Hon. Hiram Sibley, of the city of Rochester, a man of national reputation as the originator of great enterprises, and as the most extensive farmer and seedsman in this country, was born at North Adams, Berkshire County, Mass., February 6, 1807, and is the second son of Benjamin and Zilpha Davis Sibley. Benjamin was the son of Timothy Sibley, of Sutton, Mass., who was the father of fifteen children - twelve sons and three daughters; eight of these, including Benjamin, lived to the aggregate age of 677 years, an average of about seventy-five years and three months. From the most unpromising beginnings, without education, Hiram Sibley has risen to a postion of usefulness and influence. His youth was passed among his native hills. He was a mechanical genius by nature. Banter with a neighboring shoemaker led to his attempt to make a shoe on the spot, and he was at once placed on the shoemaker's bench.
At the age of sixteen he migrated to the Genesee Valley, where he was employed in a machine shop, and subsequently in wool carding. Before he was of age he had mastered five different trades. Three of these years were passed in Livingston County. His first occupation on his own account was as a shoemaker at North Adams; then he did business successfully as a machinist and wool carder in Livingston County, N.Y.; after which he established himself at Mendon, fourteen miles south of Rochester, a manufacturing village, now known as Sibleyville, where he had a foundry and machine shop. When in the wool carding business at Sparta and Mount Morris, in Livingston County, he worked in the same shop, located near the line of the two towns, where Millard Filmore had been employed and learned his trade; beginning just after a farewell ball was given to Mr. Filmore by his fellow workmen.
Increase of reputation and influence brought Mr. Sibley opportunities for office. He was elected by the Democrats Sheriff of Monroe County in 1843 when he removed to Rochester; but his political career was short, for a more important matter was occupying his mind. From the moment of the first success of Professor Morse with his experiments in telegraphy, Mr. Sibley had been quick to discern the vast promise of the invention; and in 1840 he went to Washington to assist Professor Morse and Ezra Cornell in procuring an appropriation of $40,000 from Congress to build a line from Washington to Baltimore, the first put up in America. Strong prejudices had to be overcome. On Mr. Sibley's meeting the chairman of the committee having the matter in charge, and expressing the hope that the application would be granted, he received for answer: "We had made up our minds to allow the appropriation, when the Professor came in and upset everything. Why! he undertook to tell us that he could send ten words from Washington to Baltimore in two minutes. Good heavens! Twenty minutes is quick enough, but two minutes is nonsense.
The Professor is too radical and visionary, and I doubt if the committee recommend the sum to be risked in such a manner." Mr. Sibley's sound arguments and persuasiveness prevailed, though he took care not to say what he believed, that the Professor was right as to the two minutes. Their joint efforts secured the subsidy of $40,000.
This example stimulated other inventors, and in a few years several patents were in use, and various lines had been constructed by different companies. The business was so divided as to be always unprofitable. Mr. Sibley conceived the plan of uniting all the patents and companies in one organization. After three years of almost unceasing toil, he succeeded in buying up the stock of the different corporations, some of it at a price as low as two cents on the dollar, and in consolidating the lines which then extended over portions of thirteen States. The Western Union Telegraph Company was then organized, with Mr. Sibley as the first president. Under his management for sixteen years, the number of telegraph offices was increased from 132 to over 4,000, and the value of the property from $220,000 to $48,000,000.
In the project of uniting the Atlantic and Pacific by a line to California, he stood nearly alone. At a meeting of the prominent telegraph men of New York, a committee was appointed to report upon his proposed plan, whose verdict was that it would be next to impossible to build the line; that, if built, the Indians would destroy it; and that it would not pay, even if built, and not destroyed. His reply was characteristic; that it should be built, if he had to build it alone. He went to Washington, procured the necessary legislation, and was the sole contractor with the Government. The Western Union Telegraph Company afterward assumed the contract, and built the line, under Mr. Sibley's administration as president, ten years in advance of the railroad.
Not satisfied with this success at home, he sought to unite the two hemispheres by way of Alaska and Siberia, under P. McD. Collins' franchise. On visiting Russia with Mr. Collins in the winter of 1864-5, he was cordially received and entertained by the Czar, who approved the plan. A most favorable impression had preceded him. For when the Russian squadron visited New York in 1863 - the year after Russia and Great Britain had declined the overture of the French government for joint mediation in the American conflict - Mr. Sibley and other prominent gentlemen were untiring in efforts to entertain the Russian admiral, Lusoffski, in a becoming mariner. Mr. Sibley was among the foremost in the arrangements of the committee of reception. So marked were his personal kindnesses that when the admiral returned he mentioned Mr. Sibley by name to the Emperor Alexander, and thus unexpectedly prepared the way for the friendship of that generous monarch. During Mr. Sibley's stay in St. Petersburg, he was honored in a manner only accorded to those who enjoy the special favor of royalty.
Just before his arrival the Czar had returned from the burial of his son at Nice; and, in accordance with a long honored custom when the head of the empire goes abroad and returns, he held the ceremony of "counting the emperor's jewels;" which means an invitation to those whom his majesty desires to compliment as his friends, without regard to court etiquette or the formalities of official rank. At this grand reception in the palace at Tsarskozela, seventeen miles from St. Petersburg, Mr. Sibley was the second on the list, the French ambassador being the first, and Prince Gortchakoff, the Prime Minister, the third. This order was observed also in the procession of 250 court carriages with outriders, Mr. Sibley's carriage being the second in the line. On this occasion Prince Gortchakoff turning to Mr. Sibley, said: "Sir, if I remember rightly, in the course of a very pleasant conversation had with you a few days since, at the State department, you expressed your surprise at the pomp and circumstance attending upon all court ceremony.
Now, sir, when you take precedence of the Prime Minister, I trust you are more reconciled to the usage attendant upon royalty, which was so repugnant to your democratic ideas." Such an honor was greatly appreciated by Mr. Sibley; for it meant the most sincere respect of the "Autocrat of all the Russias" for the people of the United States, and a recognition of the courtesies conferred upon his fleet when in American waters.