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Cyrus W. Field
We, the people of the United States, have been celebrating with memorable pomp the discovery of our hemisphere by Christopher Columbus, and the elder nations and far-off islands have joined us in an immense festivity, honoring beyond all example of approbation an adventure that was a marvel, and an achievement that is immortal.
All the world remembers the voyage of Columbus, that, persevered in through trials and perils, ended in triumph--how he studied the stars and the charts, and out of the dreams of ages wove the fabric of fancy that grew to theory, and prophecy, and history, that there was land beyond the Atlantic; and there is no moment in human life supreme above, or of more fascinating interest than, that when, from the deck of his caravel he saw the light on the shore of the new world.
An incident worthy to be associated for ever with this, is that of Cyrus West Field, in his library, turning over a globe, after a conversation relative to extending a line of telegraph to Newfoundland, to reduce the time of the transmission of news between Europe and America; when the idea flashed into his mind that the telegraph might span the Atlantic. The next day Mr. Field wrote to Lieutenant Maury, of the National Observatory at Washington, and to Professor Morse, who invented the telegraph.
The Atlantic telegraph was as truly the conception and the accomplishment of Mr. Field, as the discovery of America was the ambition and the act of Columbus; and Chief Justice Chase was not extravagant when he said the telegraph across the ocean was "the most wonderful achievement of civilization," and entitled "its author to a distinguished rank among benefactors;" or when he added: "High upon that illustrious roll will his name be placed, and there will it remain while oceans divide and telegraphs unite mankind." John Bright said: "My friend Field, the Columbus of modern times, by his cable has moored the New World alongside the Old."
Equally lofty testimony to the splendor of his fame is that of the London Times of August 6, 1858, saying: "Since the discovery of Columbus, nothing has been done in any degree comparable to the vast enlargement which has thus been given to the sphere of human activity."
From the first vital spark that at last glows into the bloom of life, each human being is endowed with certain qualities and capacities, aptitudes, inspirations, possibilities, limitations; and if one trace the stream of blood to its remotest sources, there is no inconsistency in ancestry, and the science of humanity may be as strict within its boundaries as that of geology, or the story of fruitful trees, or the magnetic constellations.
The four famous brothers have given the Field family an almost unique celebrity in this country. They were the sons of the Rev. David Dudley Field, of Western Massachusetts, the room-mate at Yale College of Jeremiah Evarts, father of William M. Evarts. Field and Evarts entered college together in 1798, and graduated in 1802. The American Fields are the descendants of John Field, the astronomer of Ardsley, in Yorkshire, who gained a great reputation by publishing astronomical tables, and died in 1587. Ardsley, it has not passed from the general recollection, was the name of the estate on the Hudson where for so many years Mr. Cyrus W. Field made his summer home.
The family name was in the fifteenth century changed from Feld, Feild, Felde, and Fielde, into its present form; and John Field, the astronomer, was the first to introduce the Copernican system in England, and he received a patent in 1558, authorizing him to bear as a crest over his family arms, an arm issuing from clouds and supporting a globe. Dr. Richard Field, chaplain of Queen Elizabeth, was of the same family, and author of the "Book of the Church," republished in four volumes at Oxford in 1843.
