Herbert M. Hoxie: From Underground Railroad Operator to Railroad Magnate

December 17, 2010

Herbert M. Hoxie of Fairfield, IA.

Article by Rory Goff

By the standards of his day, local Fairfield boy Herbert Mallory (“Hub”) Hoxie made good, but on his way to power and wealth he often broke the law: sometimes to serve the higher good; other times merely to serve his superiors.

He was born December 10, 1830 in Palmyra, New York, the oldest of seven children of Benjamin Tobey and Ruth (Peck) Hoxie, who were both Massachusetts natives. By 1840 the family had moved to Lee county, Iowa, and by the spring of 1843, when “Hub” was twelve, the family moved to Fairfield, where his father kept the Hoxie House — later known as the Jefferson Hotel — on the west side of the Square on the Jordan Block site now occupied by the Elks Club, buying property behind the hotel that November. Hub’s father was also a trustee of the Methodist Society by 1844.

Two Hoxie children died and were buried in Fairfield – George in May 1843, at less than a month old, and four-month-old Florence in August 1845. By the winter of 1845-46 Hub’s parents had sold their Fairfield property and moved to Fort Des Moines. There his father first ran a grocery and dry goods business and soon afterwards kept a tavern or hotel. In 1848 he built a much-admired lean-to house of logs and clapboard, but the next year the family sold the house to relocate near Kilbourne in Van Buren County, where Hub’s father died by November 1850.

Kilbourne was a village on the Des Moines River about fifteen miles south of Fairfield, and Hub may have stayed in Fairfield to work for druggist David Vincent Cole, as on April 21, 1848 H. M. Hoxie was authorized to receive all debts owed D. V. Cole, and for about a year thereafter ran a drugstore on the south side of the Square — perhaps at 52 East Burlington Ave., a property owned by D. V. Cole at the time. If Hub was indeed this H. M. Hoxie, he was only 17 when he opened his own store of drugs, stationery and books.

The new druggist’s penchant for advertising gives us a fascinating glimpse into his stock. On May 12, 1848 the Iowa Sentinel says, “H. M. Hoxie, at the Fairfield Drug Store, South side of the Public Square, Will keep constantly on hand a fresh supply of Drugs, Medicines (including the patent Medicines, for which he is agent,) Paints, Oils and Dye-stuffs. Also, stationary [sic] of all kinds, paper, ink, pens, sealing wax, and a full assortment of choice candies, figs, &c., all of which he will retail cheap for the ready pay.” And two weeks later, the Sentinel advertises Hoxie’s “Literary Emporium. Novels and Yarns, Harry Hazels amusing, Ned Butlines commerc[i]al Maryatts entertaining, Halyard’s mirthful pleasing together with Fanny Forresters popular writings in short, anything and everything in light reading to tickle the fancy of the most fastidious at the Fairfield Drug Store by H.M. Hoxie.” Hoxie also stocked the standard toiletries: “Ho Ye Fashionables. The best and superior articles of Bears oil, Macassar oil, Ox Marrow and finely scented cologne water just received and for sale at the Fairfield Drug Store.” And of course he offered the medicines necessary to the frontier: “A Good and superior lot of Quinine, Hydriodate of Potassium, Morphine, Iodine, Piperine can be had at H. M. Hoxie’s.” Quinine combats malaria; hydriodate or iodide of potassium is an expectorant and detoxifier and helps heal goiters and immune dysfunctions; piperine is an alkaloid extract of pepper and was used in traditional medicine and as an insecticide.

By January 26, 1849 H. M. Hoxie turned his business over to D. V. Cole’s younger brother John Bailey, as the Iowa Sentinel then printed Hoxie’s first advertisement verbatim with Cole’s name substituted for Hoxie’s: “J. B. Cole, at the Fairfield Drug Store, South side of the Public Square,” offering the same stock “cheap for the ready pay.” Hub had decided to become a Forty-niner, for by 1850 he had gone to the California gold fields, perhaps with his brother-in-law, Dr. Pierce B. Fagan. Remaining with Hub’s widowed mother in Van Buren County that November were his brothers and sisters: Melville, already a “tinner” at fifteen; Rosina, thirteen; William, ten, and Pierce’s young wife Melissa Fagen, seventeen, with her eleven-month-old infant son, Clarence.

Unsuccessful at finding gold, Hub returned two years later to Iowa and soon kept a hotel with Thomas Mitchell, residing with him in Beaver Township near Des Moines in 1856. Hoxie may have met his fellow hotelier in Fairfield as early as 1841, when Mitchell had left New Hampshire to settle in Fairfield. Fourteen years older than Hoxie, Mitchell was clearly an excellent choice for senior partner, for he was now one of Des Moines’ best-known citizens. After leaving Fairfield around 1844 he became Polk County’s first permanent English-speaking settler and its first sheriff, and was not only an inn-keeper, but also a farmer and a legislator.

