“A Mechanic of New York”
Peter Cooper devised valuable inventions in many areas, from glue manufacture to railroads to iromworking. His most important one may have been the most basic: free education for all.
AS THE ERIE CANAL NEARED COMPLETION IN THE 1820s, IT BROUGHT HAPPY anticipation to businessmen in New York City. The canal would carry raw materials from the country’s interior across New York State from Lake Erie to Albany; from Albany goods would travel down the Hudson River to the city’s port facilities on their way to manufacturers at home and abroad. Finished goods would travel to the rapidly growing Western states by the reverse path. The canal would be a windfall for both city and state.
Merchants in Philadelphia and Baltimore were much less enthusiastic. They saw the fruits of commerce with the West falling into the hands of their northern rival. Philadelphia’s leaders envisioned a canal-and-river link of their own with Pittsburgh. Baltimore’s city fathers, confronted by unfavorable terrain for canal building, turned to a daring new technology, the steam railroad, and thereby set the stage for one of America’s great can-do stories: Peter Cooper and his Tom Thumb locomotive.
Col. John Stevens had already demonstrated the potential of locomotives on rails. In 1825 he built a half-mile circular track on his tree-shaded estate in Hoboken, New Jersey, and gave guests rides on an engine he and his son Robert had put together in their workshop. That same year, in England, George Stephenson’s Locomotive No. 1 made its celebrated run from Darlington to Stockton, opening the world’s first steam railroad line. Stimulated by these examples, Baltimore pushed a bill through the Maryland legislature chartering the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and on the Fourth of July 1828, amid suitable fireworks, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned the first shovelful of sod for the roadbed. Shares in the B&O soared, and eager speculators bought up land along the right-of-way. Among these speculators were two New Yorkers who arranged to buy three thousand acres at Lazaretto Point, across the Baltimore harbor from Fort McHenry (of “Star-Spangled Banner” fame). Being short of funds, the two men invited Cooper, a successful New York merchant, to join them.
PETER COOPER WAS A REAL-LIFE RAGS-TO-RICHES STORY AND more. He was born in New York City in 1791, the son of an improvident Revolutionary War veteran. He attended school for one year, just long enough to learn to read and write, while helping his father in a variety of crafts: hatmaking, brickmaking, and brewing. He remembered being lifted up by his father to glimpse George Washington’s memorial procession on Broadway in 1799. He also witnessed public hangings and whippings whose cruelty made a deep impression on his young mind.
Making things with his hands suited the young man; he loved tools, which he later called “our best friends,” and to the end of his life was shocked to see them mistreated. He had a curiosity about how things worked and an instinct for making them work better. As a young boy, while helping his mother pound the family wash in a wooden tub, he devised a pump-handle lever with a ratchet mechanism that pounded around the tub as he worked the handle. One day he found an old shoe in the street, took it apart, and studied the pieces. Soon he was making shoes for the whole family. A wagon he built brought him six dollars, with which he made what he later called the two best investments of his life, in a lottery ticket and a cigar, which respectively cured him of gambling and smoking (and, by a natural extension, of drinking).
He had an adventurous streak that led him to climb trees, explore houses under construction, sleigh on the frozen Hudson, and ride floating logs. Fortunately his mother was a model of composure. When warned that Peter was up on the ridgepole of the house, she remarked, “Then he will not be drowned in the Hudson”; on hearing that he was swimming in the river, she observed that he was in no danger of falling off the roof.
Cooper was apprenticed at seventeen to a coach maker and proved an exemplary worker. He spent his off-duty hours improving his mind by viewing scientific curiosities at Savage’s museum. On the job, he invented a machine for mortising carriage hubs. He never took out a patent on it and so never made any money from it, but he drew satisfaction nevertheless. In 1879 he noted that his device was still “mortising all the hubs in the country.” At the end of his apprenticeship his employer offered to set Cooper up in business, but Cooper did not view the trade as a lucrative one, so he declined the offer and looked for a new line of work.
An older brother came to the rescue, introducing Cooper to an inventor in Hempstead, Long Island, who had devised a machine for shearing nap in cloth manufacture. After working as a mechanic for about a year, Cooper bought rights (along with two partners) to sell the machine in most of New York State until late in 1812. The following year, with business booming after the War of 1812 shut down British textile imports, Cooper bought out his partners. (Cooper briefly served in the militia during the war before hiring a substitute.) While drumming up business in Poughkeepsie, New York, Cooper struck a bonanza. Matthew Vassar, proprietor of an ale-and-oyster house, not only bought a shearing machine for $150 but bought rights for the county for another $250. Years later Cooper recalled this foundation of his business fortune as he addressed the students of the women’s college Vassar had founded with his own profits. In fact, however, he used the $400 to pay off his father’s debts.
