A Slip Of Paper

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In 1881 William G. Fargo died in his fine house in Buffalo, and J. C. reigned in his stead. Reigned is the word, because for thirty-five years he was the omnipotent ruler of American Express.

You would never guess the power of the man by looking at him. He was slight and of medium height. He always wore dark conservative clothes and, inevitably, a derby hat. A short, greying beard into which his moustache blended almost concealed his mouth. His cheeks were ruddy with an out-of-door look despite the fact that he spent most of his life in an office.

A nice conservative gentleman, you would say, until you felt the impact of his eyes boring through you from above the eyeglasses which he wore halfway down the bridge of his nose. Those eyes could see anything their owner wanted to observe and nothing to which he was indifferent. For example, he never saw any of his employees, not even his intimate friends among the high officials, as he walked rapidly through the building, but he would see a bit of unfinished business on the desk of a clerk closing up for the night and would sharply demand its completion.

That was his way of speech, brusque and to the point - his way of life, in fact. He was razor-sharp, and not a man you could be friendly with.

He arrived at the office every morning at nine-thirty exactly. Tom Donaly, who ran the old wooden elevator at 65 Broadway, always had it waiting for the president at that hour, and everyone else had to walk until he went up.

Yet J. C. never wanted yes-men around him. The officials he ignored with Olympian aloofness on his arrival were privileged to argue all they liked with him about business. They would even write each other insulting little notes which were duly preserved in the files. However, once J. C. made up his mind, that was the way it had to be.

In these days of rate fixing by government commissions, with lawyers arguing pro and con and learned judges listening intently, the simplicity of Fargo's method of making a tariff is refreshing. One day a route agent came in from a trip through the grape-growing district of New York State.

"How are things in Marlborough?" J. C. asked.

"They're humming. A bumper crop of grapes.�

"Let's see, the rate from there is thirty cents a hundred. Think they'll stand for fifty cents?"

"They can afford it."

Fargo pulled a pad of manila paper toward him and wrote:

Hereafter the rate from Marlborough will be fifty cents.


That scrap of paper was sent around the office and then put in the files. And the rate from Marlborough was fifty cents.

Only one employee is known to have directly disobeyed the president. It was a blazing-hot day and the officials who were working late in Fargo's office were dripping with sweat. They made up a list of food for supper which included a growler of beer. J. C. turned to George Weston, his office boy (later treasurer of the company), and said, "Run out and get this for us."

Weston, who was "temperance," read the list and turned purple and then pale. "I couldn't do that, sir," he said. "I'd have to go into a saloon."

"George, you're fired!" Fargo snapped.

But after he had cooled off J. C. called Weston back and promoted him. He respected a man of principle.

Another contradiction of Fargo's character was his foresight in some matters and his extreme conservatism in others. He was directly responsible for the two accountsin his money trunk which contained gold dollars, sovereigns, francs and an equally heterogeneous assortment of silver coins. He further reports: "Left Albany office 2:45 P.M. Arrived New York office 9:55 P.M. Crossed river on ice. Left keg of coin in Albany, it being imprudent to risk it on the ice."

Evidently he valued the money more than his life.

To transport the money in the cities, American Express had its money wagons. These precursors of the present-day armoured trucks were small one-horse express wagons, caged in by wire netting, with three armed men on the box. They were primitive but effective against the simpleminded gangsters of that innocent era.

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THE SEVENTIES and eighties of the last century, more than any other period in American history, have the strongest nostalgic pull for the people of America. Those were our days of serenity when, at peace with the world and ourselves, we built confidently for the future and enjoyed the simple pleasures of the present - or so it seems as we look backward. Certain inanimate objects symbolize that tranquil mood - the traditional one-room schoolhouse, whether red or. white or made of logs; a railway train, with its engine trailing a plume of white smoke along the roofs of ornate Pullman Palace cars.

Ranking with these in happy memory are the express wagons, green of the Adams, red of Wells Fargo, dark blue and red of American. In winter they were replaced by big sleighs as brightly painted and drawn by powerful teams of matched horses, on the collars of which silver bells chimed exquisitely through the frosty air.

The arrival of the... see: WAGONS, SLEIGHS, AND SILVER BELLS

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