Biography of Joseph H. Ramsey


AMONG the distinguished men who have figured honorably in the civil and political affairs of Albany and Schoharie county, is the Hon. Joseph H. Ramsey, ex-senator. He has been aptly styled the little giant of the Albany and Susquehanna railroad. Stirring and exciting actions, especially in railroad matters, have marked his long and busy career – actions in which he has shown a determination and an unyielding perseverance seldom equaled or surpassed in fighting for what he deemed to be right, as well as for the best interests of his fellow-citizens in railroad matters.

Born on the 29th of January, 1816, in the town of Sharon, Schoharie County, N. Y., he spent his boyhood days there amidst the rich and attractive scenery of a now flourishing portion of the state. His ancestry is of German and English origin, the more sturdy and substantial qualities of which he has combined in an eminent degree. His father, the Rev. Frederick Ramsey, was a man of high moral and religious character, who was for more than fifty years a local minister in the Methodist church. After fighting ” a good fight ” in spiritual matters, he departed this life about twelve years ago, over eighty years old, in the lively hope of receiving the everlasting ” crown of righteousness ” reserved for the just. The mother of ex-Senator Ramsey is still living, at the, great age of ninety-two, in the possession of her mental faculties, blessed and cheered with the consolations which flow from the higher spiritual fountains of a true Christian life. The anniversary of her ninetieth birthday was celebrated at Cobleskill on the 13th of August, 1889. The family of ten children, whose ages ranged from seventy-three to fifty-one, were all present to honor the occasion, as follows: The Hon. Joseph H. Ramsey of Howe’s Cave; Robert V. S. Ramsey of Argusville; Mrs. (Rev.) J. C. Fenton of Schaghticoke; Mrs. (Rev.) Augustus Brown of Fairfax, Va.; Mrs. A. M. Webster of Cobleskill; Mrs. Dr. Herrick and Mrs. Robert Harper of Albany; Mrs. Henrietta Hannah of Cobleskill; Mrs. Frank Peeso of Syracuse, and Mrs. John W. McNamara of Albany.

The subject of this sketch attended the district schools of his native town, and there laid the foundation of a good practical education. His youthful inclinations seem to have been inclined toward the study of law, in the pursuit of which he was most signally favored. At the age of twenty-one years he entered the law office of Jedediah Miller of Cobleskill, a lawyer of rare ability and persuasive eloquence as a speaker. Mr. Miller, who deserves a passing notice here, was a New England man, a descendant on his mother’s side of the Pilgrims who came over in the Mayflower. He was a classmate of Daniel Webster at Dartmouth College and graduated there in 1805. Like many of the eastern men he found his way to this state, and became an early settler of the then wilderness region of Schoharie County. He studied law with old Judge Tiffany and was admitted to practice in 1809. Highly gifted by nature with intellectual powers, he was not long in rising to eminence in his profession.

In 1819 he was a member of the legislature, and again in 1820, 1832 and 1838. His patriotism was lofty. Not long before he died, and shortly before the close of the civil war, on being told that the prospects were bright for the speedy restoration of the Union, he is said to have exclaimed: “God be praised. I can die in peace.”

Under the instructions of so thorough a scholar and so able an advocate it is not to be wondered at that young Ramsey, with his own natural gifts, made rapid progress in the studies of his chosen profession. It was indeed a period in his life upon which he has doubtless always looked with pleasant emotions, for it was then that the rich treasures of a noble science were being opened to his studious mind, while new and inviting fields for work or warfare were spreading out before his youthful vision.

In 1840, a year memorable in our political history, when Gen. William Henry Harrison was elected to the presidency of the United States, Mr. Ramsey was admitted to practice law in all the courts of the state. For several years after receiving his legal diploma he continued with Mr. Miller gaining much experience in a large law practice and a wide reputation, which were to be eminently serviceable to him on future legal battlefields. Succeeding Mr. Miller in his practice, Mr. Ramsey afterward opened a law office at Lawyersville, where he continued the usual practice of his profession for some years longer.

In the autumn of 1854 Mr. Ramsey was elected as a Whig to the legislature from the democratic county of Schoharie; and in the following year he was a delegate to the Whig state convention, while he was also a member of the joint convention, composed of Whigs and Free-Soil Democrats, which formed the Republican Party in this state – a party at whose cradle he thus sat, but whose hearse he has never yet had occasion to follow.

