The Expressmen's Picnic

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The Expressmen's Picnic

The Expressmen's Picnic

Despite the problems and uncertainties of the express business, it continued to be highly profitable. By 1854 the capitalization of the company had risen from a meek £150,000 to a robust £750,000. The company was vigorously expanding in all directions, and Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion for January 1854 states: "At the head of the express companies doing a domestic business stands the American Express Co., Wells, Butterfield & Co., Livingston Fargo & Co., proprietors. Their messengers move from twelve to fifteen thousand miles per day, traversing some dozen or more different states and territories. . . . There is no more reliable and responsible company in the world than the American Express Company . . and it deserves unlimited public confidence for its promptness and fidelity."

The same magazine goes on to describe the annual expressmen's picnic held on Christmas Day, 1853. All the express companies took part in the dashing parade up Broadway past A. T. Stewart's huge new store, known as the "Marble Palace." Adams & Co., Kinsey & Co., Hamden & Co., and Northern Express were all represented, but American Express had the finest equipment. Four of its famous dark blue wagons with scarlet wheels and lettering were each drawn by teams of four fat and shining horses. In addition, there were two smaller wagons with a tandem hitch.

Benches were placed crosswise in the open wagons on which the expressmen, in silk hats and black broadcloth, sat solemnly, with the icy wind combing their whiskers. Gleason's Pictorial goes into schoolgirlish raptures over "these fine-looking, athletic, noble young men, whose good character and perfect honesty lead the public to entrust them with millions upon millions of dollars yearly."

Quite early in its career American Express began to acquire permanent places of business. Unincorporated companies were unable to hold real estate, so these early purchases were made by individuals who held them in trust for the company. The first of these ventures by American Express was the purchase, in 1851, of 60 Main Street in St. Louis. In 1854 the company picked up a valuable parcel of land on Vesey Street in New York, where it erected elaborate stables to house some of the hundreds of horses that were its motive power.

In 1856 the company decided to build a headquarters, the splendour of which should fittingly reflect the magnitude of its success. First land was purchased at the corner of Jay and Hudson streets in New York City. Then the directors told their architects to design the finest structure of its kind in America. Even the short, sharp depression of 1857, in which eighteen New York banks failed, did not stay the progress of the work, and the building was completed in 1858.

When it opened, 61 Hudson Street was magnificent, indeed. The finest Westchester marble made its arcaded fa´┐Żade a thing of gleaming beauty. Within, it was the last word in modern design. Spur tracks from the Hudson River Railroad ran into the ground floor. The cars drew up to a platform where the packages were unloaded. In the wagonway opposite the express wagons stood waiting to rush deliveries to all parts of the city.

The money department, separated from the package express, was a large vaulted room "with the counters, decks, and fixtures gotten up in a neat and elegant style."

The other floors were devoted to administrative offices to handle the huge business of the company. According to Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper for July 10, 1858, 17,000,000 pounds of freight were shipped and received here annually, while "the treasure passing through the hands of the American Express Company in this city amounts . . . to over two million per diem. It is estimated that the actual value of the moneys, goods and treasure in the hands of the company . . . is never less than three millions of dollars, and at a certain hour of the day, just previous to the deliveries . . . it is over five millions of dollars."

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What next? Going to California

Going to California

In 1852, two years after the formation of the American Express Company, Henry Wells and William Fargo proposed to its Board of Directors that the operations of the company be extended to California. That year more than £60,000,000 in gold came out of the California mines, most of which was shipped East by express over the sea route to Panama, then by land across the Isthmus, and on by ship again. Alvin Adams was getting the lion's share of this business, and Wells wanted the American Express Company to challenge his monopoly.

John Butterfield opposed the idea, and the other two directors present voted with him, vetoing the proposal. Messrs. Wells and Fargo were annoyed but not defeated. They secured financing and formed Wells Fargo and Company, which eventually broke the Adams monopoly and became the leading express company of the West. It developed a close working agreement with the American Express Company whereby the express business was divided... see: Going to California

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