site logo

Ezra Cornell

In the winter of 1819 might have been seen travelling from New Jersey to

De Ruyter in New York, a distance of two hundred and fifty miles, some

covered emigrant wagons, containing a wife and six children in the

first, and household goods and farming utensils in the others. Sometimes

the occupants slept in a farmhouse, but usually in their vehicles by a

camp-fire in the woods.

For two weeks they journeyed,
sometimes through an almost uninhabited

wilderness and over wellnigh impassable roads. The mother, with a baby

in her arms,--her oldest child, Ezra, a boy of twelve,--must have been

worn with this toilsome journey; but patient and cheerful, no word of

repining escaped her lips. Elijah Cornell, a frank, noble-hearted

Quaker, was going West to make his living as a potter and farmer


Like other pioneers, they made ready their little home among the sterile

hills; and there, for twenty years, they struggled to rear a family that

grew to eleven children, instead of six. The boys of the family were

taught the simple mysteries of pottery-making early in life, and thus

formed habits of industry, while their limited income necessarily made

them economical.

(From his Biography, by Gov. A. B. Cornell.)]

The eldest boy, Ezra,--now sixteen,--was growing anxious to be something

more than a potter. He was nearly six feet tall, thin, muscular, and

full of energy. He was studious, reading every book within his reach,

and desirous of an education, which there was no money to procure.

Determined, if possible, to go to the common school one more winter, he

and his brother, fifteen years of age, chopped and cleared four acres of

heavy beech and maple woodland, plowed, and planted it to corn, and thus

made themselves able to finish their education.

Soon after the father engaged a carpenter to build a large pottery. Ezra

assisted, and began to think he should like the trade of a carpenter.

When the structure was completed, taking his younger brother to the

forest, they cut timber, and erected for their father's family a

two-story dwelling, the best in the town. Without any supervision, Ezra

had made the frame so that every part fitted in its exact place. This,

for a boy of seventeen, became the wonder of the neighborhood.

Master-builders prophesied a rare carpenter for posterity.

It was evident that the quiet town of De Ruyter could not satisfy such a

lad, and at eighteen he started away from his affectionate mother to try

the world. She could trust him because he used neither liquor nor

tobacco; was truthful, honest, and willing to work hard. If a young man

desires to get his living easily, or is very particular as to the kind

of work he undertakes, his future success may well be doubted. Ezra

found no carpentering, as he had hoped; but in the vicinity of Syracuse,

then a small village, he engaged himself for two years, to get out

timber for shipment to New York by canal. The following year he worked

in a shop making wool-carding machinery, and being now only twenty miles

from De Ruyter, he walked home every Saturday evening and back Monday

morning. Twenty miles before a day's work would have been too long for

most boys. There was no danger that Ezra would grow tender, either of

foot or hand, through luxury.

Hearing that there was a good outlook for business at Ithaca, he walked

forty miles thither, with a spare suit of clothes, and a few dollars in

his pocket. Who would have said then that this unknown lad, with no

capital save courage and ambition, would make the name of Ithaca, joined

with that of Cornell, known round the world?

He obtained work as a carpenter, and was soon offered the position of

keeping a cotton-mill in repair. This he gladly accepted, using what

knowledge he had gained in the machine-shop. A year later, Colonel

Beebe, proprietor of a flouring and plaster mill, asked young Cornell to

repair his works; and so pleased was he with the mechanic that he kept

him for twelve years, making him his confidential agent and general

manager. When a tunnel was needed to bring water from Fall Creek,

Cornell was made engineer-in-chief of the enterprise; when labor-saving

machinery was required, the head of the enterprising young man invented


Meantime he had married, at the age of twenty-four, an intelligent girl,

Mary Ann Wood, four years his junior, the second in a family of eleven

children. As the young lady was not a Quaker, Cornell was formally

excommunicated from his church for taking a person outside the fold. He

was offered forgiveness and re-instatement if he would apologize and

show proper regret, which he refused to do, feeling that the church had

no right to decide upon the religious convictions of the person he


He soon purchased a few acres of land near the mill, and erected a

simple home for his bride. Here they lived for twenty years, and here

their nine children were born, four of whom died early. It was happiness

to go daily to his work, receive his comfortable salary, and see his

children grow up around him with their needed wants supplied. But the

comfortable salary came to an end. Colonel Beebe withdrew from active

business, the mill was turned into a woollen factory, and Cornell was

thrown out of work. Business depression was great all over the country.

In vain for months he sought for employment. The helpless family must be

supported; at the age of thirty-six matters began to look serious.

Finally, he went to Maine in the endeavor to sell the patent right of a

new plow, recently invented. He visited the "Maine Farmer," and met the

editor, Hon. F. O. J. Smith, a member of Congress, who became much

interested. He tried also to sell the patent in the State of Georgia,

walking usually forty miles a day, but with little success. Again he

started for Maine, walking from Ithaca to Albany, one hundred and sixty

miles in four days, then, going by rail to Boston, and once more on foot

to Portland. He was fond of walking, and used to say, "Nature can in no

way be so rationally enjoyed, as through the opportunities afforded the


Entering the office of the "Maine Farmer" again, he found "Mr. Smith on

his knees in the middle of his office floor, with a piece of chalk in

his hand, the mould-board of a plow lying by his side, and with various

chalk-marks on the floor before him."

