October 22: A Poor Yankee Peddler from Harwinton Becomes a Railroad Tycoon


Collis Potter Huntington was born today in 1822, the sixth of nine children born to William and Elizabeth Huntington of Harwinton, Connecticut. The Huntington family, owners of a farm in a section of Harwinton fittingly known as “Poverty Hollow,” constantly struggled to make ends meet, forcing Collis to set off on his own as a teenager as an itinerant seller of wares — the archetypal 19th century Yankee peddler.

In his early 20’s, Collis opened a highly successful hardware store in upstate New York with his brother Solon — the first concrete example of Collis’ sharp business acumen that would help lift him out of poverty and into the history books. Within a few years, he netted enough profit to travel westward to California and make a substantial fortune selling supplies to the thousands of gold prospectors who were pouring into the territory. Through his connections as an active member of California’s Republican party and as an active investor, he became one of four men who co-founded the Central Pacific Railroad Company in the early 1860s. The Central Pacific Railroad quickly became one of the most successful rail lines in the United States (and arguably still is, as one of the rail lines that eventually became the Union Pacific Railroad) and served as the western spur of the Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed in 1869.

Huntington was known for buying politicians as well as building railroads. This complimentary ticket for a trip “Going East” issued by Huntington to North Carolina Congressman Francis E Shobar in 1871 shows one of the ways he made political “friends”. Central Pacific Photographic Museum http://cprr.org/Museum/Ephemera/Tickets.

Huntington quickly expanded his transportation empire, moving back to the East Coast in order to effectively lobby in Washington D.C. and New York on behalf of the Central Pacific Railroad and was directly involved in the founding of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Virginia — the largest privately owned shipyard in the United States.

At the time of his death in 1900, Huntington was one of the wealthiest and most influential railroad tycoons in the country. Yet he never forgot his hardscrabble Connecticut roots: Later in life, during a visit to his former hometown of Harwinton, Huntington remarked, “As often as I have returned to these my native hills have I been made glad that this was the place where I was born, and that I was born poor, for I think that was the reason, at least in part, of such success in life as I have been able to achieve.” A classic rags-to-riches story, and a prime example of Yankee ingenuity hard at work, was born from humble beginnings today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Nancy Finlay, “Collis P. Huntington: The Boy from Poverty Hollow,” connecticuthistory.org

Richard White, “Corporations, Corruption and the Modern Lobby,” Southern Spaces

Collis Potter Huntington,” Harwinton Historical Society