Sue Young Histories

John Murray Forbes 1813 - 1898

January 15, 2008

john murray forbesJohn Murray Forbes 1813 - 1898 was a trustee of the Homeopathic Medical Society and the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital in Boston in 1872, and his son in law and former partner, Henry Sturgis Russell, who married his daughter Mary, was a longtime trustee and president of the Homeopathic Medical Society.

Forbes was president of Michigan Central Railroad, and he was a director and president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.

Forbes and his investment group built a transcontinental railroad system, controlled the output of mines and forests, and sped the flow of people and goods throughout America.

Railroad historian Richard C. Overton said that Forbes “stood very much in the same relation to the railroad as George Washington had to his nation.”

… Forbes advised and underwrote dozens of philanthropic endeavors. He served on the board of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and supported the Milton Academy. He was affiliated with the Union Club of Boston and the Saturday Club.

In 1847 he chartered a ship and sent relief to Ireland. He revived the New England Emigrant Aid Society to encourage northerners to settle in Florida. After the Civil war he supported the Tuskegee and Hampton Schools and started a Reconstruction Society. In his final years he led the committee that built the Robert Gould Shaw monument in Boston.

Wikipedia: John Murray Forbes was an American railroad magnate and abolitionist. He was president of both the Michigan Central railroad and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in the 1850s

He supplied money and weapons to New Englanders to fight slavery in Kansas and in 1859 entertained John Brown. In 1860 he was an elector for Abraham Lincoln… Forbes’s many philanthropic activities included the re-establishment of Milton Academy, a preparatory school south of Boston, Massachusetts in 1884…

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of Forbes: “Never was such force, good meaning, good sense, good action, combined with such domestic lovely behavior, such modesty and persistent preference for others. Wherever he moved he was the benefactor… How little this man suspects, with his sympathy for men and his respect for lettered and scientific people, that he is not likely, in any company, to meet a man superior to himself,” and “I think this is a good country that can bear such a creature as he.”

The Forbes family were wealthy and established in Boston, descended from Scottish immigrants, and can be traced back to Sir John de Forbes in Scotland in the 12th century.

Born in Bordeaux, France, and raised in Milton, Massachusetts, John faced his father’s death when he was six. At the age of twelve he entered the family business–a clerk in the China counting-house of his uncles.

Five years later he “shipped before the mast” to Canton, replacing his brother Tom, who died while serving as an agent for Houqua, China’s leading export merchant.

By learning quickly and acquiring an early fortune, he returned home and married, but soon sailed back alone to China, in three years gaining what was then great wealth, $100,000.

Upon returning to the United States, John Forbes left the volatile China trade and invested in land, iron, and railroads. While actively participating in the Saturday Club with Boston Unitarians notable in science, religion, philosophy, and literature.

Forbes was president of the Chicago Central Railroad, which pioneered the first trains from the East to Chicago. Throughout half a century of investing in the consolidation of railroad development opening the West, he led in the creation of the newly industrializing nation’s very first big business. He is recognized as a pioneering precursor of Henry Ford a century later.


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