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Collis Huntington


Collis Huntington

Collis Potter Huntington
Collis P. Huntington, c.1872 by Stephen W. Shaw
Born (1821-10-22)October 22, 1821[1]
Harwinton, Connecticut, USA
Died August 13, 1900(1900-08-13) (aged 78)
Long Lake, New York, USA
Resting place Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York
Nationality American
Employer Central Pacific Railroad
Southern Pacific Railroad
Chesapeake and Ohio Railway
Known for The First Transcontinental Railroad

Collis Potter Huntington (October 22, 1821 – August 13, 1900)[2] was one of the Big Four of western railroading (along with Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker) who built the Central Pacific Railroad as part of the first U.S. transcontinental railroad. Huntington then helped lead and develop other major interstate lines such as the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, which he was recruited to help complete. The C&O, completed in 1873, fulfilled a long-held dream of Virginians of a rail link from the James River at Richmond to the Ohio River Valley. The new railroad facilities adjacent to the river there resulted in expansion of the former small town of Guyandotte, West Virginia into part of a new city which was named Huntington in his honor.

Next, turning attention to the eastern end of the line at Richmond, he was responsible for the C&O's Peninsula Extension in 1881–82 which opened a pathway for West Virginia bituminous coal to reach new coal piers on the harbor of Hampton Roads for export shipping. He also is credited with the development of Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, as well as the incorporation of Newport News, Virginia as a new independent city. After his death, both his nephew Henry E. Huntington and his stepson Archer M. Huntington continued his work at Newport News, and all three are considered founding fathers in the community, with local features named in honor of each.

Much of the railroad and industrial development Collis P. Huntington envisioned and led are still important activities in the early 21st century. The Southern Pacific is now part of the Union Pacific Railroad, and the C&O became part of CSX Transportation, each major U.S. railroad systems. West Virginia coal still rides the rails to be loaded aboard colliers at Hampton Roads, where nearby, Huntington Ingalls Industries operates the massive shipyard.


Education and early career

Collis Potter Huntington was born in Harwinton, Connecticut, on October 22, 1821.[1] His family farmed and he grew up helping. In his early teens, he did farm chores and odd jobs for neighbors, too, saving his earnings. At age 16, he began traveling as a peddler.[3] About this time, he visited rural Newport News Point in Warwick County, Virginia in his travels as a salesman. It was later to become quite clear that he never forgot the untapped potential of the location he observed where the James River emptied into the large harbor of Hampton Roads. In 1842 he and his brother Solon Huntington, of Oneonta, New York, established a successful business in Oneonta, selling general merchandise there until about 1848.[1]

When he saw opportunity blooming in America's West, he set out for California, and established himself as a merchant in Sacramento at the start of the California Gold Rush.[1] Huntington succeeded in his California business, too, and it was here that he teamed up with Mark Hopkins selling miners' supplies and other hardware.[1]

Building the first U.S. transcontinental railroad

In the late 1850s, Huntington and Hopkins joined forces with two other successful businessmen, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, to pursue the idea of creating a rail line that would connect the America's East and West. In 1861, these four businessmen (sometimes referred to as The Big Four) pooled their resources and business acumen, and formed the Central Pacific Railroad company to create the western link of America's First Transcontinental Railroad. Of the four, he had a reputation for being the most ruthless in pursuing the railroad's business and the ouster of his partner, Stanford.[4]

Huntington negotiated with Grenville Dodge in Washington, D.C. They completed their agreement in April, 1869, deciding to meet at Promontory Point, Utah.[5] On May 10, 1869, at Promontory, the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad joined with the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad, and America had a transcontinental railroad The joining was celebrated by the driving of the golden spike.

Southern Pacific Railroad

Beginning in 1865, he was also involved in the establishment of the Southern Pacific Railroad with the Big Four principals of the Central Pacific Railroad. The railroad's first locomotive, C. P. Huntington, was named in his honor. With rail lines from New Orleans to the Southwest and into California, Southern Pacific grew to more than 9,000 miles of track. It also controlled 5,000 miles of connecting steamship lines.[3] Using the Southern Pacific Railroad, Huntington endeavored to prevent the port at San Pedro from becoming the main Port of Los Angeles in the Free Harbor Fight.[6]

Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, new cities and a shipyard

Following the American Civil War, efforts were renewed to fulfill a long-held desire of Virginians for a canal or railroad link between Richmond and the Ohio River Valley. With considerable financial assistance from the Virginia Board of Public Works, the Virginia Central Railroad and a state-owned link through the Blue Ridge Mountains had been completed along this route as far as the upper reaches of the Shenandoah Valley when the War interrupted progress.

