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Landmarks of Tompkins County, New York

by John H. Selkreg, 1894; D. Mason & Co., Publisher


The Honorable Ezra Cornell
pp. 672-677

"A stature somewhat above the average, a form slender and rigid, a thin face of the well-known Puritan type, with lips which expressed in their compression an unwonted firmness of character, the slow, steady, stiff gait, a demeanor of unusual gravity, but which was sometimes a little too brusque to be dignified, a sharp eye with a straightforward look in it, a voice tending a little to shrillness and harshness, but in its more quiet modulations not unpleasant, an utterance slow and precise as if every word was carefully if not painfully thought out, such was the founder of Cornell University as he walked among us during the first six years of the institution's history. In whatever community, or in the midst of whatever surroundings his lot had been cast, he would have been a man of mark. A stranger, meeting him in the crowded railway car, would straightway see that he was not a mere individual of the ordinary type, that he possessed strong characteristics which made him noticeably different from other men. He had a good memory and a quick eye, and was a close and careful observer of men and things….His most predominant trait, overlooking all others, was his complete self-abnegation. He was an utterly intensely unselfish man; no human being, with similar qualifications in other respects, could be more thoroughly uninfluenced by any considerations of his own comfort, of his own aggrandizement, or of his own fame. He was generous alike of his time, his labor and his wealth, and no thought of his own interest ever limited the flow of this generosity."

In such words as these the death of Mr. CORNELL was announced to the university world. They characterize his outward bearing and many of the predominant characteristics of a stern, silent, warm-hearted nature.

Mr. Ezra CORNELL was of Puritan descent, his family having settled in Swansea, Massachusetts. His ancestors on both sides had been members of the Society of Friends. Like most of the early residents of New England, the family was of limited resources, and industry, simplicity and economy were prevailing traits in the family life of the time. Mr. CORNELL's father learned the potter's trade, but he was besides a mechanic both practical and skillful. He early removed to Westchester Landing, New York, and engaged for a time, in ship building. After a residence in Bergen county, New Jersey, near the site of the present beautiful village of Englewood, where he resumed his original craft as a potter, he removed to De Ruyter, New York. Here he established himself upon a farm, and, at the same time, carried on profitably the manufacture of earthenware. This was the early home of his son, Ezra CORNELL, where, in a community of Friends, he grew up in the simple and healthy life which characterizes the members of this communion. Even as a boy, amid the restricted advantages of a new country, his education was limited; and once, when but sixteen years of age, in order to earn the privilege of attending a winter school, in company with a younger brother, he cut down and cleared the timber upon four acres of forest, transforming it into tillable land. A year or two later, he cut timber in a forest, and with the aid of the same brother erected a two-story dwelling house for his father, at that time the largest residence in the town. Having thus tested his capacity for work, he went forth, and was engaged for the next three years in the work of cutting timber for shipment to New York, and later as a machinist. Ithaca was at this time a village of two thousand inhabitants, and enjoyed the benefit of a thriving trade with the large territory which depended upon it for communication with the markets of the external world. "With a spare suit of clothes and a few dollars in his pocket, the earnings of his previous labors, Ezra CORNELL entered Ithaca on foot, having walked form his father's house in De Ruyter, a distance of forty miles. He had chosen to make the journey thus, not only for the purpose of saving the expense of riding, but also for the pleasure he enjoyed in walking. He could travel forty miles per day with perfect ease. Without a single acquaintance in the village, and with no introduction or certificate of character in any form, except such as he could offer in own behalf, he arrived in Ithaca with youth, courage and ambition as capital stock, determined by his own exertions to earn a living and establish himself on a permanent and prosperous basis." It was in April, 1828, soon after his arrival, that Mr. CORNELL secured work as a carpenter, and erected at the corner of Geneva and Clinton streets a residence which is still standing, and which has for many years been the home of the BLOODGOOD family. Mr. CORNELL's experience for a year as a mill-wright secured employment for him in certain flouring and plaster mills at Fall Creek, and for the next twelve years he was a manager of extensive interests, which often involved the disbursement of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Dr. Theodore L. CUYLER, in a letter written thirty years afterwards, said that he used to see sitting on the counter of his uncle's store (Mr. John James SPEED) "a shrewd managing chap unfolding schemes for carrying the township for the Whig ticket. That obscure but keen-witted man is now the Ezra CORNELL who has founded the most promising university in New York." Mr. CORNELL's early interest in politics is manifest from this statement. His ability as a mechanic of a high order was shown still further, not merely in erecting mills, but also in devising and executing a feat of engineering of very great difficulty, viz., in cutting a tunnel above the falls, through several hundred feet of solid rock, thus securing an abundant supply of water for numerous manufactories below, which has remained in constant use up to the present time. This important work was finished in 1831. The tunnel was cut through a cliff and work was begun at both extremities. When the two galleries met in the center, a variation of less than two inches from an exact line was found.

