Peter Cooper by Hattie E. Macomber



On the seventh of April, in 1883, the great city of New York was in mourning. Flags were at half-mast. The bells tolled.

Shops were closed, but in the windows were pictures of a kind-faced, white-haired man.

These pictures were draped in black.

All day long tens of thousands of people passed by an open coffin in one of the churches.

Some of these people were governors, some millionaires.

There were poor women, too, with little children in their arms.

There were workmen in their common clothes.

There were ragged newsboys.

And all these people had aching hearts.

The great daily papers printed many columns about the sad event.

People in England sent messages by the Atlantic cable that they, too, had sad hearts.

Who was this man for whom the world mourned on that April day?

Was he a president? Oh, no.

A great general? Far from it.

Did he live magnificently and have splendid carriages and fine diamonds?

No, he was simply Peter Cooper, a man ninety-two years old, and the best loved man in America.

Had he given money?

Yes, but other men in our country do that

Had he traveled abroad, and so become widely known?

No, he would never go to Europe because he wished to use his money in a different way.

Why, then, was he loved by so many?

One of the New York papers gave this truthful answer:

"Peter Cooper went through his long life as gentle as a sweet woman, as kind as a good mother, as honest as a man could live, and remain human."

Some boys would be ashamed to be thought as gentle as a girl, but not so Peter Cooper.

He was born poor, and was always willing that everyone should know it.

He despised pride.

When his old horse and chaise came down Broadway, every cartman and omnibus driver turned aside for him.

Though a millionaire, he was their friend and brother, and they were proud and fond of him.

He gave away more than he kept.

He found places for the poor to work if possible.

He gave money to those he found were worthy.

And though he was one of the busiest men in America, he always took time to be kind.

His pastor, Mr. Collyer, said this of him:—

"His presence, wherever he went, lay like a bar of sunshine across a dark and troubled day. I have seen it light up the careworn faces of thousands of people. It seemed as if those who looked at him were saying to themselves; 'It cannot be so bad a world as we thought, since Peter Cooper lives in it and blesses us.'"

But how did this poor boy become a millionaire? And how did he get people to love him so?

He did it, boys and girls, by making up his mind to do it at first, and then sticking to it.

Nobody could have had more hard things to overcome than Peter Cooper.

His parents were poor and had nine children.

His father moved from town to town, always hoping to do better.

He forgot the old saying, "A rolling stone gathers no moss."

When the fifth baby was born, he was named after the Apostle Peter, because his father said, "This boy will come to something."

But he was not a strong boy.

He was able to go to school but one year of his life, and then only every other day.

His father was a hatter, and when Peter was eight years old he pulled hair from rabbit skins for hat pulp.

Year after year he worked harder than he was able, but he was determined to win.

When his eight little brothers and sisters needed shoes, he ripped up an old one to see how it was made. Always after that he made the shoes for the family.

Do you think a lazy boy would have done that?

When he was seventeen, he bade his anxious mother good-bye, and started for New York to make his fortune.

Do you know what a lottery is?

It is a way dishonest people have of making money.

Tickets are sold for prizes, and of course only one person can get the prize, while all the rest must lose their money.

Soon after Peter Cooper reached New York he saw an advertisement of a lottery.

He might draw a prize by buying a ticket.

Each ticket cost ten dollars.

Peter had just that much money.

He thought the matter over carefully.

He wished very much to have some money, for then he could help his mother.

So he bought a ticket, and drew—nothing.

Poor boy! he was now penniless.

But he never touched games of chance again.

Years afterward he used to say, "It was the cheapest piece of knowledge I ever bought."

Day after day the tall, slender boy walked the streets of New York looking for work.

At last he found a place.

It was in a carriage shop.

Here he bound himself as apprentice for five years at two dollars a month and board.

You see he could buy no good clothes.

He had no money for cigars or pleasures of any kind.

He helped to bring carriages for rich men's sons to ride in.

There is an old saying, that "everybody has to walk at one end of life," and they are fortunate who walk at the beginning and ride at the close.

When his day's work was over he liked to read.

His companions made fun of him because he would not join them.

He made a little money by extra work.

He hired a teacher, to whom he recited evenings.

He was often very tired, but he never complained.

He had many friends because he was always good-natured.

He used often to say to himself, "If ever I get rich I will build a place where the poor girls and boys of New York may have an education free."

Wasn't that a queer thought for a boy who earned only fifty cents a week?

Yet perhaps his even dreaming such dreams helped him to do the great things of which I shall tell you.

Now, Peter noticed that the tools which they worked with in the carriage shop were not very good.

So he began to try to make better ones.

He succeeded in doing so, but Mr. Woodward, the man for whom he worked, had all the benefit of his work.

But at last Peter's apprenticeship was over.

Much to his surprise Mr. Woodward one day called him into his office.

"You have been very faithful," he said, "and I will set you up in a carriage manufactory of your own.

"You could pay me back the money borrowed in a few years."

This was a remarkable offer for a poor young man.

But Peter had made it a solemn rule of his life never to go in debt.

So he thanked Mr. Woodward very earnestly, but declined his offer.

It was then Mr. Woodward's turn to be astonished.

But he knew Peter was right, and respected his good judgment in the matter.

We may now call Peter Cooper a mechanic.

A mechanic is one who has skill in using tools in shaping wood, metals, etc.

Peter now found a situation in a woolen mill at Hempstead, Long Island.

Here he received nine dollars a week.

Still he kept trying to find better ways of doing things.

He invented a machine for shearing cloth, and from that earned five hundred dollars in two years.

With so much money as this he could not rest until he had visited his mother.

He found his parents deeply in debt.

