[New York]. November 25, 1870. pp. on a folded octavo sheet. Old folds. Very faint adhesive remains at left corners of first page. Near fine. Item #WRCAM57403
A brief letter in which John Jacob Astor III modestly declines to join the board of directors of the Southern Transcontinental Railway Company. Astor writes to lawyer and jurist Edwards Pierrepont that his "principal reason for declining is, that I could & would be of no use to the Company in any way, beyond such very slight and temporary support, as it might possibly derive from my name. As for taking any real share in 'the important duties' to be discharged in 'carrying out this' great enterprize I could not do it, and I do not desire to take a share of good things that I have done nothing to create."
Astor may have made his decision after the fact. A NEW YORK TIMES article from November 1, 1870, entitled "Permanent Organization of the Southern Transcontinental Railway Company," recounts the meeting in which the railroad was formally established, led by Gen. John Fremont. Astor is listed among the directors elected that day, along with Pierrepont and with Marshall O. Roberts being elected as president. Either Astor changed his mind, or never wanted to serve in the first place and was elected in absentia. The latter seems more likely, as he notes, "I do so [decline the directorship], at this moment, for the reason that I have been notified to attend a meeting of Directors on Monday next, and it is better for the Board to start without me, than for me to resign after operations have been commenced."
John Jacob Astor III (1822-90) was the wealthiest man in America for much of the 19th century. Although he initially dabbled in railroads like so many capitalists of the day, he ultimately narrowed his focus to New York real estate, which made him tremendously rich and secured his reputation as a notorious slumlord, with help from Tammany Hall. At the same time, he was well-known for his philanthropy, giving large sums to the Children's Aid Society, the New York Cancer Society, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Edwards Pierrepont (1817-92) had a distinguished legal career in and out of public office. After practicing law for many years, he was elected to the Superior Court of New York City in 1857. Pierrepont was a Democrat, but supported Lincoln during the Civil War. He later served in many roles during Grant's administration, including as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1869. By 1870, he was back in private practice, and was a prominent member of the "Committee of Seventy" that finally broke Boss Tweed's hold on Tammany Hall and the city writ large. He then became director and legal counsel for the newly chartered Texas and Pacific Railroad (of which Fremont was president), which soon acquired the Southern Transcontinental Railway Company and merged with the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Whether it was political disagreement between Astor and Pierrepont, or simply Astor's wish to stay out of railroads, Astor certainly made the right decision in the short term. Subsequent instability in railroad expansion and the Panic of 1873 devastated many investors, including Fremont. For his part, Pierrepont returned to government, becoming Grant's Attorney General in 1875, and later U.S. minister to Great Britain.
A brief but notable piece of correspondence from one of the richest men in 19th-century America.