James Fisk, Jr. Monument, Brattleboro, Vermont

The gravesite of James Fisk, Jr., in Prospect Hill Cemetery on South Main Street in Brattleboro, around 1872-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

This ornate marble obelisk marks the final resting place of James Fisk, Jr., a Vermont native who became a prominent Wall Street financier and, in the process, one of the most notorious of the Gilded Age robber barons. Fisk was born in 1835 in Pownal, Vermont, and was the son of James Fisk, Sr., a peddler who sold silk dressed and other high-end dry goods. The family moved to Brattleboro in 1843, and in 1849 the elder James opened the Revere House, which became a successful hotel at the corner of Main and Elliot Street. James, Jr. was about 15 at the time, and he lived in the hotel with his father, his stepmother Love, and his half-sister Mary.

For some time, the younger James worked as a waiter at the Revere House, but in 1850 he quite literally ran away with the circus, joining Van Amburgh’s Mammoth Circus and Menagerie. His flamboyant, outgoing personality was perfectly suited for the circus, although he primarily performed menial tasks like taking ticket, feeding animals, setting up tents, and cleaning cages. However, his time with the circus gave him valuable business experience. When he returned to Brattleboro a few years later, at the age of 18, he joined his father’s peddling business, where he applied some of the techniques he had learned with the circus, including traveling in brightly-colored wagons and wearing fancy clothing.

Fisk’s success as a peddler led to him being hired as a salesman for the Boston-based dry goods firm of Jordan Marsh & Company. However, his career remained unremarkable until the start of the Civil War. In 1861, he traveled to Washington, D.C., where his personality and business skills helped win him lucrative government contracts to provide textiles for army uniforms. He became a wealthy man, largely because of these contracts, but he also profited from the war in less scrupulous ways, including smuggling cotton from the south and selling Confederate bonds to European speculators.

Near the end of the war, Fisk became a stockbroker, and in 1866 he established his own brokerage firm of Fisk & Belden. He worked closely with Daniel Drew and Jay Gould, two of the most ruthless business tycoons of their era. Fisk followed in their ways, teaming up with them to gain control of the Erie Railroad and prevent Cornelius Vanderbilt from adding it to his railroad empire. To do so, the trio issued fraudulent shares of the company, which Vanderbilt purchased in large quantities. He lost a considerable amount of money in the process – over $100 million in today’s dollars – and, despite the fraud, Drew, Fisk, and Gould were able to retain control after bribing the New York state legislature to legalize the fraudulent shares.

A few years later, in 1869, Fisk and Gould would attempt an even more ambitious scheme to corner the gold market. They managed to drive the price as high as $160 per ounce before President Ulysses S. Grant ordered Treasury Secretary George S. Boutwell to release $4 million in treasury gold. The price of gold quickly plummeted, breaking their corner on the market. Fisk and Gould managed to avoid serious financial losses, but many investors were ruined, and the scheme triggered a nationwide economic panic.

Aside from his questionable business practices, Fisk’s personal life also had its share of scandal. He had married his wife, Lucy Moore, in 1854, not long after he left the circus. They remained married even after his rapid ascent from dry goods peddler to Wall Street tycoon, but she spent most of her time in Boston rather than with Fisk in New York. During this time, Fisk had a mistress, the actress Josie Mansfield, whom he housed in a brownstone on 23rd Street in New York. However, after a few years she fell in love with one of Fisk’s business partners, Edward Stiles Stokes, and she began threatening Fisk with blackmail. Fisk refused to pay, and the love triangle eventually led to Stokes shooting Fisk on the staircase of the Grand Central Hotel, in January 6, 1872. Fisk died the following day, at the age of 36, although not before identifying Stokes as the shooter.

Fisk’s body lay in state on January 8, at the Grand Opera House, where around 20,000 mourners came to pay their respects. On Wall Street, Fisk has been a ruthless businessman, but the poor and working-class of New York admired him for his charity work, and many saw him as the typification of the American Dream: a circus laborer and country peddler who rose to greatness through hard work and determination. That night, his body was returned to Brattleboro, where around 5,000 people – equivalent to the town’s entire population at the time – were on hand when the funeral train arrived at almost midnight. His funeral was held the next morning at the Revere House, and then his body was brought here to Prospect Hill Cemetery for burial.

At the time of his death, Fisk’s estate was valued at just under $1 million, or about $20 million today. Of this, $25,000 was spent on a marble obelisk here at his gravesite. It was designed by prominent sculptor Larkin Mead, a Brattleboro native whose other works of this era included Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois. His design for Fisk’s monument included a bas-relief portrait of Fisk in the center, surrounded on all four corners by partially nude female figures. Each figure symbolized trade and commerce in some way, with one representing railroads, another steamships, a third the stage, and the fourth finance.

