Skip to main content


About the Ezra Cornell Papers

Biography

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.