Ezra Cornell

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Ezra Cornell
Ezra Cornell.jpg
1st Chairman of Cornell Board of Trustees
In office
Succeeded byHenry W. Sage
Member of the New York Senate
from the 24th district
In office
January 1, 1864 – December 31, 1867
Preceded byLyman Truman
Succeeded byOrlow W. Chapman
Member of the New York State Assembly
from the Tompkins County district
In office
January 1, 1862 – December 31, 1863
Preceded byJeremiah W. Dwight
Succeeded byHenry B. Lord
Personal details
Born(1807-01-11)January 11, 1807
Westchester Landing, The Bronx, New York, U.S.
DiedDecember 9, 1874(1874-12-09) (aged 67)
Ithaca, New York, U.S.
Political partyRepublican

Ezra Cornell (/kɔːrˈnɛl/; January 11, 1807 – December 9, 1874) was an American businessman, politician, and philanthropist. He was the founder of Western Union and a co-founder of Cornell University. He also served as President of the New York Agriculture Society[1] and as a New York State Senator.

Early life[edit]

Cornell was born in Westchester Landing at what is now 1515 Williamsbridge Rd,[2] in what would become the Bronx, New York, to Elijah Cornell and Eunice (Barnard), a potter. He was raised near DeRuyter, New York.[3] He was a cousin of Paul Cornell, the founder of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Cornell was also a distant relative of William Cornell, who was an early settler (originally from Rhode Island) of Scarborough, Ontario, whose name was used for the planned community of Cornell, Ontario after a suggestion by lawyer and member of the Cornell family Paul Mingay. Cornell traveled extensively as a carpenter in New York State. Upon first setting eyes on Cayuga Lake and Ithaca, he decided that it would be his future home.

Cornell's earliest American patrilineal ancestor, Thomas Cornell (1595–1655), was probably Puritan at first; then a follower of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson; drifting into Quakerism, which seems to have been the religion of Thomas Cornell's descendants.[4][5][6] Portsmouth, Rhode Island, is noteworthy in American history for the 1638 Portsmouth Compact, declaring a separation of church and state, rivaling the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 declaring religious tolerance in New Amsterdam, of Quakers in particular. Ezekiel Cornell, a Revolutionary War general, represented Rhode Island in the U.S. Continental Congress from 1780 to 1782.[7]

Early career[edit]

Upon arriving in Ithaca, NY in the spring of 1828, Cornell 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, which formed Beebe Lake; and a new flour mill. By 1832, he was in charge of all Beebe's concerns at Fall Creek. Perhaps it is noteworthy that Ezra Cornell was never educated at a college or university.[8]

He married Mary Ann Wood in 1831 in Dryden, New York. The young and growing family needed more income than he could earn as manager of Beebe's mills. So, having purchased rights in a patent for a new type of plow, Cornell began what would be decades of traveling away from Ithaca. His territories for sales of the plow were the states of Maine and Georgia. His plan was to sell in Maine in the summer and the milder Georgia in the winter.


Happening into the offices of the Maine Farmer in 1842, Cornell saw an acquaintance of his, one F.O.J. Smith, bent over some plans for a "scraper" as Smith called it. For services rendered, Smith had been granted a one-quarter share of the telegraph patent held by Samuel F.B. Morse, and was attempting to devise a way of burying the telegraph lines in the ground in lead pipe.[9] Ezra's knowledge of plows was put to the test and Ezra devised a special kind of plow that would dig a 2 feet 6 inches (76 cm) ditch, lay the pipe and telegraph wire in the ditch and cover it back up as it went. Later it was found that condensation in the pipes and poor insulation of the wires impeded the electrical current on the wires and so hanging the wire from telegraph poles became the accepted method.

Cornell made his fortune in the telegraph business as an associate of Samuel Morse, having gained his trust by constructing and stringing the poles for the Baltimore–Washington telegraph line, the first telegraph line of substance, in the U.S. To address the problem of telegraph lines shorting out to the ground, Cornell invented the idea of using glass insulators at the point where telegraph lines are connected to supporting poles. After joining with Morse, Cornell supervised the erection of many telegraph lines, including a portion of the New York, Albany & Buffalo line in 1846 and the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company connecting Buffalo to Milwaukee with partners John James Speed and Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith. Cornell, Speed and Smith also built the New York and Erie line competing with and paralleling to the south the New York, Albany and Buffalo line in which Morse had a major share.[10] The line was completed in 1849 and Cornell was made president of the company.