The first photo was probably taken soon after the monument was installed, because at this point it did not yet include Fisk’s dates of birth or death. His widow, Lucy, outlived him by 40 years, and she was interned here after her death in 1912. Her inscription was added to the base of the monument, and over the years other members of the family were buried here in this plot, as shown by the many gravestones in the present-day photo.

Overall, though, the monument has not aged well. No longer the brilliant white of the first photo, its marble has been weathered and blackened by nearly 150 years of New England’s climate. Along with this, the bas-relief of Fisk was removed in the early 2000s, leaving a faint shadow in the oval. Souvenir hunters have also caused damage over the years, with Fisk’s admirers occasionally chipping off pieces of the marble. However, as one of Fisk’s friends noted many years later, in an excerpt published by Jay Gould biographer Edward J. Renehan, Jr., these visitors “have made the monument more fitted to commemorate Jim’s career – striking from many aspects, picturesque, but blemished.”

Soldiers’ Monument, Brattleboro, Vermont

The Civil War monument and bandstand on the town common in Brattleboro, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

Civil War monuments are a near-ubiquitous feature of almost every town common across the country, and Brattleboro is no exception. Dedicated in 1887, the Brattleboro Soldiers’ Monument has a granite base, with bronze plaques on all four sides and an eight-foot-tall bronze infantryman on top. As indicated on one of the plaques, the monument was to commemorate “the loyalty and patriotism of the men of Brattleboro, who fought for liberty and the union in the great rebellion of 1861-1865.” According to the plaque, the town had a total of 381 residents who served in the war, 31 of whom died.

The monument was built at a cost of $6,000, and the June 17, 1887 dedication ceremony drew a number of dignitaries here to the common. It was presided over by Frederick Holbrook, a Brattleboro native who served as governor for the first two years of the war, and whose father once lived in a house across the street from the common. The dedication speech was given by James R. Tanner, a Civil War veteran who had lost both of his legs at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Tanner was the stenographer who had been summoned to Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed in order to record eyewitness testimonies from the assassination, and he later went on to become Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, serving from 1905 to 1906. Aside from Holbrook and Tanner, other dignitaries included Governor Ebenezer J. Ormsbee, and Brattleboro resident Colonel George W. Hooker, who was later awarded the Medal of Honor for single-handedly capturing 116 Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Crampton’s Gap in 1862.

The dedication ceremony drew about 5,000 people to the common, but an even larger crowd – estimated at 8,000 – gathered here on September 1, 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech during a presidential tour of Vermont. This took place only a few years before the first photo was taken, and Roosevelt spoke from the bandstand in the center of the photo, just to the right of the monument. The president was accompanied by a number of notable Vermonters, including Frederick Holbrook, then-Governor William W. Stickney, federal judge Hoyt H. Wheeler, and U.S. Attorney James L. Martin, whom Roosevelt would later appoint as Wheeler’s successor on the bench. Roosevelt was escorted here from the train station, spoke from the bandstand for about 15 minutes, and was presented with a bouquet of roses. He was then escorted back to the station, and from there he traveled south across the border to Northfield, Massachusetts, where he spent the night at the Northfield Hotel.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, this scene has not significantly changed. The old bandstand was evidently replaced at some point, and a different gazebo now stands on the site. Along with this, the cannon and shot are now gone, and its approximate location is now a picnic table. Otherwise, though, this site continues to be used as the town common, and the Soldiers’ Monument still stands here, now accompanied by a second memorial to the Brattleboro residents who were killed in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

Aftermath of 1869 Flood, Brattleboro, Vermont

The scene looking north on Main Street from the Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro, apparently in the aftermath of the October 4, 1869 flood. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo is undated with no caption, but it almost certainly shows the aftermath of the October 4, 1869 flood, which was among the most disastrous floods in the history of Brattleboro. The town has always been vulnerable to flooding, given its location on the banks of the Connecticut River, but the majority of the damage in this particular flood was caused by the small but fast-moving Whetstone Brook, which passes through downtown Brattleboro in the foreground of this scene. Originating in the hills to the west of here, the Whetstone provided the water power for many of Brattleboro’s early industries. However, this proximity to the brook also made these factories vulnerable to flooding, which could come with little warning.

