Ezra Cornell

Carpenter, mechanic, farmer, salesman, inventor, entrepreneur, politician and philanthropist, Ezra Cornell was an extraordinary man. While he referred to himself simply as a farmer and mechanic who had spent some time working in the telegraph industry, through skillful work, uncommon tenacity, and fortuitous circumstances he amassed a great fortune. Rejecting conventional wisdom and sage advice, Ezra Cornell directed that his wealth be used “to do the greatest good.”

In 1858, he was instrumental in founding an Agricultural Reading Room in Ithaca. Later he took an active part in creating the New York State Agricultural College at Ovid, and served on its board of trustees.

In 1863, he proposed to build and endow a free public library for the citizens of Tompkins County. The Cornell Library, then the largest building in Ithaca, contained books, reading rooms, an 800-seat lecture room, and space for community organizations.

Ezra Cornell served in both the New York State Assembly and State Senate. It was there on January 2, 1864 that he met Andrew Dickson White. Through discussions with White, the idea of a college grew in Cornell’s mind. Both men dreamed of founding a “university of the first magnitude,” and both fought intense political battles in the Senate to establish a Cornell University and to secure the Morrill Land Grant funding for it.

Ezra Cornell, farmer and mechanic, also donated his 300 acre farm as the site for “the first truly American university.”

Before there was a Cornell University, there was a Cornell Library.

Ezra Cornell’s interest in agricultural education and his generosity grew in proportion to the wealth that he acquired working in the telegraph industry. In 1858, he had been instrumental in founding an Agricultural Reading Room in Ithaca, personally purchasing books and subscribing to journals. Five years later he proposed to build and endow a public library—free and open to all—for Ithaca and Tompkins County.

Located on Tioga Street along the south side of Seneca Street, the building contained a library with a 30,000 book capacity, reading rooms, an 800-seat lecture room, and space for community organizations. In an effort to make the library self-supporting, the building also included commercial space for a post office and other businesses.

The Cornell Library, the forerunner of the Tompkins County Public Library, was incorporated on April 5, 1864 and formally presented to Ithaca on December 20, 1866. That evening, Ezra Cornell recorded the following entry in his Cyphering Book:

This evening The Cornell Library was dedicated. The cost of the Library and books at this time has been about $65,000, all paid by me, and the Deed of the Property & Keys of the Edifice delivered to the Trustees this evening in the presence of an audience of 1,000 of my fellow citizens assembled in the Lecture Room of the Library. Everything passed off pleasant & agreeable.

The original Cornell Library building was sold and demolished in 1960, having served as Ithaca’s public library for nearly 100 years.

Gift of Jennie McGraw Fiske.

Unable to sufficiently support his growing family with his various Ithaca jobs and farming, Ezra Cornell purchased the patent rights to a new plow, which he attempted to sell in Georgia and Maine. Through his meeting with F.O.J. Smith, editor of the Maine Farmer, he became associated with the infant telegraph industry.

He created a machine that would both dig a trench and lay a cable, and he was hired by Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, to prepare the lines for the first telegraph test. 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. After many tumultuous years, his fiercest competitor, Hiram Sibley, head of the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company, became his partner. In 1855, they consolidated their telegraph lines and merged their companies to form the Western Union Company. At the age of forty-nine, Cornell decided to withdraw from active management, but he held on to the Western Union stock from which his fortune would come. For years he was Western Union’s largest stockholder.

Ezra Cornell’s business records include Articles of Association and agreement, telegraph office rules, reports, receipts for telegraph stock, proceedings of boards of directors for various telegraph companies, by-laws and incorporation papers, scientific articles, legal briefs, charts of tariffs and charges, and financial papers. Small tokens and symbols of his success are these telegraph cards, passes for sending free telegraphs on Western Union’s wires.

After serving two years in the New York State Assembly, Ezra Cornell was nominated and elected to the New York State Senate, where he was destined to meet fellow Senator Andrew Dickson White. Cornell, a longtime friend and supporter of fellow New Yorker William Seward, then Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, wanted to learn more about Morrill’s Congressional college funding.

In this simple letter, two of the most important figures in 19th century American education are introduced:

My dear Sir,

Permit me to introduce to you the Hon. E. Cornell of the Senate of the State of New York – a true man.

Very respectfully yours,
William Seward

In 1823, at the age of sixteen, Ezra Cornell acquired eighty-five folio sheets of handmade paper and bound them together within flexible board covers. He proceeded to create a book that contains practical rules and exercises in arithmetic, fractions, compound interest, weights and measures, and other equations. The last exercise is dated February 13, 1824; some pages later a new heading reads, “Loss and Gain.” Thirty-five years later, at the age of fifty-three, Cornell returned to the book and wrote:

The favorable change indicated above which promised to give a favorable turn to the life long Loss and Gain a/c continues. The yearly income which I realize this year will exceed One Hundred Thousand dollars. My last quarterly dividend on stock in the Western Union Tel Co was $35,000, July 20, 64. The Div for Oct quarter will be as large.

My greatest care now is how to spend this large income, to do the most good to those who are properly dependent on [me]—to the poor and to posterity.

Ezra Cornell

Ithaca, Aug. 29, 1864

Ezra Cornell’s desire “to do the most good” would lead to educational gifts unlike anything the world had ever seen before.

In 1856, Ezra Cornell travelled to Pittsburgh as a New York State delegate to the first Republican National Convention. Five years later, as he grew more active politically, he would record another journey in his diary:

Monday, March 4, 1861

Joined NY Delegation at Willard’s [a Washington, DC hotel] and called on Gov. Seward [Seward, then the Secretary of State, had previously served in the Congress and as New York’s governor], who responded with a speech. Closed with prediction that Lincoln’s administration [will] close with the injured Union healed and whole country united.

Delegation then formed in procession and attended inauguration. Got near enough to hear most of the President’s address, which was forcibly delivered.

Ezra Cornell’s first act of philanthropy was to build a library that was free and open to all. Next he would found an institution where any person could find instruction in any study—an institution that holds one of the world’s great academic and research libraries. We now celebrate this giant of a man and his legacy of giving and learning.

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