During these years Mr. CORNELL was active in local politics, advocating with great energy the principles of the Whig party. At the age of thirty-five, an interruption in the industrial prosperity of Ithaca threw Mr. CORNELL out of employment, and his life now began upon a wider sphere. He purchased the patent rights for an improved plow and journeyed to Maine mostly on foot to effect its sale, and later, he made a tour through the Southern States, going as far as Georgia. During this journey he walked a distance of one thousand five hundred miles. A second journey to Maine was undertaken in the year 1843. On his previous visit Mr. CORNELL had met the Hon. Francis O. J. SMITH, a Democratic congressman from Maine, the editor of the Maine Farmer. Mr. SMITH was a politician of great ability, and though greatly defamed for his skill and adroitness by political enemies, a man of unusual ability. He had become interested in the electric telegraph. This enterprise in its initial steps was involved in great difficulty. Many important facts necessary for its practical use were as yet undiscovered, and it was only slowly that experience called attention to the necessity of essential improvements, before its inventor's dream of success could be realized, and the public share in the advantages of this brilliant inventions. It was supposed that two wires were necessary in order to form a complete metallic circuit. No mode had then been devised for the treatment of India rubber to make it available for the purposes of insulation, and gutta-percha was wholly unknown as an article of use or commerce in this country. It was not yet determined how the wires could be extended between cities. It was thought at first that the wires should be enclosed in an underground tube. Upon the occasion of Mr. CORNELL's second visit to Portland, he found Mr. SMITH upon the floor of his office, with designs around him for the manufacture of a plow which should excavate the furrow for the underground telegraph pipe. It was proposed also to cover the pipe by means of a second machine. Mr. SMITH had taken the contract to lay the pipe at one hundred dollars per mile, and it was necessary to invent some machine capable of executing his purpose successfully. He hailed the arrival of Mr. CORNELL as the person to solve his difficulties. Mr. CORNELL after examining the plan was convinced that a single machine would suffice for the purpose. He thus describes the event "I, therefore, with my pencil sketched a rough diagram of a machine that seemed to me adapted to his necessities. It provided that the pipe with the wires enclosed therein was to be coiled around a drum or reel, from whence it was to pass over and through a hollow standard protected by shives directly in the rear of the coulter or cutter, which was so arranged as to cut a furrow two and one-half feet deep and one and one-fourth inches wide. Arranged something like a plow, it was to be drawn by a powerful team, and to deposit the pipe in the bottom of the furrow as it moved along; the furrow, being so narrow, would soon close itself and conceal the pipe from view." Overcoming his skepticism, Mr. SMITH authorized Mr. CORNELL to make the pattern for necessary castings, who also, in the mean time, constructed the woodwork for the frame. On the 17th of August, 1843, a successful trial of Mr. CORNELL's invention was made on Mr. SMITH's farm in Westbrook, a few miles north of Portland. "The complete success of my machine, and the prompt manner of making the invention, the moment that circumstances demanded its use, inspired Mr. SMITH with great confidence in my ability both as a mechanic and a practical man. He therefore urged me to go to Baltimore with the machine, and take charge of laying the pipe between that city and Washington. As this proposition involved the abandonment of the business which I came to Maine to look after, it was with some hesitation that I entertained it. A little reflection, however, convinced me that the telegraph was to become a grand enterprise, and this seemed a particularly advantageous opportunity for me to identify myself with it. Finally, convinced that it would shortly lead me on the road of fortune, I acceded to Mr. SMITH's earnest solicitation, and engaged to undertake the work on condition that I should first devote a little time to the settlement of my business in Maine." This was the beginning of Mr. CORNELL's connection with the electric telegraph, which became the source of his fortune. It has been shown how incomplete the invention was as a practical achievement. Professor MORSE says that up to the autumn of 1837, his telegraph apparatus existed in so crude a form that he felt a reluctance to have it seen; but on the 6th of January, 1838, he operated his system successfully over a wire three miles long, in the presence of