It was the last day of autumn, November 30, 1819, at the Morgan Place, on a hill that sloped to the river, near Stockbridge, Mass., that Cyrus West Field was born. There were three older brothers--David Dudley, Timothy Beale, and Matthew Dickinson. The Cyrus came from a man of note in the town, named Cyrus Williams, and the West from Dr. Stephen West, the predecessor of Dr. David Dudley Field in the pulpit at Stockbridge. It is said of the child that he was of very delicate organization, so weak and frail that his body "had to be supported by a frame in which he could roll around the room till his limbs could get strength to bear him." There was, however (as his younger brother, Dr. Henry M. Field, the historian of the family, says in his vigorous English), "a nervous energy and elasticity derived from his mother," that brought him up, and "once set upon his little feet, he developed by incessant motion," and he was noted for "restless activity," a characteristic of his whole life. His frame, always slight, "became tough and wiry, capable of great effort and great endurance." Cyrus was the one of the Field boys who did not go to college. When fifteen years of age, his brother, David Dudley, who was nearly fifteen years his senior, and lived until his ninetieth year, secured a place for him in the store of A. T. Stewart. Cyrus was a thorough country boy, and his mother's boy, and did not take kindly to the city at first. Dr. Field says: "I well remember hearing my brother Matthew tell mother how Cyrus had come down to the boat on which he left the city, and wept bitterly; and mother telling him, the next time he went to New York, if his little brother felt so still, to bring him home." Mr. Field soon grew tired of being a clerk, and launched out in the manufacture and sale of paper. His capital was his brains--and in twelve years, when he was but thirty-three years old, he was in possession of a handsome fortune, and thought of retiring. This, however, was only a phase of restlessness, and he had before him nearly forty years of extraordinary activity. His great works and trials, his counting his gains and losses by millions, his glory and his sorrows, were all before him. The first of his many long journeys was to South America, with the artist Church, who painted for him the "Heart of the Andes." He ascended the Magdalena River, climbed the Andes to Bogota, crossed to Quito, and by way of Guayaquil, in Ecuador, reached the western coast, and returned home October, 1853, in time for the golden wedding of his parents. Then he set about the task of retirement from business, and was in a feverish state of energy upon that subject, and drifted into the twelve years harassing struggle, from the time when, in his house in Gramercy Park, he sat alone and turned over the globe, and thought of a telegraphic cable through the Atlantic, until the tremendous task was gloriously finished. After writing to Maury and Morse, Mr. Field called in his next-door neighbor, Peter Cooper; and next called Moses Taylor, who listened for an hour without saying a word; and brought in his most intimate friend, Marshall O. Roberts; and then Mr. Chandler White (who died the next year and was succeeded by Wilson G. Hunt). They organized "The New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company," Field, Cooper, Taylor, and Roberts putting in $20,000 each, and White a smaller sum. Field and White, with David Dudley Field as legal adviser, set forth for Newfoundland to get a charter, and called it a fishing excursion. They got a land donation, and an exclusive right to land cable for fifty years. There was first to build a line of telegraph four hundred miles through the wilderness, across the huge island. The land-line work lasted three years, and each of the parties who started by putting in $20,000, put in ten times that amount, and Field much more. The first cable across the Gulf of St. Lawrence was a failure. The second one held; and at last there rolled two thousand miles of tempestuous ocean, with a bottom that was a mystery, between the verge of the American soil and the Irish coast.
Mr. Cyrus W. Field visited England as an Atlantic cable missionary, and addressed the Chambers of Commerce in the principal cities, and the members of the Government. His intense convictions and incessant enthusiasm made way. The scientific men of England were cautious but hopeful. There had been, as it happened, the year before a survey of the North Atlantic, disclosing conditions of the bottom of the sea, and they were reassuring. The Government was so far interested as to engage to furnish ships to lay the cable, and to guarantee #14,000 a year for messages sent if it proved a success--four per cent. of the expected cost; but the capital had to be raised by private enterprise, and Mr. Field visited Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, and subscribed one-fourth of the whole sum. His persistence was continued until the money was raised; but his friends in America were not eager for the stock, and he had to pay into the treasury of the company #88,000 in gold. The complete responsibility of Mr. Field appears at every point. He was the inspiration and the moving force from first to last. The work was strange, and there were delays and details of difficulty arising at every step, that a thousand times would have been insurmountable, if it had not been for the indomitable Field, whose tenacity even exceeded his impetuosity. There were two governments to be negotiated with to furnish ships. The cable was at last ready and on board--and three hundred and sixty-five years after Columbus sailed from the shores of Spain, Field sailed from Ireland, the Lord-Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle, making the speech of the occasion. The first effort was to lay the cable straight