Biography: Henry Brockholst Ledyard
By Clarence M. Burton and M. Agnes Burton.
Henry Brockholst Ledyard, railroad executive, regarded as one of the ablest masters of transportation of his time, was a representative of a distinguished American family. He was born in the American embassy in Paris, France, February 20, 1844, a son of Henry and Matilda (Cass) Ledyard and a brother of Lewis Cass Ledyard, a distinguished New York lawyer. His grandfather, General Lewis Cass, was perhaps the most prominent figure in the history of Michigan. His great-grandfather, William Livingston, was a member of the continental congress and at one time governor or New Jersey, while his great-great-grandfather, Philip Livingston, was the second lord of the Manor of Livingston. At the time of the birth of Henry B. Ledyard, his grandfather, General Cass, was United States minister to France and his father, Henry Ledyard, was serving as secretary of the legation in Paris. Returning to Detroit, he became an alderman of the city, serving in 1849 and 1850, and for six years he was a member of the first board of water commissioners, while in 1855 he filled the office of mayor of Detroit.
In pursing his education Henry B. Ledyard became a pupil in the select school for boys conducted by Washington A. Bacon, in Detroit and later he was appointed a cadet at large to the United States Military Academy at West Point by President Buchanan, at which time his grandfather, General Cass, was serving as secretary of state in the president’s cabinet. On the day of his graduation from the United States Military Academy in 1865, Henry B. Ledyard was presented with two commissions, second and first lieutenant, and was assigned to duty with the Nineteenth Infantry, with which he served successively as quartermaster, brigade quartermaster and chief of the commissary officers of the department of Arkansas. Subsequently he was transferred to the 37th Infantry as quartermaster and later to the 4th Artillery and was detailed chief of subsistence on the staff of General Hancock of the department of Missouri. He was in the field in active warfare against the Indians in 1867 and for a year was assistant professor of French at West Point. On the reorganization of the army in 1870, at which time its numbers were materially reduced, he acted on the advice of General Sherman and obtained a six months leave of absence in order to turn his attention to railroading. He became connected with the engineering department of the Northern Pacific Railroad, then under construction, but in the same year became a clerk in the operating department of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Finding this a congenial field and one which he believed would offer him opportunity for advancement in the future, he resigned his army commission. He made rapid progress, for within two years he was assistant superintendent of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and in the following year was made superintendent of the eastern division. In 1874 he was appointed assistant to William B. Strong, who had become general superintendent of the Michigan Central Railroad Company, and in the following year Mr. Ledyard was made chief engineer as well as assistant general superintendent. Two years later he succeeded Mr. Strong as general superintendent and the following year was advanced to the position of general manager. The Michigan Central at this time was credited with being little better than a third-class road and had a floating indebtedness of a million and a half dollars. Its roadbed, train equipment and buildings were in poor shape and its future outlook was none too bright. A few years later the Vanderbilt interests acquired control of the road and William H. Vanderbilt succeeded to the presidency of the company. It was Mr. Ledyard’s idea to keep away from bond issuing and stock-jobbing, which policies were acceptable to the new owners of the road, and he was given permission to carry out his personal plans and ideas. In 1883 he succeeded to the presidency of the Michigan Central, becoming one of the first of the younger railroad executives to accept the Newman theory of doubling the capacity of cars and having longer trains pulled by more powerful locomotives, thus reducing the cost of freight transportation. In accord with his policy Mr. Ledyard proceeded to demolish every steel railroad bridge in the eastern division and rebuilt scores of miles of trackage and roadbed, eliminating the curves and steep grades as far as possible. When the reconstruction work was completed the company was operating freight trains of eighty cars as against its former maximum of thirty, and the capacity of these cars had been doubled. The entire cost of this work was paid from the earnings.