Hub soon joined the new Republican Party, perhaps under Thomas Mitchell’s influence. Thomas’s father had been a vehement abolitionist, and in the 1850s Thomas himself was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping fugitive slaves on their way to Canada and freedom. In his “Men and Events of Forty Years,” famous Iowa abolitionist Josiah B. Grinnell cited an Underground Railroad note he had received from Tom Mitchell:

“Dear Grinnell: — Uncle Tom says if the roads are not too bad you can look for those fleeces of wool by to-morrow. Send them on to test the market and price, no back charges.

The coded note is intriguing. “Fleeces of wool” were the fleeing slaves, while “Uncle Tom” was clearly Thomas Mitchell himself, called “Uncle Tommy” in the 1908 Pioneers of Polk County, Iowa. Perhaps “Uncle Tom” also referred to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the curious signature and the reference to Uncle Tom in the third person makes it likely that the note’s author was actually “Hub” Hoxie, and that Hoxie was involved with “Uncle Tom” Mitchell in Iowa’s Underground Railroad. And apparently Tom actually did become Hub’s uncle, as Hub married Tom’s niece Anna Maria (Patrick) around 1858, when she was about 20 and Hub was about 27. Their only child, born the following year, was a son who died at the age of three.

(Notwithstanding this tragedy the two families remained close, for in 1868 Thomas’s daughter Anna married Mortimer R. Hoxie, Hub’s first cousin once removed. Some say that H. M. Hoxie married Thomas’s daughter, but this appears incorrect.)

By participating in the Underground Railroad, Hub broke the federal law – specifically the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required ordinary citizens to assist slave-catchers in recovering their “property” – but did so in the service of a higher cause which few would argue with today. An analogous act might be aiding political prisoners to escape from confinement and torture in Latin America and giving them illegal asylum in the United States.

As the nation approached civil war, Hub Hoxie moved more deeply into politics. In 1860 he was already Polk County clerk when he was appointed a delegate from Iowa to the Republican Convention, a pivotal gathering attended conspicuously by many other rising Republican stars including Grenville Mellen Dodge, a railroad surveyor and banker from Council Bluffs. The convention nominated Abraham Lincoln for president, and next year Lincoln appointed Hoxie U. S. marshal for Iowa. After the outbreak of the Civil War and under orders from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Marshal Hoxie returned to his boyhood home of Fairfield in August 1862 and arrested David Sheward, the Democratic editor of Fairfield’s anti-administration newspaper the Constitution and Union. From his second-floor offices over Sam Farmer’s bank at 50 East Burlington, Sheward had denounced the government’s offer of enlistment bounties as bribes to convince citizens to commit treason on behalf of “King Abraham.” Hoxie took Sheward by train to Washington, D.C. and put him in the Old Capitol Prison, where he remained with other influential “Copperhead” editors for three months with no charges filed against them. After the midterm elections that November, Sheward and the others were released upon signing a loyalty oath and agreement not to prosecute those who had arrested them.

By enforcing Lincoln and Stanton’s illegal edicts, Hub again broke the law, but again, arguably in the service of a higher good. While the Republican administration clearly denied the “Copperhead” editors their civil rights and even used intimidation and mild torture to cow those who upheld the status quo as provided by the Constitution, still it could be argued that the editors were vociferously undermining the Union and advocating a Confederacy which denied millions of Blacks their civil rights and regularly used far harsher intimidation and torture. It was not Lincoln’s finest moment, however. To put it in perspective, a Republican administration recently cited Lincoln’s wartime suspension of civil rights to justify their own much more rigorous suspension of civil rights and use of torture, and they have not yet been formally accused of any war-crimes.

(Sheward returned to Fairfield and continued printing his paper, despite being confronted a year later by a company of the 8th Iowa Cavalry, who demanded the butternut emblem – symbol of the Confederacy — he used on the masthead of his paper. He yielded the butternut; C. W. Slagle intervened and prevented any further violence to Sheward. In February 1864 angry Union veterans home on furlough burst into Sheward’s office, pied all of his type and threw it out the window, broke up his furniture and burned his account books. The veterans belonged to Captain Frederick F. Metzler’s Company E of the Second Iowa Infantry; a lieutenant of this company was Moses A. McCoid. Townspeople helped extinguish the fire in Sheward’s office; his Republican publishing rival W. W. Junkin strongly condemned the violence, but Sheward moved to Council Bluffs, never to return to Fairfield.)

Hoxie’s hard-line enforcement of Stanton’s questionable war edicts evidently pleased the Republicans, for Hoxie was chairman of the Republican State Central Committee choosing presidential electors in 1864. And such political power bore financial fruit. In the fall of 1864 Hoxie obtained the contract to build the first 247 miles of the Union Pacific Railroad – a contract he actually took on behalf of his wealthy friend Thomas Clark “Doc” Durant, and which Hub immediately signed over to a new “outside” construction company, Credit Mobilier, which was actually secretly owned by Durant himself. The Union Pacific engineer Peter Dey had estimated the railroad’s building cost at $30,000 a mile; Hoxie’s well-padded contract called for $50,000 a mile, and rather than approve it, the idealistic Dey resigned. He was replaced by Hoxie’s more pragmatic friend, Grenville Mellen Dodge, by now a major general in the Union army. Dodge had surveyed for the railroads since 1853, but more importantly had supplied information to Durant during the war which enabled Durant to make his first fortune smuggling contraband cotton from the Confederate states.