Mr. Ramsey was now to enter more boldly into another field – the arena of railroad warfare, in which he was finally after many pitched battles to gain a splendid victory without the loss of a single drop of blood, though for a long time the dark clouds betokened the burst of a local storm of civil war. This great question was the building of the Albany and Susquehanna railroad, with whose interests the life of Mr. Ramsey has been so interwoven that a brief review of the whole subject will not be foreign here. Mr. Ramsey was from the first an ardent advocate of the building of the Albany and Susquehanna railroad. He saw at a glance what benefits would ultimately flow to the people of old Schoharie and other adjacent counties in the development of the material resources of what was then know as ” a sequestered region,” and in the displacement of the old wagon roads. He saw how flourishing villages would in time grow up along the line of the contemplated route, and that the wilderness region of those parts would be turned into fruitful fields and blossom like the rose. No man was better acquainted with that section of the country and what it wanted in order to enrich itself than he, and with courage not to be shaken by any “lions in the way,” he went straight forward toward the accomplishment of the grand object in view, and that was the establishment of a new railroad.

The Albany and Susquehanna Railroad Company was first organized in 1852, when more than a million dollars had been subscribed for the enterprise by the inhabitants along the proposed line, and by parties living in Albany. In the summer of 1853 a contract was made by the company with Morris, Miller, Baker & Co., to build the road, and the work was commenced. But owing to the revulsion in railroad affairs, the contractors were obliged to suspend operations. A complete abandonment of the project seemed to be imminent, when Mr. Ramsey was called to consult with the directors regarding the proper course to pursue. The result of the deliberations was a determination to apply to the legislature for a law “authorizing the towns to subscribe to the stock and issue their bonds in payment, and in that way ascertain whether the people of the towns were disposed to aid or not.”

In the autumn of 1855 Mr. Ramsey was elected as a republican to the state senate from the seventeenth senatorial district, then comprising the counties of Schoharie and Delaware. He received many votes from the democrats in those counties who were in favor of the construction of the Albany and Susquehanna railroad, and who expected him to continue his efforts in behalf of the enterprise. In this his constituents were not disappointed. He lost no time in introducing a bill into the senate of 1856, authorizing the towns to subscribe to the stock of the company. This bill after a stubborn opposition, passed both houses, and was signed by Governor King. But it was not till the next session (1857) that the act was so amended as to make it entirely practical, requiring the consent of a majority instead of that of two-thirds of the tax payers, representing a majority of the taxable property of the towns, expressed in writing.

In 1858 Mr. Ramsey was elected a director and made vice-president of the company. He had devoted his best energies in securing subscriptions, in allaying opposition, and in trying to place the company on a sure basis. But scarcely had one obstacle been removed before another presented itself. The validity of the law raising money by town subscriptions was questioned; litigation followed; but the court of appeals rendered a decision in favor of the company. Again the contending forces advanced closer, and the attacks became fiercer. The legislature in 1858-9 passed a bill granting state aid to the company to the amount of $200,000 to complete that portion of the road between Albany and Schoharie. The bill was vetoed by Governor Morgan. Mr. Ramsey was re-elected to the senate and in the session of 1860-1 he presented another bill in the interests of the road, which was again vetoed by Governor Morgan, as were also two other bills of a similar nature, in 1862. Men of less nerve and pluck than Mr. Ramsey would have given up the contest and retired from the field as a vanquished foe. But one defeat seemed only to inspire him to renewed efforts, to drive back the lines of the opposing forces. In the session of 1863 his favorite bill appropriating $500,000 for the road as far as Oneonta was promptly passed and signed by Governor Seymour, who had been elected in the fall of 1862.

