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Cornelius Vanderbilt

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Historian Beverly C. Tyler, third from right, in front of a replica of a Union Pacific engine, takes part in the reenactment of the joining of the rails in Golden Spike National Historic Site. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

The changes in transportation that began in the early 1800s were dramatic and far-reaching. They made it possible to lower costs of food and fuel, expand settlements, open western New York and the Midwest, and provide employment for thousands of immigrants. Before steam power, transportation on land was limited to walking, riding horses and going by horse and wagon. Canals and steamboats made long distance transportation viable, but canals were a temporary solution. The railroads became the vehicle that united America with steam power.

Wood was the first fuel used by steam trains, but coal was the fuel that made commerce by rail a reality. The early trains, including the Long Island Rail Road, fueled with wood, were only strong enough to carry passengers. Before 1844 the Norwich & Worcester and Boston & Worcester railroads ran a water-to-rail route from Manhattan to Boston. Steamboats left Manhattan at 5 p.m. Eleven hours later, they arrived at Allyn’s Point in Norwich, Connecticut. There the passengers were escorted to the waiting train. Two hours later they arrived in Boston, a total trip of 13 hours, under the best of conditions.

To compete on the route from Manhattan to Boston the LIRR built a rail line west to east on Long Island from Brooklyn to Greenport. Cornelius Vanderbilt joined with the LIRR to provide steamboats for crossing Long Island Sound, between Greenport and the docks at Stonington and Norwich, Connecticut, where trains then took passengers to Boston. The LIRR felt that as this was the longest rail route and the shortest water crossing it would get passengers to and from Boston more rapidly, and it did, with a time of about 10-and-a-half hours. The first train left Brooklyn Aug. 8, 1844. The route was initially a popular success and even had a contract to carry the U.S. mail. The new LIRR and N&W route offered early morning departures which assured arrival in one’s destination city by evening. Thus, for the first time, travelers passing between the two cities could avoid having to spend a night on the steamboat/train connection.

Vanderbilt in his quest against his competitors kept lowering the cost of the LIRR route, and when the board of directors balked at his aggressive stance, Vanderbilt abandoned the LIRR, making it impossible to compete financially. To get needed funds the railroad sold their steamboats Cleopatra and Worcester to the N&W allowing it to compete with LIRR on its own water routes. As a result, the LIRR abandoned its Brooklyn to Boston route in March 1847.

A reproduction of the Central Pacific engine Jupiter in Utah. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

The LIRR now had tracks running through the center of the Island where few people lived. It would be nearly three decades before the railroad completed lines along the North and South shores to more effectively serve Long Island residents. In the meantime, the LIRR began a campaign to encourage New York City residents to take the rails to the shores of Lake Ronkonkoma as well as connections to stage coaches that would take them to vacation spots on the North and South shores of the Island.

The rise of American railroads coincided with a flood of immigrants. In 1842 more than 100,000 immigrants arrived in American ports, the overwhelming majority in New York City. By 1847, immigrants from just Ireland exceeded 100,000 and over the next decade more than a million Irish came to America. Germans also came to America to escape the wars and revolutions in Europe. As railroads grew and tracks crisscrossed Eastern and Midwest states they needed more and more laborers to lay tracks and do many new jobs associated with this new booming transportation infrastructure. The flood of immigrants had come at just the right time for America.

In Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, railroads connected the waterways of the Great Lakes, and the Ohio, Mississippi and other rivers with port cities, especially New York and New Orleans. During the 1850s Midwest cities grew rapidly as immigrants, cattle, hogs and wheat from the great plains flooded into Chicago and other developing Midwest cities.

By the late 1840s, the telegraph and the railroads were developing together and relying on each other. The possibility of instantaneous information altered the entire logistics of the railroad industry. For the telegraph operators, the benefits were obvious. The telegraph company would hoist its poles along the tracks. The railroad would then provide ongoing maintenance of the telegraph wires.

In the summer of 1862, the federal government, in the absence of Southern elements in Congress due to the Civil War, approved the Pacific Railway Act, with a combination of land grants and bond guarantees, allowed for private interest to begin construction of a railroad to connect across the entire country. It was the California Gold Rush that made the construction work possible and men such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Joseph Pulitzer made it work.

