BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE AND CHRONOLOGY
Ezra Cornell was born on January 11, 1807 at Westchester Landing in the town and
county of Westchester, New York. His parents, Elijah and Eunice, were members of the
Society of Friends, and Ezra and his ten younger siblings were raised as Quakers.
During his childhood, Cornell lived in Westchester, Tarrytown, and Westfarms in
Winchester County, and in English Neighborhood, Bergen County, before the family
settled in DeRuyter, New York. Opportunities for formal education were limited. From
the age of thirteen to seventeen Cornell attended school three months each
From the time he was six years old, Cornell helped in whatever way he could in his
father's pottery business. At age twelve, he began to work on the family farm in
DeRuyter, and at seventeen learned carpentry skills when his father erected a new
building for the pottery. In 1825 Cornell constructed a two story house for his
parents and family.
Cornell left home in the spring of 1826. He found work in Syracuse as a journeyman
carpenter. He helped build sawmills and worked as a contractor getting out timber
for shipment by canal. From Syracuse he moved on to Homer, New York where he worked
in a shop that produced wool-carding machinery. In his free time, he studied
In the spring of 1828 Cornell arrived in Ithaca, the town he would make his permanent
home. He first found work as a carpenter, before being hired as a mechanic by Otis
Eddy to work at his cotton mill on Cascadilla Creek. On Eddy's recommendation,
Jeremiah S. Beebe then hired Cornell to repair and overhaul his plaster and flour
mills on Fall Creek. During Cornell's long association with Beebe he designed and
built a tunnel for a new mill race on Fall Creek, a stone dam on Fall Creek (forming
Beebe lake) and a new flour mill. By 1832, he was in charge of all Beebe's concerns
at Fall Creek.
Ezra Cornell married Mary Ann Wood on March 19, 1831. He bargained with Beebe for a
building lot and acreage for a garden and orchard at Fall Creek where he built a one
and a half story frame house. In this house, the Nook,
Cornell and Mary Ann began housekeeping in the summer of 1831. The Nook remained their home for more than twenty years and
nine children were born there. Of these, three sons died in infancy and the eldest
daughter died at fifteen. Three sons and two daughters were raised to adulthood.
In the 1830's, Ezra Cornell also became active in local politics and speculated in
real estate. As Ithaca's prosperity began to decline in the late 1830's, Beebe and
other prominent Ithaca businessmen decided to send a representative to New York City
and New England to lay before capitalists and manufacturers the advantages of Ithaca
as a manufacturing site, particularly for cotton and woolen mills. A firm believer
in Ithaca's potential as center for trade and industry, Cornell made the trips East
representing Ithaca in 1840 and 1841.
When Beebe sold his milling concerns in 1839 and 1840, Cornell left his employment
and turned to farming. He had an interest in sheep raising and in agricultural
experimentation. After several years of farming Cornell looked to other ways to make
a living. In 1842 he purchased the patent for the states of Maine and Georgia for
Barnaby and Mooers side hill plow. He hoped to make a profit by selling the patent
rights county by county to machinists or merchants who would manufacture and sell
the plows locally. In the spring of 1842 he left for Maine. After several months of
traveling and selling in Maine, Cornell returned to Ithaca for a brief visit before
leaving for Georgia in January of 1843. Cornell did not meet with a great deal of
success in this business, but made the most of his travels as he passed (often on
foot) throughout the counties of Maine and Georgia. He recorded keen observations of
the land, the people, and the industries.
Through his meeting with F.O.J. Smith, editor of the Maine Farmer,
Cornell became associated with the infant telegraph industry. Following the
appropriation by the U.S. Congress of $30,000 for the laying of a test telegraph
cable between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Smith had taken a contract from the
inventor, Samuel F. B. Morse, to lay the lead pipe which enclosed the telegraph
wires. In the summer of 1843, on his second trip to Maine, Cornell visited Smith's
office and found him struggling to design a machine to lay the cable underground. At
Smith's request, Cornell created a machine that would both dig the trench and lay
the cable. Samuel F. B. Morse came to Maine for a demonstration of the machine. He
approved of it and Cornell was hired to lay the cable for the test line. Although it
was eventually decided to string the cable on poles, this introduction to the
telegraph convinced Cornell of the value and potential of the technology referred to
as "lightning." His belief in its success led to decades of involvement in the
industry. As construction foreman, operator, promoter, superintendent, builder,
owner, and stockholder Cornell helped the telegraph expand from the eastern seaboard
into the midwest.
