Thursday, September 14, 2023

William G. Fargo "Expressing" the Nation


The William G. Fargo Estate Buffalo NY
  William G. Fargo and Henry Wells were 19th Century Entrepreneurs, who were the founders of the modern-day financial firms of American Express and Wells Fargo.  Fargo also served as mayor of Buffalo during the Civil War (1862-1866). In addition to his prominent roles with American Express, Wells Fargo, and several railroads, Fargo also had directorship and shareholder positions in several Buffalo companies. 
 He built his French Mansard-style mansion on a site bounded by Fargo and West Avenues, Pennsylvania and Jersey Streets, two city blocks. There was 5-½ acres of stately grounds surrounding it. Presidents Grant, Cleveland along with Mark Twain were among the many distinguished visitors to the mansion and was said to be the most elaborate and costly private mansion in the state outside of New York City. The mansion was built for $600,000, that is 15 million dollars today! There was a central tower five stories high. At his request it contained wood from all the states in the Union. It was the first home in the city to contain an elevator, had a barbershop, and the dining room had two stages for entertainment. It has even been said to have had gold doorknobs.
Henry Wells
In 1841 Fargo became the first freight agent at Auburn Station for the Auburn & Syracuse Railroad, and with his excellent performance, his supervisor, Henry Wells, promoted him to express messenger the next year. Wells operated several small express companies along the route from Albany to Buffalo, New York. Wells started his own freight service in 1844 with Fargo and Daniel Dunning becoming his partners. Their Wells & Company offered "express service" from its headquarters in Buffalo New York to such western cities as Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St Louis. Wells eventually left to start a rival firm, and these two companies were soon engaged in cut-throat competition with a third firm, owned by John Butterfield.
    In 1850 the three companies merged in Buffalo, under the new name of "American Express.” When Gold was discovered in California, Wells and Fargo recognized the need for freight service from the Pacific coast to the business establishment on the East Coast. Butterfield and other directors of American Express objected to the extension of its operations to California.  To shield American Express from any financial risk in this new service, they started a second firm, Wells Fargo & Company, in 1852. The company opened for business in the gold rush city of San Francisco. Within a few years the new Wells Fargo & Company was the dominant stagecoach line. The company contracted with independent stagecoach companies to provide the fastest possible transportation and delivery of gold dust, important documents and other valuable freight. It also served as a bank—buying gold dust, selling paper bank drafts and providing loans.
A Wells Fargo Stagecoach
Wells Fargo drivers were well armed and the firm was known for its aggressive pursuit of robbers. With aggressive business tactics over the next decade, Wells-Fargo came to control virtually all shipping west of the Missouri River including a part of the Pony Express route.  After Butterfield became disabled by a stroke and Wells retired, Fargo took control of the business as president of both companies.  He employed hundreds of men across the nation including his own 11 siblings and invested thousands of dollars in live stock and various manufacturing enterprises.  
The invention of the Telegraph ended the Pony Express and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, caused  both American Express and Wells Fargo to gradually shift their emphasis from shipping by train to banking and other financial services.  Fargo became even richer, as he had heavily invested in numerous railroad companies, one of which led to the naming of Fargo N. Dakota in his honor.  He always had a desire to be in politics and following his four years as Mayor of Buffalo during the Civil War made an attempt at NYS Senate, but lost.  Fargo had stood against secession and supported the Union during the war. Fargo ensured that employees who served in the War would continue to receive partial salary during their enlistment.
    Fargo retired in 1872 and spent the remaining nine years of his life at his beloved estate.   William Fargo died in 1881 and 
his brother James succeeded him as President of American Express and introduced financial products such as money orders and travelers checks. He held the post till 1914. His widow, Anna remained in the home until her death in 1890. It was estimated that his estate in addition to his mansion that covered two city blocks was worth over two million dollars in 1881, over 60.5 million today!
      Two surviving daughters living elsewhere, were not interested in moving back to Buffalo and maintaining the estate.  Too expensive to maintain, with no buyer to be found, the mansion stood vacant for ten years. It was demolished in 1900 and the block cut into residential lots in 1901.

So when you see Wells Fargo logo on a building or vehicle, or use an American Express card, or live on Fargo St., you can be proud of the historical connections to Buffalo.

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