In September, 1863, the road was opened for business to Schoharie creek; and on the resignation of Mr. E. P. Prentice of Albany, as president of the company, Mr. Ramsey was unanimously elected in his place. For two years the work of construction went slowly on, principally on account of the increase in the cost of labor and material, and the inflation of the currency incident to the war of the rebellion. And it was not until the summer of 1865 that the road was opened to Oneonta. In this crippled condition of the affairs of the company a bill passed the legislature in 1866-7, for the remaining $500,000 to aid in the completion of the road. This bill Governor Fenton vetoed; but the next year he signed one appropriating $250,000 for that portion of the road between Oneonta and Harpersville; while in 1868 he vetoed a bill for a like appropriation, being the last installment asked for. Disappointed and dispirited again the company by great exertion and much sacrifice succeeded in raising money by other means, so that the road was completed to Binghamton in January, 1869. But the real tug of war was soon to come. Jay Gould and James Fisk, Jr., thinking it would make a valuable appendage to their Erie road, came down “like a wolf on the fold,” and sought by high-handed, desperate means to secure by purchase a majority of the stock of the road. Claiming they had already a majority without waiting for an election, they immediately commenced an action and obtained an order from Judge Barnard – afterward impeached – suspending Mr. Ramsey from acting as president before the time of the election of directors. Judge Rufus W. Peckham, father of the present judge, made another order modifying that of Judge Barnard, and giving the defendants a chance to be heard. The order of Judge Peckham was annulled by Judge Barnard, and was entirely disregarded by Gould, Fisk and their friends, and a bold attempt was made by them to take possession of the road by force. Fisk, with some of his cohorts, came to Albany and tried to get possession of the office of the president and other offices of the company, but on being vigorously resisted they were obliged to beat an ignominious retreat. The next charge to be made in the line of attack was the concentration of a large force of Erie’s men, numbering from fifteen hundred to two thousand, mostly employees, with the design of taking forcible possession of the road, commencing at Binghamton. This was met by determined volunteers on the Ramsey side to resist the outrage. The most intense excitement prevailed, and it looked for some time as if blood must be spilt. The contending forces met at the tunnel west of Binghamton when the Gould forces attempted to run an Erie locomotive to Albany, with employees of the Erie, to take possession of the depots along the road. Just then Robert C. Blackall, master mechanic of the Albany and Susquehanna road, with his men captured the Erie engine, with the engineer and fireman, and sent it dashing on at full speed to Albany. The Erie’s employees were paroled by the brave master mechanic.

The final notable legal contest in this celebrated railroad fight was made in 1870, when the Gould and Fisk party made another unsuccessful attempt to gain control of the road, when just before the annual meeting of the company Mr. Ramsey, as president, and Mr. Phelps, as treasurer and secretary, were enjoined by another order of Judge Barnard from taking any part in the election. The regular election was held notwithstanding, and the inspectors declared that the Ramsey directors were duly chosen. The Gould party also held an election and claimed the victory. Carried to the courts the case was finally decided in favor of the Ramsey directors, in the Supreme Court held at Rochester by Hon. E. Darwin Smith. This was a crowning triumph for the Albany and Susquehanna railroad, and for the heroic Mr. Ramsey, who had all along stood in the front ranks with his face to the foe. In 1870 this now prosperous road was leased by the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, by which it has ever since been operated.

Mr. Ramsey has held several other important offices besides those of a legislative character. He succeeded Hon. Erastus Corning in the presidency of the Albany Iron Manufacturing Company. He was president of the New York and Albany railroad. In 1871, 1872 and 1873 he was a delegate from Albany to the republican state conventions of those years. He was also a member of the republican state committee for several years.

In the proceedings to impeach Judge Barnard no one took a more active part than Mr. Ramsey, and when that judge was impeached and was tried by the senate and prohibited “from holding any office under the civil government,” it must have been with feelings of the highest approval that Mr. Ramsey looked upon the just verdict of the senate.

On the 17th day of March, 1835, Mr. Ramsey was married to Sarah S. Boyce, daughter of William Boyce of Sharon. She was the granddaughter of Col. John Rice of Revolutionary memory, who removed from Connecticut immediately after peace was declared, to what was then New Dorlach, in old Tryon County.

Col. Rice was the first member of assembly, and of the same legislature which formed the town of Sharon and Schoharie County at the session of 1795, from territory taken from Tryon County. The town of Sharon was named from the town of the same name in Connecticut from which he and his family emigrated. He was re-elected to the assembly in the years 1796, 1797, 1798, 1808 and 1809. He was also subsequently elected supervisor, as was the father of Mr. Ramsey, of the town of Sharon. William Boyce was born in Schaghticoke in the state of New York,

Mr. Ramsey is now president of the Howe’s Cave association in manufacturing cement, lime and brick. From 1863 to 1883 he resided in Albany and has had, and now has, a law office in this city, and his venerable form may be seen almost daily on our streets, though his residence is at Howe’s Cave in the town of Cobleskill, his former residence, in the vicinity of a spot where hundreds of pilgrims yearly resort to look upon the silent majesty of nature’s works in a ” recess of darkness and wonders.” He is also president of a railroad enterprise for the construction of a railroad from the city of New York to the St. Lawrence river at or near Ogdensburg.



Noted living Albanians and state officials , A series of biographical sketches. 1891.

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