A Catskill Catalog: August 27, 2008
Jay Gould’s reputation in history was shaped on September 24, 1869, one of several “Black Fridays” in American financial history, this one a day when the price of gold dropped over 20 percent from $169 to $135 an ounce. Gould, president of the Erie Railroad, and his partner, Jim Fisk, had begun buying gold in August of that year in an attempt, it was said, to corner the gold market. When the price fell, Jay Gould took much of the blame.
His reputation wasn’t enhanced two years later when he posted bond for the jailed Tammany Hall political leader, Boss Tweed, or three years later when English bondholders in the railway forced him out as president over accusations the Erie had issued fraudulent securities.
Gould died of TB in 1892 at age 56. Had he lived as long as his contemporaries – men like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller – he might have been able to give away enough money to restore his reputation, at least a bit. Modern biographers like Edward Renehan (The Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons, New York: Basic Books, 2005) have re-evaluated Gould’s business career, finding constructive results despite questionable methods.
RR track control
In the late 1870s, Gould bounced back from losing the Erie when he gained control over the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific Railroads, among others. By 1881, he controlled over 10,000 miles of track, 15 percent of total American mileage at the time, and he held a controlling interest in the Western Union telegraph company and in New York City’s elevated railways. At his death, his wealth was estimated at $72 million, billions in today’s money.
Jason “Jay” Gould was a son of the Catskills, born May 27, 1836 on his family’s West Settlement farm in Roxbury. The house is still there. His father, farmer John Burr Gould, was also born in Roxbury, 44 years earlier, son of a sea captain and grandson of a soldier killed in the Revolutionary War. Jay Gould’s mother, Mary More Gould, was a descendant of the founders of Moresville, today’s Grand Gorge.
The youngest of five children, little Jay was a gifted scholar, first at the Meeker Hollow school, then at a school over the hill in Hobart, and finally at the Beachwood Seminary a half-mile below the family farm. There, he was a classmate and friend of the young John Burroughs, and a student of James Oliver, the inspirational schoolteacher who profoundly influenced both boys.
Jay Gould’s first business venture, at age 16, was a partnership with his father in a hardware store in Roxbury. Today, an art gallery occupies the store. Jay kept the business ledger and was the firm’s buyer, traveling to Albany and New York City to procure the inventory.
Always fascinated with geometry and logarithms, young Jay, in 1852, contracted to survey Ulster County. From that experience, Gould decided to make and market his own maps. After a couple of semesters studying at Albany Academy, he conducted a survey of Delaware County, having hired a couple of surveyors to facilitate the job, and created a detailed map of the county. An original Jay Gould map is a collector’s item today. Several hang in Delaware County public buildings, one in the former superintendent’s office at Margaretville Central School.
In 1855, Gould wrote a history of Delaware County, losing the first completed manuscript in a fire, and rewriting the entire thing. The following year, he entered into partnership with Zadock Pratt in establishing a tannery in Pennsylvania in a town that soon became known as Gouldsboro, down around Stroudsburg.
Gould was in the tanning business for four years, managing the rural tanning end of the business while associates in New York City procured the hides and found buyers for the finished leather. He also got involved in the lumber business and in banking.
In 1863, Jay Gould married Helen Day Miller. Through his father-in-law, Daniel S. Miller, Gould became manager of the Rensselaer & Saratoga Railway, which he bought and re-organized. He soon added the Rutland & Washington Railway to his portfolio, selling both at a handsome profit, before moving to New York City where he began to buy and sell railroad stocks. It was then that he entered American history.
Jay and Helen Gould built one of America’s castles, Lyndhurst, down in Westchester County, where they raised their five children: George, Edwin, Helen, Anna, and Frank. But home for Jay Gould always meant Roxbury. Soon after he died, on December 2, 1892, his children built Roxbury’s Jay Gould Memorial Reformed Church in his memory.
Perhaps, Gould’s reputation was best characterized by his boyhood friend, naturalist John Burroughs. “Jay has got himself a whole lot of enemies,” Burroughs wrote his father in 1871 at the height of Gould’s notoriety, “Everybody seems to think he is the worst kind of man since Judas. I tell them he ain’t nearly so bad as is made out, but nobody listens.”