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CHAPTER XXIV

PETER COOPER

 

Mr. Peter Cooper, of New York, like his great contemporary, George Stephenson, of England, may be justly looked upon as the pioneer of the locomotive system in America. Undoubtedly he built the first locomotive ever constructed here; and although (as we have stated before) his little machine was not intended for practical purposes or employment upon a railroad, yet it was designed to demonstrate a fact then very much doubted, namely, the ability of a locomotive to travel on the short-curved roads in this country, which Mr. Cooper's successful performance set at rest forever. But the Herald was antedated in another quarter. Mr. Cooper commenced his career in life from the very foot of the ladder, and, like him also, by his indomitable perseverance and industry, clambered step by step from one round to another, ascending until he reached the proud pinnacle of the topmost round, as a pioneer in the great achievements of the locomotive, now an indispensable necessity for the successful prosecution of trade and commerce throughout the world.

"The history of a poor boy, without education or influential friends, who, by honesty, industry, and persistence, raised himself to a position of wealth and reputation, cannot but be interesting. Such, if properly told, would be the life of Peter Cooper—a man who, perhaps, as much as any other citizen of New York, has left his mark on his associates, and has placed his name in imperishable remembrance.

"He was born in the city of New York, February 12, 1791. His maternal grandfather, John Campbell, was Mayor of New York, and deputy quartermaster-general during the Revolutionary War, in which his father also served as a lieutenant. Mr. Cooper's father was a respectable hatter, and, as soon as young Cooper was old enough to pick fur from the rabbit-skins used in making hats, he was set to work. He had no opportunities for education, and only attended school one or two months in his life. 'I have never had any time to get an education,' he ones almost pathetically remarked, 'and all that I know I have had to pick up as I went along.'

"He remained in the hat business with his father until he had mastered it in all its branches, and during much of the time, after he had finished his labors for the day, he would work until late at night with some carver's tools which his grandmother gave him, in order to eke out his small wages.

"We, who go to our places of business at nine, or less, and leave at five, can little realize the toil which falls to the lot of mechanics. The Cooper Institute is the result of the recollections of those early days, and was intended to help poor boys in the same situation as he had been. Young Cooper afterward went into the brewing business, at which he remained about two years. He then served the usual apprenticeship to coach-making, and finally Event into the cloth-shearing business with his brother. For some time he succeeded very well, but after the War of 1812 his business was so injured by the introduction of foreign cloths that he left it and began cabinet-making. He gave this up after a while, and opened a grocery-store on the present site of the Cooper Union, where he carried on a small retail trade for some time. He finally bought a woollen factory with his savings, and since that time has steadily prospered. He has since tried his hand at other lands of business, but the largest part of his fortune was gained by the manufacture of glue and by his ironworks. He has shown a Yankee talent for undertaking different speculations, as well as great shrewdness and prudence in conducting them.

"In 1830 he erected extensive iron-works at Canton, near Baltimore, where he built from his own designs the first locomotive ever turned out on this continent. He carried on large wire and rolling mills at Trenton, New Jersey, and was the first person to roll wrought-iron beams for fire-proof buildings. He has been much interested in the progress of telegraphy, and has been an officer in several leading telegraph associations

"It was while serving as an alderman, forty years ago, that Mr. Cooper conceived the idea of the 'Cooper Union.' A fellow-officer who had visited the Ecoles d'Irbdastree, in Paris, and been much impressed with their utility and attractions, described them to him and suggested that they would be well suited for introduction into this country. The thought thus planted in Mr. Cooper's mind, remained for long years, germinated, took root, and grew into the accomplishment of his design.

"Let those who think it an easy thing to do good, ponder the lesson taught by Mr. Cooper's experience in building the Institute. The mere saving and donating the money for the purpose was but a fraction of the work performed. Great difficulties had to be overcome in designing so unique a building. Mr. Cooper was determined that it should be fire-proof, consequently a separate foundry had to be erected to forge the iron used in the construction; when this was done, the estimated outlay fell short twenty-five thousand dollars of the actual cost. Countless other obstacles had to be overcome, and finally the Institute was completed, at an immense cost over its estimated expense. In fact, it took all Mr. Cooper's money to finish it, and he was comparatively a poor man when all the bills were paid; but, as if to reward his sacrifices, his business has since improved, until he is now richer than ever.

"What greater triumph could be desired, than to have accomplished such a work as the Institute as it now stands, with its classes for young men and women, its scientific, literary, art, and music schools, reading-room, and other features, and what greater honor could be desired than to go down to posterity as its founder? Let the voices of those who have received its benefits be a peal to the memory of its originator, and let his name share the glory of their deeds!

"But nothing is complete in life without its disagreeable side, and noble as have been Mr. Cooper's motives, and open as were his plans in erecting this institution, not a few persons have avowed their belief that it was all done with self-interested views.

"After this, who can expect gratitude from the world?

" Mr. Cooper's personal appearance is familiar to every New-Yorker. He is of middle stature, with silver locks and beard, and a venerable and benevolent face. He is best known by his old white hat, which, like Horace Greeley's, is characteristic of the man. He commonly drives about in an old-fashioned one-horse chaise, drawn by a steady mare, the whole turn-out looking as if it belonged to some well-to-do farmer or retired tradesman, rather than a millionaire.

"The key to Mr. Cooper's life and deeds is to be found in those few words which we have heard from his own lips: 'I resolved that I would repay every benefit which I had received by conferring an equal benefit on some of my fellowmen.'

"His success in business has been greatly due to a faculty for taking up enterprises which had been abandoned by other people, and by dint of perseverance and hard making them succeed. In the main, however, he has gained his ends by attending to his affairs in person, and has always strictly followed Dr. Franklin's principle—'The eye of the master is North all of his servants.' Even at his present advanced age he does not neglect this rule, but keeps a strict eye upon the affairs of the Cooper Union."

We cannot leave Mr. Cooper, even now, without devoting a few pages of our work to record his last act of generosity, benevolence, and philanthropy, toward the meritorious poor and industrious classes of our community, in his munificent bequest of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to be used in the establishment and endowment of a library, where the hardworking and deserving classes, who desire repose and relaxation after the toils of the day, can seek recreation and information from the great store of useful books he has placed within their reach, where all may participate who feel a desire of so doing, and know that they are welcome.

On the day of this munificent bequest, Mr. Cooper reached his eightieth birthday, February 12, 1871. On that occasion a most interesting interview took place between the graduating class of the Institute and their venerable benefactor and friend. We trust that our readers, many of whom no doubt will be found among the mechanics and working-class of the community, will not deem it out of place here to record the doings on that most interesting occasion.


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