He gave them the whole of his money, and promised to do more than that.

His father had not made a mistake in naming him after the Apostle Peter.

During this time Mr. Cooper had learned to know a beautiful girl named Sarah Bedell. This girl became his wife.

They moved to New York.

Here Mr. Cooper had a grocery-store.

A friend advised him to buy a glue factory which was for sale.

He knew nothing of the business, but he thought he could learn it.

He soon made not only the best glue, but the cheapest in the country.

For thirty years he carried on this business almost alone, with no salesman and no book-keeper.

He rose every morning at daylight, kindled his factory fires, and worked all the forenoon making glue.

In the afternoon he sold it.

In the evenings he kept his accounts, wrote his letters, and read with his wife and children.

He worked this way long after he had an income of thirty thousand dollars a year.

This was not because he wanted to have so much more money for himself.

You remember he had a plan to carry out which would take much money.

That was to build his free school for the poor.

He had no time for parties or pleasures.

But the people of New York knew he was both honest and intelligent.

They asked him to be a member of the City Council, and President of their Board of Education.

Peter Cooper never refused to do anything which might help others.

So he did not refuse these offices.

I must tell you now about Mr. Cooper's first child, and how fine a thing it was to have an inventor for a papa.

Mr. Cooper made for this baby a self-rocking cradle, with a fan attached to keep off the flies, and with a musical instrument to soothe the dear baby into dreamland.

Mr. Cooper's business prospered.



Once the glue factory burned, with a loss of forty thousand dollars.

But at nine o'clock the next morning there was lumber on the ground for a factory three times as large as the one burned.

He then built a rolling mill and furnace in Baltimore.

They were then trying to build the Baltimore and Ohio railroad.

Only thirteen miles of the road had been finished.

The directors were about to give up the work.

There were many sharp turns in the track.

The directors were discouraged because they thought no engine could be made to make those turns.

Mr. Cooper knew that this road would help his rolling mill.

Nothing could discourage him.



He went to work and made the first locomotive made in America.

He attached a box-car to it.

Then he invited the directors to take a ride.

He took the place of engineer himself.

Away they flew over the thirteen miles in an hour.

The directors took courage, and the road was soon finished.

Years after, when Mr. Cooper had become a great man, he was invited to visit Baltimore.

The old engine was brought out, much to the delight of the people, who cheered again and again at sight of it.

Mr. Cooper soon built at Trenton, N.J., the largest rolling mill in the United States.

He also built a large blast furnace, and steel and wire works in different parts of Pennsylvania.


Copyrighted by A.P. Yates, by permission of New York Central R.R.

He bought the Andover iron mines.

He built eight miles of railroad in this rough country.

Over this road he carried forty thousand tons a year.

The poor boy, who once earned but twenty-five dollars a year, had become a millionaire.

No good luck accomplished this.

But these are the things that did it:

Hard work.

Living within his means.

Saving his time.

Common sense, which helped him to look carefully before he invested his money.


Keeping his word.

Mr. Cooper was honorable in all his business.

Once he said to a friend who had an interest in the Trenton works:

"I do not feel quite easy about the amount we are making. We are making too much money. It is not right."

The price was made lower at once.

Do you not think Peter Cooper was an unusual kind of a man to lower the price of an article just because the world needed it so much?

He was now sixty-four years of age.

He had worked day and night for forty years to build his Free College.

He had bought the ground for it.

And now for five whole years he watched his great, six-story, brown-stone building as it grew.

The man who was once a penniless lad should teach many through these great stones some of the lessons he knew so well.

Some of these are industry, economy and perseverance.

The words which he wrote and placed in a box in the corner stone are not too hard for you to read.

"The great object that I desire to accomplish by the erection of this Institution is to open the avenues of scientific knowledge to the youth of our city and country, and so unfold the volume of Nature that the young may see the beauties of creation, enjoy its blessings, and learn to love the Author from whom cometh every good and perfect gift."

But would the poor young men and women of New York who worked hard all day care for an education?

Some people said no.

But Mr. Cooper thought of his own boyhood, and believed that young people loved books, and would be glad of a chance to study them.



And when the grand building was opened students crowded in from the shops and factories.

Some were worn and tired, as Peter Cooper had often been in his youth.

But they studied eagerly in spite of that.

Every Saturday night two thousand came together in the great hall.

There the most famous people in the world lectured before them.

Every year nearly five hundred thousand read in the free library and reading rooms.

Four thousand pupils came to the night school to study science and art.

The white-haired, kindly-faced man went daily to see the students.

They loved him as a father.

His last act was to buy ten type-writers for the girls in that department.

Has the work paid?

Ask any of those young men and women who have gone out from Cooper Institute to earn their own living.

Not one of them had to pay a cent for his education.

No one is admitted who does not expect to earn his living.

Mr. Cooper did not love weak, idle young people, who are willing their parents shall take care of them.

The work has grown so large that more money is needed—perhaps another million.

Mr. Cooper gave it two millions of dollars.

Many are turned from the doors because there is no more room.

Some of the pupils from the Institute have become teachers.

One receives two dollars an hour for teaching.

Several engrave on wood.

One receives one hundred and fifty dollars a month.

Another, a lady, married a gentleman of wealth, and to show her gratitude to Mr. Cooper has opened another "Free School of Art."

Is it any wonder that when Peter Cooper died thirty-five hundred came up from the Institution to lay roses upon his coffin.

His last words to his son and daughter were not to forget Cooper Union.

They have just given one hundred thousand dollars to it.

Mr. Cooper had many friends among the great and good of the land.

He died as unselfishly as he had lived, and who can measure the good he did in the world?