A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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  Chronicles of American Wealth / Nr 29 / September 21, 2006

<<  List of chronicles   

Content :

1 – New Chapter : “ 12 Utility Tycoons "
2 –
New thematic list : “ Public Utilities Tycoons (1899)
3 –
Quiz around the telephone - win a free one year subscription ?


NEW Chapter 12 : Utility Tycoons NEW

A rather little known but significant part of the history of great American fortunes of the Gilded Age is related to the United States’ public utilities : its telegraph and telephone lines, street railways as well as gas and electricity infrastructures. These businesses, which in many countries started as, or soon after their beginnings became, government owned and operated enterprises, were the basis of several huge private fortunes in the United States of America.

Called “public utilities” because of their general usefulness to the public at large, these businesses invariably depended on franchises from local, state or sometimes even the Federal government, for the rights-of-way and other uses of the public domain. As in the case of the railroads, such dependency on government franchises enticed the promoters of public utility enterprises to cultivate at best close relationships to public officials, and more often than not, to dispense outright bribes or other forms of pecuniary generosity to the latter.

Public utility enterprises were not invented during the Gilded Age. With the appearance of the first large cities, the needs for sanitary amenities, notably clean water distribution and the disposal of waste, became a rising preoccupation of public officials. The first horse drawn street railway appeared in New York City as early as 1832 and magnetic telegraph communication developed rapidly after its first application between Washington and Baltimore by Samuel F. B. Morse (and others) in 1844.

But like in the case of railroads and industrial enterprises, the heydays of growth and concentration of America’s public utilities occurred during the Gilded Age, triggered by population growth and the development of the US capital markets.

Continued as Chapter 12 “Utility Tycoons” at “
A Classification of American Wealth”.


New thematic list : " P
ublic Utilities Tycoons (1899) "

The new thematic list Public Utilities Tycoons (1899) at Encyclopedia of American Wealth
is a complement to Chapter 12 about the entrepreneurs and financiers who set up and consolidated America’s telegraph and telephone lines, city street railways as well as gas and electricity plants and distribution networks.

The list contains names, estimated fortunes and some details on their assets of 100 among the wealthiest public utility magnates at the turn of the (Twentieth) century. Many of these capitalists were engaged in other businesses, either before or after making a sizeable part of their fortunes with public utilities. Some people on the list are heirs to public utility tycoons who had already died and their estates distributed by 1899.

The list is headed by Russell Sage, a Wall Street financier and money lender, who was once sentenced to prison for usury and whose fortune was closely tied to the one of Jay Gould. If railroads were Sage (and Gould’s) main business, their joint takeover of the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1881 and their promotion of the Manhattan Elevated Railway also made them first rate utility tycoons.

John William Mackay, the second on our list, was a member of the Irish group of silver kings of the Comstock lode in Nevada (which also included ‘Senator’ James Graham Fair, James C. Flood and William O’Brien). In 1883 he associated with James Gordon Bennett jr to found the Commercial Cable Company and thus entered the telegraph business on a grand scale. With his 80% stake Mackay provided the money, while Bennett, who had inherited the New York Herald from his father, was to contribute some of the business.

The most successful utility tycoons as a group was doubtlessly the Street Railway Syndicate, including P.A.B. Widener and William L. Elkins from Philadelphia, William C. Whitney and Thomas Fortune Ryan from New York, Anthony N. Brady and to a lesser extent Charles T. Yerkes from Chicago. At the height of their power, these men not only controlled the street railways of America’s major cities (Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Baltimore) but also acquired a controlling minority the American Tobacco Trust.

Like with other wealth classification lists, the thematic list Public Utilities Tycoons (1899) is in no way final but just the first step in a process of updating our coverage of the wealthy individuals and families of the Antebellum South. The wealth classification lists of 1875 and 1900 have been updated at the occasion. Other lists will follow.

Browse the thematic list Public Utilities Tycoons (1899) or other wealth classification lists (1650 to 1950) and read more about the wealthy Americans and wealthy American families of the past at
"Encyclopedia of American Wealth ".


Quiz around the telephone 

Answer the quiz by e-mail to american.wealth@raken.com
(subject “Quiz”) and get the chance to win a free one year
subscription to “
A Classification of American Wealth “*

1. Who was the inventor of the telephone in America ?
    a.  Alexander Graham Bell
    b.  Gardiner Greene Hubbard
    c.  Thomas Alva Edison
    d.  Antonio Meucci
    e.  Elisha Gray

2. Who was the first American telephone millionaire** ?
    a.  Alexander Graham Bell
    b.  Mabel (Hubbard) Bell
    c.  Thomas Sanders
    d.  Elisha Gray
    e. William Hathaway Forbes
    f.  Theodore Newton Vail
    g. John Pierpont Morgan

* Only the first correct set of answers to reach us will be rewarded. There is no recourse and no correspondence about the quiz will be made. The answers and the winner’s name and location (state or country only) will be published at a later date.
Only the first answer from each e-mail adress will be considered.
** Meaning the first to make one million dollars from the telephone business or any share in it.

hank you for your
interest. Enjoy reading.

D. C. Shouter
September 2006 


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