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 winter.
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 mechanics handbooks.
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
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
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 university.
|1807, January 11
||Born, Westchester Landing, son of Elijah and Eunice
||Family relocates to DeRuyter. Elijah Cornell operates
||Elijah has new pottery building constructed. Ezra Cornell
learns the carpenter's trade.
||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 race.
||Marries Mary Ann Wood. Builds the Nook at Fall Creek and
||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 name) born.
||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
||Travels to Georgia. Does much traveling on foot, 40 miles a
||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 magnetism.
||Test line in operation between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
Cornell presents telegraph exhibitions in Boston and New York during the summer
||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
||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 and Canada.
|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
||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 National Convention.
||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
|1861, October 24
||Western Union completes the first transcontinental
||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
||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
|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
||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.