Reinvestment of all earnings and endless work and travel kept Cornell on the verge of
poverty and exhaustion for years, but his belief in the telegraph was steadfast.
With the consolidation of lines into the Western Union Company in 1855, Cornell was
in a position to appreciate profit. At the age of forty-nine, he decided to withdraw
from further telegraph line building and active management, but his faith in the
success of the telegraph continued and he held on to the Western Union stock from
which his fortune would come. For years he was the largest stockholder of the
Western Union Company.
Returning to Ithaca, Ezra Cornell again became actively involved in farming and
politics. In 1857 he purchased a farm of about 300 acres adjoining the village of
Ithaca. He moved his family there and named the farm Forest Park. He planted
orchards, conducted agricultural experiments, and raised shorthorn cattle and sheep.
He was an active member of the New York State Agricultural Society, and as President
of this organization attended the International Exposition in London. Cornell and
his wife also made an extensive tour of England, Scotland, Wales and Europe. He was
elected to the New York State Legislature in 1862 and served six years, two on the
Assembly and four years as Senator. His greatest concerns in the Legislature were
agriculture and education.
Ezra Cornell's increasing fortune and determination to put the money to some good use
led him to various acts of philanthropy. He established the Cornell Public Library,
which opened in Ithaca in 1866. His interest in public education and acquaintance
with Andrew Dickson White focused his philanthropy on education and led to the
establishment of Cornell University, which opened to students in 1868. Cornell
applied the same commitment and determination that had led to his success in the
telegraph industry to the planning of the University. From his active involvement in
the use of the college land scrip available through the Morrill Act to the design of
the campus buildings, Cornell never ceased his efforts to create a great
|1807, January 11
||Born, Westchester Landing, son of Elijah and Eunice Cornell.
||Family relocates to DeRuyter. Elijah Cornell operates pottery.
||Elijah has new pottery building constructed. Ezra Cornell learns the
||Leaves home for Syracuse where he finds work building sawmills and as
contractor for getting out timber for shipment by canal. Moves on to Homer
to work in shop making wool-carding machinery. Studies mechanics
||Arrives in Ithaca where he finds work as a carpenter and then as a
mechanic for Otis Eddy cotton mill on Cascadilla Creek.
||Begins working for Jeremiah S. Beebe overhauling and repairing plaster
mill on Fall Creek. Other industries on Fall Creek at this time included
paper and flouring mills, a machine shop, and establishments for making
chairs, iron castings and plows.
||Plans and supervises construction of Fall Creek tunnel for a new mill
||Marries Mary Ann Wood. Builds the Nook at Fall Creek and begins
||First child, Alonzo B. Cornell born. Cornell takes charge of Beebe's
concerns at Fall Creek.
||Second child, Charles Carrol Cornell born. Cornell working for Beebe and
speculating in real estate.
||Elizabeth Percival Cornell born.
||Builds new mill for Beebe and constructs stone dam on Fall Creek (forming
Beebe lake). Cornell is active in local politics and is delegate to Tompkins
County convention of the Whig Party. Charles Carrol Cornell dies. Son
Franklin Cuthbert Cornell born.
||Beebe sells mill properties on Fall Creek, Cornell leaves his employment
and turns to farming. Son Charles Carrol Cornell (second child with this
||Ithaca's prosperity declining. Beebe, Speed, and others decide to send a
representative to New York City and New England to lay before capitalists
and manufacturers the advantages of Ithaca as a manufacturing site,
particularly for cotton and woolen mills. Cornell makes two trips
representing Ithaca. Charles Carrol Cornell dies.
||Purchases patent rights to Barnaby and Mooers side hill plow for the
states of Maine and Georgia. Travels to Maine planning on selling the patent
rights county by county to machinists or merchants who would manufacture and
sell locally. Meets F.O.J. Smith, publisher of the Maine
Farmer. Son Oliver Hazard Perry Cornell born.
