Life in 1880

James Garfield

What was life like the year the Hinchey Homestead was built?

1880 was an election year in the United States and probably the most unusual election year in the last century. Many people have tried over the years to become president without success. Some were famous orators such as Daniel Webster and the redoubtable William Jennings Bryan. But 1880 saw the election of a man who did even try to be elected, James Abram Garfield.

America was still deep in the thrones of the post-Civil War presidential era, led by former Union generals and Republican ex-President Ulysses S. Grant. It was a time in history when political leaders were discussing breaking one of the cardinal rules of American politics, Washington’s prohibition against a third term. The start of 1880 found the Republican party split into two factions. The self-professed conservative portion of the party were known as the Stalwarts. Led by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, they advocated breaking Washington’s rule and electing Grant to a third term. James G. Blaine led the moderate opposition in the party. Known as the Half-Breeds, they proposed Blaine himself as the Republican candidate to replace one term President Rutherford B. Hayes.

As often happens in conventions, there are a few candidates with far less support than the party leaders. One of these was John Sherman. Sherman, a former Ohio congressman was also a product of the Civil War general era, being the brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman. A member of the half-Breed segment of the party, he had little hope of victory, having also been unsuccessful in his bid for the presidency in 1876. Sherman was no were near the darling of the convention, but the man who make the speech nominating him, won the hearts of people at the convention. This was fellow Ohioan James Garfield.

Conkling was both ruthless and untrusted and although Grant led the balloting, he was unable to secure the party nomination. On the second day of the deadlocked convention, Sherman himself telegraphed his delegates and asked them to vote for Garfield. As a result, Garfield won seventeen votes on the thirty-fourth ballot. Astoundingly, he objected loudly on the floor of the convention, stating that the party should not be able to place a man’s name on the ballot without his permission. The party ignored him. Two ballots later he was nominated. In a last-minute attempt to unite the party, Chester Allan Arthur, one of Conkling’s Stalwart associates, was nominated as Vice-President.

Garfield faced another ex-general of the Civil War, the Democrat Winfield S. Hancock. Unlike modern elections, this one was intensely polite. The Republicans only attack against their opponents was in referring to them as “a party of famine.” Hardly the rhetoric used today. The Democrats had a small scandal to use against Garfield, but they made little use of it.

Franklin Hinchey would have been well aware of this issue at the time, working for a railroad. Congressman Oakes Ames was a disreputable character who was one of the directors of the Credit Mobilier Company of America, an offshoot of the government subsidized Union Pacific Railroad. The credit company made mountains of money charging excessive fees for railroad construction. Ames practiced buying US congressmen by offering them stock options in Credit Mobilier. Although not technically illegal, it was decidedly corrupt. He offered fellow Congressman Garfield one of these stock options. Garfield never bought stock in Credit Mobilier or accepted any as gifts from Ames. However, in June 1868 he received a dividend check for $329 dollars, as Ames had bought stock in Garfield’s name.

Instead the Democrats published a letter, signed by Garfield, claiming that he supported unlimited immigration of Chinese workers into the United States. At the time, this was a significant issue, opposed by the labor unions of the day. The move was intended to draw the labor unions away from the Republican candidate. However, the plan backfired. The letter contained two misspellings. Garfield was famed for his spelling prowess and the letter was revealed to be a forgery.

He won 4,453,295 votes to be elected President, less than 10,000 more than his opponent, out of the nine million who cast ballots. Garfield started angering the Stalwarts almost immediately by appointing Half-Breed leader, James G. Blaine, as Secretary of State. Garfield also made Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the late president, Secretary of War. These were also the times when one of the President’s chief powers was the appointment of candidates to high office. When Garfield appointed one of Conkling’s political opponents to high office in New York, things became heated between the two factions. When it was clear that the Senate would confirm Garfield’s appointment, both New York Senators Conkling and Thomas Platt resigned. It was a ploy. Conklin assumed that the New York Governor would reappoint both to the now empty senatorial seats helping Conkling to prevent the confirmation. However, the New York governor declined. The Stalwart portion of the Republican party was fast fading. The split would eventually cost the republicans the election of 1884.

Less than a year after taking office, Garfield was assassinated by a disappointed officer seeker, Charles Guiteau, who shouted, “I am a Stalwart and now Arthur is President!” as he committed the act.

Mark Twain

What would you be reading in 1880?

