The founder of Western Union was born today in 1807. Now WE know em

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Ezra was born January 11, 1807 in Westchester county, New York.

As a teenager, Ezra traveled extensively throughout New York state as a carpenter.

As his story goes, when Ezra laid eyes on Cayuga Lake at Ithaca, New York, he realized he had found his home.

Marriage and early career

After settling in Ithaca, Ezra quickly went to work proving himself as a carpenter. Colonel Beebe took notice of the industrious young man and made him the manager of his mill at Fall Creek.

Ezra was a Quaker by birthright, but was disowned by the Society of Friends for marrying outside of the Quaker faith to a “world’s woman.”

The young lady of the world that Ezra fell in love with was a Methodist by the name of Mary Ann Wood.

Ezra and Mary Ann were married March 19, 1831, in Dryden, New York.

On February 24, 1832, Ezra wrote the following response to his expulsion from The Society of Friends due to his marriage to Mary Ann Wood:

“I have always considered that choosing a companion for life was a very important affair and that my happiness or misery in this life depended on the choice…”

Ezra’s young and growing family needed more income than he earned as manager of Beebe’s Mills. So, after purchasing rights to a patent for a new type of plow, Ezra began what would be decades of traveling away from Ithaca.

His territories for sales of the plow were the states of Maine and Georgia. His plan was to sell in Maine in the summer and the milder Georgia in the winter. With limited means, what transported Ezra between the two states were his own two feet.

Telegraph

Happening into the offices of the Maine Farmer in 1842, Ezra saw an acquaintance of his, one F.O.J. Smith, bent over some plans for a “scraper” as Smith called it. For services rendered, Smith had been granted a one-quarter share of the telegraph patent held by Samuel F.B. Morse, and was attempting to devise a way of burying telegraph lines in the ground with lead pipe.

Ezra’s knowledge of plows was put to the test and Ezra devised a special kind of plow that would dig a 2½ foot ditch, lay the pipe and telegraph wire in the ditch and cover it back up as it went.

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Drawing of Ezra’s telegraph wire plow

Later it was determined that condensation in the lead pipes and poor insulation of the wires impeded the electrical current on the wires and so hanging the wire from telegraph poles became the accepted method.

Ezra then earned himself an associate position for Samuel Morse by constructing and stringing telegraph poles between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland.

This line was the first ever telegraph line of substance in the United States.

To address the problem of telegraph lines shorting out to the ground, Ezra came up with the idea of using glass insulators at the point where telegraph lines are connected to supporting poles.

After joining up with Samuel Morse, Ezra supervised the erection of many telegraph lines, including a portion of the New York, Albany & Buffalo line in 1846 and the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company connecting Buffalo to Milwaukee.

Ezra also partnered on the New York and Erie line competing with the New York, Albany and Buffalo line in which Samuel Morse had a major share.

The New York line was completed in 1849 and Ezra was made president of the company.

Ezra’s sister Phoebe married Martin B. Wood and moved to Albion, Michigan, in 1848. He gave his brother-in-law a job constructing new lines and made sister Phoebe his telegraph operator, the first female operator in the United States.

Western Union

Ezra Cornell earned a substantial fortune when the Erie and Michigan lines consolidated with Hiram Sibley and his own New York and Mississippi Company to form the Western Union company.

Ezra Cornell then entered politics first as a Republican member of the New York State Assembly in 1862 and 1863; and of the New York State Senate from 1864 to 1867, sitting in the 87th, 88th, 89th and 90th New York State Legislatures.

Ezra Cornell retired from Western Union and turned his attention to philanthropy.

Cornell University

He endowed the Cornell Library, a public library for the citizens of his hometown of Ithaca, New York.

A lifelong enthusiast of science and agriculture, Ezra Cornell saw great opportunity in the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act to found a university that would teach practical subjects on an equal basis with the classics favored by more traditional institutions.

Andrew Dickson White helped secure the new institution’s status as New York’s land grant university, and Cornell University was granted a charter through their efforts in 1865.

Ezra Cornell then entered the railroad business, but fared poorly due to the Panic of 1873.

Llenroc

Ezra Cornell soon began construction of his palatial Ithaca mansion, Llenroc (Cornell spelled in reverse) to replace his farmhouse, Forest Home, but died before it was completed.

Llenroc was maintained by Cornell’s heirs for several decades until being sold to the local chapter of the Delta Phi fraternity, which occupies it to this day.

Ezra Cornell is interred in Sage Chapel on Cornell’s campus, along with Daniel Willard Fiske and Jennie McGraw.

A prolific letter writer, Ezra corresponded with a great many people and would write dozens of letters each week. This was due partly to his wide traveling, and also to the many business associates he maintained during his years as an entrepreneur and later as a politician and university founder.

Cornell University has made the approximately 30,000 letters in the Cornell Correspondence available online.

Ezra’s eldest son, Alonzo B. Cornell, later became the governor of New York.

Since its founding, Cornell University’s charter specified that the eldest lineal descendant of Ezra Cornell be granted a lifetime seat on Cornell University’s Board of Trustees.

 Now WE know em

Ezra Cornell's sarcophagus in Sage Chapel

Ezra Cornell’s sarcophagus in Sage Chapel

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