from Ireland to Newfoundland, and the start was made Wednesday, August 5, 1857. Three hundred and fifty miles out the cable broke. That was failure; and Field's private fortune had suffered severely from his absence. But the next year he was again in England and another start was made--the ships going half-way and joining the cable and running both ways. The cable parted again and again, and the ships returned to England. All were in despair but Field, and he rallied once more, and another trial was made--and succeeded. The cable lasted for a few weeks and gave out. The people were wild with delight at the success, and utterly cast down and disgusted by the failure. But the proof was out; the thing could be done. Cables had been laid in the Mediterranean, and final success was in sight. A new cable was made and coiled on the Great Eastern--and when starting from Ireland and one thousand two hundred and fifty miles were out, there was a break where the ocean was two miles deep, and a year was lost. Then another cable on the Great Eastern, and in 1866 it held out all the way over. This was the year of the war between Prussia and Austria, just after the battle of Sadowa. The next thing was to find and splice the lost cable of the year before, and that was done, one of the most wonderful things that ever happened. Mr. Field told the story before the Chamber of Commerce of New York in November, 1866, saying, after the lost cable was found and spliced: "A few minutes of suspense and a flash told of the lightning current again set free--some turned their heads away and wept, others broke into cheers. Soon the wind arose and we were for thirty-six hours exposed to all the dangers of a storm on the Atlantic; yet in the fury of the gale, as I sat in the electrician's room, a flash of light came up from the deep, which, having passed to Ireland, came back to me in mid-ocean, telling that those so dear to me, whom I had left on the banks of the Hudson, were well, and following us with their prayers. This was like a whisper of God from the sea, bidding me keep heart and hope."
The Great Eastern safely landed the second cable, and the two worlds were safely forever joined. Mr. Field said he had often, in the long struggle--nearly thirteen years in the forests of Newfoundland, on ships in stormy seas--almost accused himself of madness, sacrificing everything for what might prove, after all, but a dream. He received the thanks of Congress, with a gold medal--the grand medal of the French Exposition of 1867. Honors were heaped upon him. If he had been a British subject, he would have been made a baronet. He had given twelve years without accepting remuneration for time or toil, and his hopeful, at last haggard dream, was a marvellous golden reality.
He was forty-seven years of age. He visited Egypt at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1864. He attended the millennial celebration of the settlement of Iceland in August, 1874. He made with his wife a trip around the world in 1880. He was known in all civilized lands as one of the foremost men of his time. All the people of the highest distinction in England knew and admired him as the most typical and celebrated of Americans. Mr. Gladstone, Mr. John Bright, the Duke of Argyle, Dean Stanley were his intimate friends. His house at Gramercy Park was the scene of a splendid hospitality. There gathered in his ample parlors, stored with souvenirs from every land, and in his dining-room, men and women of the highest consideration at home and abroad.
The keenness of his intelligence had increased with his unprecedented experience. His triumphs had given him confidence in his executive ability, and there was nothing too daring for him to contemplate. His bitter lessons in going to the verge of ruin, when he gave the fortune of his youth to the enterprise that he carried to success, were amply pondered, and he resolved never again to allow those near and dear to him to take the chances of cruel fortune and the anxieties of impending want.
When his years were numbered in the thirties, he was meditating retirement from business; and when he was in the sixties, his irrepressible activities carried him into the development of the elevated railway system on Manhattan Island, with the same ardor and fixed purpose with which, thirty years before, he had invaded the wilderness of Newfoundland to find a basis of operations for the conquest of the Atlantic. His faith was undaunted and without limit. His touch revealed new fortunes. He saw that the elevated lines that developed Harlem, would also improve lower New York; and the Washington Building, No. 1 Broadway, was the materialization of the thought. The intensity that was remarked in his childhood, and that commanded the confidence of the capitalists of England, knew no abatement. He had been very cautious in advising Englishmen about investments, but had imparted to some of them the assurance that United States Bonds were as sound as the English investment of national debt, and they profited by accepting his judgment. He insisted upon popularizing the elevated roads by a uniform fare of five cents, and had it done against strong opposition, and was more confident than ever in the stock, of which he had an enormous holding. But it took years longer than he had calculated to make good his plans, and in the interval came a financial storm that compelled him to submit to a heavy loss. He bore his misfortune with fortitude, and still had a competency ample for him, when there came a torrent of ill-fortune--the loss of his beloved wife, and the failure of his sons, under circumstances that bore the distressing stamp of insanity in one of them, a taint of madness that was in the blood which had been so prolific of genius. He suffered where he was strongest and weakest--in his love and his pride.