At nearly the same time, Cooper founded a lifetime of domestic happiness by meeting, courting, and marrying Sarah Bedell of Hempstead, his “day star, the solace and inspiration of his life.” Thenceforth “he never sat near her without holding her hand in his. He never spoke to her nor of her without some tender epithet,” in the words of an anonymous eulogist in 1891. Sentiment was fortified by tragedy; the first four of the Coopers’ six children died in infancy. The boy and girl who survived were all the more cherished.
Cooper’s first patent, granted on March 27, 1815, was for a device he came up with while rocking his first child’s cradle. He conceived an automatic rocker operated by a wooden rod run through a hole in the floor to a clock mechanism in the basement. A barrel weighted with rocks acted as a pendulum, and the device was governed by a crown wheel. It could rock a cradle for nearly half an hour on a single winding. Cooper eventually added a music box to his rocker, along with a flagstaff of cloth strips to shoo away flies, all of them powered by the pendulum.
THE END OF THE WAR OF 1812 UNLEASHED A FLOOD OF BRITISH cloth, destroying the market for the shearing machine. Dexterously changing vocations, Cooper joined a brother-in-law running a grocery store on the Bowery in New York City. The store prospered, and it left Cooper time for further invention. In Hempstead he had created a lawn mower without bothering to patent it; now he began thinking in more grandiose terms.
The Erie Canal project was stirring questions about motive power; it occurred to Cooper that the falling water in the canal’s locks might be exploited. In a stretch of the East River (where he had experimented with tidal power in his apprentice days) he built a demonstration rig consisting of a waterwheel, a reservoir, and an endless chain. He fastened the towline of a scow to a hook on the chain, and the scow was towed upstream as the waterwheel turned. In June 1820 Cooper used the device to give Gov. DeWitt Clinton a ride a mile down the river and back in eleven minutes. Clinton was impressed, and the device would probably have been adopted for towboats on the canal instead of horse power except for opposition on nontechnical grounds: Farmers along the canal had been promised that they could sell tow horses and feed to the canallers. Cooper gave free rides to hundreds more East River passengers, but eventually he had to abandon his Erie Canal scheme. Fifty years later the president of the Camden & Amboy Canal in New Jersey had the same idea; he found Cooper’s long-expired patent in the Patent Office and put it to work.
COOPER’S PATH TO GREAT wealth turned out to lie in another, quite unexpected direction. He began investing in New York City real estate, and on a tip from a business acquaintance he bought a bankrupt glue factory in the Manhattan village of Kip’s Bay for $2,000. As economic expansion followed the depression of 1820, the factory shot up in value, but Cooper resisted the temptation to take a quick profit. Instead he resolved to stay in the glue business. The previous owners had been unable to compete in quality with imports. Cooper was undaunted: “I determined to make the best glue, and found out every method and ingredient looking to that end.”
The ingredients—calves’ feet, bones, scraps of animal tissue, and fish scales—were readily available from neighboring slaughterhouses and fish markets. Processing the offal into glue—the best glue—called for intense study, tireless experimentation, and fertile invention. Cooper applied all these and ended up with a patent, signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830, for an “improvement in the art of making Glue … by means of a double-floored evaporating basin.” Besides glue, the factory turned out various allied products made from offal: neat’s-foot oil, isinglass, gelatin, whiting, chalk, and fertilizer. Cooper’s was the first widely used packaged gelatin in America; Sarah Cooper created the recipes that were printed on the packet. The name of Peter Cooper began to be known in the nation’s households.
While Cooper immersed himself in his glue-making experiments, his speculative friends talked him into investing in Baltimore’s railroad future. After reconnoitering the land in person and discovering that his partners were short of cash—in fact, they had none at all—he bought the whole three thousand acres himself and built on it, in 1830, the Canton Iron Works, to fabricate machinery for the future B&O railroad. No sooner was it built than he had to confront a crisis. Thirteen miles of track for the B&O had been laid on granite slabs when a mission sent by the B&O promoters to England in the fall of 1829 had come back with sobering information. British engineers, apprised of the work already done, had condemned the track, which had originally been built with horse power in mind. The curves of Maryland’s hilly terrain, with radii as small as 150 feet, were too tight for existing steam locomotives. Railroad bonds plummeted; Baltimore panicked.