a number of personal friends, at Morristown, N.J. Later, the leading scientists of New York and the faculty of the University, as well as the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, recognized its pre-eminent merit. Mr. MORSE removed his apparatus from Philadelphia to Washington, where he demonstrated its success in the presence of President VAN BUREN and his cabinet, foreign ministers, and members of Congress. Congress finally appropriated at the close of the session of 1843 thirty thousand dollars for the erection of an experimental line of telegraph between Washington and Baltimore. The original plan of placing the wires underground proved unsuccessful from the impossibility of effective insulation. Mr. CORNELL then made a careful study of all the available scientific works which treated of electrical science and finally urged the adoption of the method which had proved successful in England, in the hands of COOKE and WHEATSTONE-of placing the wires on poles. On May 1, 1844, the line was completed and in operation between Washington and Baltimore. Mr. MORSE now offered to sell the patent to the United States government, to be used in connection with the postal service, for one hundred thousand dollars. The post-office department, to which this proposition was referred, reported that the operation of the telegraph between Washington and Baltimore had not satisfied the postmaster-general, and that at any possible rate of postage, could its revenues be made to cover its expenditures. Under the influence of this report, Congress declined to accept the offer of the patentees, and the telegraph was left to seek development by the aid of private capital. Mr. CORNELL was now formally enlisted in the development of this invention. He had short lines of telegraph erected across streets or between buildings in Boston and New York, with the purpose of interesting capitalists in the formation of a company to erect a line between New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington. Mr. CORNELL constructed the section of the line between Fort Lee, opposite New York, and Philadelphia, in the summer of 1845. His compensation for superintendence was at this time one thousand dollars per annum. All the money that he could spare was now invested in the capital stock of the Magnetic Telegraph Company, the first incorporated organization to promote this new enterprise. It was not merely as a superintendent and constructor of telegraph that Mr. CORNELL's admirable powers were displayed. He designed apparatus to facilitate the transmission of messages, among other things, a relay magnet which was used successfully for a considerable time. Mr. CORNELL next erected a line between New York and Albany, under contract with the New York, Albany and Buffalo Telegraph Company, which was completed successfully in the autumn of 1846. From this enterprise Mr. CORNELL realized a profit of six thousand dollars, his first substantial gain after three years of labor in connection with the telegraph. Later, he also erected lines from Troy to Montreal, and a portion of a line to Quebec. Mr. CORNELL now assumed a larger responsibility in establishing the telegraph system of this country. He organized the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company to provide a line of telegraph between Buffalo and Milwaukee via Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago, and also the New York and Erie Telegraph Company to connect Dunkirk with the city of New York, passing through the southern counties of the State. In much of the territory west of Buffalo, telegraph lines were established before the railways, branch lines were erected to connect with the Eire and Michigan Company's lines, from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, from Cleveland to Zanesville and Wheeling, and from Cleveland to Columbus and Cincinnati. The rapid development of telegraphic communication created a rivalry between opposing lines, and competing offices were erected in various cities for the transaction of business. In 1855, the Western Union Telegraph Company was organized, by which these conflicting interests were consolidated. This company embraced at first the lines in the States of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a portion of Illinois. The success of this union of opposing interests was at once manifested. The profits of the enterprise increased rapidly, and the company employed its accumulating profits in extending its system over a wider field. Other lines were purchased, new lines were built, others leased in perpetuity, and thus the position of the new company was rendered complete and impregnable. Later, the Western Union Telegraph company assumed the contract of Mr. SIBLEY, and extended its lines across the continent ten years in advance of the railroad.

