The Enduring Legacy of William Barstow Strong | Around the Nek
In his recent book, From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War that Made the West, John Sedgwick chronicles the fierce rivalry between William Jackson Palmer, a Civil War general from a Pennsylvania Quaker family, who founded the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and William Barstow Strong, a native of Brownington, president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
Each sought to create the first transcontinental rail system, traveling west to the Pacific coast. Their ambitions reflected the popular 19th century doctrine of Manifest Destiny, that the United States was destined by God to expand its dominion and spread both democracy and capitalism throughout the entire North American continent. Despite the difference in their temperaments and the results of their struggle, Sedgwick characterizes both Palmer and Strong as “restless, searching men, never fully satisfied with having come far enough” and equally dedicated to creating a ” better future elsewhere”, representative of the “pursuit of the typically American happiness”.
The entrepreneurial spirit of these two men not only changed history, but also had a profound impact on the map of America, as railroad towns to house railroad workers began to appear on the other. side of the border. Sedgwick points to Abraham Lincoln’s pivotal role in bringing about the expansion of the railroads, successfully arguing in the Supreme Court a case in which railroad companies, as well as steamship companies, had the right to build bridges over rivers. Later, as president, Lincoln was determined to have a transcontinental railroad established as a way to unify a fractured nation. Strong propelled the realization of Lincoln’s dream by running America’s largest railroad and overseeing the laying of more than 8,000 miles of track under what Sedgwick describes as Strong’s “grow or die” philosophy. In addition to playing a pivotal role in the Civil War, trains served to bring people together across the country through travel and shared experiences, from ordering goods to cataloging Montgomery Ward, exchanging letters and reading the same newspapers and magazines, to consuming the same products newly introduced to the market, such as Kellogg’s cereal and Coke, which could now be shipped in record time.
At the end of his book, Sedgwick laments that although Strong is far more accomplished than Palmer, the once most powerful man on the railroad has all but faded from memory. Of course, this is not the case in the Northeast Kingdom, where the Strong family continues to be celebrated as part of Orleans County history. Born in 1837, William Barstow Strong was one of three sons in the family of Elijah Gridley Strong and Sarah Ashley Partridge. Strong’s father was a farmer and merchant who served as sheriff of Orleans County and was a member of the Vermont legislature. Elijah Strong was also an active member of the Congregational Church, and in 1851 he moved his family to Beloit, Wisconsin, modeled after the town of Albany, Vermont, to open the Beloit House, a hotel in temperance.
Before moving to Wisconsin, the Strong children attended Orleans County High School in Alexander Lucius Twilight, where Elijah Strong served as a trustee and served as treasurer. Like their father, the Strong children were leaders in their communities and each achieved notoriety. Henry Partridge Strong, born in 1832, was chief surgeon in the army corps, served as postmaster, member of the school board and was elected mayor of Beloit five times. James Woodward Strong, a year younger, became Congregation minister, legislative reporter, first superintendent of Beloit schools, and first president of Carleton College. After taking over the local railway telegraph office, it was James who introduced William to railway business by inviting him to help in the office.
In 1889, the year William Barstow Strong retired, he returned to Brownington in his private railroad car to attend the proceedings of the Orleans County Historical Society and to meet with the alumni of the Orleans County Grammar School. To give back to the place that shaped his life, he bought Prospect Hill and had the first observatory built, from where visitors can see Willoughby Gap to the southeast, Lake Memphremagog to the north, Jay Peak to the west, on a clear day. days, Mount Mansfield to the southwest and the White Mountains to the east. Strong also added the steeple and renovated the Brownington Congregational Church in memory of his grandparents.
Sedgwick closes his thoughts on Strong and Palmer with the hope that we could all be inspired by their stories to “be bold and blaze new trails to achieve a better life.” For those of us in Orleans County, this source of inspiration is all around us – in the roar of engines at the annual exhibit of antique gasoline and steam engines at the Old Stone House Museum and Historic Village, in the many artifacts from the Strong Family donated to the museum, including photographs, a doll, a tea set and a silver trunk, and in the views made accessible through the generosity of a visionary man.
Spencer Kuchle is associate director of collections and interpretation at the Old Stone House Museum and Historic Village.