Peter Cooper stepped into the breach. “In the abandonment of that road,” he wrote, “I saw the defeat of my enterprise. It would have been a terrible defeat to me.” Advising the directors to hang on, he told them that “I would put a small locomotive on, which, I thought, could pull a train around those short curves. So I got up a little locomotive.”
The locomotive Cooper christened Tom Thumb was small but powerful, assembled from a brass engine of his own design that he had shipped from New York, a boiler he made in Baltimore, and tubing fashioned from a pair of old musket barrels. To increase the draft in the firebox, he rigged a blowing apparatus driven by a drum attached to a car wheel. Cooper’s locomotive also used wheels shaped like a slice of a large cone—an idea contributed by Jonathan Wright, the B&O’s chief engineer, which improved adherence to the rail. Cooper rated his engine at “about one horsepower.” Its single cylinder was three and a quarter inches in diameter with a fourteen-inch stroke. The boiler was “about as high as an ordinary wash-boiler.”
The first trial of the historic locomotive took place on an unrecorded date; Cooper recalled later only that it was a Saturday night. “The president of the road and two or three gentlemen were standing by, and we got on the truck and went out two or three miles. All were very much delighted.” He planned a longer test for the following Monday, but on Sunday night “some scamp” broke in and made off with the copper from the engine—“doubtless to sell to some junk dealer!” It took a week to replace the pipes and other copper pieces; further setbacks occurred when an inexpert engineer broke two wheels and one of the mechanics assisting Cooper damaged another. Finally all was ready for a public trial, which took place on a Monday in August 1830.
With Cooper himself at the throttle, five others on the engine, and thirty-six passengers aboard the single carriage, Tom Thumb chugged thirteen miles over the track to Ellicott Mills in an hour and twelve minutes and returned, on the downgrade, in fifty-seven minutes. Finding that the safety valves were discharging steam too fast, “I put my hand on them and held them down.”
THE PUBLIC WAS CONVINCED. THE BONDS sold at once, and the B&O was assured success. Through the remainder of the summer Cooper carried out several more demonstration runs, one of which led to a memorable piece of folklore. The leading stagecoach proprietors of Baltimore challenged Cooper to a race over the eight miles from the Relay House to Baltimore, where double track permitted a horse to pull a carriage side by side with the locomotive. The race was arranged, and horse and engine started off together. The horse, a handsome and swift-gaited gray, opened an immediate lead, but as Tom Thumb got up steam, it overtook and passed its rival, amid the cheers of its passengers. Then at the critical moment, to Cooper’s embarrassment, the blowing apparatus failed when the belt slipped off the drum. Struggling to get it back on, he scalded his hands, but by the time he had it in place again the horse had passed the slowed-down locomotive and won the race.
Despite the outcome, “the real victory was with Mr. Cooper,” as John H. B. Latrobe, a lawyer for the B&O, observed in his account. When Currier and Ives memorialized the race, they showed the horse and locomotive neck and neck, offending neither conservative horse fanciers nor progressive railroad enthusiasts. Still, nobody doubted where the future lay.
It lay not just with the locomotive but with the American-made locomotive. British imports, such as the muchheralded Stourbridge Lion , of the Carbondale-Honesdale branch of the Delaware & Hudson line in Pennsylvania’s coal region, proved too huge and rigid for American track conditions. The first American-made locomotive in regular use, Best Friend of Charleston , was made at West Point, New York; the B&O obtained its first regular engines from York, Pennsylvania. By 1834 it had seven in operation, hauling thirty-three passenger cars and—the decisive element—a thousand freight cars. Two new inventions helped solve the American problem of tight curves and uneven roadbeds: the bogie, or pivoted forecarriage, invented by John Jervis of New York in 1831, and the equalizing lever, patented in 1839 by Joseph Harrison of Philadelphia to distribute the roadbed shocks evenly. By the time of the Civil War, America’s railroad lines were the longest in the world.
