Biography and History

John Insley Blair was born near Belvidere, New Jersey, on 22 August 1802, the fourth of ten children of Scottish immigrants John Blair and Rachel Insley. His schooling was limited to a few months every winter until age 11, when he began working in his cousin's store; after this introduction to commerce, he never returned to formal education. By the young age of 18 JIB established his own general store in Gravel Hill, New Jersey. To honor his later success and contributions to the town, it was renamed Blairstown on 24 January 1839. JIB would call Blairstown home for the next sixty years, managing his businesses from this small corner of New Jersey.

Only nine years after opening his first general store, JIB owned a chain of five stores and four flour mills in northern New Jersey. On 20 September 1828, JIB married Nancy Ann Locke, and together they had four children: Emma Elizabeth (later married to Charles Scribner, founder of the publishing house Charles Scribner's Sons), Marcus Laurence, DeWitt Clinton, and Aurelia Ann.

In 1833 JIB developed an interest in the mines of Oxford Furnace, and in 1846 helped found Lackawanna Coal and Iron Company. Soon after his interests turned to the enterprise that would eventually make his fortune: railroads. His first railroad was built in 1849 and ran from Owego to Ithaca, New York. The following year he built a line from Scranton to the Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. In 1852 JIB organized-and named-the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. He was its principal stockholder and maintained the position of director until his death.

In 1860 JIB was inspired by railroad development in the western United States, and within two years he founded, in collaboration with Oakes Ames, the Union Pacific Railroad beginning in Omaha, Nebraska. Eventually JIB's railroads were located throughout the west in Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Nebraska, Dakota, Missouri, and Texas. He was concurrently the president of 16 railroads, as well as the largest private owner in the world of rail miles. JIB also owned vast quantities of western land abutting the railroad lines, along which he planted trees that both acted as a windbreak and provided lumber for ties. After his 85th birthday, he cut back his travel to only 20,000 miles a year; previously he would annually traverse 40,000 miles.

JIB was a generous philanthropist who supported various institutions throughout his lifetime, principally the Presbyterian Church, of which he was a devout member. In 1848 he constructed a building for Blair Presbyterian Academy in Blairstown, since renamed Blair Academy. Later he continued donating land and buildings to the school, and endowed 15 free scholarships. JIB combined his religious beliefs with his western railroad development by building over 100 Presbyterian churches in the towns through which his rail lines passed. Other beneficiaries included Lafayette College (Easton, Pennsylvania), Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa), and Princeton University (at the time know as Princeton College). In 1864 he endowed a geology professorship at Princeton, and served as a trustee for 13 years (1886-1899). He later gave funds to Princeton to construct the Blair Hall dormitory (1897). In his hometown of Blairstown, JIB built many buildings as well as its central infrastructure. It is estimated that in total he gave away $5,000,000.

On 2 December 1899, JIB died at home at the age of 97, owning assets worth $70,000,000.

JIB's younger son DeWitt Clinton continued his father's varied business interests and philanthropy. These included serving as a Princeton trustee (1900-1909, Princeton Class of 1856), expanding Blair Hall to its current proportions (1907), and expanding the campus and buildings of Blair Presbyterian Academy. On 21 April 1864, DCB married Mary Ann Kimball, with whom he had two sons, Clinton Ledyard and James Insley. DCB died on 12 February 1914; he was 80 years old.

JIB's grandson, DCB's son Clinton Ledyard, continued the family legacy by following his father to Princeton, graduating in 1890. But unlike his father and grandfather, CIB would later be denied election to Princeton's Board of Trustees as a result of a dispute over reforms proposed by Woodrow Wilson (1910). With his brother James Insley, CIB founded the investment banking firm Blair & Company (1 Wall St., New York, New York). CLB was also the governor of the New York Stock Exchange, as well as the director of Lackawanna Steel, the Green Bay & Western Railroad, and other corporations. He married Florence Osborne Jennings, and together they had four daughters: Marjory Bruce, Florence Ledyard, Edith Dodd, and Marie Louise. In 1898, workers began construction on CLB's opulent 38-room, Louis XIII style mansion in Peapack-Gladstone, New Jersey. Blairsden, as he named the home, was finally finished in 1903 at a cost of $2 million. In February 1949, CLB died at the age of 82. The following year Blairsden and 50 acres of property were sold for $60,000 to the Sisters of St. John the Baptist. Recently, the estate was purchased by the non-profit organization Blairsden Association which is working to preserve the buildings and ground and eventually open them to the public.

For the names and relationships of family members, refer to the family tree: Family tree.

Source: From the finding aid for C0934

  • Blair Family Papers. 1843-1961 (inclusive), 1891-1910 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0934

    Consists primarily of travel diaries, scrapbooks, and photograph albums composed by railroad industrialist John Insley Blair and his family. There is also a small selection of letters of Clinton Ledyard Blair regarding a fight over Woodrow Wilson's reforms at Princeton University and Blair's relationship with the University's Board of Trustees.