Officials of the Virginia Central, led by company president Williams Carter Wickham, realized that they would have to get capital to rebuild from outside the economically devastated South, and attempted to attract British interests, without success. Finally, Major Wickham succeeded in getting Collis Huntington interested helping to complete the line.

Beginning in 1871, he oversaw completion of the newly formed Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) from Richmond across Virginia and West Virginia to reach the Ohio River. There, he established the planned city of Huntington, West Virginia. He became active in developing the emerging southern West Virginia bituminous coal business for the C&O.

Beginning in 1865, Huntington had been acquiring land in Virginia's eastern Tidewater region, an area not served by extant railroads. In 1880, he formed the Old Dominion Land Company, and turned these holdings over to it.

Beginning in December 1880, he led the building of the C&O's Peninsula Subdivision which extended from the Church Hill Tunnel in Richmond east down the Virginia Peninsula through Williamsburg to the southeastern end of the Peninsula on the harbor of Hampton Roads in Warwick County, Virginia. Through the new railroad and his land company, coal piers were established at Newport News Point.

It may have taken more than 50 years after Virginia's first railroad operated for the lower Peninsula to get a railroad, but once work started, it progressed quickly. In a manner he had previously deployed, notably with the transcontinental railroad, and the line to the Ohio River, work began at both Newport News and Richmond. The crews at each end worked toward each other. The crews met and completed the line 1.25 miles west of Williamsburg on October 16, 1881 although temporary tracks had been installed in some areas to speed completion. This was just in the nick of time because Huntington and his associates had promised they would provide rail service to Yorktown where the United States was celebrating the centennial of the surrender of the British troops under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, an event considered most symbolic of the end of American Revolutionary War. Only 3 days after the last spike ceremony, on October 19, the first passenger train from Newport News took local residents and national officials to the Cornwallis Surrender Centennial Celebration at Yorktown on temporary tracks which were laid from the main line at the new Lee Hall Depot to Yorktown.

No sooner had the tracks to the new coal pier at Newport News been completed in late 1881 than the same construction crews were put to work on what would later be called the Peninsula Subdivision's Hampton Branch, which ran easterly about 10 miles into Elizabeth City County toward Hampton and Old Point Comfort, where the U.S. Army base at Fort Monroe was situated to guard the entrance to the harbor of Hampton Roads from the Chesapeake Bay (and the Atlantic Ocean). The tracks were completed about 9 miles to the town which became Phoebus in December 1882, named in honor of its leading citizen, Harrison Phoebus.[7] The new branch line served both the older Hygeia Hotel and the new Hotel Chamberlain, popular destinations for civilians. During the first half of the 20th century, excursion trains were operated to reach nearby Buckroe Beach, where an amusement park was among the attractions that brought church groups and vacationers.

At the formerly sleepy little farming community of Newport News Point, he set about other developments locally there, notably building the landmark Hotel Warwick and founding the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, which became the largest privately owned shipyard in the United States.

Huntington is largely credited with vision and the combination of developments which created and built a vibrant and progressive community. The 15 years of rapid growth and development led to the incorporation of Newport News, Virginia as a new independent city in 1896, one of only 2 in Virginia to have ever been so formed without developing first as an incorporated town.

Near the tracks of the C&O's Hampton Branch was a normal school dedicated primarily in its earliest years to training teachers to provide educational opportunities for the South's African-Americans who were mostly illiterate newly freed former slaves. Most southern blacks had been denied opportunities for education literacy by laws before the Civil War. The school which grew to become modern-day Hampton University was led by former Union General Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Perhaps the best known of General Armstrong's students was a youth named Booker T. Washington, who himself became a renowned educator as the first principal of another school in Alabama which became Tuskegee University. When Sam Armstrong suffered a debilitating paralysis in 1892 while in New York, he returned to Hampton in a private railroad car provided by Collis P. Huntington, with whom he had collaborated on black-education projects.

In the lower Peninsula, Collis and other Huntington family members and their Old Dominion Land Company were involved in many aspects of life and business, and schools, museums, libraries and parks are among their many contributions. In Williamsburg, Collis' Old Dominion Land Company owned the historic site of the 18th century capitol buildings, which was turned over to the ladies who were the earliest promoters of what became Preservation Virginia (formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities). This site was later a key piece of the Abby and John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s massive Restoration of the former colonial capital city which became Colonial Williamsburg, one of the world's major tourist attractions.