Mr. Smith arose and grasped him cordially by the hand, saying, "Cornell,

you are the very man I want to see. I have been trying to explain to

neighbor Robertson a machine that I want made, but I cannot make him

understand it. I want a kind of scraper, or machine for digging a ditch

for laying our telegraph pipe under ground. Congress has appropriated

thirty thousand dollars to enable Professor Morse to test the

practicability of his telegraph on a line between Washington and

Baltimore. I have taken the contract to lay the pipe at one hundred

dollars a mile."

Mr. Cornell's ready brain soon saw what kind of a machine was needed,

and he sketched a rough diagram of it.

Without much hope of success, Smith said, "You make a machine, and I

will pay the expense whether successful or not; if successful, I will

pay you fifty dollars, or one hundred, or any price you may name."

Mr. Cornell at once went to a machine shop, made the patterns for the

necessary castings, and then the wood-work for the frame. The trial of

the new machine was made at Mr. Smith's homestead, four yoke of oxen

being attached to the strange-looking plow, which cut a furrow two and

one-half feet deep, and one and one-fourth inches wide, and laid the

pipe in the bottom at the same time. It worked successfully, and Mr.

Cornell was asked to take charge of the laying of the pipe between

Baltimore and Washington. He accepted, for he believed the telegraph

would become a vast instrument in civilization. The loss of a position

at the Beebe mill proved the opening to a broader world; his energy had

found a field as wide as the universe.

It was decided to put the first pipe between the double tracks of the

Baltimore and Ohio railroad. With an eight-mule team, horses being

afraid of the engines, nearly a mile of pipe was laid each day. Soon

Professor Morse came hurriedly, and calling Mr. Cornell aside, said,

"Can you not contrive to stop this work for a few days in some manner,

so the papers will not know that it has been purposely interrupted? I

want to make some experiments before any more pipe is laid."

Cornell had been expecting this, for he knew that the pipes were

defective, though other officials would not permit Morse to be told of

it. Replying that he would do as requested, he stepped back to his plow,

and said, "Hurrah, boys, whip up your mules; we must lay another length

of pipe before we quit to-night." Then he purposely let the machine

catch against a point of rock, making it a perfect wreck.

Mr. Cornell began now, at Professor Morse's request, to experiment in

the basement of the Patent Office at Washington, studying what books he

could obtain on electrical science. It was soon found to be wise to put

the wires upon poles, as Cooke and Wheatstone had done in England. The

line between Baltimore and Washington proved successful despite its

crudities; but what should be done with it? Government did not wish to

buy it, and private capital was afraid to touch it.

How could the world be made interested? Mr. Cornell, who had now put his

heart into the telegraph, built a line from Milk Street, Boston, to

School Street, that the people might see for themselves this new agent

which was to enable nations to talk with each other; but nobody cared to

waste a moment in looking at it. They were more interested in selling a

piece of cloth, or discovering the merits of a dead philosopher. Not

delighted with the indifference of Boston, he moved his apparatus to New

York in 1844, and constructed a line from opposite Trinity Church on

Broadway, to near the site of the present Metropolitan Hotel; but New

York was even more indifferent than Boston.

The "Tribune," "Express," and some other newspapers gave cordial notices

of the new enterprise, but the "Herald" said plainly that it was opposed

to the telegraph, because now it could beat its rivals by special

couriers; but if the telegraph came into use, then all would have an

equal opportunity to obtain news! During the whole winter Mr. Cornell

labored seemingly to no purpose, to introduce what Morse had so grandly

discovered. A man of less will and less self-reliance would have become

discouraged. He met the fate of all reformers or inventors. Nobody wants

a thing till it is a great success, and then everybody wants it at the

same moment.

Finally, by the hardest struggle, the Magnetic Telegraph Company was

formed for erecting a line between New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore,

and Washington, and Mr. Cornell for superintending it was to receive one

thousand dollars per annum. So earnest was he for the matter that he

subscribed five hundred dollars to the stock of the company, paying for

it out of his meagre salary! Such men,--willing to live on the merest

pittance that a measure of great practical good may succeed,--such men

deserve to win.

The next line was between New York and Albany, and Mr. Cornell, being

the contractor, received his first return for these years of labor six

thousand dollars in profits. The tide had turned; and though afterward

various obstacles had to be met and overcome, the poor mechanic had

started on the high-road to fame and fortune. He next organized the Erie

and Michigan Telegraph Company, supposing that the Western cities thus

benefited would subscribe to the stock; but even in Chicago, which now

pays three thousand dollars daily for telegraphic service, it was

impossible to raise a dollar.