Cornell's sister, Phoebe, married Martin B. Wood and moved to Albion, Michigan, in 1848. Cornell gave Wood a job constructing new lines and made Phoebe his telegraph operator, the first woman operator in the United States.[11]
Cornell earned a substantial fortune when the Erie and Michigan was consolidated with Hiram Sibley and his New York and Mississippi Company to form the Western Union company.[12] Cornell received $2 million in Western Union stock.[13]

Cornell was a Republican member of the New York State Assembly (Tompkins Co.) in the 1862 and 1863, and of the New York State Senate from 1864 to 1867, sitting in the 87th, 88th, 89th and 90th New York State Legislatures.

Cornell Free Library[edit]

Cornell Free Library, Seneca and Tioga streets, 1864 to 1960.

Cornell retired from Western Union and turned his attention to philanthropy. He endowed the Cornell Free Library, the first public library for the citizens of Ithaca.[14] The library was incorporated on April 5, 1864 and formally presented to the town on December 20, 1866.[15] The original library building stood at the corner of Tioga and Seneca street until it was demolished in 1960.[16] The library evolved over time to serve the county as the Tompkins County Public Library.[15]

To honor the 150th anniversary of Ezra's gift, a mural of Ezra Cornell was hung on the exterior wall of the current Tompkins County Public Library in October, 2016.[17]

Cornell University[edit]

This bronze statue of Ezra Cornell by Hermon Atkins MacNeil was erected on the university's Arts Quad in 1919

A lifelong enthusiast of science and agriculture, he saw great opportunity in the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act to found a university that would teach practical subjects on an equal basis with the classics favored by more traditional institutions. Andrew Dickson White helped secure the new institution's status as New York's land grant university, and Cornell University was granted a charter through their efforts in 1865.

Cornell University derived far greater revenues than earlier land grant colleges, largely from real estate transactions directed by Ezra Cornell. Under the land-grant program, the Federal government issued the colleges scrip, documents granting the right to select a parcel of land.[18] These colleges generally promptly sold their scrip. Ezra Cornell, on the other hand held most of the scrip, anticipating it would increase in price.[19] He also redeemed some scrip for promising land or for rights in timber, most notably pine forest in Wisconsin.[20] While the first land-grant colleges received around half a dollar per acre, Cornell netted an average of over five dollars per acre in 1905.[21][22] Because of these timber holdings, the town of Cornell, Wisconsin is named for Cornell.

Later days[edit]

Llenroc, home of Ezra Cornell

Ezra Cornell entered the railroad business, but fared poorly due to the Panic of 1873.[23] He began construction of a palatial Ithaca mansion, Llenroc (Cornell spelled in reverse) to replace his farmhouse, Forest Park, but died before it was completed. Llenroc was maintained by Cornell's heirs for several decades until being sold to the local chapter of the Delta Phi fraternity, which occupies it to this day; Forest Park was sold to the Delta Tau Delta chapter and later demolished.

A prolific letter writer, Ezra corresponded with a great many people and would write dozens of letters each week. This was due partly to his wide traveling, and also to the many business associates he maintained during his years as an entrepreneur and later as a politician and university founder. Cornell University has made the approximately 30,000 letters in the Cornell Correspondence available online.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

Cornell's sarcophagus in Sage Chapel

Ezra Cornell was a birthright Quaker, but was later disowned by the Society of Friends for marrying outside of the faith to a “world’s woman,” Mary Ann Wood, a Methodist, on March 19, 1831.

On February 24, 1832, he wrote the following response to his expulsion from The Society of Friends due to his marriage:

I have always considered that choosing a companion for life was a very important affair and that my happiness or misery in this life depended on the choice…

Cornell is interred in Sage Chapel on Cornell's campus, along with Daniel Willard Fiske and Jennie McGraw. Cornell was originally laid to rest in Ithaca City Cemetery, Ithaca N.Y., then moved to Sage Chapel.

