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The Ezra Files: Ezra Cornell ponders his fortune, 1863-64

The creation of Western Union had made Ezra Cornell a wealthy man, with an annual income of $140,000. On Jan. 13, 1864, he wrote to Judge Francis M. Finch:

"I have five children, it would not benefit them to give them more than $100,000 each, thus less than half is disposed of. ... The Library will probably absorb $60,000, but supposing it to go to $75,000. What shall I do with the balance? I hope to do much good with it, but I really don't know how to dispose of it in a will so as to do the good with it that I should desire to do."

In his old "cyphering" (exercise) book in July that year, he wrote to himself: "The yearly income which I realize this year will exceed One Hundred Thousand dollars -- My last quarterly dividend on stock in the Western Union Telegraph Co. was $35,000. My greatest care now is how to spend this large income to do the greatest good to those who are properly dependent on me, to the poor and to posterity..."

Cornell had always been generous, so long as the cause embraced his values of education and honest hard work. His personal philanthropies were numerous, and he often made small grants to individuals. During the Civil War, he was active in local and state war-relief activities, heading the Ithaca relief committees.

For Cornell, however, the greatest good was always education, both for his own children and more broadly. He had already helped found an Agricultural Reading Room, purchasing books and subscribing to journals. He took an active part in creating the New York State Agricultural College at Ovid and served on its board of trustees and also helped organize a Farmers' Club. Cornell had always had an enormous respect for books and for their influence. He purchased books for his family, even when he had little money.

In 1863, he proposed building and endowing a public library for Tompkins County, with rooms for the Farmers' Club and Museum and a place for the new Tompkins County Historical Society, which he also was helping to organize. He also supported a proposal to establish Cascadilla Place, a water cure sanitarium and school for the education of women doctors and nurses.

But soon, Cornell would take his philanthropic visions further.

-- Adapted by Susan S. Lang from the Web site "Invention and Enterprise: Ezra Cornell, a Nineteenth-Century Life."

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