Although rapid changes in the water level were not uncommon, the October 1869 floodwaters were higher than any in recorded history up to that point, and came after 36 hours of heavy rainfall. The flooding began shortly after 11:00 on the morning of October 4, and initially the primary concern was removing goods from the basements of homes and businesses on Flat Street, which runs along the north side of the brook. However, within ten minutes the water level had risen to the point where the focus shifted from saving property to saving lives. The book Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895 provides a detailed description of the subsequent events:

John L. Ray’s livery stable floor was completely covered with water. Many ready and willing hands were there to seize his horses by the bridle and lead them to a place of safety; all his buggies and horses were taken to high ground on Main Street. So suddenly did the waters spring upon the workmen in the blacksmith shop of Mr. Hall, that the floor was afloat and the workmen were obliged to break through a back door and climb up a stone wall and take shelter upon Elliot Street. A frame workshop just beyond the smithy was washed from its foundation and swung completely around. Mr. Dunklee, occupying the first house on the right-hand side of Flat Street, had just begun to gather up his things on the first floor of his tenement when he was obliged to call for help for the rescue of himself, wife and two other females. Help was promptly given him by Mr. John Rogers of the Revere House, who did yeoman’s service and saved them, although they were all pretty well drenched. In the next house resided Mr. Frank Holding, whose wife had been for four weeks dangerously ill with typhoid fever; their lower floor was completely inundated. Ropes and boats were procured by the spectators, who numbered hundreds, and after much peril and great exertion, the family were taken alive. The house of Willard Frost, on the lower side of the street, was in a peculiarly exposed situation. Fences were broken down by the ferocity of the current, the woodshed was veered around, the barn was shaken on its foundation, and inevitable destruction seemed imminent. The house was occupied by the female members of Mr. Frost’s family together with Mr. Eugene Frost, Mr. Wells Frost and his mother. They all went to the upper chamber of the house and there made signals of distress from the windows to the assembled multitude on Elliot Street. The rapid current which eddied and whirled around the house on all sides made it next to impossible for a boat to live in the waters. Several attempts were made to reach the house, but without success and these people suffered agonies untold for many minutes, until at last the timbers which had floated between the buildings formed a raft, on which they safely passed to the shore.

The large dam at B. M. Buddington’s gristmill was washed away, and the tannery which stood below was demolished and two thousand hides taken down the stream. Spenser & Douglas’s shop was entirely swept away and the road all along ruined. The bridge near the old woolen factory went down, on which two ladies had stood a moment before, barely escaping with their lives. The swollen stream then swept over Frost meadow reaching Estey & Company’s organ factory, doing no damage to the buildings, but carrying off thousands of feet of lumber and tearing up the road badly. On the south side of the brook, Woodcock & Vinton’s canal for about two hundred rods was torn out and one of the buildings and some paper injured. The flood swept away in a moment, Dwinell’s furniture shop with all its contents, furniture, tools, stock and account books, the Main Street bridge, A. F. Boynton’s shoe shop, office of I. K. Allen, lumber dealer, and Boyd’s fish market. Several men were in the market, among them the proprietor – he felt the building tremble and singing out “Run for your lives,” quickly he followed his flying guests. He sprang out of the door, turned around to look and saw nothing but a mass of water where a second before had stood his place of business. On the other side the planing mill of Smith & Coffin was cleaned out of its machinery, tools, etc.; the machine shop of Ferdinand Tyler was struck by the timbers and a part of the underpinning knocked away, the sawmill near the bridge and the foundry below were swept into the Connecticut with all their contents.

Nearly all of the bridges across the Whetstone Brook were destroyed by the flood, including the one here on Main Street. The first photo shows a large ditch where the bridge had once been, with wreckage strewn across the scene. The flood caused an estimated $300,000 in damage, equivalent to about $5.6 million today, and also killed two people. One of the victims was Adolph Friedrich, a Prussian immigrant sho left behind a wife and five young children. Twelve years earlier, Friedrich had survived the sinking of the treasure ship S.S. Central America, which was lost in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. He had been returning from the gold fields of California, but he lost his fortune in the shipwreck. He eventually made his way to Brattleboro, where he found work at the Estey Organ Company. Friedrich was working there when the flood hit, and was swept downstream on a raft of boards. He was last seen going over the waterfall near the Main Street bridge, and his skeletal remains were later discovered on a riverbank. The other victim of the flood was Kittie Barrett, a 16 year old girl who had been watching debris float by at the tannery. She was killed when the upstream dam broke, and her body was recovered about a quarter mile downstream.

Today, nearly 150 years after this disastrous flood, this scene has remained remarkably unchanged. Some of the old buildings, particularly on the left side of the street, were replaced in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, but overall the area retains a similar scale in both photos. The right side, though, has been well-preserved, and a number of the buildings from the first photo are still there. The most noticeable of these is the Van Doorn Block on the far right, with its large, pedimented gable. Built in 1850, the brick building survived the 1869 flood and still stands, with few noticeable changes over the years. Further up the street, other survivors from the first photo include the Devens, Exchange, and Cutler Blocks, which were built in the early 1840s and form a continuous facade from 85 to 97 Main Street. Even further in the distance, near the center of the scene, are several other mid-19th century buildings that are still standing. Today, all of these buildings form part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Connecticut River, Brattleboro, Vermont

The view of Brattleboro, Vermont, seen looking northwest from the bridge over the Connecticut River, around 1894. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene in 2017:

These two photos were actually taken in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, since the state line runs along the western side of the Connecticut River. However, the subject of the photos is Brattleboro, a town that developed along the banks of the river during the 19th century. Located near the southeastern corner of Vermont, Brattleboro was among the earliest towns in the state, and was settled soon after the conclusion of the French and Indian War, when French invasions from Quebec were no longer a threat. Its location along the Connecticut River made Brattleboro an important center for both trade and manufacturing, and by the middle of the 19th century it was rapidly growing as a mill town.

