- Jack Tager
Ames, Oliver (04 February 1831–22 October 1895), industrialist and governor of Massachusetts, was born in North Easton, Massachusetts, the son of Oakes Ames (1804–1873), a manufacturer and congressman, and Evelyn Gilmore. Ames came from a long line of Massachusetts capitalists. The family gained notoriety in 1872, when the House of Representatives censured Oliver’s father because of his part in the Credit Mobilier scandal. Oliver was to fight throughout his life to clear his father’s besmirched image.
Ames went to the public schools of Easton, and he attended several nearby academies. At the age of fifteen he began a five-year apprenticeship in the family business of shovel manufacturing, after which he went to Brown University for one year of study. He then returned to the family business and became a partner in 1863. In 1859 Ames was elected to the Easton School Committee. He served on that board for twelve years, during which time he was also treasurer and chairman of the Easton Republican Committee. In 1860 Ames married Anna Coffin Ray; they had six children. He was active in the state militia, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, but resigned just before the Civil War began. During the war Ames paid for a substitute, and this action was to haunt his later political ambitions.
When his father died in 1873, Ames served as executor and found that not only was the family name blemished, but the family finances were in debt. Ames was determined to restore both. In 1880 Ames and his two brothers, Oakes Angier Ames and Frank Ames, published a book to vindicate their father’s honor, stating, “This man was made a scapegoat for the manifold sins of American political life, and his name was unjustly tarnished” (Ames, p. 19). To commemorate the memory of their father, in 1881 the brothers donated a building, the Oakes Ames Memorial Hall, to their hometown of Easton.
Ames resolved the family’s financial problems by carving out a great fortune through railroad building, stock speculation, finance, and manufacturing. Just after his father’s death in 1873 he traveled to Kansas to build the Central Branch of the Union Pacific Railroad. “I traveled in stage coaches all along the proposed route of the road, secured right-of-way grants and got town aid… . It was all done in three years, and I had made myself independent. That was my greatest business success” (Boston Globe, 22 Oct. 1895). Ames also served as president of the Sioux City and Pacific Railroad and on the board of directors of over twenty railroads, several savings companies, banks, and coal, water power, and land corporations. He speculated on the stock market and at one point bested the canny railroad magnate Jay Gould in a deal that netted Ames over a million dollars. By 1892 Ames’s net worth was well over $8 million.
Well before that year Ames began to use his enormous wealth as a lever to enter politics in a serious manner. He gave generously to his party’s war chest, and the Republicans rewarded him with a safe seat in the Massachusetts Senate, where he served from 1881 to 1883. From 1883 to 1887 he held office as lieutenant governor. It was the norm for lieutenant governors automatically to become candidates for governor. Ames ran in 1886 and defeated Democrat John Andrew by a meager 9,463 votes, having been hurt at the polls by his failure to serve in the Civil War and by popular resentment of his wealth. The issue of his poor war record also came up during his reelection bid in 1887. Ames won, nevertheless, and he won again in 1888.
Ames’s record during his three terms was lackluster, and he prided himself that his major act as governor was the construction of a new state house extension. Two of his pet reforms—severing the connection of state banks with national banks that resulted in fiscal irregularities, and transferring claims against the state from the legislature to the courts—were passed by the legislature. He supported the improvement of public schools and was a capable administrator. The New York Times (23 Oct. 1895) characterized his governorship as “careful, conservative and dignified… . He made few attempts to outline a personal policy or to lead his party.” Bulkley Griffin, a noted Republican editor and journalist, summed up Ames, “Amiable, rather dull, with no gifts for public life, [he] is entitled to remembrance because in advance of the coming of the automobile age, he inaugurated the building of permanent roads by the state” (Griffin, p. 260). Ames’s lack of distinction in office may be traceable in part to his motivation for entering politics. His ultimate goal—never realized—was to be elected to Congress and to efface the record of his father’s censure.
In 1890 Ames retired from politics because of ill health and became involved in philanthropy. His philanthropic efforts were typical of the paternal capitalist of the day, providing funds for school and library buildings and acting as chair for artistic and charitable societies. As befitted a financial mogul, he lived out his retirement as a semi-invalid in baronial splendor, dividing his time between grand residences in Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, and Easton. Besides his charity work and travel abroad, he bought rare books and old masters for his private collection. He died in North Easton, Massachusetts.
Ames, like his father, was a typical “industrial statesman” or “robber baron” of the Gilded Age. Using inherited wealth, he took advantage of the tremendous capitalist opportunities available at a time of soaring industrialization. Unfettered by government regulation and imbued with an ethical climate predicated on Andrew Carnegie’s “gospel of wealth” philosophy, men like Ames became the main protagonists in the drama of the unfolding industrial revolution.
No known collections of papers are available for Ames, and no biographies, critical studies, or scholarly articles yet exist. Ames and his brothers defended their father in a privately published book, Oakes Angier Ames et al., Oakes Ames and the Credit Mobilier (1880). Among the many reference works that mention Ames, the best source is Edwin Bacon, ed., Men of Progress: 1,000 Biographical Sketches of Massachusetts Men (1896). Ames is mentioned in Geoffrey Blodgett’s analysis of the Mugwump Republicans’ transformation into Democrats, The Gentle Reformers: Massachusetts Democrats in the Cleveland Era (1966). For a discussion of Republican party problems, see Richard Harmon, “Troubles of Massachusetts Republicans during the 1880s,” Mid-America 56 (1974): 85–99; and Solomon Bulkley Griffin, People and Politics: Observed by a Massachusetts Editor (1923). To find out about Ames’s and his brothers’ financial activities in western railroads, see Arthur M. Johnson and Barry E. Supple, Boston Capitalists and Western Railroads: A Study in the Nineteenth-Century Railroad Investment Process (1967). The major sources of information are the obituaries in the Springfield Republican, 23 Oct. 1895, the Boston Globe, 22 Oct. 1895, the New York Times, 23 Oct. 1895, and the Boston Transcript, 22 Oct. 1895.