Last time: We opened the post-Civil War “Gilded Age” in Cambridge and around America from 1866-80.


Chapter 19: The Gilded Age, Part II – 1881-1900

     On New Years Day 1881, Mr. Henry Noble was serving as president of the Village of Cambridge (not called mayor until years later.)  The cross-town governments had incorporated as one in 1866 but continued to elect West and East District officials until reincorporation in 1927. Noble was the 11th president in 15 years, a one year term evidently with a high burn-out. Down in Albany Alonzo Cornell (son of Ezra, founder of Cornell University) was New York’s 27th governor. James Garfield occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1881 but was our second chief exec murdered and VP Chester Arthur assumed the term through 1885.

     Cambridge in the 1880s hosted the essential bunting and flag festooned holiday parades and the quintessential big-top travelling circus. Transport yourself back in time to upstate New York through Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants, made into the 2011 film (Reece Witherspoon.) For a more chilling ride, long before vampires and witches captivated today’s youth, scurry down a dusky midway with Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) in his Something Wicked This Way Comes. Either way, you’re decades removed to a grassy, dusty field alongside the Cambridge tracks, with booths of carney barkers and cages of strange animals whipping the senses with sweet and pungent aromas and the hot summer nights with magic and mystery. While the 1870s had featured the annual firemen’s muster—pitting several fire companies in contests of horse-thundering, smoke belching, steamer racing, and water pumping and throwing—by 1880 the volunteer teams disbanded from dwindling interest. But in December ‘81 the Village voted in the first paid Cambridge Fire Department, with the Chief allotted $5 for a new uniform. By 1882 funding came from a local tax rate of $2.25 per $1000 assessed property value. The Engine House was where the old Washington County Post building is seen today at Main and Pearl.

     Another period artifact, forgotten by most, was the street lamp illuminated by whale oil, and the Village Lamplighter. These gents were paid 2c for each lamp lighted and cleaned, a term reborn in the 1960s with the Lamplighter Restaurant on West Main. But with the discovery of oil, kerosene was the new fuel, as noted in the 1880 Village minutes. In ‘83 the Jerome B. Rice Company built the stone walls still holding back the brook on the Varak campus. On Dec. 23, 1884 a fire gutted the West End district—not the first time—including the Union House and Ackley Hall, a loss of $120,000, big bucks then. High winds fanned the flames as firemen struggled in the freeze, heating up new interest in a public water system. So in ‘85, with the Union House rebuilt just after the new Cambridge Hotel opened, a permit was let for the Cambridge Water Works; the first president was William McKie. The CFD hooked into the system with a 20 year contract for 30 hydrants and two drinking fountains for the horses. Citizens leading the charge included Jerome B. Rice himself and John Larmon. The vote was 115 for, 28 against; recall only men cast ballots then but grumbling from the kitchen was growing louder.

     National news of note included the opening in 1883 of the Brooklyn Bridge, the modern Gothic engineering marvel of the age. Also that year, with the RR the base of the nation’s infrastructure, we split into four time zones to normalize communication and transportation timetables. Noon in Cambridge, NY, would be noon in Cambridge, OH, irrespective of the sun’s position, at its zenith or nearby. To kindle the imaginations of readers in Cambridge and around the literate world, in 1884 Mark Twain’s Huck Finn joined Tom Sawyer (1876) and his Jumping Frogs (‘65), Bret Harte’s Outcasts (‘69) and Zane Gray’s Purple Sage (1912), authoring this new genre of Western Pop Lit. If you fire up your Kindle today, though, you’ll find that the politically vapid, historically vacuous revisionists have tinkered with Huck Finn’s text. By 1885 President Grover Cleveland led the nation then 20 years at peace, while in 1886 the Statue of Liberty—gift from a then gracious France—appeared in New York harbor. At 225 tons, buffed up a few times since, she’s a beauty, standing tall in sandals of women’s shoe size 879, a 250,000 pound steel skeleton sheathed in a 180,000 lb copper bathrobe, holding a tablet inscribed July IV, MDCCLXXVI, while raising a big fire cracker above a party hat that sports seven rays depicting the seven seas and seven continents.

     In 1887 the paid CFD folded due to glaring inadequacy (see the Fire of ’84) and volunteer companies were again mustered including the John Larmon Hose, two other hose teams, and the J.J. Gray Hook and Ladder. The village began to install tile sewers in town, along First, Pearl, and Main streets down to the brook near the J.B. Rice Seed House. The winter of ‘88 featured the 100 year storm in Cambridge, twenty or more feet of the fluffy stuff drifting in banks about town. Yet the folks just rolled it flat in mid-street and ambled about as needed. Didn’t see the need to telegraph Albany or Washington and expect the government to rumble up the Owlkill tracks with blankets and bailouts. The footbridge at the Seed House was completed in 1890 (see illustration); refurbished through the years, it’s a Cambridge icon. The Lamplighter positions were eliminated in August 1891 with electric lights installed by Cambridge Light and Power in time for the opening of the new school. Opined one, “People weren't going to let their children walk through the swamp in the dark.” On many a dark and stormy night (with a wince yet a nod to Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton), 100 incandescent lamps, all of 25-candle power each, lit the way till 1AM.     