Hoxie’s moves effectively allowed Durant to pay himself for constructing the Union Pacific, creating windfall profits with no congressional oversight. Again, Hoxie engaged in illegal activities, arguably to ensure that the builders of the Union Pacific would be reimbursed for a potentially unprofitable project, but actually stealing millions from the public to further enrich a very few. Overall, the Credit Mobilier affair is perhaps comparable to the modern-day Enron scandal.

While not remotely approaching Durant’s wealth, after completing the Union Pacific Herbert M. Hoxie lived comfortably with his wife in George W. Savery’s grand and well-known hotel in Des Moines, where in 1870 the “Ex-Supt. U.P.R.R.” reported $21,000 in real estate and $45,000 in personal estate: about $360,150 and $771,750, respectively, in 2010 dollars.

Notwithstanding appearances, Hub Hoxie may have chosen Savery’s comfortable hotel for sentimentality as much as status: The inn-keeper had succeeded his brother James Savery, who had in 1852 purchased the just-enlarged hotel which was the original pioneer tavern opened in 1846 by Hub’s father.

Although the Credit Mobilier’s corruption came to light in 1872, the scandal did not seriously damage Hoxie’s reputation; by then he had become a respected railroad-man. In late 1870 he moved to Palestine, Texas, where he was general superintendent of the International Railroad. He became general manager of the International & Great Northern in 1872 and of the Texas & Pacific Railroad in 1880. The following year he also managed the Iron Mountain, St. Louis & Southern, as well as all of the railroads in Texas just acquired by Jay Gould. In 1883 Hoxie became first vice-president of the vast Gould Southwestern system, and in 1885 he replaced the resigning Richard S. Hayes as Gould’s general manager, headquartered in St. Louis.

In choosing to work for Jay Gould, Hoxie aligned himself with one of the wealthiest and most notorious of the nineteenth-century robber-barons. The Great Southwestern Railroad Strike on Jay Gould’s system in the spring of 1886 involved more than 200,000 railroad workers in the states of Illinois, Missoouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Texas. Most of the workers were striking for better wages, shorter hours, and safer working conditions. Gould owned 12% of the nation’s rairoads, and arguably his interests coincided with the nation’s vital need for rapid transportation — an argument invoked by Ronald Reagan nearly a century later when he fired over 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers and jailed the strike-leaders in 1981. But Gould went even further, hiring not only strikebreakers but also calling out Pinkerton men, state militia, and Texas Rangers to subdue the strikers with violence. He is reported to have said, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

Perhaps Jay Gould’s excessive force was too much even for Hub. Exhausted and ailing, Hoxie relinquished his post shortly after the strike was crushed, and he summered with his wife at Saratoga, Ontario, Quebec and the White Mountains. He returned in September to New York City, where he submitted to several operations to no avail. Although ill, he attended the wedding of his niece and adopted daughter Anna to Chester Thorne at St, Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on November 11. He died twelve days later on November 23, at the Bradbury apartment house. His worth was estimated at between $100,000 and $200,000, or about $2.4 to $4.8 million in 2010 currency. Though Hub had no children to carry on his name, it nevertheless survived, as the railroad towns of Hoxie, Arkansas, and Hoxie, Kansas were named in Hub’s honor.

The following day the New York Times provided a long obituary mentioning his early ties to Des Moines, where he was to be buried beside his infant son, but gave no mention of Fairfield. The Fairfield Tribune corrected the Times’ error (albeit adding an error of its own) on November 25 when it noted his passing, saying, “H. M. Hoxie, general manager of Gould’s Southwestern Railway System, and known to old residents of Fairfield and Jefferson County as “Hub” Hoxie, died at his rooms in the Metropolitan Opera House, St. Louis [sic], Tuesday…Forty years ago Hoxie was a boy from 15 to 18 years old in Fairfield, his father being proprietor of the hotel which stood upon the ground now occupied by Jordan’s brick block on the West side of the square…” For better or worse, Hub Hoxie will always be remembered as one of Fairfield’s local boys.

(On June 10, 1889 in St. Louis, Hub’s widow quietly married Richard S. Hayes, the man whom Hub had succeeded as Gould’s general manager. He was 42; she was about 51. Hayes was president of the Interlake Pulp and Paper Co., vice-president of Jay Gould’s Southwestern system, and director of about twenty railroads. Anna and Richard were married nearly sixteen years before he died in New York City on March 3, 1905, at the age of 58. He left an estate worth about $1 million or about $24 million in 2010 currency, much of which went to the twice-widowed Anna M. Hoxie Hayes. When she died in 1912 at her country home in Millbrook, New York, she bequeathed her fortune mainly to her two sisters, but also to her nieces, nephews, and other relatives, and to her servants. In a gesture endearing to researchers everywhere, she also willed $10,000 — equivalent to about $240,000 today — to Millbrook’s library.)

For the Find A Grave memorial to Herbert M. Hoxie, see http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=28499917

Previous post:

Next post: