Watch Now

FreightWaves Haul of Fame: Overnite Transportation Co. was an LTL leader

Part of J. Harwood Cochrane’s legacy

An Overnite Transportation trailer is backed into a dock. (Photo: Stanley Houghton Collection)

J. Harwood Cochrane founded his first transportation company in 1929. Cochrane, who became one of the best-loved and influential men in transportation history, started by hauling milk in Virginia using a horse named Charlie. The company was founded out of necessity when Cochrane’s father passed away when he was 16, and he needed to support his family.

In 1930, Cochrane and his brother Calvin entered into business together under the name Cochrane Transportation. The brothers primarily hauled furniture. Brotherly love was not enough to keep the company afloat, however, and the brothers went their separate ways in 1934. The following year, at 22 years old and unable to ignore the call of the transportation industry, Cochrane founded Overnite Transportation Co. He started the company with just one tractor, one trailer and one straight truck. In the same year, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) began to regulate the trucking industry.

Overnite grew due to strong management

Cochrane’s leadership helped the company to grow quickly. Overnite Transportation won steady business customers, hauling tobacco for Philip Morris Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. After the U.S. entered World War II, Overnite Transportation also hauled freight for the U.S. Marine Corps. 

An Overnite Transportation Co. advertisement

By 1952, the company had grown from its original tractor-trailer operation to 360 over-the-road units and 500 employees. Its service network had grown to include its home state of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Overnite Transportation went public in 1956. 

Trouble with the Teamsters

Cochrane was strongly anti-union and went head-to-head with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters several times. In 1959, the Teamsters picketed several companies in North Carolina, including Overnite. Over 1,400 Overnite employees picketed, seeking union representation at the Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia terminals. Cochrane maintained that his company’s work and customers remained unaffected. 

When the Teamsters urged other companies to boycott Overnite Transportation’s freight if it flowed into their networks, the ICC granted Overnite temporary authority to take over those networks and deliver freight outside of its usual routes. The strike eventually ended; Overnite Transportation remained a non-union carrier. 

An Overnite System patch. (Courtesy of Dale Branch)
An Overnite System patch. (Courtesy of Dale Branch)

Following the strike, Overnite Transportation sued the Teamsters for $1 million in damages from the strike itself and the resulting boycott. The court ruled in Overnite’s favor in the amount of nearly $900,000, which was later reduced to $300,000 by the state Supreme Court. Cochrane never did succumb to unionization, and Overnite Transportation was once the largest non-union carrier in the United States. In order to prevent his employees from seeking union representation, he treated them like a family and created a work environment in which people felt represented. 

Overnite Transportation grew via acquisition, as was the custom during ICC regulation of the trucking industry. In 1962, the company acquired Hill City Transfer Co. At that time, Overnite Transportation had grown, operating 1,500 pieces of over-the-road equipment and employing 1,700. Revenues that year were reported at $19.5 million, and service was now offered to Tennessee. 

In 1963 Overnite acquired Rutherford Freight Lines, located in Bristol, Virginia. The company continued in this fashion, acquiring other companies and building its customer base. In 1972, the company reported revenues of $79 million, and was the fifth-largest less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier in the United States. 

An Overnite Transportation tractor-trailer. (Photo: Stanley Houghton Collection)
An Overnite Transportation tractor-trailer. (Photo: Stanley Houghton Collection)

Growth continued after deregulation

Unlike some other carriers, Overnite Transportation supported the final draft of the Motor Carrier Act in 1980, stating companies needed to “rise to the challenge.” A savvy businessman, Cochrane took advantage of the companies torn asunder by deregulation by buying their assets and properties as they collapsed, stating that a bankrupt company was always in need of quick cash. 

In 1980, the company had 81 terminals and 6,400 employees. In 1981, it added 11 terminals. In 1982, Overnite Transportation received permission from the ICC to operate in all 48 states, and opened two terminals in California. By this time, the company had grown to 95 terminals and 8,700 pieces of equipment. Deregulation was a death sentence for many LTL companies, but Overnite had risen to the challenge and emerged a stronger company.

Another Overnite Transportation Co. tractor and trailer. (Photo: Gary Morton Collection)
Another Overnite Transportation Co. tractor and trailer. (Photo: Gary Morton Collection)

The company is sold… and a new company begins

Cochrane’s hard work paid off tremendously. In 1986, he sold Overnite Transportation to Union Pacific Corporation for $1.2 billion. The acquisition was a natural fit for Union Pacific, as its other subsidiaries covered the western United States, and Overnite’s primary coverage lanes were in the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast. At the time of the acquisition, Overnite Transportation had 111 terminals in 40 states. He remained as chairman of the company until 1990.

In 1991, at age 78, Cochrane founded a truckload carrier. That company, Highway Express, was sold to Celadon in 2003.

