Source: The Illustrated History of Montgomery and Fulton Counties, New York; New York, F. W. Beers & Co., 1878; Chapter: Town of Palatine

Place names mentioned: Palatine Bridge, Fort Plain, Canajoharie, New York City, Buffalo, Utica

Webster and Susan Davis Wagner


Among the prominent self-made men of the Mohawk valley in active life to-day, is Webster Wagner. He is of German extraction, and descends from one of the pioneer families that located in Palatine early in the last century. He was born at Palatine Bridge, Oct. 2, 1817. His father's name, as also his grandfather's, was John, and his great-grandfather was Lieut.-Col. Peter Wagner, of "border warfare" memory, who was an active partisan officer in the Revolution, and as a man of means exerted no little influence in Tryon county; besides, he had four grown-up sons, all whigs of the times, ever ready on an emergency to discharge any perilous duty. His dwelling, a stone edifice, was fortified in the war, and known among the stockades as Fort Wagner. (The head of a Palatine family, which wintered with other German immigrants, on the west side of the Hudson in 1710, was Peter Wagner, possibly the first man of the name who located in the Mohawk valley about a dozen years later. When the Yankee schoolmasters first began their labors in the German settlements, they anglicised this name by writing it Waggoner - an orthography which prevailed a couple of generations before it was finally corrected.) This house, with a wooden addition, situated on the Mohawk turnpike, two miles westerly of Fort Plain, is now owned and occupied by the dairyman J. Harvey Smith. The mother of Senator Wagner was Elizabeth Strayer, also a descendant of an early German family.

When at a suitable age, the subject of this notice served an apprenticeship with his brother James, at the wagon-maker's trade, and became his partner in the business, with which they connected a house-furniture wareroom. The business proved unprofitable, but with good habits, good health, and a will to do, the junior partner resolved, in courting the goddess of fortune, to try again, or be ready for Shakespeare's "tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."

His advantages at school, though limited, were well improved, and his known experience, reliable judgment and good common sense gave him the appointment, in 1843, through his friend, Mr. Livingston Spraker, a director of the N. Y. C. R. R. Co., of station agent at Palatine Bridge, his agency embracing both the ticket and freight business; to which was subsequently added the agency of the American Express Company. The varied duties of these important trusts were all satisfactorily discharged, and those of the latter by proxy for several years after he resigned the position.

In 1860 his duties as freight agent ceased, but for several years before that he had, on his own account, successfully engaged in the handling of grain and other farm products. While in the latter business, which gave more scope to his active brain, he conceived the idea of building sleeping-cars; and associating with him in the enterprise Messrs. George B. Gates and T. N. Parmalee, of Buffalo, and Morgan Gardner, of Utica, he constructed four cars, at a cost of $3,200 each. Berths were provided for the sleepers, provided with a pair of cheap blankets and pillows. These cars commenced running on the New York Central, Sept. 1, 1858, at which time the Hon. Erastus Corning was president of the road. He looked with favor upon the enterprise. The project at the outset did not prove as successful as was anticipated. The difficulty seemed to be in the want of a better ventilation of the cars, which the inventor's genius was at once taxed to remedy. The ventilators being opposite to the sleepers, it was dangerous to leave them open at night, while the air was suffocating with them closed. In 1859 Mr. Wagner invented the elevated car-roof, placing his ventilators in the elevation, which at once gave success to the new adventure. Ventilating the car near the roof was found so useful an improvement that it was at once adopted, not only in the sleeping-car, but in all new passenger-cars, to the increased comfort of the traveling world.

The sleeping-car had not been long in use when the civil war came on, during which time the cost of these cars was from $18,000 to $24,000 each. They were constructed, however, not only with reference to strength and beauty, but for the comfort of their occupants, being furnished with mattresses and all necessary bedding for an undress, contrasting most favorably with the first ones in motion. That style of car now costs from $13,000 to $14,000. In 1867, Mr. Wagner invented and put in operation his first drawing-room or palace car, the first ever seen in America, which at once became so popular with the tourist that it secured to him a fortune, and home-comfort to its thousands of generous patrons. Wagner cars are now in use on most of the important railroads in this country, and they have recently been introduced by Mr. Pullman on some of the best regulated roads of Europe, entitling the inventor to the gratitude of the millions who have already experienced their comfort, while his future memory will be embalmed in the hearts of the traveling world as a benefactor of his race.

