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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 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 university.


1807, January 11 Born, Westchester Landing, son of Elijah and Eunice Cornell.
1819 Family relocates to DeRuyter. Elijah Cornell operates pottery.
1824 Elijah has new pottery building constructed. Ezra Cornell learns the carpenter's trade.
1826 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 handbooks.
1828 Arrives in Ithaca where he finds work as a carpenter and then as a mechanic for Otis Eddy cotton mill on Cascadilla Creek.
1829 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.
1830-1831 Plans and supervises construction of Fall Creek tunnel for a new mill race.
1831 Marries Mary Ann Wood. Builds the Nook at Fall Creek and begins housekeeping.
1832 First child, Alonzo B. Cornell born. Cornell takes charge of Beebe's concerns at Fall Creek.
1833 Second child, Charles Carrol Cornell born. Cornell working for Beebe and speculating in real estate.
1835 Elizabeth Percival Cornell born.
1837-38 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.
1839-1840 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.
1841 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.
1842 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.
1843 Travels to Georgia. Does much traveling on foot, 40 miles a day.
1843, July 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 machine.
1843, August Samuel F. B. Morse goes to Maine for demonstration of pipe-layer and approves the design.
1843, October Goes to Baltimore and Washington to begin work on laying the telegraph line. Spends winter evenings in Washington studying works on electricity and magnetism.
1844, May Test line in operation between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Cornell presents telegraph exhibitions in Boston and New York during the summer and autumn.
1845 Magnetic Telegraph Company organized for the extension of the telegraph from Baltimore to Philadelphia and New York.
1845-46 New York, Albany & Buffalo Telegraph Company has line built from New York to Buffalo, Cornell erects portion of line between New York and Albany.
1846 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 January.
1847, November Sick with typhus, Daughter Mary Emily Cornell born.
1847 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.
1848 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 York.
1849 New York and Erie line completed. Son Ezra Clayton Cornell born. Daughter Elizabeth Percival Cornell dies.
1851 New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company started by Hiram Sibley and Judge Samuel L. Selden. Cornell's son Ezra Clayton Cornell dies.
1852 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.
1855-1856 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.
1856 Goes to Pittsburgh as New York State delegate to the first Republican National Convention.
1857 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.
1860 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.
1861 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 inauguration.
1862, July 3 Morrill Act passed.
1862 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.
1863 Serves second year in New York State Assembly. Construction of Cornell Library underway. Nominated and elected State Senator.
1865, February 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.
1865, April Cornell University Bill formally passed in the Assembly and Senate.
1866 Takes trip to Wisconsin to locate lands. Involved in University.
1866, December 20 Dedication of the Cornell Public Library Building.
1867 Cornell declines reelection to State Senate, after four years as State Senator representing Broome, Tioga, and Tompkins counties.
1868 Cornell University opens for the reception of students.
1869, Spring Construction starts on Cornell villa. Cornell moves downtown to the corner of Tioga and Seneca.
1869-1873 Cornell involved in photo-lithography business, Albany Agricultural Work, development of the University and western lands.
1874, December 9 Death of Ezra Cornell.