Family Tree Tuesday – Ezra Cornell
He was born in Westchester county, NY to Elijah Cornell and Eunice Barnard. He was a cousin of Paul Cornell, the founder of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Cornell is also a distant relative of William Cornell, who was an early settler of Scarborough, Ontario and named used for the planned community of Cornell, Ontario.
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,” a Methodist by the name of Mary Ann Wood. He responded by stating “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..”
He made his fortune in the telegraph business as an associate of Samuel Morse, having gained his trust by constructing and stringing the telegraph poles between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD, as the first ever telegraph line of substance in the U.S. Cornell invented the idea of using glass insulators at the point where telegraph lines are connected to supporting poles to address the problem of telegraph lines shorting out to the ground. Along with partners John James Speed and Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith, Cornell 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, it was completed in 1849 and Cornell was made president of the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company. Cornell made his sister Phoebe his telegraph operator which made her the first woman operator in the United States.
He earned a substantial fortune when the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company was consolidated with Hiram Sibley and his New York and Mississippi Company to form the Western Union company. Cornell received two million in Western Union stock.
He became a philanthropist when he retired from Western Union endowing the Cornell Library, a public library for the citizens of Ithaca. He was a lifelong enthusiast of science and agriculture and 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. Cornell University was granted a charter in 1865 with the help of Andrew Dickson White.
Ezra Cornell corresponded with a great many people and would write dozens of letters each week which was partly due to his wide traveling. Cornell University has made the approximately 30,000 letters in the Cornell Correspondence available online.
Since the founding of Cornell University, the charter specified that the eldest lineal descendent of Cornell is granted a life seat on Cornell University’s Board of Trustees, currently Ezra Cornell IV. Since Ezra Cornell IV took the post in 1969, the law was amended from specifying the “eldest male lineal descendent.”
In 1990, G. David Low who was a 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.
Did you know Ezra Cornell and Samuel Morse were related? They were fifth cousins!
Check out Ezra Cornell’s family tree here and see how you’re related!