From the time of the gold rush in 1848 to 1849 the idea of connecting the Pacific Coast to the East via a large railroad had been a dream of both capitalists and politicians. Finally in 1869, the golden spike was driven in the last rail as west met east at Promontory, Utah, where the two trains met, the western train fueled by wood and the eastern train fueled by coal.

In October 2012 my wife Barbara and I dove to the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Corinne, Utah. It is really a desolate area except for the national park. We were there for the last ceremonial reenactment of the year, the joining of the rails across America at Promontory, Utah.

Two reproduction engines, the Central Pacific engine Jupiter and the Union Pacific engine 119 came together as the golden spike was gently driven in and then removed and replaced with an iron spike. Costumed actors and visitors then gathered together for a picture of this monumental event that joined our country together with steel rails and instant communication.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

Museum collection artifact has mysterious provenance

Just after the start of the Civil War in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Fernando Wood, then mayor of New York City, that is part of William K. Vanderbilt II’s extensive archives. Visitors to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport can see a facsimile of the letter on display in the Memorial Wing, outside the Sudan Trophy Room through Feb. 26 from noon to 4 p.m. They also can view an oil portrait of George Washington, originally thought to have been created by the renowned American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. It will be displayed in the Portuguese Sitting Room.

President Lincoln wrote the letter to Mayor Wood on May 4, 1861 — two months to the day following his inauguration as president and less than one month after the start of the Civil War, which began on April 12 with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Wood (1812-1881), who built a successful shipping enterprise in New York City, served several terms in Congress and was mayor of New York for two terms. (Wood’s brother, Benjamin Wood, publisher and editor of the New York Daily News, also served three terms in Congress.) Fernando Wood sent a letter to Lincoln shortly after the Fort Sumter attack, offering him whatever military services he, as mayor, could provide. Lincoln’s reply to Wood was in gratitude for his offer of assistance.

Excerpt:

In the midst of my various and numerous other duties I shall consider in what way I can make your services at once available to the country, and agreeable to you – Your Obt. [Obedient] Servant A. Lincoln

Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt Museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said, “We do not know how this letter came to be in Mr. Vanderbilt’s possession. Perhaps it was originally the property of his great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was an acquaintance of Mayor Wood, and it was passed down through the Vanderbilt family.” The value of the letter is unknown, Gress said.

In 2008, a representative of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a grant-funded project of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, visited the Vanderbilt archives to scan the letter for inclusion in its database. At the time, the representative noted that few letters have the original envelope in Lincoln’s hand, which makes the Vanderbilt’s document an exceptional Lincoln artifact. The Vanderbilt Museum is listed as a repository on the project’s website, www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org.

The Vanderbilt’s framed oil portrait of George Washington is believed to have been painted by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), widely considered to be one of America’s foremost portrait artists. He produced portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six presidents of the United States. Stuart painted a number of Washington portraits. The most celebrated is known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796), and one large-scale version of it hangs in the East Room of the White House.

Stuart’s best-known work is an unfinished portrait of Washington begun in 1796 and sometimes called “The Athenaeum.” This image of Washington’s head and shoulders is a familiar one to Americans — it has appeared for more than a century on the U.S. one-dollar bill.

The Vanderbilt’s Washington portrait, found in the basement of the Suffolk County Welfare Department Home in Yaphank, was restored and presented to the Vanderbilt Museum in 1951. While the artist did not sign the work, a specialist reported that year that the painting was an authentic Gilbert Stuart.

In 1981, however, two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art studied the portrait and advised the Board of Trustees that the work was not created by Stuart. As a result, the portrait, oil on panel and measuring 21.25 by 33.5 inches, is described in the archival records as “After Gilbert Stuart.”

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. The museum and planetarium are open for Presidents’ Week daily from noon to 4 p.m. Guided tours of the mansion are conducted at 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. General admission is $7 adults, $6 students with ID and seniors (62 and older) and $3 for children 12 and under. For further information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.