Click on picture to enlarge

     In 1889 Ben Harrison, grandson of William Henry H., was elected 23rd U.S. President, and in a November rush, Congress granted statehood to four territories: North and South Dakota, Montana, and Washington, giving the flag 42 stars. The 1890 Census tallied over 63 million across the land as Idaho and Wyoming joined the Union, and the Indian Wars came to an end with the senseless slaughter at Wounded Knee. In 1893 Prof. F.J. Turner (Univ. Wisconsin) delivered a paper citing the Census that a western frontier boundary would no longer be delineated by population, a watershed event officially shuttering the “Wild West” and stifling the survival instinct that had driven our pioneers over a harsh landscape. We were becoming more civilized, don’t you know, replacing mortal combat with athletic competition; now all you had to do afterward was take a shower, not dig a grave.  In 1891 the first game of hoop (sort of) was played with peach baskets in Springfield, MA, seeding the Section II playoffs, the NBA, baggy pants and prolific tattoos.

     In 1892 the New York Legislature set aside 6,000,000 acres for Adirondack Park, America’s largest state park renowned for its fishing and canoeing lakes and world class ski runs and hockey rinks; remember the “Miracle of 1980” (Russia won’t soon forget!) During the “Gay Nineties”—now there’s an anachronism—the run of tepid presidents continued. Cleveland, again in 1893, is our only non-consecutive two-term Chief. By the mid ‘90s, the RR reached down Florida’s East Coast, past miles of sandy beaches, driving a booming land and tourist industry as swamps were turned into grand hotels, citrus orchards and golf courses, swimming pools, theme parks and baseball fields. This made for winter destinations for many a New Yorker, initially only the wealthy but soon the general public. In 1896 Utah, settled by Mormons in the ‘40s, was granted statehood, the 45th.  Then in ’97, decades before Roswell and six years before Kitty Hawk, the Dallas Morning News ran the first account of “extraterrestrials”, the crash of an “aircraft” with “alien pilot” aboard west of Ft. Worth, triggering a cult of flying saucers and tinfoil hats. President Denali, er McKinley, was elected that year but was assassinated in 1901. He was succeeded by Teddy Roosevelt, one of our great leaders, a pioneering environmentalist and wise-use steward of our God-given resources, a fan of the 2nd Amendment, and an original Progressive—who surely wouldn’t recognize the term today.

     By 1898 the Gilded Age was winding down with another foreign war. The USA drove Spain from the Americas and the Western Pacific. The Philippines have been forever grateful while Cuba has lived fifty years in fear of freedom while driving smog-belching, rusted-out ‘55 Fords. We annexed Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, and Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas in the Pacific, our five federal territories. Locals prefer the status, rejecting independence and statehood; all the best from Uncle Sam. Hawaiians embraced the Christianity of missionaries for decades after abandoning centuries of idol worship and tribal feuds, but through political chicanery mainland interests—centered in sugar cane and pineapples—helped the Feds wrestle control of the Islands from the monarchy. Hawai’i, home to the planet’s tallest mount, Mauna Loa/Kea at ~29,800’ base-to-summit, became a U.S. territory and a vital defense port in the Pacific. Naval yards and Quonset huts, Army Air Corps flight lines and U.S. Artillery firing ranges soon populated the Islands. But the specter of a day of infamy lurked over the Western horizon, four decades in the future.

     In 1967, the Cambridge Historical Society and Museum received a gift (see photograph) from Caroline Raymond (1896-1982), Medical Records Librarian at Mary McClellan for decades. This 1899 portrait of the wedding of her aunt Miss Marian Raymond and Mr. Charles Iszard (in Germantown, PA) displays the era’s Victorian regalia, gaily appointed dresses and distinguished military uniforms. Ironically, none of the party ever lived in Cambridge while the one missing family member—brother, son—was on active duty with the Army elsewhere that day. Yet it was Col. Robert R. Raymond (USMA 1893, US Army Corps of Engineers) who retired and moved his family to Cambridge in 1920, into the vacant John Larmon house at 120 West Main Street. At center back (in Mason’s mitered hat) stands the family patriarch, Col. Charles W. Raymond (USMA 1865, USACE, Civil War-Gettysburg vet), while the best man was the bride’s brother, Lt. John C. Raymond (USMA 1897), who fought in the Cuban campaigns of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Click on picture to enlarge

     At the turn of the century, the Census logged 76 million as Europe poured into Ellis Island Immigration. All arriving had to pass an inspection or be turned back as illegal aliens; good health, teeth, mental state; declared occupation and known destination; money-in-pocket. Only handouts? Freedom and opportunity. Many lived in teeming tenements but others moved on to farming and ranching, meat packing, mining and manufacturing. Cambridge received a good influx of Italians, Irish, and others whose descendants today measurably shape Village life. In September 1900, the 19th century slammed shut on the nation with the most devastating loss of life from a natural disaster in our history, a hurricane with landfall in Galveston, TX; an estimated 6-12,000 lost their lives. Again, no FEMA. The president didn’t utter “Fine job, Brownie”, and then hear from the “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you” crowd. Rather the citizens leaned on their faith in God, self and neighbor. Not on the nanny governance of a “transformed” America that would raise, not the toasts of the Founders, but eyebrows. And maybe dueling pistols, a protocol back then (check that $10 bill in your wallet.) But we’re more civilized now.

Next time: Chapter 20, The Curtain Rises on the 20th Century

Sources: Village of Cambridge Archives; A History of the Cambridge Area (R. Raymond, T. Raymond 2010); illustration: Robert W. Raymond; photo: Cambridge Historical Society and Museum.

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======================================================================== CAMBRIDGE HISTORY LIVES © 2012              Thomas M. Raymond

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