The Hinchey’s might have been reading the poetry of a man famous for “… living in a world of his own.” A New Yorker, like Franklin Hinchey, he grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island. Editor of the staunchly Democratic Brooklyn paper Eagle, he also wrote for other newspapers as a journalist. Whitman’s ideas of the brotherhood of democracy and the uniqueness of the individual were gaining favor by 1880. It was Whitman who created the famous phrase, “O captain! My Captain!” in his poem Drum-Taps, written shortly after the Lincoln assassination. Whitman was renowned for faith in American democracy in an era where the specter of communism was just beginning to rise.

Another New Yorker that Franklin would no doubt have heard tales about was Herman Melville. During Franklin’s time in New York City. Melville would have been found down the street from his office working in obscurity as a New York customs inspector, writing poetry in his spare time. His fame, now past, rested on his well-known sea-going tales Moby Dick (1851), Typee (1846), Mardi (1849) Omoo (1847), White Jacket (1850), Redburn (1849) and Pierre (1852). In 1891, Franklin might have picked up a copy of Billy Budd, published the year of his death. Not well known in this time, the two might have passed each other, unknown, on one of the New York Central’s trains or in the streets of lower Manhattan.

Not born in New York, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, lived in Buffalo, New York, from 1869 to 1871. He owned a stake in the Buffalo Express newspaper where he worked as an editor and writer. His satire The Gilded Age (1873), might have hit Franklin close to home. However, Twain’s relentless western sense of frontier humor was quite popular in Western New York. Twain lived in his later years at 14 West 10th Street in Manhattan. He and Franklin might even have met, near Franklin’s office or during one of Twain’s many popular lectures.

Also, not a native New Yorker, Franklin would have been subjected to the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in schools. Before his death in 1882, he published thirty-one volumes of poetry. Everything from Evangeline (1847) to The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858).

New York Cenrtral

New York Central Railroad

It’s hard for us to imagine today, but in the 1880’s railroads were as important as the highways of today. Faster than travel via the Erie canal, they crisscrossed the state. It would remain critical to transportation in New York State until the first section of the Thruway, between Utica and Rochester, opened on June 24, 1954. Then, just like the Erie canal, which the New York Central Railroad replaced, it slowly started seeing itself replaced in turn by car travel. 

Albany industrialist and Mohawk Valley Railroad owner Erastus Corning managed to unite the New York Central Railroad, West Shore Railroad, and Erie Canal railroads together into one system on March 17, 1853. The previously independent companies were consolidated, including the main line from Albany to Buffalo, to create a more efficient regional system: the Albany and Schenectady Railroad, Utica and Schenectady Railroad, Syracuse and Utica Railroad, Rochester and Syracuse Railroad, Buffalo and Rochester Railroads were combined. This allowed passengers to buy one ticket to get from Albany to Buffalo. The New York Central Railroad also owned land allocated to build railroads that were never completed, Mohawk Valley Railroad and the Syracuse and Utica Direct Railroad. This was most likely the lands for which Franklin was the land agent.

The New York Central bought many other lines, such as the Rochester and Lake Ontario Railroad, the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad as well as the Lewiston Railroad. In 1858 the New York Central also bought the Canandaigua and Niagara Falls Railroad.

In 1846, the New York Central purchased Hudson River Railroad. Now the line allowed a passenger to purchase a ticket in New York City and go as far west as Erie, PA. By 1867 the New York Central was buying or leasing other lines all over New York City. In addition, the Geneva and Lyons Railroad was acquired in upstate New York in 1890. In 1885, the New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railway, a potential competitor with trackage rights along the west shore of the Hudson River, was taken over. The Pittsburgh and Lake Erie and Boston and Albany Railroads were added in 1887 and 1900.

Bypasses also were built around congested areas. The Junction Railroad's Buffalo Belt Line opened in 1871. The West Shore Railroad, acquired in 1885, provided a bypass around Rochester. The Terminal Railway's Gardenville Cutoff, allowing through traffic to bypass Buffalo to the southeast, opened in 1898. The Schenectady Detour consisted of two connections to the West Shore Railroad, allowing trains to bypass Schenectady was opened in 1902.

Prominent New York Central Trains

Lake Shore Limited: New York–Chicago via Cleveland with branch service to Boston and St. Louis 1896–1956, 1971–Present Chicagoan: New York–Chicago
Empire State Express: New York-Buffalo and Cleveland via the Empire Corridor 1891–Present



1880 Dollar