Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Peter Cooper,
the Benefactor of the Uneducated

The city of New York owes a deep debt of gratitude to Peter Cooper, one of its most generous and far-seeing philanthropists, who gave thirty years of his life to planning and developing the Cooper Institute, his noble educational gift to the metropolitan city. His father had named him, not after some insignificant Peter in the family, but after the Apostle Peter, and trusted that this boy would prove worthy of his god-father. He believed devotedly that his son would "come to something," and his faith was not misapplied.

Peter Cooper was born in New York, February 12, 1791. His father was a poor hatter, and the boy had to begin helping him as soon as he was tall enough to reach above the table and pull the hair out of rabbit skins. He kept at this till he knew all about the making of beaver hats, the common head-gear of that day. He badly wanted an education, he was not very old when he saw the advantages of learning, but all the schooling his father was able or willing to give him was half of every day for one year. That was all the school education he ever received.

The boy worked at hat-making till he was seventeen. Then his father went out of that business and into the brewing of beer, at which his son continued to work. Peter did not like this occupation, and as his father was willing to have him try something else, he became an apprentice to a coach-builder. He kept at this till he was of age, learned the business thoroughly, and proved himself so diligent and efficient that his late master offered to build him a shop and set him up in business. This was an excellent offer, but the young man would not accept it. It would leave him with a debt to pay, and of debt he had already a horror, perhaps from his father's experience, so he declined the kind offer.

The young coach-builder had three trades at his fingers' ends, but he had only a smattering of book-learning, and his loss in this respect he felt sorely. While he was an apprentice he bought some books and tried to teach himself. But good school books were not then very plentiful, and those he bought were so learned that he could not half understand them. There were no evening schools to help him, but after a time he found a teacher who was willing to give him lessons in the evening for small pay. His difficulty led the boy to a resolution that had much to do with shaping his future life. He said to himself:

"If ever I prosper in business so as to acquire more property than I need, I will try to found an institution in New York wherein apprentice-boys and young mechanics shall have a chance to get knowledge in the evening." This was a noble purpose, that stayed by him until it was realized.

Young Cooper was not long idle. He got a job that fitted in with none of his three trades. This was in a shop where machines were made for shearing cloth. He got good wages at this and saved all he could, and when a chance opened to buy cheaply the rights to make the shearing-machines in New York he had cash enough for the purchase. This was about the time of the second war with Great Britain, and when the young man was not much over twenty-one years old. He had done very well for a beginner, and he did very well in his new enterprise. Always careful, energetic, and enterprising, and with native business tact, he made money from the start, and on one large transaction cleared five hundred dollars in profits.

This seemed like a good lift for the young manufacturer, but he did not look upon it in that way. While he was going ahead his father had been going behind and getting deeper into debt, and the affectionate son used the five hundred dollars to pay his father's debts. This some might consider not business-like. But it was laudable; it showed a strong moral fibre in the young man; it was something that stood higher than business success.

Peter Cooper was a good deal of an inventor, and made an improvement in the machines that helped their sale, so that he built up quite a large and prosperous business. But after the war ended the demand for shearing machines fell off, and he looked around for something that would pay better. There happened to be a little grocery store for sale at some distance above the town of that day. Fields and vacant lots surrounded it. As he wanted to change his business, he bought this place and moved his home to the store—for he was married by this time. He was now twenty-three years of age.

It is an interesting fact that the little store stood just where the great Cooper Institute now stands. The young merchant was looking far forward. The city was fast growing, and would in time grow round this spot, so that the land which he bought at a cheap price would become very valuable. But he had his future evening school already in his mind, and fancied that some day the plot of ground would become a good central spot for the building he proposed to erect.

There was one thing that must be said for Peter Cooper; he was a born man of business. Everything he touched paid. He knew nothing about the grocery trade, but he soon had his store on a paying basis. And the money he made in this, and that he had made in the machine shop, enabled him after some years to buy out a glue factory and to pay down in cash every penny of the price. At the same time he was supporting his father and his two sisters and paying his brother's way in a medical school. He had made himself the good angel of the family.