Many of the buildings in downtown Brattleboro date back to this period, and some of these are visible in these two photos. The left side of the first photo shows the rear of the buildings on the east side of Main Street, most of which are still standing today, although hidden by trees in the 2017 photo. Further in the distance, on the far left of both photos, is the tower of the Brooks House, a large hotel that was built in 1871 at the corner of Main and High Streets. Two other landmarks in this scene include the steeple of the 1870 First Baptist Church in the center, and the steeple of the 1842 Centre Congregational Church on the right side.

Today, this scene has not significantly changed, more than 120 years after the first photo was taken. The Connecticut River appears somewhat higher in the present-day view, perhaps a consequence of the 1908 construction of the Vernon Dam, which is located a few miles downstream of here. Overall, though, Brattleboro has remained well-preserved over the years, with many historic commercial buildings still lining both sides of Main Street. Most of the buildings here in this scene are now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Wells Fountain, Brattleboro, Vermont

The Wells Fountain, at the corner of Putney Road and Linden Street in Brattleboro, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

The Wells Fountain has been a feature here in the center of Brattleboro since 1890, when it was given to the town by William Henry Wells, a New York businessman who had grown up in Brattleboro. The fountain was originally located about 20 feet from here, but it was moved to its current site in 1906. The first photo appears to have been taken shortly before this move, because the photo shows it closer to the street than it is now, so the original location was probably on the far left side of the present-day photo.

The fountain was the the work of William Rutherford Mead, a noted architect who, like Wells, was a Brattleboro native who moved to New York as an adult. Mead was a cousin of President Rutherford B. Hayes, whose family also had roots in Brattleboro, and he was a partner in the prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. Mead did not have the same architectural genius of his two partners, Charles Follen McKim and Stanford White, and he designed few works on his own. Instead, his talents were as an office manager, serving as a stable, practical-minded counterbalance to the more fanciful McKim and White. Under his leadership, the firm became one of the country’s leading architects of the late 19th and early 20th century, with commissions such as the Boston Public Library, the Rhode Island State House, and Penn Station, along with many other public buildings and Gilded Age mansions.

The original location of the fountain marked the spot where Mead’s older brother, Larkin Mead, had created an eight-foot-high snow sculpture in 1856. The Recording Angel, as it was called, stood here for about two weeks, and the subsequent publicity helped to launch his career as prominent sculptor. He would later go on to design works such as the statue atop the Vermont State House, a statue of Ethan Allen in the United States Capitol, and the statues on Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. He died in Florence, Italy in 1910, and his grave was topped with a replica of his original Recording Angel sculpture.

Today, the Wells Fountain still stands here at the corner of Linden Street and Putney Road, although its surroundings have changed significantly. The trolley tracks in the foreground of the first photo are long gone, as are many of the surrounding buildings. The land just up the hill behind the fountain was once privately owned, with a house that once stood just out of view to the right. However, this land is now a small public park in front of the courthouse, and part of the foundation of the old house can still be seen on the far right side of the present-day photo.

William B. Howard Memorial Fountain, Wales, Mass

The fountain at the corner of Main Street and Haynes Hill Road in Wales, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

This fountain has been located here on Main Street in Wales since 1887, when it was donated to the town by William B. Howard. Born in Wales in 1832, Howard later moved west to Chicago, where he became a successful contractor. He was responsible for the construction of a number of railroads and bridges, but he was also involved in several other major projects, including the construction of the Indiana State House and the New Croton Aqueduct. Howard often returned to Wales as a summer visitor, where he stayed at the home of Myles Needham, and in 1887 he gave this fountain to the town as a gift. It was made of granite quarried from nearby Monson, and the design of the fountain is essentially identical to one in Monson, which now stands in front of Memorial Hall.

The first photo shows the fountain as it appeared shortly after it was installed at this site. Just beyond it to the left is a house that once served as the parsonage for the Wales Methodist Church. According to the state’s MACRIS database of historic buildings, the house may have been built around 1850, and at the time it was owned by a William Thompson. However, in 1858 the house was sold to the church, which used it as its parsonage until around the turn of the 20th century. The house subsequently reverted to a private residence, but neither it nor the fountain has changed much in 125 years since the first photo was taken, and today this scene looks essentially the same as it did in the early 1890s.