His spirit would have been invincible if his heart had not been broken. No husband and father was ever more solicitous for the welfare of wife and children. The death of his wife, followed by the disasters that overtook his sons, wounded him as mortally as if a flight of arrows had pierced him. The very contingencies of fortune against which he thought he had provided with infinite painstaking, fell upon him as if from clouds in a sky he thought clear. His deepest resolution was that, after the long strain of facing the total loss of fortune during the dark years of the cable enterprise, he never again would consent to take the chances of the catastrophe that had haunted him, and from which he had escaped at such hazard that the fortunate interposition seemed miraculous; and he did not consciously do the wrong to himself and dear ones he had with such anxiety sought to avoid. His misfortunes were as incalculable as incurable.
The family affection of the Fields is one of their distinctions, and the love the four brothers, known to all the world, bore each other, was as gentle and full of all happiness as that of children. The "little acts of kindness, little deeds of love," that, as the old hymn says, would make the world an Eden, were never wanting. The festivals in which they delighted were those of the family--the eightieth birthday of the oldest brother--the golden wedding. In his long travels, Mr. Field was ever thoughtful of home, and it was like him, giving a dinner to a company of Americans in Edinburgh, to telegraph to their families so that each guest found the news of that day, from his own fireside, in a cablegram on his plate.
Mr. Field was no doubt attracted to Iceland, in 1874, by his studies of the northern waters; the way the world tapers off in the high latitudes, and the fact that Iceland must have been often in his mind as he studied Newfoundland and Ireland, and knew that Iceland was so near Greenland as to belong to the American continent, and to have been a stepping-stone from Norway to Labrador. He was regarded by the Icelanders as almost as great a man as the King of Denmark, who visited his remote possession at the same time; and they thought Field even a greater discoverer than Columbus, for they said the Genoese navigator got his knowledge of the land in the west from their ancestors, and sailed on a certainty.
On the day President Garfield was shot down, he was on his way to Williams College, and was to dine that night with Mr. Cyrus Field at Ardsley, and go to the old place he called "the sweetest in the world" next day. A yacht was waiting to convey the President from Jersey City, when the news of the assassination became known. The President suffered mentally because he had not made adequate provision for his family, and Mr. Field headed a subscription list with a liberal sum, and in a few days had a quarter of a million dollars safely invested for Mrs. Garfield and her children. The motive of this timely and apt generosity was, first, to afford consolation to the dying chief magistrate.
It was within the scope of the ambition of Mr. Field to span the Pacific as well as the Atlantic Ocean with a cable; but having triumphantly overcome one ocean, he failed to put a girdle round the earth, as De Lesseps, having succeeded with the Suez Canal--the only work of the age to be named with the Atlantic telegraph--failed at Darien.
If the prosperity of Mr. Field had continued, and the light had not gone out in his home, he would not have been content until he had ransacked the globe for ways and means to have followed the sun to Asia with the telegraph. His footsteps point the way, and the road to India is westward.
The golden wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus W. Field was attended by hundreds of those who knew and loved them, and the great double house of the Fields, fronting on Gramercy Park, was full of bright faces and glittering with lights. The historic home was soon darkened and made desolate. The master, the renowned victor--no name more certain of an honorable immortality than his--was one whom "unmerciful disaster followed fast and followed faster." His wife passed away at Ardsley before the deeper gloom of the storm, and he died there July 12, 1892. In his delirium on the morning of his death, he was again on the stormy coast with the cable fleet; and he said: "Hold those ships--do not let them sail yet." Through the centuries there had descended to him from the old astronomer, his ancestor, the far-flashing conception of enterprise and understanding of the splendor of destiny that was his star, and mingled with its light were the gentle influences of the religion of his fathers, always to him real and radiant. He sleeps well, amid the scenes where he passed his boyhood, and for which his heart yearned always--beside his beloved wife; and carved in the marble of their tomb as the last testimony to the loving heart of his companion, are the words: "Love is eternal." The recollection of his sorrows will not, as the centuries come and go, dim the beautiful light of his illustrious name.