UCLA Economist, Known as Railroad Historian, Dies at 89

George W. Hilton
September 01, 2014

George W. Hilton’s title at the University of California at Los Angeles—emeritus professor of economics—gave no hint of his renown from coast to coast: He was among the best and most prolific railroad and transportation historians of his generation.

Mr. Hilton, who died August 4 in Maryland at age 89, was born in Chicago. He was registered for Dartmouth College at the age of 2, he told The Chronicle in a 1994 interview. As a child he developed a fascination with trains that later, he said, "gave me a body of knowledge that I could transfer to the academic market" and "served well as an organizing principle for academic life."

After he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, his first academic appointment was at the University of Maryland, where "one of the pleasures of the position" was the proximity of a 77-mile railroad that he had always wanted to visit. In 1963 it became the subject of what he said afterward was the best of his books: The Ma & Pa: A History of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad.

"The motive power would have done credit to any good museum of antique technology, and the rolling stock had a consistency and originality that might well have come from the hand of a great artist," he wrote of the line.

Add in "the loveliest of the Maryland hill country" and "a marvelously beautiful river valley" in Pennsylvania, he said, and one might easily conclude "that the whole thing came from the mind of some Velasquez or Rembrandt among model railroaders, who, having exhausted his art in HO and O gauges, came finally to the hills north of Baltimore to create his masterpiece at a scale of 12 inches to the foot." Many a vanished railroad has been remembered in print over the years, but none more tenderly than that.

At UCLA, meanwhile, Mr. Hilton made a name for himself as an expert in transportation regulation. He was named chairman of President Johnson’s transportation-policy task force. He argued in favor of abolishing the Interstate Commerce Commission and deregulating the railroads, and he opposed the creation of Amtrak. He enjoyed teaching, he said in 1994, but regretted that students’ evaluations of his courses were never as good as critics’ reviews of his books.

Among his more than a dozen other volumes are an account of the 1915 capsizing of the steamboat Eastland in Chicago that killed, by his estimate, 844; a volume of Ring Lardner’s baseball stories annotated by Mr. Hilton; and what he called his "grand trilogy on unsuccessful transportation innovations": The Electric Interurban Railways in America, which he wrote with John F. Due; The Cable Car in America; and American Narrow Gauge Railroads.