Railroads, real estate, and the glue business were not enough to keep Cooper busy, so he got himself elected to New York City’s Common (i.e., City) Council. He served for two years from 1829 to 1831 and again for a year from 1840 to 1841. On that body he played a leading role in bringing the city its first decent water supply, carried from the Croton River by aqueduct. To cross the Harlem River and enter the city, in 1830 Cooper proposed a tunnel formed by linking iron cylinders laid in a trench dug in the river bottom. For political reasons John Jervis, inventor of the bogie and chief engineer of the New York water project, eventually built High Bridge instead, but Cooper’s idea was quite sound. In time it was applied widely to water-supply and transportation tunnels. Cooper chaired the committee that managed the building of the aqueduct in the early 184Os and personally supervised the laying of water mains.
One pressing need the Croton aqueduct met was that of firefighting. Fire and police protection were problems for which cities were just beginning to assume full responsibility. Peter Cooper became a leader in both, getting New York’s ancient night watch expanded into a genuine police force and replacing the volunteer firefighting organizations, which resisted strenuously, with a professional force equipped in 1865 with steam pumpers.
Even closer to Cooper’s heart was the education of New York’s children. He was almost entirely self-educated; he even taught himself spelling in midlife in order to write pamphlets in support of his favorite causes. He found time to dip into the classics; Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man was a particular favorite, and he sometimes quoted it at such length as to try his hearers’ patience. In 1838 Cooper became a trustee of the tax-supported Public School Society, New York City’s shaky beginning in free public education. He took the lead in pressing for expansion and improvement, and despite a long, bitter struggle over state support for religious schools, he succeeded in herding at least part of the city’s poor children into class.
While sitting through endless meetings, Cooper acquired an affliction of the “seat bone” that led him to invent the rubber doughnut, an inflated cushion shaped like a life preserver. His friend and fellow inventor Charles Goodyear fashioned it for him, and his young grandson Edward Hewitt often carried it on visits. Cooper was already widely recognized by the fringe of whiskers he had added to his habitually long hair, framing his face like a ruff; the air cushion became another trademark.
He suffered a trauma as the result of a research accident. In the wake of the railroad’s success, age-old talk of a flying machine revived, and Cooper, correctly identifying the problem of excess weight, experimented with an “explosive”—internal-combustion—engine. At the suggestion of his brother Edward, a chemist, he tried a mixture of terchloride of nitrogen, contained in a glass tube to allow visual observation. The tube blew up, and a bit of glass lodged permanently in his left eyeball.
COOPER ENJOYED BETTER luck with a machine designed to grind and polish plate glass, patented in 1835. In collaboration with another brother, Thomas, he had a brilliant success in iron metallurgy in 1842. Cooper had rented a lot on Third Avenue to a wire factory in 1837; the next year its owners, like the glue manufacturers, went broke, so Cooper took it over. His son Edward and son-in-law, Abram S. Hewitt, who had been classmates at Columbia College, helped him find and buy iron-ore properties in New Jersey, where the operation was relocated as the South Trenton Iron Company. (“South” was soon dropped from the name.) Peter and Thomas succeeded in roasting the new anthracite coal from Pennsylvania into a coke effective for iron puddling.
Besides his own inventions, Cooper took a benevolent interest in those of others. Callers at the Cooper house did not need to have an invention—it was said that “the plainest man in New York or Brooklyn” could ring his doorbell and be sure of an audience—but inventors were especially welcome. He always lent advice, and often material assistance, though not with uniform success. In 1878 a boat propelled by a submerged paddle, in which Cooper had invested, sank as soon as the engine was started. “Well,” said Cooper calmly, “I guess that experiment is a failure.” He served on a committee of inventors to advise Congress on amending the patent laws, and he promoted all kinds of civic improvements. In the most significant of these, he combined his interest in technology with his passion for education in creating the institution to be known as Cooper Union.
The idea first took shape in his mind in 1839, when among his real-estate investments he acquired a parcel at Third Avenue and Seventh Street. Over the next thirteen years he added all the other parcels needed to turn his vision into reality. One source of this vision was a friend’s description of the new European technical schools; another was the success of Rensselaer Institute (later Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), in Troy, New York. Much of it was also drawn from Cooper’s own experience. The glue business and New York real estate had made him rich, but he clung to his roots, signing documents “A mechanic of New York.” Philanthropy to him was a means of paying a debt incurred by good fortune; one of his last recorded sayings was “I still feel sometimes as though I am somewhat in debt to the world.” Looking back on his hard-won education, he grasped the tremendous potential benefit of an institution devoted to teaching free of charge “the application of science to the common purposes of life.”