||Travels to Georgia. Does much traveling on foot, 40 miles a day.
||Returns to Maine, meets with F.O.J Smith and learns of need for
pipe-laying and trench digging machine to be used for the laying a test line
of telegraph from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Cornell designs the needed
||Samuel F. B. Morse goes to Maine for demonstration of pipe-layer and
approves the design.
||Goes to Baltimore and Washington to begin work on laying the telegraph
line. Spends winter evenings in Washington studying works on electricity and
||Test line in operation between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Cornell
presents telegraph exhibitions in Boston and New York during the summer and
||Magnetic Telegraph Company organized for the extension of the telegraph
from Baltimore to Philadelphia and New York.
||New York, Albany & Buffalo Telegraph Company has line built from New
York to Buffalo, Cornell erects portion of line between New York and
||Telegraph industry expands as incorporated companies form under which
lines are extended form New York to Boston, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, and with
in the next three years to nearly every important town in the United States
|1846, October-1847, January
||Employed as the Superintendent of the New York, Albany & Buffalo
Magnetic Telegraph Company. Submits resignation to Theodore Faxton in
||Sick with typhus, Daughter Mary Emily Cornell born.
||Erects line of telegraph from Troy through Vermont to Montreal, under
contract with the Troy & Canada Junction Telegraph Company. Cornell
produces an assignment from Smith making him and J.J. Speed sole agents for
the Morse Patent in the five western states. Organizes the Erie &
Michigan Telegraph Company to provide a line of telegraph between Buffalo
and Milwaukee, by way of Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago.
||Erie & Michigan line completed. Cornell organizes the New York &
Erie Telegraph Company for the purpose of building a line of telegraph from
New York to Dunkirk through the southern tier of counties of New
||New York and Erie line completed. Son Ezra Clayton Cornell born. Daughter
Elizabeth Percival Cornell dies.
||New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company started by
Hiram Sibley and Judge Samuel L. Selden. Cornell's son Ezra Clayton Cornell
||New York & Erie Telegraph Company fails, Cornell buys it back and
renames it the New York & Western Union Telegraph Company. Cornell works
as Superintendent of the company. Daughter Emma Pettit Cornell born. Cornell
family leaves the Nook and moves into the village of Ithaca.
||Has accident and severely injures his arm. Cornell meets with Sibley and
associates and joins his interests with theirs. Western Union Telegraph
Company is formed.
||Goes to Pittsburgh as New York State delegate to the first Republican
||Purchases farm of about 300 acres, adjoining the village of Ithaca. Moves
family there and names farm "Forest Park." Plants orchard, conducts
agricultural experiments, and raises short horn cattle, and sheep. Organizes
Ithaca Farmers' Club.
||Visits oil wells in Titusville, involved in telegraph business, coal oil
business, and the New York State Agricultural Society.
|1861, October 24
||Western Union completes the first transcontinental telegraph.
||At home in Ithaca, involved in the Tompkins County Agricultural Society,
The Farmers Club, raising sheep and cattle and collecting agricultural
statistics. Travels to Washington and attends Lincoln's
|1862, July 3
||Morrill Act passed.
||Elected to the New York State Assembly. Also elected president of the New
York State Agricultural Society. Attends the Great International Exposition
at London and travels extensively through England, Scotland, and Wales as
well as through France, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, and Austria.
||Serves second year in New York State Assembly. Construction of Cornell
Library underway. Nominated and elected State Senator.
||Andrew Dickson White introduces bill in the Senate to establish the
Cornell University and to appropriate to it the income of the sale of public
lands granted to New York State.
||Cornell University Bill formally passed in the Assembly and
||Takes trip to Wisconsin to locate lands. Involved in University.
|1866, December 20
||Dedication of the Cornell Public Library Building.
||Cornell declines reelection to State Senate, after four years as State
Senator representing Broome, Tioga, and Tompkins counties.
||Cornell University opens for the reception of students.
||Construction starts on Cornell villa. Cornell moves downtown to the
corner of Tioga and Seneca.
||Cornell involved in photo-lithography business, Albany Agricultural Work,
development of the University and western lands.
|1874, December 9
||Death of Ezra Cornell.