Hamden And Wells

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Hamden and Wells

Hamden and Wells

Hamden began with an advertisement in the Boston Transcript of February 13, 1839, offering an express service to New York leaving once a week by train and boat. He soon got more goods than he could carry himself and began to branch out until he had developed a triangular service between Boston, Albany, and New York, with connections to the Southern states.

As his Albany agent, Hamden engaged Henry Wells, the son of a Congregationalist pastor from Thetford, Vermont. Wells had been a schoolteacher and, recently, a freight and passenger forwarder on the bustling Erie Canal. More important, from Hamden's point of view, was Wells's friendship with Daniel Drew, whose fast freight and passenger steamers were the queens of the Hudson River. Hamden could assuredly pick the right man, for he had hired the greatest expressman of them all. But he could not keep him long.

From Hamden's office on the lower tip of Manhattan Island, the view was south and north, and east across the sea. But Wells turned his big Roman nose to the west and sniffed business. He proposed to his employer that they inaugurate an express business to the thriving lakeside port of Buffalo, whose wharves, he said, were "the threshold over which all travellers stepped on their way westward.

Hamden replied with one of those contemptuous snorts that echo down the ages to the acute embarrassment of the snorter: "If Mr. Wells chooses to run an express to the Rocky Mountains, he may - I would not do it!"

A few years later Henry Wells proudly told an audience of Buffalonians: "That was a strong expression then, with a far, wild figure for its illustration. But far and wild as it was . . . beyond the distant limit Mr. Hamden fixed, there is not a pathway, a road, a highway, but that men trust their most valuable property to the express and the Rocky Mountains are only a way station on our line."

The story of the American Express really begins in 1841, nine years before the day on which its founders signed their agreement. That year Henry Wells resigned from Hamden's service and, joining with George E. Pomeroy, an enterprising messenger of the same firm, and Crawford Livingston of New York, formed the firm of Pomeroy & Co. As their manager, shipping agent, carter, and messenger, Wells made the first historic trip to Buffalo.

His experiences, which he related in a speech in 1863, were typical of the difficulties and rigors of such pioneering enterprise. We see him first, a tall young man, walking swiftly down Exchange Street in Albany on a rainy night in 1841. The rain drummed on the high crown of his beaver hat and blackened the greatcoat he wore over his formal city dress. It silvered the fresh color of his face and sparkled like hoarfrost on his broad brown beard. The wind tore at him and jostled the heavy carpetbag he carried, which contained gold, silver, currency, and commercial paper consigned to the businessmen of Buffalo.

Wells was an impatient young man, and he breasted the storm eagerly, almost running down the steep hill toward the shed beside the railroad tracks. At this primitive station he bought two seats - one for himself and one for his moneybag - to Auburn, the end of the line.

The train, made up of four or five "coaches," was waiting. That word describes its cars well, for they were boxlike contraptions in evolution from stagecoach to railway car. Wells took his place on a hard cross-bench and put his precious bag beside him. Up in front the engine driver was getting up steam, considerably hampered by the fact that he stood on an open platform behind the brassbound boiler of his iron horse, and the wood he threw into the firebox was soaked by the slashing rain. At length he achieved his purpose and furiously clanged the bell to indicate departure.

There was a series of frightful groans from the engine as her drivers spun rapidly on the slippery tracks. Then they took hold and the train began to move with spasmodic jerks and bangs as the loose chain couplings snapped tight. Wells grasped his moneybag firmly and settled himself for an endurance test.

The train reached Utica at three o'clock in the morning, where it sat in a cold cabin until another locomotive arrived from Syracuse. After some hours it started again with the inevitable crashes and bangs. A little later another sort of pandemonium, accompanied by shouts of "It's a runoff!" startled the express messenger.

As usually happened at least once on each trip, the locomotive had jumped the narrow strap rails and wandered into a cow pasture. Wells helped the train crew and passengers pry her back on the track with crowbars and fence rails, and once more the train crawled forward until, with a gasp and a sigh, it stopped at Auburn.

There Wells transferred himself and his carpetbag to one of Sherwood's coaches. As that clumsy vehicle pitched and bucked over the frightful roads, it made riding on rails seem comparatively luxurious. Only once did the four straining horses break into a trot - as they crossed the rattling boards of Cayuga Bridge.

Wells took another short train ride from Geneva to Rochester and Batavia. From there it was forty miles of staging to Buffalo. Rumpled and weary after three nights and two days on the road, Henry Wells climbed out of the coach in front of Steele and Peck's bookstore at 206 Main Street, still firmly clutching that carpetbag. Express service had come to Buffalo.

For eighteen months Wells made the round trip to Buffalo once a week. He later described it, "In summer endurable, in winter simply frightful." But it was worth it. Wells expressed his own firm belief in the service he had inaugurated when he told the people of Buffalo, "When I took your little package in 1841, and you believed that you would trust the Express to see what it would do, you initiated a power for good."

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IN 1850 the tide of population was sweeping westward, carving a civilization out of the wilderness and uncovering the vast riches of the continent.

But not all the pioneers wore buckskin shirts or carried picks and shovels. Some remained at home to plan the future with daring and vision. Such was the group of men in beaver hats and broadcloth coats who gathered around a table in the Mansion House at Buffalo on March 18, 1850. Theirs was a mundane business compared to the adventures of the free-wheeling hordes who stormed westward. It concerned stocks, notes, rates, and contracts; all the trivia of finance. Yet these men, too, were pioneers despite their formal clothes and carefully trimmed beards. Their motive was mainly financial in the great tradition of free enterprises - as, indeed, were the motives of those thousands trekking westward - but the men in broadcloth saw a vision beyond the making of money, and in time their secondary... see: EARLY IN THE MORNING OF ENTERPRISE

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