Collis also did not neglect his namesake city at the other end of the C&O. In order to supply freight cars to the C&O, and by extension to the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads as well, Huntington was a major financier behind Ensign Manufacturing Company, basing the company in Huntington, West Virginia, directly connecting to the C&O; Ensign was incorporated on November 1, 1872.[8][9]

After Collis' death in 1900, his nephew, Henry E. Huntington, assumed leadership of many of his industrial endeavors. He and other family members also continued and expanded many of his cultural and philanthropic projects.


He died at his camp, Pine Knot, in the Adirondack Mountains on August 13, 1900. He is interred in a grandiose private mausoleum at the Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.[3]

Family relationships

Collis Huntington was the son of William and Elizabeth (Vincent) Huntington; born October 22, 1821, in Harwinton, Connecticut; he married, first, on September 16, 1844, Elizabeth T. Stoddard, of Cornwall, Connecticut. She died in 1883. He remarried on July 12, 1884, Arabella D. Worsham. He died at his Camp Pine Knot, in the Adirondacks, August 13, 1900.

The children of William Huntington and Elizabeth Vincent were

  1. Mary Huntington, born 17 February 1810; married 2 June 1840, Daniel Sammis of Warsaw, New York.
  2. Solon Huntington, born 13 January 1812.
  3. Rhoda Huntington, born 13 October 1814; married 10 May 1834, Riley Dunbar of Wolcottville.
  4. Phebe/Phoebe Huntington, born 17 September 1817; married 4 October 1840, Henry Pardee of Oneonta, New York.
  5. Elizabeth Huntington, born 19 December 1819; married 5 April 1842, Hiram Yaker of Kortright, New York.
  6. Collis Potter Huntington, born October 22, 1821.
  7. Joseph Huntington, born 23 March 1823; d. 23 February 1849; never married
  8. Susan L. Huntington, born August 1826; married 16 November 1849, William Porter, M.D., of New Haven, Connecticut
  9. Ellen Maria Huntington, born 12 August 1835; married Isaac E. Gates of Orange, New Jersey

Collis Huntington was the adopted father of Clara Elizabeth Prentice, born in Sacramento, in 1860. She was a niece of the first Mrs. C. P. Huntington, and was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Huntington. Clara Elizabeth Prentice-Huntington (1860–1928), as she was called, married Prince Francis Edward von Hatzfeldt of Wittenburg, Germany, on October 28, 1889. They made their home in England.

Collis Huntington was also the adopted father of renowned hispanist Archer M. Huntington, son of Collis P. Huntington's second wife Arabella Worsham Huntington, by her first husband. Archer and his wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, founded a Spanish museum and rare books library, the Hispanic Society of America, in upper Manhattan, which is still free and open to the public, as well as the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, one of the largest of its kind in the world, and Brookgreen Gardens sculpture and botanical gardens near Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.

Collis was also uncle to another California railroad magnate, Henry E. Huntington, founder of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California and the main force behind the Pacific Electric system in Los Angeles, California.

He was also related to Clarence Huntington, who was a president of the Virginian Railway, succeeding Urban H. Broughton, son-in-law of the VGN's founder, industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers.

His youngest sister, Ellen Maria, was well known as a poet and writer of hymns.


He acquired a substantial collection of art, and was generally recognized as one of the country's foremost art collectors. He left most of his collection, valued at some $3 million, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to pass into the museum's hands after the death of his stepson, Archer. His last will directed that if his stepson should die childless (which he did), Huntington's Fifth Avenue mansion or the proceeds from the sale of the property would go to Yale University. He also made specific bequests totaling $125,000.00 to Hampton University (then Hampton Institute) and to the Chapin Home for the Aged.[10]

Namesake locations

In popular culture

For reasons that are unclear, he was referred to in Black Beetles in Amber by Ambrose Bierce as "Happy Hunty".[11] Huntington was also referenced in Carl Sandburg's poem, Southern Pacific. In the AMC series Hell on Wheels he is played by actor Tim Guinee.

See also

Biography portal


References and further reading

  • Note: the factual accuracy of this book has been widely criticized, and parts may have been plagiarized. See Stephen E. Ambrose#Criticism.
  • Rayner, Richard, The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California, Norton, 2007. ISBN 0-393-05913-8
  • David Lavender, The great persuader : the biography of Collis P. Huntington, University Press of Colorado, 1998 reprint, first published 1970. ISBN 0-87081-476-1
  • "Corporations, Corruption, and the Modern Lobby: A Gilded Age Story of the West and the South in Washington, D.C.", Southern Spaces, video of lecture by Richard White, Stanford University, 16 April 2009.

External links

  • Huntington Hall, Newport News
  • Huntington Hotel, San Francisco
  • Find a Grave
  • Ellen M.H. Gates, Who's Who Poet

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