The glue factory, like everything he handled, proved profitable, and grew to be one of the most important in the country. He made isinglass as well as glue, and went into other lines of business, and bought all the pieces of land he could find for sale around his grocery store plot, until in time he owned the whole block on Astor Place, where Third and Fourth Avenues now meet. It was thus he got together the ground on which his evening school for boys was to be built.

In 1828 there was much land speculation in Baltimore. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the first important one in the country, was then being built, and many thought it would bring business prosperity to that city. Peter Cooper evidently thought so. He was now getting to be quite a capitalist, and concluded that Baltimore property would be a good investment, so he bought three thousand acres of land within the city limits, paying for it one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. This was only thirty-five dollars an acre, seemingly a very small price for city territory, but it soon began to seem as if he had paid too much, for the building of the road came to an end. All the money invested had been used, and the stockholders would not put in any more. They were afraid of losing what they had already paid in.

This was not to Peter Cooper's liking. He was now a large holder of Baltimore property, and wanted to make it profitable. So he asked the stockholders to wait a while and he would see if he could do something to help their road. He would build them a steam-engine suited to run upon it.

At that time there was not a locomotive in this country except one or two that had been imported from England. And there were not many in that country, for the locomotive was a new thing even there. George Stephenson had only lately invented his improved engine. But Cooper, as we have said, had the inventive faculty, and he set himself to building a steam engine adapted to the new railroad. He succeeded in this. His locomotive was the first ever built in this country, but it was a good one. It was in some ways better than those that had been built in England.

He said about it: "This locomotive was built to show that cars could be drawn around short curves, beyond anything believed possible. Its success proved that railroads could be built in a country scarce of capital and with immense stretches of very rough country to pass, in order to connect commerce centres, without the deep cuts, the tunneling and leveling, which short curves might avoid."

A queer little concern it was, this first American engine. To-day it would look like a toy, but in those days it seemed a wonder. It did what its builder said it would do, and saved the railroad company from failure. But it did not add any new value to Cooper's Baltimore land. To make this pay something else was needed, and he decided to build a rolling-mill upon it. Nothing lay idle very long in his hands. He built his mill. The establishment was called the Canton Iron Works, and soon became prosperous. Great improvements were made in the blast furnace, and the mill and the land both brought him in money. The works were afterwards removed to Trenton, N. J., and for many years were a source of great profit to Mr. Cooper. And in New York he was making not only isinglass and glue, but also oil, prepared chalk, and Paris white; was grinding white lead, and preparing skins for making buckskin leather. His energies reached in many directions, and money was flowing faster and faster into his coffers.

We may be sure that a man as full of public spirit as he would not let his spare cash lie idle. He wanted to help wherever he could, and was active in nearly every work of public benefit going on. He helped Governor Clinton in the Erie Canal project, and invented an endless chain arrangement for pulling the boats along. He aided in the building of telegraph lines, and for many years was president of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company. He served in public offices in New York City, and his interest in education was shown in the work he did for the improvement of the common schools.

All these years Mr. Cooper had his cherished project in mind, considering its character, developing its purposes, adding to its site. By 1854 he felt himself ready to begin the work which had been his boyhood's dream, but which unfolded in his mind much beyond a simple night-school for poor apprentices. To know just to what his plans had grown, one must see the Cooper Institute as it stands to-day, on the spot where the little grocery store of its builder once stood. His final purpose, as declared by him, was that it should be "forever devoted to the improvement and instruction of the inhabitants of the United States in practical science and art."

He gave to it a great deal of money and a great deal of thought and work. He haunted the building, watching every step of its progress, taking hold himself where needed, altering and adding to it wherever he could see a chance of making it better. As it stands to-day it is the most complete free school of its kind in the country, with every convenience for students and everything necessary for them to gain an education in the practical needs of life. Over two thousand pupils attend it every year, coming from all parts of the United States, and no man ever built himself a nobler monument than Peter Cooper.

For almost thirty years his hale and hearty figure and kindly face were to be seen by the students, while his interest in their pursuits gave them zest in their work. The warm-hearted philanthropist lived to a ripe old age, during which his hands never ceased in good work. He had passed the great age of ninety-two when he died on April 4, 1883.