The Hepburn Act, officially known as An Act to Amend an Act Entitled “An Act to Regulate Commerce,” Approved February Fourth, Eighteen Hundred and Eighty Seven, and All Acts Amendatory Thereof, and to Enlarge the Powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission, is a U.S. federal law that increased the authority of the Interstate Commerce Commission over railroads and certain other types of carriers. In 1906, Congress gave the commission the power to set maximum rail rates and review railroad finances. The act also put an end to the practice of providing free railroad passes to loyal shippers.
The Hepburn Act, which was the brainchild of Republican Congressman William Peters Hepburn, was enacted to stop corporate giants such as Standard Oil Company from receiving discounted transportation rates, which gave them an unfair advantage over their competition. To ensure compliance, the act made Interstate Commerce Commission orders legally binding; railroads had to either obey or contest the Interstate Commerce Commission orders in federal court. To speed the process, appeals from the district courts went directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the Hepburn Act is considered one of the most important pieces of railroad legislation in the first half of the twentieth century, economists and historians both suggest that it led to the demise of railroads as the prominent means of commercial transportation in the United States. According to such scholars, the Hepburn Act, with its many restrictions, prevented railroads from effectively competing with the giant, unregulated trucking industry. Despite this, the act represented a regulatory victory for farmers who had been protesting unfair rate practices since the late nineteenth century.
Robert Van Trombley
See also: Farmers’ Transportation Convention ; Interstate Commerce Act (ICA) (1887) ; Long-Haul/Short-Haul Discrimination ; Progressivism ; Railroad Regulation ; Roosevelt, Theodore (1858–1919)
An Act to Amend an Act Entitled “An Act to Regulate Commerce,” Approved February Fourth, Eighteen Hundred and Eighty Seven, and All Acts Amendatory Thereof, and to Enlarge the Powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Public Law 337. U.S. Statutes at Large 34 (1907): 584.
Edwards, Adolph. The Roosevelt Panic of 1907. New York: Anitrock, 1907.
Martin, Albro. Enterprise Denied: Origins of the Decline of American Railroads, 1897–1917. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.
Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Modern Library, 2002.
The Safety Equipment Laws. Chicago, 1906.
Stone, Richard D. The Interstate Commerce Commission and the Railroad Industry: A History of Regulatory Policy. New York: Praeger, 1991.