In 1871 Mr. Wagner was called to a new field of labor, being chosen to a seat in the State Assembly, to which he was sent by a majority of about 200 in the county. In 1872 he was elected to represent the XVth district in the Senate, by a majority over his competitor, Mr. Isaiah Fuller, of 3,222. At the end of two years, he was returned to that body without opposition. In 1876 he was again sent back to the Senate, by a majority of 2,623 over Mr. Samuel T. Benedict, of Schenectady. In Nov., 1877, Mr. Wagner was the fourth time put in nomination for a seat in the Senate; and so great was his personal popularity, that although the Hon. Geo. G. Scott, of Ballston, a man of sterling integrity and known ability, was the opposing candidate, he was again re-elected by 2,216 majority, for the years 1878 and 1879.

In politics Mr. Wagner is known as a Republican. His long term of service has rendered him familiar with legislative business, given him heretofore a prominent place on many of the most important committees; and caused his opinion on many interesting subjects to be sought for by young and less experienced members. He has recently passed his sixtieth birthday, with good health and mature judgment; and by carefully heeding nature's inflexible laws, he may yet render the public important service in some untried capacity. He is a man of ample means; honest and upright in all his dealings; courteous and affable in his manners; generous and hospitable in his nature, social and genial in his habits, and kind-hearted and exemplary in his family relations. He owns not only a pretty mansion with highly cultivated lands around it at Palatine Bridge, but also a very nice house in New York city, in which his family spend their winters. Mrs. Wagner was Miss Susan Davis, a lady as amiable and sensible as she is unassuming and domestic. She was a daughter of the late John P. Davis, a master-mechanic - a house-carpenter by trade - a very worthy citizen of Canajoharie at an early period of its village history. The remainder of this family consists of five children, a son and four daughters, all of whom are married, except Miss Nettie, the youngest. If Senator Wagner was unsuccessful at the outset of his business career, energy and perseverance enabled him to triumph in the end, in gaining both wealth and worldly honors; and take him all in all we may pronounce him one of nature's noblemen.

We hope every young man who reads this brief biography will learn from it this important lesson, that, although he may not be equally successful, yet, in order to be at all prosperous he must be honest, industrious, prudent and persevering - trampling at his start in life upon all manner of evil habits, which drag the many down to ruin, if not an early grave. Among those habits to be especially avoided are evil associations, profanity, smoking, gambling and drinking. Avoid all these as you would the sting of an adder, and practice the virtues named, and your success in life will be almost certain to follow, if properly directed.

Submitted by Barbara L. Gese. Barb's direct-line surnames from Montgomery County are: CASE, GREEN, HERRICK, JEFFERS, KRING, NEHER/NEAHR, PETTINGELL, SERVISS/SERVOSS, SOUTHWICK, and SPRAGUE. Barb is not related to the Spraker family.

Thank you for this, other Palatine, and many behind-the-scenes contributions to Barbara L. Gese.

Images of Webster Wagner's mansion in its grandeur and current condition were kindly contributed by Michael A. Bernstein.

Webster Wagner Mansion

(Note: The Palatine Bridge Cemetery is just behind the Wagner Home.)

Webster Wagner Mansion

The Wagner Home as seen in 2003. Photo ©2003 - 2011 Michael A. Bernstein.

Link to Photo of the Webster Wagner Home Taken in 1997 by the Site Coordinator.

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Created 10/12/04
Updated: 1/17/05
Copyright © 2003 - 2011 Barb Gese
Scans and Wagner Mansion photograph Copyright ©2003 - 2011 Michael A. Bernstein
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