Growing Pains

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GROWING PAINS

GROWING PAINS

THEY TALKED about infant industries in 1850. Americans still thought of their country as a small boy among the nations. But he was a very husky youth. It is true that none of the gigantic combinations of industry had yet taken place, and the great spider web of railroads that was to tie the country together was just being spun - indeed, there was no through line as yet to Chicago. Nevertheless, things were booming. Our clipper ships ranged all the seas, carrying a larger percentage of the world's trade than has ever been transported in American bottoms since. The fast packets of Vanderbilt's European Steamship Line, the United States Steamship Line, and the famous Black Ball Line were more important on the transatlantic run than the new British Cunarders. More than thirteen hundred ships, from iron screw steamers to schooners, were built in American yards that year, and our foreign trade amounted to more than £400,000,000 - no mean amount in pre-Civil War dollars.

Internally there was a tremendous drive of economic expansion. The gold flowing from the California mines into the channels of industry was a powerful stimulant. In 1850, 55,000 people crossed the continent, and 36,000 went West by sea. As they turned California from a wilderness into a thriving state, they voraciously demanded the manufactured goods of the industrial East.

Twenty years before a railroad ever spanned the continent, this demand was satisfied by ship and wagon freight. It took four months for an ox train to go from Missouri to the far West; but despite the difficulties and perils, the freight moved, and it was big business by any standard. At one time a single firm of freighters, Russell, Majors and Waddell, owned 45,000 oxen and employed 8,000 teamsters.

On the Mississippi River it was steamboats all the way. Never before had men travelled as luxuriously as in those fast flat-bottomed ships, with their triple and quadruple tiers of decks, all splendid in white and gold, and their ornate saloons, with every comfort from heavy plush furniture to row on row of gleaming spittoons.

Thus, while every American industry was growing fast, the field of transportation led all the rest.

Born in this golden hour, the American Express Company moved rapidly with the times. Henry Wells and William Fargo, its leading spirits, were temperamentally and intellectually equipped to take full advantage of the situation. They put the impress of their vigorous personalities upon the company so completely that through the long uncertain years, and still today, it is unique among great companies for its flexibility and readiness to seize the flying coattails of opportunity. It was Wells who set the standard of politeness toward the public which characterized the company from the start. "There is one powerful business rule I would recommend to every young man," he said. "It is concentrated in the word courtesy. And when an official of American Express wrote a savage letter to a customer, Wells said, "This is a luxury we are not able to indulge."

Immediately after their first meeting in Buffalo, the directors of the new company energetically set out to further its affairs. Butterfield and Livingston began contractual negotiations with the Hudson River Railroad Company. Together with Fargo, they also arranged the purchase of the small firm of Rice and Peck in order to secure their contract with the New York and Erie Railroad. With an eye on our rapidly growing trade with Canada, McKay and Fargo purchased the Buffalo and Canadian Express Company from Charles S. Mead. A little later Butterfield and Fargo journeyed by canal boat and stage through Ohio, Iowa, and Illinois, arranging to extend American Express to such fast-growing towns as Sandusky, Dubuque, and Galena. They likewise contracted for the building of packet boats to run on the Illinois Canal and connect with the Illinois River steamboats.

The directors also put American Express into the fast-freight business by forming a line operating over the New York and Erie which was named the Merchants Dispatch.

Of them all, only Henry Wells was not up and doing. For the first time in his life he took a vacation, going gaily off for a four months' trip to Europe.

On his return late in July, Wells walked into the directors' meeting at Baggs Hotel in Utica to find very pleasant news awaiting him. In his absence he had been unanimously elected president of the American Express Company at an annual salary of £1,250. In addition, he learned that in its first four months of operation the company had earned enough money to pay a dividend of 10 per cent on its capital stock.


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What next? The Fargos

The Fargos

Probably the most important meeting of Henry Wells's life was when he became acquainted with a round-faced, bustling young fellow named William G. Fargo, who was the Auburn freight agent of the Auburn and Syracuse Railroad. Fargo had a thorough knowledge and vast enthusiasm for the business of transportation. At the age of thirteen he began his distinguished career in this field by delivering the United States mails on horseback to districts contiguous to his home town of Pompey, New York.

The famous association began in 1843, when Wells hired Fargo away from the Auburn and Syracuse to be an express messenger. Eventually theirs became one of that great series of twin names known to all civilized men - Castor and Pollux, Damon and Pythias, Willcox and Gibbs, Wells and Fargo.

In 1844, Fargo and Wells entered into their first partnership. With Daniel Dunning they organized an express line from Buffalo to Detroit. In 1845, this became the Western Express,... see: The Fargos


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