But Cooper’s vision encompassed more than vocational training for young men. Cooper Union embraced three enterprises: first, a curriculum in mechanical arts, which eventually came to include physics, chemistry, mathematics, mechanical drawing, and applied mechanics; second, a vocational school for women, focusing on commercial design but eventually including telegraphy and typing; and third, a center for culture for the masses, who were invited to enjoy the spacious reading room with a collection that soon reached 20,000 books, 150 magazines, and 400 newspapers—for many years the largest public library in the city. Space was provided for scientists to experiment in and for artists to paint in.
The cornerstone was laid with appropriate ceremony in 1853, but construction delays followed. Cooper insisted that the building had to be fireproof. A few years earlier such a requirement would have meant an all-masonry structure, at a cost far exceeding the $660,000 Cooper was pouring into his dream. But wrought-iron beams had been tried in a few buildings, and though none of the size that he would need had ever been rolled, Cooper was confident that he could make them. The Trenton works had pioneered manufacture of the T-rail invented by Colonel Stevens’s son Robert and the wire used in Samuel Morse’s telegraph. Now two years’ effort, at a cost of $75,000, brought success. The very first I-beams, however, were not used on Cooper Union. The Harper & Brothers publishing company experienced a catastrophic fire in 1853, and Hewitt sold the publishing firm on using iron beams. The new Harper building and Cooper Union thus represented an important step in the ascent of building construction toward the metalskeleton skyscraper. The Trenton company profited, switching its main activity from rails to beams.
Another important component of the future high-rise was not quite ready, but Cooper made provision for it in Cooper Union in the form of a large vertical shaft, ready to house the new passenger elevator as soon as Elisha Otis finished experimenting with it.
As it finally arose in the block bounded by Astor Place, Third Avenue, Seventh Street, and Fourth Avenue, the building was an irregular rectangle, four stories high, with a spacious basement meeting hall. The name Cooper Union was bestowed by the state legislature, its founder having christened it “The Union of Science and Art.”
ANY DOUBTS ABOUT THE POPULAR APPEAL OF THE NOVEL institution were dispelled by opening day, November 2, 1859. Registration personnel were overwhelmed; every class was filled at once. “It was incredible that there should be such a passion for learning among the toilers,” mused Abram Hewitt, who became his father-inlaw’s right hand in running Cooper Union just as he was at the Trenton Iron Company.
Cooper Union was “a remarkable mixture of shrewd practicality and naive idealism” in the planning, writes the historian Allan Nevins; in the realization it “completely expressed Peter Cooper’s personality.” Earlier that year Horace Mann, whose Antioch College Cooper had financially aided, offered his students, and America in general, heroic counsel: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Cooper Union was conceived in that spirit. Its founder had listened to the ideas and experiences of many others and had made use of those that best suited his needs. In turn, his creation influenced a host of philanthropic followers. His friends Matthew Vassar, Ezra Cornell, and Edwin Stevens were inspired by his example in founding the institutions named for them, and such philanthropists as Andrew Carnegie, George Peabody, and Philip Armour also all owed something to Cooper Union.
So, perhaps, did the election of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was well known in the Midwest after his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, but he remained obscure in the East. William Cullen Bryant, a leading New York editor and poet and a friend—still another—of Cooper, arranged for Lincoln to address an elite audience in the great basement hall on February 27, 1860. The “Cooper Union speech,” a reasoned defense of the federal right to control slavery in the territories, won over the skeptical and in Lincoln’s own view played a decisive role in his election.
One of the original features of Cooper Union was the reservation of commercial space on the lower floors to provide a permanent source of revenue. This led a cynical element in the press and public to suspect that the whole scheme was nothing but a tax dodge. Arriving by horsecar one morning, Cooper heard the man on the seat opposite telling his neighbor: “There is Peter Cooper’s building. That man is a snake in the grass. See the stores on the ground floor? It is a commercial building, and he is trying to evade tax payments by calling it an educational institution.” Cooper’s reaction was characteristic. Introducing himself to his astonished fellow passengers, who had apparently not recognized his famous whiskers, he extended an invitation: “Alight, gentlemen, and come in with me. You have maligned me. Let me show you the building and explain it.” After the guided tour and explanation, both men apologized, and one of them later offered a contribution.
