Ulysses S. Grant and the Wilderness of Pennsylvania (part one)

Crumpled Supports
The ruins of the Kinzua Viaduct

part one in a three-part series

Like the crozzled bones of giants, the steel girders of the Kinzua Viaduct lie along the valley floor and up the far hillside. Once, the railroad bridge stretched across the entire gorge—some 2,050 feet—but in 2003, a tornado blew down eleven of its twenty support towers. They still rest where they fell, twisted, spent, ruined.

At 301 feet high, Kinzua Viaduct had once been the largest such bridge in the world. Completed in 1882, it took 125 men just 94 days to build it. Boosters called it “the big bridge,” and it represented such an achievement that, in November of 1883, former president Ulysses S. Grant paid a visit to see it for himself.

Now, 132 years later, in honor of Grant’s visit, my son, Jackson, and I have come out to the remains of the Viaduct to smoke a memorial cigar and walk in Grant’s footsteps.

The Kinzua Viaduct, under construction (photo courtesy of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)
The Kinzua Viaduct, under construction (photo courtesy of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

“It was called ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World,’” I tell Jackson.

“I thought that was King Kong,” he deadpans.

Kinzua Bridge State Park, as it’s now called, is about half an hour from my sleepy hometown, but if not for a footnote, I would never have known of Grant’s visit here in the early winter of 1883.

I came across the story while researching my latest book, Grant’s Last Battle. On March 26, 1885, Grant was deposed in the fraud investigation against two of his business partners. Reading the transcript of the deposition, I came across a reference by Grant about an occasion when he and his partners “went out to the western part of Pennsylvania in the Winter. . . .” The footnote made mention of a “special train trip from New York City to Rochester, N.Y.”

Nothing extraordinary stands out about that, but then the next graph mentioned a correspondent from Bradford, Pa., and quoted him at some length. Bradford is the largest town in McKean County, a petroleum-rich region in northwest Pennsylvania where I’ve lived for much of my life.

Of course, I had to know more.

The wonderful folks at the McKean County Historical Society in Smethport, Pa. (the county seat) dug up the original newspapers for me so I could learn more about Grant’s brush through the area. In the meantime, I also found a brief account of the trip in Geoffrey C. Ward’s A Disposition to be Rich. Ward is the writing partner of filmmaker Ken Burns and is the descendant of Ferdinand Ward, one of Grant’s conniving partners. Disposition is Geoffrey Ward’s biography of his infamous ancestor.

Ferdinand Ward was a financial wunderkind whose investment acumen had earned him the nickname “The Young Napoleon of Wall Street.” Unbeknownst to Grant, Ward was embezzling millions of dollars from their firm through an elaborate Ponzi scheme. In May of 1884—just six months after the excursion to Kinzua—Ward and Fish would leave Grant—and hundreds of others—completely broke. The firm’s fourth partner, Grant’s son Buck, was as oblivious of the perfidy as his father.

North Eldred
North Eldred on the old Bradford, Eldred, and Cuba RR

The four partners of Grant & Ward were the most notable dignitaries on the special rail excursion, arranged by Ward and hosted by Bird W. Spencer, treasurer of the Erie Railroad. One of the railroad’s feeder spurs, the Bradford, Eldred, and Cuba Railroad, had recently constructed the Kinzua Viaduct, and Spencer hoped a visit by Grant would give the bridge useful publicity; Grant and Ward, meanwhile, hoped the Erie Railroad would invest some of its funds with their firm.

“That trip, and the closer relations that grew from it between the officers of the road and General Grant, did much toward the firm of Grant & Ward becoming the financial agents of the Erie Railroad,” Ward recalled decades later in a piece he wrote for the New York Herald. “It was in this way that General Grant contributed his share to the advancement of our business, as he ever had out interests at heart and was ready and willing to do what lay in his power, though often at his own inconvenience, to help us along.”

The Kinzua Viaduct today.
The Kinzua Viaduct today

The party left New York City’s Grand Central Station on the evening of November 15, 1883, headed for a region of the Keystone State so rural that it’s still known today as “The Pennsylvania Wilds.”

“Above all, no one was to talk business,” recounts Geoffrey Ward in Disposition. “Ferd smiled as he said it, but he was deadly seriously. Everyone aboard was involved in one way or another with Grant & Ward. Should anyone riding in that car question another about what he knew or didn’t know about the shadowy contract business, everything might collapse.”

Ward-the-historian goes on to describe Ferdinand Ward’s tireless movements from group to group, prompting conversation, guiding discussion, and steering clear of anything that might bring the house of cards tumbling. Ward managed, says the historian, “to keep any of his fellow passengers from asking about the behind-the-scenes transactions from which all believed they were benefitting.”

In tomorrow’s installment, Grant reaches Bradford, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of November 16, 1883.

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