John Murray Forbes (1813-1898), a leading Boston businessman and philanthropist, financed and operated a great nineteenth century industrial empire. He and his investment group built a transcontinental railroad system, controlled the output of mines and forests, and sped the flow of people and goods throughout America. Railroad historian Richard C. Overton said that Forbes "stood very much in the same relation to the railroad as George Washington had to his nation."
In 1846 Forbes, together with John Woods Brooks and James Frederick Joy, purchased a dilapidated 145-mile-long railroad running from Detroit to Kalamazoo. They paid two million dollars to the state of Michigan and then invested more to improve the road and extend it to Chicago. Forbes served as the President of the Michigan Central Railroad
from 1846 to 1855. In 1852 they ran the first trains into Chicago from the East. Immigrants poured in, grain poured out, and Forbes made money.
From 1853 to 1855, Forbes along with Joy, Fairbanks and others financed and built the St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal around the rapids between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. For this they received a 750,000 acre land grant in the mineral rich upper peninsula of Michigan. Forbes was well-informed of the value of this region as, five years earlier, Louis Agassiz of Harvard College, Forbes's friend from the Boston Saturday Club, had led an expedition through the area noting the best timber and mining lands.
Around this same period, Forbes and his eastern partners invested in a number of small railroads in Illinois: the Chicago and Aurora, Illinois Central
, Central Military Tract, Joliet & Northern Indiana, Peoria and Oquawka, and Northern Cross. In 1856 they combined these railroads into the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad
(CB&Q;). Between 1856 and 1860, Forbes and his associates bought stock in the Burlington and Missouri
and the Hannibal and St. Joseph
Railroads with an eye toward control and consolidation in Iowa and Missouri. Forbes served as a CB&Q; director, 1857-98; President, 1878-81; and then Chairman of the Board.
The "Forbes Group" of investors were the financial power behind Forbes while he, in turn, controlled and managed them. Under his direction they acted in concert to pass favorable laws, mould public opinion, finance major endeavors, and build their enterprises.
Forbes's success can be laid to his unobtrusive ways, dogged work habits, and pecuniary probity. "He never seemed to me a man of acquistiveness, but very distinctively one of constructiveness," a business partner commented. "His wealth was only an incident. . . . The good, also, which he anticipated for business and settlers through opening up the country always weighed much with him."
In politics Forbes was a Whig until 1850. Until Forbes heard Wendell Phillips's celebrated speech denouncing the murder of the anti-slavery editor Elijah Lovejoy he had been neutral or indifferent to the subject of slavery. Forbes later said, "That speech changed my whole feeling with regard to it, though the bigotry and pigheadedness of the abolitionists prevented me acting with them." He supplied money and weapons to New Englanders sent to fight slavery in Kansas and in 1859 entertained John Brown.
As a Republican he was an elector for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and three times a convention delegate. In February 1861, he was a delegate to the "Peace Congress" in Washington, D.C. At the same time he was helping to prepare for war. He helped draw up a plan to reinforce Fort Sumter. He assisted John A. Andrews, Governor of Massachusetts, to raise four regiments before the call for Union troops went out.
During the war Forbes counseled Lincoln and his cabinet, advising on naval preparations and lobbying for a speedy emancipation proclamation. He sent relief to Union prisoners in the Confederate Libby Prison, promoted the Sanitary Commission, supported the Freedman's Commission, served as the first President of the New England Loyal Publication Society, worked for the Committee of Correspondence for the Vigorous Prosecution of the War, formed the Committee of One Hundred for Promoting the Use of Negroes as Soldiers, and was President of the Massachusetts Recruiting Board. The Secretaries of the Treasury and the Navy sent him on a secret mission to England in 1863 to procure funds and to prevent the delivery to the Confederacy of two ironclad ships being built in Liverpool. Through his influence the ships were seized by the British government just before they were to sail.
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