Even Cooper Union did not capture all of Cooper’s time and attention. When Cyrus Field was invited to tackle the problem of laying a telegraph cable across the Atlantic, he turned for help to his Gramercy Park neighbor Peter Cooper. Though Cooper was wary at first, he embraced the scheme wholeheartedly once he perceived its potential value in diffusing knowledge over the world, and he stuck with it despite ten years of frustrations and setbacks. Abram Hewitt concluded that his father-in-law’s faith in the cable was founded “not so much upon scientific or mechanical knowledge, as upon the conviction that a scheme Ul M so desirable for the good of mankind must be possible.”
In the 1850s Cooper’s attention was drawn for the first time to national politics. Although he had been a lifelong Democrat, he willingly lent the Union’s hall for Lincoln’s speech and sat on the platform, atop his rubber life preserver, during it. When the break with the South came, he contributed powerfully to the Union victory through his Trenton Iron Company, which under Abram Hewitt produced high-grade gunmetal for the Springfield Arsenal. Cooper also gave valuable financial aid to John Ericsson in building the revolutionary ironclad Monitor .
FINALLY, COOPER GAVE A HELPFUL BOOST TO Lincoln’s re-election campaign in 1864. Leading Unionists in Boston, concerned about the New York vote, sent a representative to Cooper, knowing him as one who (in the words of Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s School Days ) “in an ugly squall, never said, ‘Go, boy, and reef that topsail,’ but always ‘Come, boys, let us do it.’” The Bostonian asked Cooper to write letters of introduction to influential leaders, with a view to organizing a mass meeting. “There’s no time for letters or palavers,” Cooper exclaimed, “just get into my buggy.” The buggy stood in the street, its horse tethered to a lamppost. In a twinkling they were off, speeding through the business district at a pace that would have been dangerous except that every coachman, omnibus driver, and drayman recognized the white-haired, white-bearded, bespectacled driver and yielded room. Calling on one friend after another, Cooper soon had a meeting for November 1 organized at his Union; the enthusiasm it generated helped topple New York into the Lincoln column.
In politics as in other spheres, Cooper’s idealism sometimes slipped into naivete. The most glaring case by far was his association, in the city government and Democratic party organization (Tammany Hall), with Boss Tweed, whom he trusted for several years before discovering that the man was the most barefaced scoundrel ever to steal taxpayers’ money. When Cooper’s kindly eyes were finally opened, his son Edward and son-in-law Abram Hewitt both played roles in bringing Tweed down through support of the reform Democrat Samuel Tilden. Both Edward and Abram later served as mayor.
In the 1870s Peter Cooper switched from a lifelong belief in hard money to cheap-money, debtor-friendly “greenbackism,” even consenting to run for President as the Greenback party candidate in 1876. He got about eighty thousand votes from the oppressed farmers of the Midwest, but hardly any in New York.
Nevertheless, his city loved him. It appreciated his philanthropy and loved his goodness of heart. Although he was philosophically opposed to giving alms on the street, he was often incapable of resisting. Once, after handing a dime to a mendicant in the presence of his grandson, he said to the boy, “I can’t help it, but don’t you ever do it.” The city admired him for his business acumen and inventive genius; it honored him for - his absolute probity in an age of gilded chicanery; but it loved him for his democratic plainness and his eccentricities. When the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, visited New York, Peter Cooper was chosen to chair the welcoming ball. He accepted but refused to wear a dress suit until told that Queen Victoria would be offended. He then said that he would never do anything to offend a lady and donned formal attire for the first and only time in his life.
Baltimore loved him too, for the neverto-be-forgotten Tom Thumb . In 1880 the city held its 150th anniversary parade, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the little locomotive’s demonstration run. The eighty-nine-year-old inventor was the star, along with a life-size copy of Tom Thumb .
When he died in 1883 at age ninety-two, New York went into citywide mourning. Along the funeral route shops were shuttered, and many were draped in black; bells tolled in scores of churches. E. L. Godkin, the brilliant and acid-tongued editor of The Nation , wrote that it was high time to start honoring the Peter Coopers of this world instead of those who had merely “contrived to outlive” their rascalities. Recalling his fairness as an employer, the clergyman DeWitt Talmage, in Leslie’s Weekly , asked: In an age when the problems of capital and labor were being dealt with by guns and explosives, “Who ever looked for a keg of dynamite in the cellar of Peter Cooper’s house?”
He was one rich man, everyone agreed, who could get into heaven.