War.


How the Erie War Impacted Economic Growth and Development in the United States

The Erie War had both positive and negative impacts on economic growth and development in the United States.

On one hand, the battle for control of the Erie Railway led to increased investments in the railroad industry, which helped fuel economic growth and expansion.

This is analogous to the Railway Mania episode in the UK that had occurred 2-3 decades earlier.

On the other hand, the war exposed the fragility of the financial system and the vulnerability of the economy to the actions of a few powerful individuals, ultimately leading to calls for increased regulation and oversight.


Lessons for Modern Investors from the Erie War

The Erie War offers several valuable lessons for modern investors.


First, the importance of diversification cannot be overstated.

Over-reliance on a single asset class or industry, as was the case with the railroad industry during the Erie War, can lead to increased risk and vulnerability to market fluctuations.

Investors should strive to maintain a diversified portfolio to minimize risk and maximize potential returns.

Those who have concentrated exposures or are heavily tactical in their approach will really need to know what they’re doing. Even most professional traders and investors should not operate this way.

Outsized impacts from one or a few players

The Erie War serves as a reminder that the actions of a few powerful individuals or entities can have significant impacts on the market.

And these actions are not easy to predict.

This highlights the need for investors to be aware of the broader economic, political, and legal landscape when making trading and investment decisions, as these factors can influence the performance of their investments.

Innovation’s influence

The Erie War demonstrates the potential for technological innovation to disrupt markets and industries.

Investors/traders should remain attuned to emerging trends and technologies that may present new opportunities or challenges for their investments, as these can have significant implications for long-term returns.

When evaluating anything, it’s always important to focus on value and the productivity benefits.

This can help determine if something is a fad or has lasting potential.

And even if something has a lot of societal value it won’t necessarily mean it has a lot of investment value.

Airplanes and automobiles are popular examples of inventions that have transformed society, but have yielded very little in returns to investors in their now-long history.


FAQs – Erie War: Causes & Lessons for Today’s Portfolios

What exactly was the Erie War, and when did it occur?

The Erie War was a fierce conflict in the post-Civil War US from 1866 to 1868, focused on gaining control of the Erie Railway, a major US railroad.

This financial and corporate battle had a significant impact on the stock market, as investors closely followed the struggle for control over the valuable railway system.

The outcome of the Erie War influenced stock prices and investor confidence, reflecting the broader implications of corporate power struggles on the financial market.

How did the Erie War impact the American economy?

The Erie War had a significant impact on the American economy.

It disrupted trade and transportation routes, leading to higher costs and inefficiencies.

The conflict caused economic instability and uncertainty, negatively affecting businesses and investors.

This is analogous to modern-day conflicts over supply chains and where to locate production.

What role did technological innovation play in the Erie War?

Technological innovation played a crucial role in the Erie War.

The rise of railroads as a new mode of transportation challenged the dominance of canals like the Erie Canal.

The introduction of steam-powered locomotives allowed railroads to offer faster and more efficient transportation, shifting the balance of power in the transportation industry.

How did the Erie War influence government policies on the economy and the stock market?

The Erie War influenced government policies on the economy and the stock market.

It highlighted the need for regulations to prevent destructive competition and ensure fair business practices.

The conflict also led to increased government involvement in infrastructure development, with the expansion of railroads receiving more attention and support.

What lessons can modern investors learn from the Erie War?

Modern traders and investors can learn several lessons from the Erie War.

First, they should closely monitor technological advancements and their potential impact on industries and investments.

Second, they should be aware of the risks associated with competition and market disruptions, as conflicts between companies can have far-reaching consequences.

Third, diversifying portfolios and staying adaptable can help mitigate the effects of economic instability and all the things that can’t be known.

How can the lessons from the Erie War be applied to today’s investment portfolios?

The lessons from the Erie War can be applied to today’s investment portfolios by considering the changing landscape of industries and technology.

Investors can analyze emerging trends, such as advancements in renewable energy or artificial intelligence, and adjust their portfolios accordingly.

What are considered “good companies” changes.

The Dow Jones, for example, evolves significantly over time. What the index consisted of just 20-30 years ago is very different from what it is today.

Eventually, new types of companies come up to supplant existing ones. All companies generally die or get subsumed by other companies as the world evolves.

Even the seemingly surest thing is not safe. Indexes tend to benefit a lot from survivorship bias, as falling companies get replaced by up-and-comers.

They should also diversify across different sectors and asset classes to mitigate risks.

Additionally, staying informed about regulatory developments and government policies can help anticipate shifts in the market and make informed trading/investment decisions.



The Erie War, also known as the Erie Railroad War, was a financial and legal conflict that occurred between 1866 and 1868.

It revolved around the control of the Erie Railway, a prominent railroad company operating in the northeastern United States.

The conflict involved several influential figures, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, and James Fisk, who sought to gain control over the Erie Railway and its resources.

The Erie War had significant implications for the financial system and stock market.

The struggle for control over the railway company resulted in substantial fluctuations in stock prices, creating instability and uncertainty in the market.

The actions taken by the involved individuals, such as stock manipulations and aggressive tactics, intensified the volatility.

The conflict brought attention to the concentration of power and influence held by a small group of individuals over the economy.

The Erie War raised concerns about the lack of regulation and oversight in the financial sector, leading to discussions about the need for increased governmental intervention and oversight to prevent such abuses of power in the future.

The Erie War provides a unique historical perspective on the risks of financial markets and the importance of maintaining a diversified investment portfolio.

By studying the causes, key players, and implications of the Erie War, modern investors can gain insights into managing risk, navigating market disruptions, and ultimately, building a more resilient portfolio.