Historical Albion Michigan
By Frank Passic

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Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.

EZRA CORNELL HAD CLOSE ALBION TIES

Albion Recorder, February 22, 1999, Pg. 4

With the “invention” of the internet in recent years, issues such as long distance telephone “remote” toll charges to the major national internet providers, or high subscription charges, local “non-profit” restrictions, busy signals, and comparing Albion with what is available in other communities have certainly been topics of discussion here from time to time.

Historically however, we are reminded that this is not the first modern means of communication that has been offered to our citizens in order to put Albion in contact with the rest of the world. The telegraph was once a major means of communication in the mid-19th century, and Albion was in the forefront of its development and service.

Last week in this column we made reference to Ezra Cornell (1807-1874). Ezra of course was one of the major developers of the telegraph system in the country, and one of the founders of the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1855. He helped the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel B. Morse, by inventing a machine that would lay the wires underground. Cornell had previously been involved in the farm implement business there in N.Y. He subsequently founded Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. in 1865. His son Alonzo (1832-1904) served as governor of N.Y. from 1880 to 1883.

Ezra had a strong “Albion connection.” Three of his sisters moved here: Phoebe (1816-1897); Mary (1818-1897)(Mrs. Hiram Robertson); and Jane (1831-1892)(Mrs. James Finch). There are numerous descendants still in the area today.

Phoebe married Martin B. Wood (1807-1881) in Ithaca, N.Y. in 1837. The couple lived in Dryden, N.Y. and moved to Michigan to a farm just north of Homer in 1844. In 1846 Ezra Cornell founded the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company, and offered his brother-in-law Martin a position of overseeing the construction of the new telegraph lines. Martin was a shareholder in the new company, the stocks of which sold for $50 a share. The Wood’s moved to Albion in 1848, and Ezra established telegraph service here.

Ezra asked his sister Phoebe to run the Albion telegraph office, located in her home on the northwest corner of N. Superior and W. Vine Sts. She accepted the position and in 1849 the local office became a full-time operation. Phoebe was the manager of the local telegraph office for eight years, until 1856 when Western Union took over. She held the distinction of being the first woman telegraph operator in the United States. The Woods later built their own private residence on W. Mulberry St.

Phoebe’s husband Martin was in charge of laying and expanding the telegraph lines for the company, particularly in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Martin was named treasurer of the company in 1853, and also served as master of repairs of the Western Division. He supervised the laying of the new Western Union lines along the Michigan Central Railroad in 1856, and in 1858 did the same for the Wabash Railway. Martin also served as Albion Village president in 1859, and served as a member of the first village board (1855). Martin was an excellent manager for Ezra, and in the early 1860s managed his coal and oil properties in Ohio.

The family tradition continued, and the Wood’s taught their son the trade. Orson B. Wood (1841-1905) was an excellent telegraph operator and served here for twenty-seven consecutive years. A son of Jane (Cornell) Finch, Frank A. Finch (1866-1931) was a telegraph operator with the Milwaukee Railroad in South Dakota for fifteen years. Other Albion citizens also learned the telegraph trade.

In June 1855, Ezra Cornell moved the western headquarters of the company from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Albion for a brief time. Later that year the company was merged with several other states’ companies (owned by Ezra) to form the Western Union Telegraph Company. Ezra was backed by financier Alfred Vail, and telegraph inventor Samuel Morse. Thus Albion played a vital part in the development of this once important means of communication.

Locally, Ezra visited Albion for long periods on numerous occasions. Because of that fact and because some of Ezra’s sisters living here, the parents Elijah and Eunice Cornell moved to Albion. One 1855 reference states, “and with Ezra spending far more time in Albion than at Ithaca, the aged parents were drawn westward.” In 1856 Ezra purchased a lot and built a home for his parents on the southeast corner of N. Clinton and W. Vine Streets, where the parking lot for the Chemical Bank (formerly the Bank of Albion) accounting center is today. The elder Mrs. Cornell died the following year in 1857 at age 67, and the father died in 1862 at age 84. Both are buried in Riverside Cemetery.

This week we present a photograph of Ezra Cornell, founder of Western Union and Cornell University, and his sister, Phoebe (Cornell) Wood, the first woman telegraph operator in the United States. Today in Albion we are learning computer codes. One-hundred fifty years ago our Albion pioneers were learning the Morse Code. My, how times have changed.


Ezra Cornell


Phoebe Cornell Wood

Next: THE GREAT FLOOD OF 1908


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