Through his marriage to Flora Payne (daughter of Standard Oil's Oliver H. Payne), Whitney gained enormously important corporate contacts. In 1883, he became involved in a bitter struggle for control of the Broadway Railroad company, eventually gaining control by entering into an alliance with Thomas Fortune Ryan and Peter A. B. Widener. Whitney remained active in street railway affairs until his appointment as Secretary of the Navy (1885-89), in which post he was instrumental in the rebuilding of America's naval forces.