It was then that Mr. Ledyard entered upon a campaign to create new business for the road and stated to a friend: “I came to the conclusion that to get new business we must provide facilities for men to make new business profitable, to encourage manufacturers to build on our lines by giving them shipping facilities as good as they could get in any other center.” Under his supervision six miles of terminals were built at Riv3er Route before a single industrial plant was located in that district. “Service to all” became his slogan in railroad management and, moreover, his West Point training provided valuable, for he insisted upon the cardinal principle of obedience, never countenanced carelessness and met incompetency by summary dismissal. He always treated his subordinates with candor and respect but never with familiarity. He continued to build and acquired terminals in Detroit until his road was able to show more manufacturing plants on its terminals that all other Detroit roads combined. In 1916 he purchased the Detroit Belt Line Railroad bordered by scores of large factories, including the works of the Ford Motor Company. He found ready solution for intricate business problems and his plans at all times practical, far-reaching and resultant. When the passenger station in Detroit was destroyed by fire, within two hours he was running trains out of the new station which was then being built but which lacked two months of completion. He always recognized merit, faithfulness and ability upon the part of his employees and was ready to accord promotion as opportunity offered. He remained the chief executive of the road until 1905, when he resigned the presidency but became chairman of the board. General Rufus Ingalls, quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac, said of him: “In an emergency he could run a dozen railroads and provision five armies at a time”. While his attention was chiefly concentrated upon the development of railway interests, he was at one time president and afterward chairman of the board of the Union Trust Company and a director of the Peoples State Bank of Detroit.
On the 15th of October, 1867, Mr. Ledyard was united in marriage to Miss Mary L’Hommedieu, a daughter of Stephen L’Hommedieu of Cincinnati, who promoted and was president of the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad for a quarter of a century. Mrs. Ledyard died March 30, 1895, survived by four children: Matilda Cass, who was married in 1897 to Baron von Ketteler of Berlin, Germany, who at the time was German minister to Mexico and afterward minister to China, where he was murdered in the Boxer uprising in Pekin in 1900; Henry, an able attorney of Detroit; Augustus Canfield, who was killed in action in the Philippines while serving as first lieutenant of the Sixth United States Infantry December 6, 1899; and Hugh, formerly secretary and treasurer of the Art Stove Company of Detroit.
The family circle was again broken by the hand of death when the father, Henry B. Ledyard, passed away at Grosse Pointe Farms, May 25, 1921. His life had been one of intense and intelligently directed activity. Of him it was said: “For two minutes during his funeral obsequies, for the first time in the history of the Michigan Central, all the rolling stock stopped simultaneously by order, in his honor. The crudity which tradition attaches to our strong business men was no part of Henry B. Ledyard’s character. He was a gentleman, in a sense of the work rarely employed today in the United States. He belonged to that valid aristocracy which has almost been swept away by industrialism and all but supplanted by a ruling class whose sole qualification is capital.”
Mr. Ledyard was always keenly interested in the vital questions and issues of the day. He early gave political support to the democratic party but was not in harmony with the party upon the free silver question of 1896 and thereafter voted with the republican party. As a railroad builder, through the encouragement of Detroit’s industrial development, he contributed in notable measure to the upbuilding of the city. There are many concrete proofs of his greatness, of the breadth of his vision and of his ability as an executive. He largely concentrated his efforts and attention on his work with the idea of making his railroad of the greatest possible service to others, but he always kept a mind receptive to the needs of his fellowmen and his opportunities for their improvement. In his will he made liberal bequests to the Children’s Free Hospital Association, to Christ Protestant Episcopal Church and to the Railroad Young Men’s Christian Association of Detroit. He always desired the most beneficial and beneficent influences to be thrown around those in his service. While his business life was characterized by much of the precision of the military commander, those who came within the closer circle of his personal acquaintance had for him the greatest love and respect. The value of his life work as a factor in Michigan’s development can scarcely be overestimated and time will serve to heighten his fame and to gain further recognition of his ability and the value of his services to the state.
History of Wayne County and the City of Detroit, Michigan
Clarence M. Burton and M. Agnes Burton.
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company 1930.