UPS acquired Overnite Transportation from Union Pacific in 2005; the company was rebranded as UPS Freight. The announcement that UPS was selling its UPS Freight subsidiary to TFI was reported by FreightWaves’ Nate Tabak on January 25, 2021. Read more here.

Cochrane passed away in 2016 at the age of 103. He is widely regarded as a pioneer of the U.S. trucking industry.

The three patches above are from the Dale Bridge Collection and are used with his permission.

The patches shown above are from the Dale Bridge Collection and are used with his permission.


  1. Bennie Vaughan

    Today, I call this message a reflection, as I look back on my 44-year career in the trucking industry. I spent 18 years with the Overnite company before moving on to Holland Motor Freight in 1994. Overnite was my first step into that world. Over those years at Overnite, I learned a lot about the transportation industry and how important it was to the survival of the world we live in then and today. As a city driver, I developed and learned a lot of personal skills of dealing with customers and building relationships, and developing communication and leadership skills that I have used and will remember and have used for a lifetime. As a city driver, you got to see behind the scenes how those companies you serviced operated both good and bad. I learned from the business perspective how I someday would like to build a business that would help a lot of people in a non-traditional style. Now since I’m retired that journey has begun. I will end with this, thank you Overnite/Mr. Cochrane for the part you played in my life as I move forward in this journey of Enhancing The Lives Of Those We Touch By Helping People Reach Their Goals.

  2. Gary Patten

    I hired on with Overnight in August 1991 as an OTR driver.And I worked out of the Los Angeles yard, and transferred to the Fontana terminal or service center in, as they like to call it, in 2001, under Mark Lockome. I took an early retirement and left in August 2007. I saw the handwriting on the wall. I knew that UPS Corporation is going to strip mine this company, and turn it in the ABF freight, with day cabs and meet points. Destroying the culture and the adventure of over the road trucking, it would be reduced to the redundancy of driving the same routes with no variety. Coupled with the insane changes in hours for service for sleeper team, thanks to the Clinton administration, long-haul trucking was now becoming dangerous for sleeper teams for you could no longer run five on five off hours. I saw the company become a standalone company after Union Pacific dropped us. We did well for ourselves. During that time the equipment kept getting better and better: with 400 Cummins engines, and air ride suspension, and very strong workable Jake brakes, we enjoyed routes all the way to the East Coast, like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Columbus, Ohio and Gaffney, South Carolina. UPS management changed and destroyed all of that. Then they forced all employees to become Teamsters. That came after I got out. I lived through the wildcat strike that started at the end of 1999, just to be flipped off by Teamster drivers and honked at in an attempt to wake up my sleeping partner. All in all, Overnight was the best company I’ve ever worked for. I can only hope that TFI will do well for those who are left working there. Best of luck to all of you!

  3. Chris

    It’s all about culture.. When UPS purchased overbite/motor cargo, they had three different cultures. They never were able to get that to work as one. I was there for almost 20 years and I still stay in contact with a lot of the Motor Cargo team. The rank and file workers don’t have a clue who management is and what they should be doing. It seemed like everyone has there own agenda and no one is on the same hymnal page. Hopefully The new company can get a good culture back and get everyone on the same page.. if not, it will continue to be a lower tier freight company.

  4. BC

    Worked for Overnite in Cols. Ohio from 1980 till I retired in 2014. Overnite was a an employee oriented company as opposed to UPS. Union Pacific let the people of Over ire run it as they were freight people. UPS tried to run it as it ran package and the customer was not 1st priority. Priority was bottom line (money) and making sure manager had a sharp pencil to make books jive. Overnite gave me a chance after the service and I will always be grateful to the people in Columbus who hired me, as most are gone now.

  5. Doug Bonovitch

    There is a lot missing out of this story period.I worked for Overnite 24 years then ups bought us and Destroyed the company a retired 2019.

  6. Bigdog19

    I was reading your article on overnight why was it never mentioned that Overnight bought out motor cargo who were the driving force of the 11 western states for them and kept us apart we ran as its own company. then Union Pacific bought overnight out in 2005 ups buys both companies known as one company our dot numbers were different on our trucks at that time then overnight merges both companies into one and made a mess for ups. I can’t say if they were never told that they ran separately as it’s own unit. They fired top brass from motor cargo we’re head quarters was in Salt Lake City and before ups took over they moved everything to Virginia we’re overnight had there head quarts. I strongly believe if overnight let ups no that motor cargo had its own personal and was never merged with overnight tell the sell to ups and lost many accounts cause of that.our system was not the same as there’s in Virginia. I seen it all happen as I was working for motor cargo as a road driver since 1999 to present now KNOWN AS TFI. I can be wrong. Motor cargo was a great company to work for.

Comments are closed.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.