His eldest son, Alonzo B. Cornell, was later governor of New York. Since its founding, the University's charter specified that the eldest lineal descendant of Cornell is granted a life seat on Cornell University's Board of Trustees,[24] currently Charles Ezra Cornell. (Charles Ezra Cornell took the post on November 17, 1969.) [25]

In 1990, G. David Low, graduate of Cornell University and Space Shuttle astronaut, took with him into outer space a pair of tan silk socks worn by Ezra Cornell on his wedding day in 1831.[26]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ New York State Agricultural Society (March 1, 1862). "Mr. Cornell's Remarks on Taking the Chair as the Newly Elected President". Transactions of the New York State Agricultural Society. Albany, New York. XXII - 1862: 36–37. I am very unexpectedly called upon to thank you for this expression of your confidence in electing me as the President of your Society for the ensuing year. Your partiality reposes a trust in me of which I have a grateful appreciation, though its just and proper fulfillment carries with it the most weighty responsibility.
  2. ^ Klein, Kate. "Ezra Cornell's birthplace: The epic trek". Retrieved April 11, 2021. The site of Ezra Cornell's 1807 birthplace in what was then Westchester Landing, New York, is now a McDonald's at 1515 Williamsbridge Road in the Bronx
  3. ^ Retrieved 2007-09-14. Biographical Website
  4. ^ Written by John Cornell at the Cornell Homestead in So. Portsmouth, Rhode Island and dated August 7, 1901. http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ezra;cc=ezra;view=toc;subview=short;idno=ezra000
  5. ^ "The Ezra Cornell Papers".
  6. ^ http://www.mindspring.com/~tvcornel/cemetery.html
  7. ^ "Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina".
  8. ^ Lifshitz, Kenneth B. (2017). Makers of the Telegraph: Samuel Morse, Ezra Cornell and Joseph Henry. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.
  9. ^ James D. Reid, The Telegraph in America, New York: Arno Press, 1974
  10. ^ Robert L. Thompson, Wiring A Continent, Princeton University Press, 1947, p.176
  11. ^ Frank Passic, "Ezra Cornell Had Close Albion Ties," Albion Recorder, Febr. 22, 1999, p.4
  12. ^ Robert L. Thompson, Wiring A Continent,p. 284.
  13. ^ James D. Reid, The Telegraph in America, Arno Press, 1947, p. 470.
  14. ^ Nutt, David (January 8, 2020). "Cornell renews commitment to county library". Cornell Chronicle. Retrieved April 11, 2020.
  15. ^ a b "150 Ways to say Cornell". Cornell University Library. Retrieved April 11, 2020.
  16. ^ Nocella, Michael. "Tompkins County Public Library Celebrates 150th Anniversary". Ithaca.com. Ithaca Times. Retrieved April 11, 2020.
  17. ^ "Ezra adorns downtown Ithaca library wall". Cornell Chronicle. October 10, 2016. Retrieved April 11, 2020.
  18. ^ Nash, Margaret A. (November 2019). "Entangled Pasts: Land-Grant Colleges and American Indian Dispossession". History of Education Quarterly. 59 (4): 451. doi:10.1017/heq.2019.31.
  19. ^ Nash, Margaret A. (November 2019). "Entangled Pasts: Land-Grant Colleges and American Indian Dispossession". History of Education Quarterly. 59 (4): 452. doi:10.1017/heq.2019.31.
  20. ^ Parameter, Jon (October 1, 2020). "Flipped Scrip, Flipping the Script: The Morrill Act of 1862, Cornell University, and the Legacy of Nineteenth-Century Indigenous Dispossession – Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Project". blogs.cornell.edu. Retrieved March 12, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  21. ^ Nash, Margaret A. (November 2019). "Entangled Pasts: Land-Grant Colleges and American Indian Dispossession". History of Education Quarterly. 59 (4): 451–452. doi:10.1017/heq.2019.31.
  22. ^ Russell, John (February 4, 2011). "Cornell connection - New York university founder picked up Wisconsin lumber land — on the cheap". The Chippewa Herald. Retrieved September 29, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  23. ^ "Lehigh Valley Trestle". toursixmilecreek.org. Archived from the original on September 9, 2017.
  24. ^ New York State Education Law § 5703(b).
  25. ^ + Ezra+Cornell+Trustee-all "Charles Ezra Cornell 21 Becomes First Student on Trustee Board". Cornell Daily Sun. Vol. 76, no. 49. November 17, 1969. p. 9. Retrieved December 3, 2010. {{cite news}}: Check |url= value (help)
  26. ^ Kuznik, Frank (December 1994). "Personal Effects". Air&Space Magazine. Archived from the original on May 17, 2006.

Further reading[edit]

  • Dorf, Philip (1952). The Builder, A Biography of Ezra Cornell. New York: The Macmillan Co.

External links[edit]

New York State Assembly
Preceded by New York State Assembly
Tompkins County

Succeeded by
New York State Senate
Preceded by New York State Senate
24th District

Succeeded by
Academic offices
Preceded by
Chairman of Cornell Board of Trustees
Succeeded by