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Utilities Tycoons (1899)
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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
at “A Classification of American
New thematic list
Utilities Tycoons (1899)
new thematic list
Public Utilities Tycoons (1899) at
Encyclopedia of American Wealth
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
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.
Mackay, the second on our list, was a member of the Irish
group of silver kings of the Comstock lode in Nevada (which also
‘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
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
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