Downing will be remembered for the key role he played in the "Northerns Merger" of 1970—the coming together of the Great Northern; the Northern Pacific; the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; and the Spokane, Portland & Seattle into the Burlington Northern, a predecessor of BNSF.
"Many historians have suggested that without Downing's diplomatic skills, the merger might never have come to fruition," said a source at BNSF.
Downing later said: "We went out of our way to ensure that everybody in our companies understood that this was not a takeover. It was a merger of equals, that everybody would be treated equally, and that we respected the way they were doing things."
Downing went to work for the Pennsylvania in 1935 as a civil engineer just out of Yale, and joined the Great Northern in 1938. He served as president and COO of BN from 1971 to 1973 and as chairman and CEO from 1973 to 1976.