In 1862 Mr. CORNELL took his seat in the Legislature of the State. He served for two terms as representative, and for two terms as senator. His term of service fell, in part, within the years of the Civil War, when it was necessary to sustain the Federal Government with every influence emanating from its most powerful State. In all the questions to which the war gave rise, Mr. CORNELL supported earnestly the national cause. During his residence in Albany he was chairman of the committee on agriculture in the Senate, and, also, chairman of the committee on finance. He was an uncompromising advocate of sustaining the credit of the State by payment of the principal and interest of the public debt in specie; in accordance with the true spirit under which the obligation was incurred. He also advocated the creation of sinking funds for the gradual extinction of the debts of the State. These wise measures have almost extinguished the entire indebtedness of the State. We find him active in the labor of the committees of which he was a member. Although not an orator, his remarks were terse and convincing. His name is associated with numerous measures for the benefit of agriculture, finance, and education. His services in the Legislature were recognized by his constituents by a unanimous renomination for senator. When he retired, it was at his personal wish, in order to devote himself to the interests of the university which he had founded. All Mr. CORNELL's acts expressed his strong individuality. Definiteness characterized all his opinions, and views, once adopted, were sustained with tenacity in the face of all opposition. All idealists are perhaps visionary, and the erection of the university which bears his name was a noble ideal which Mr. CORNELL set before him as the crown of his life. Visionary he may have been in other things, but a humane purpose underlay all. To promote its interests, he was led to withdraw his capital from the telegraph, in which it was rapidly increasing, and where its security seemed unassailable, in order to promote the erection of railways through his native city. Mr. CORNELL's letterbooks show the enormous labor to which he subjected himself, the minute and patient detail with which he answered inquiries and attended to every question of the administration of the university lands. He was unable to relinquish minor matters to others, and the new and untried responsibilities which he had assumed in connection with the railways were beyond his powers of immediate direction. In these vast undertakings to which he was impelled by a desire to benefit his native place, as well as to build up the university, his large fortune was impaired. Prosperous times could not probably have secured the success of his venture; but in the paralysis of all business in the crisis of 1873, it is not strange that his enterprises yielded to inevitable laws upon which all industrial prosperity depends. The blow of impending loss was met by Mr. CORNELL silently, heroically, but with unfaltering resolution. The vigor and courage which had won his great fortune made his spirit still hopeful, almost triumphant, amid financial loss. In June, 1874, Mr. CORNELL was suddenly incapacitated form attention to business by serious illness which he had contracted by unconscious exposure while traveling. From this illness he never recovered. Pneumonia passed into a settled affection of the lungs, and all hope was at an end. During his last months of weakness, mindful of the university which lay so near his heart, he transferred to it all his interests in the national lands which he had purchased, and thus secured its permanence. During his sickness he longed to recover; he could not bear the thought of defeat, and he wished to earn, as he said, a half million dollars more for the university. The enormous task of administering the estate of the university, which he had assumed, and the terrible burdens associated with the three railway enterprises in which he was engaged, added a crushing weight to the suffering of his last months. Even upon the morning of the 9th of December, 1874, he rose with the wonderful energy inherent in his nature, and was dressed, and devoted himself during the hours of the morning to business. At last, overcome by weakness, he sought his couch, and soon after noon, his work was over.

Although Mr. CORNELL was by nature reserved, and there was an element of sternness in his exterior, only those who were intimate knew the warmth of personal affection which burned in his heart. His devotion to his family-his longing, when absent, for the sight of his little girls, and his remembrance of every member, found constant expression in his letters. His integrity and loyalty in the support of everything that he believed right, all knew; but the warmth of feeling in his nature was known only to his most intimate friends. The news of his death called out an expression of popular sorrow in the community in which he lived, such as is but rarely awakened; and neighboring cities held meetings to pass resolutions of respect for his memory. He rests in a Memorial Chapel erected in the center of the university, which will be his truest monument.

Thank you Virginia Peterson for transcribing these records into digital format.

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