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From 1880 to Today: Henry Wells & William Fargo

Chronicles continues a weekly look back at an illustrated map of Buffalo from 1880 and examines how the features on that map have — or haven't — changed over 138 years. Click here to explore the map.

Henry Wells and William Fargo both came to Buffalo when it was the nation’s western frontier during the 1830s and 1840s. Both were involved in shipping and transportation to the West. They were the leading forces behind the founding of American Express — then primarily a shipping and mail company — in Buffalo in 1850.

Wells and Fargo also separately formed Wells, Fargo & Co. when others at American Express resisted their desire to extend their footprint into California.

The combined assets of those Buffalo-born institutions is $2.2 trillion as of 2017.

William Fargo

To support this family, William Fargo dropped out of school to deliver mail on horseback at age 13. He came to Buffalo in 1843 as a railroad freight agent. Soon thereafter, he went to work for Henry Wells. After running his own express company for several years, he merged his company with Wells’ and one other to form American Express.

Fargo was one of Buffalo’s wealthiest citizens when he was elected the city’s mayor in 1861. As he left office in 1867, he bought up 5.5 acres around what is now the corner of Jersey & Fargo. Then, it was Buffalo’s mostly undeveloped and somewhat rural west side.

The New York Times said it was “one of the show places of Buffalo that strangers desired to see” when the home was finished in 1872. Fargo died in 1881, and his wife, Anna, died in 1890. The house stood vacant for a decade before it was torn down, making way for the West Side neighborhood we know today.

Henry Wells

Henry Wells spent time in Buffalo starting in 1836 as an agent on the Erie Canal, and in the 1850s, he moved to Cayuga County. In the interim, he lived at several different Buffalo addresses while plying his trade on canals, railroads and stage coach lines, building the foundations for what are now two colossal international corporations.

His final, most grand home in Buffalo was at 69 East Seneca St., not far from the canals and rail lines. Wells' home “did a great deal to publicize the express business and help give it its start,” according to Buffalo Evening News Financial Editor Hilton Hornaday, writing in 1938.

The listing for the Henry Well residence in a 1848 Buffalo City directory.

People in Buffalo saw the worth and value in Wells’ shipping abilities when barrels of raw oysters would show up to be served first at his home, then at area taverns.

Hornaday quoted a Wells text from 75 years earlier.

It may amuse you to hear that the oyster was a powerful agent in expediting our progress.

That very delicious shell fish was fully appreciated by the Buffalonians — and deeply they felt the sad fact that there was one occasion toward spring, no oysters in Buffalo. James Leidley, the tavern keeper, asked me why the express could not bring them.

“Bring oysters by coach over such roads!" was my astonished exclamation.

His answer was the keystone to all success in enterprise.

"If I pay for them — charge just what you will." They were brought — opened in Albany and brought to Buffalo at the cost of $3 the hundred — and the arrival of those oysters by express at Buffalo created a sensation as great as would today the coming hither of a section of the Atlantic Telegraph.

Wells’ Seneca Street home stood at the corner of Seneca and Ellicott sreets.

By the 1880s, there was a furniture store on the site. Today, if a shortstop plays a little deep at Coca-Cola Field, he’s standing about on the spot where Henry Wells once lived.

Wells’ last Buffalo residence was gone by 1880, but an earlier Wells residence might still be standing in the city, even if it's off our 1880 map by a mile or so.

An old home that remains near the corner of Niagara and West Ferry streets may have belonged to a young Henry Wells. Its fate is before the Buffalo Preservation Board now, as Rich Products hopes to demolish the structure, along with several other newer commercial buildings to make way for future development.

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