A year later, the New York and Erie telegraph line was constructed

through the southern part of New York State. Mr. Cornell, believing most

heartily in the project, obligated himself heavily, and the result

proved his far-sightedness. But now ruinous competition set in. Those

who had been unwilling to help at first were anxious to share profits.

To save all from bankruptcy in the cutting of rates, Mr. Cornell and a

few others consolidated the various interests in the Western Union

Telegraph Company, now grown so large that it has nearly five hundred

thousand miles of wire, employs twenty thousand persons, sends over

forty-one million messages yearly, and makes over seven and one-half

million dollars profits.

For more than fifteen years he was the largest stockholder in the

company; it was not strange therefore, that middle life found Ezra

Cornell a millionnaire. This was better than making pottery in the

little town of De Ruyter. It had taken work, however, to make this

fortune. While others sauntered and enjoyed life at leisure, he was

working early and late, away from his family most of the time for twelve


In 1857, when fifty years of age, he purchased three hundred acres near

Ithaca, planted orchards, bought fine cattle and horses, and moved his

family thither. He was made president of the County Agricultural

Society, and in 1862 was chosen to represent the State Agricultural

Society at the International Exposition in London. Taking his wife with

him, they travelled in Great Britain and on the Continent, enjoying a

few months of recreation, for the first time since, when a youth, thirty

years before, he had walked into Ithaca.

During the war he gave money and sympathy freely, being often at the

front, in hospitals, and on battle-fields, caring for the wounded and

their families, and aiding those whom the war had left maimed or

impoverished. For six years he served acceptably in the State

Legislature. Self-reliant, calm, unselfish, simple in dress and manner,

he was, alike the companion of distinguished scholars, and the advocate

of the people.

The great question now before his mind was how to spend his fortune most

wisely. He recalled the days when he cleared four acres of timber land,

that he might have three months of schooling. He had regretted all his

life his lack of a college education. He determined therefore to build

"an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."

Preparatory to this he built Cornell Library, costing sixty-one thousand

dollars. A workman, losing one of his horses by accident in the

construction of the edifice, was called upon by the philanthropist, who,

after inquiring the value of the animal, drew a check and handed it to

the man, remarking, with a kind smile, "I presume I can better than you

afford to lose the horse." A man with money enough to build libraries

does not always remember a laborer!

Mr. Cornell's first gift toward his university was two hundred acres of

his cherished farm, and five hundred thousand dollars in money. The

institution was formally opened in 1868, Hon. Andrew D. White, a

distinguished graduate of Yale and of the University of Berlin, being

chosen president. Soon over four hundred students gathered from over

twenty-seven States. Mr. Cornell's gifts afterward, including his saving

the Land Grant Fund from depreciation, amounted to over three million

dollars. A wonderful present from a self-made mechanic! Other men have

followed his illustrious example. Henry W. Sage has given three hundred

thousand dollars for the building of Sage College for women, and the

extensive conservatories of the Botanical Department. Hiram Sibley, of

Rochester, has given fifty thousand dollars for the College of Mechanic

Arts, and John McGraw, one hundred thousand for the library and museum.

Cornell University is now one of the most liberally endowed institutions

in the country, and has already sent out over one thousand graduates.

Mr. Cornell did everything to enrich and develop his own town. He

brought manufactories of glass and iron into her midst, held the

presidency of the First National Bank for a dozen years, made her as far

as possible a railroad centre, and gave generously to her churches of

whatever denomination. The first question asked in any project was,

"Have you seen Ezra Cornell? He will take hold of the work; and if he is

for you, no one will be against you, and success is assured, if success

be possible."

Dec. 9, 1874, at the age of sixty-seven, scarcely able to stand, he

arose from his bed and was dressed that he might attend to some

unfinished business. Shortly after noon, it was finished by an unseen

hand. His body was carried to Library Hall, and there, the Cornell

Cadets standing as guard of honor, thousands looked upon the renowned

giver. The day of the funeral, public and private buildings were draped,

shops were closed, and the streets filled by a saddened throng. The

casket was borne into the cemetery between lines of students, who owed

to his generosity their royal opportunities for scholarship. Various

societies in various cities passed resolutions of respect and honor for

the dead.

Froude, the English historian, well said of him, "There is something I

admire even more than the university, and that is the quiet,

unpretending man by whom the university was founded. We have had such

men in old times, and there are men in England who make great fortunes

and who make claim to great munificence, but who manifest their

greatness in buying great estates and building castles for the founding

of peerages to be handed down from father to son. Mr. Cornell has sought

for immortality, and the perpetuity of his name among the people of a

free nation. There stands his great university, built upon a rock, built

of stone, as solid as a rock, to endure while the American nation

endures. When the herald's parchment shall have crumbled into dust, and

the antiquarians are searching among the tombstones for the records of

these departed families, Mr. Cornell's name will be still fresh and

green through generation after generation."

Overlooking Ithaca and Cayuga Lake stands his home, a beautiful Gothic

villa in stone, finished a year after his death. His motto, the motto of

his life, is carved over the principal entrance, "TRUE AND FIRM."