On This Day – 24 March 1829 Birth of George Francis Train 

 

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Strange times are these, in which we live, forsooth ;
When young and old are taught in Falsehood’s school:–
And the man who dares to tell the truth,
Is called at once a lunatic and fool.

George Francis Train

He was an exceptionally wealthy eccentric who stood for the American Presidency. When making stump speeches he spoke mostly about himself and his exploits, often repeated himself, and wandered off the subject. He was also a racist who, when he failed to become President, decided a better option was to become the nation’s dictator.

If that all sounds familiar, then perhaps you’ve already heard of George Francis Train, one of the most appropriately named mavericks in nineteenth century America. That’s because Train made his fortune from building a railway line. He was one of the men behind the Union Pacific, which built the east/west section of the American transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, and ripped off America royally in the process.

But what makes Train even more interesting is that he campaigned for more Irish migrants to enter the USA in the 1840s—not a very popular position to adopt—he got involved in the building of a horse-tramway in Cork—which didn’t succeed—became an advocate for Fenianism, wrote a book in 1865 called Irish Independency, and got himself imprisoned in Dublin for ten months in 1868, for carrying pro-Fenian literature on board a ship which landed in Ireland.

George Francis Train was either a conman supreme, a fraudster par excellence, a deluded maniac, a feminist, a vegetarian, a communist, a capitalist leech, a pacifist, or the ‘Great American Humbug’—he was called all of the above, and a lot more besides. Oh, yes, lest we forget, he was also the model for the character of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.

He made his first fortune in shipping in the USA and Australia, before returning to America in the 1860s, and throwing in his lot with one of the most crooked business cabals in the long an undistinguished history of American crooked business cabals, the Union Pacific railroad corporation. Train and his associates realised that there were huge sums of money to be made from building their half of the transcontinental railroad, but only if they helped themselves to as much of the available funds as they could lay their grubby hands on. This is where Train’s neat idea of the Credit Mobilier paid off handsomely. It may sound like a French bank but, in fact, it was a company set up to actually build their half of the transcontinental railroad for the Union Pacific.

Naturally the construction costs were inflated, and the Union Pacific insiders, including Train, pocketed the difference between the actual cost of building the railroad and the prices being charged by Credit Mobilier for its construction. By the time the scam was exposed, in 1873, by the New York Sun newspaper, Train had long since taken his profit and moved on. He had become a Fenian fellow traveller, a supporter of equal rights for women, and a vegetarian.

His progressive credentials, however, did not extend as far as advocating equal rights for freed slaves, which became apparent when he sought the Democratic party nomination for the Presidency in 1864, 1868 and 1872.

Train’s exploits in shipping had influenced Jules Verne in the creation of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days and when, in 1890, the New York World newspaper despatched its ace reporter Nellie Bly to circumnavigate the globe—she did it in seventy-two days—the real George Train rose to the challenge on behalf of the fictional Fogg, and did the same journey in sixty-seven days. Two years later he did it all over again, this time in sixty days.

Towards the end of his life Train used the columns of his newspaper, The Revolution, to defend a campaigner for free love who had been arrested for obscenity. In the process, he was charged with the same offence himself. His lawyers got him off by pleading insanity. Train was not best pleased. But he was probably the victim of some form of mental debilitation that went well beyond so-called ‘eccentricity’, a euphemism for mental illness as long as you were wealthy.

He died in 1904 of smallpox. Sadly, fear of the infectious nature of the disease, led to many of his personal papers being destroyed after his death.

The extraordinary George Francis Train, American robber baron, suffragist and Irish nationalist, was born one hundred and eighty-eight years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day -Drivetime – 11.4.1866 Fenian invasion of Canada

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The Battle of Ridgeway, 1866.

 

 

Between 1866 and 1871 American Fenians – mostly veterans of the Civil War – attempted, on no less than five occasions, to invade Canada with some nebulous idea of seizing what was known through most of the 1860s as British North America and only giving it back when Ireland was granted an independent republic. Most of their efforts were cack-handed and disorganised. The raid on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, in April 1866 is typical. Led by one of the founders of the movement, John O’Mahony, this attempt landed 700 Fenians on the Canadian island which adjoined the state of Maine. The small force, however, sensibly placed discretion ahead of valour when it was informed that British warships were on the way. The occupation of the island was painlessly brief.

Another raid in 1870 was betrayed by the most famous English spy in the American Fenian ranks, Thomas Beach, who posed, for many years, as a French Canadian Henri le Caron, but whose information ensured that the British and Canadian authorities were well-informed about what the Fenians were up to.

The Fenian raids are generally represented as pathetic and disorganised fiascos. This is true of four out of the five – but not of the second raid, in June 1866.

The plan for this incursion was put together by former Union General Thomas William Sweeney, a Corkman known as ‘Fighting Tom’. The force, of about 1,300 Fenians, was led by former Union Army Colonel John O’Neill. It managed to cross the Niagra River without any American interference. A US gunboat – the Michigan – tried to stop them. But it had been sabotaged by a Fenian member of its crew and didn’t crank up until fourteen hours after most of the Fenian rebels had already made the crossing.

O’Neill’s men defeated a Canadian militia force at the Battle of Ridgeway. The Canadian defenders were boys before men – they were mostly inexperienced and badly armed troops facing well-equipped Irish veterans of the American Civil War. The result was the first Irish victory against a British force since Fontenoy in 1745.

The following day that first success was repeated at Fort Erie, a lakeside stronghold described, flatteringly, by the New York Times as a ‘deserted dunghill’.

The Times was just as complimentary towards the Fenian force itself, describing its members as ‘heroes of the stamp who bravely led the retreat at Bull Run’. The paper then advised the British-Canadian forces ‘not to spare them on our account . . They would be lying and stealing here if they were not raiding there.’

The Fenians described themselves as the Irish Republican Army – some went into battle wearing uniforms bearing the legend ‘IRA’ – it was the first time the letters are known to have been used in a context other than that of the accumulation of an American pension fund.

The USS Michigan finally managed to extract the Irish spanner from its works and get moving. It stopped Fenian reinforcements crossing into Canada. Rather than wait for the arrival of a vastly superior British regular force O’Neill withdrew and evacuated his men by barge back across the Niagra to Buffalo. There the Fenians surrendered to US forces. A little known fact – included among the Irish invaders was a small force of Mohawk Indians and a smaller group of Black Civil War veterans.

In a mopping up operation the U.S. army was instructed to arrest anyone ‘who looked like a Fenian’. Raising the obvious question – how do you look like a Fenian? The Americans took the whole affair very seriously indeed. General Sweeney, the Civil War hero, was arrested for his part in the invasion. Oddly though he continued to serve in the US Army until he retired in 1870. Or maybe that was his punishment.

One effect the raid did have was that it hastened the formation of the Confederation of Canada – so the Fenians can, in a sense, claim to be Canada’s Founding Fathers.

In a far less successful incursion two months beforehand Fenian forces led by John O’Mahony briefly occupied Campobello Island, New Brunswick, 148 years ago, on this day.