|One of the most
misunderstood aspects of the history of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel and
the early LIRR in Brooklyn, are the factual reasons for its closure in
The original LIRR destroyed itself in the mid
1840's by first, deviating from their original business plan, and then
failing to follow Cornelius Vanderbilt's "master plan".
Starting in 1850, the LIRR was taken over by a group of Philadelphia
investors, and operated as a local transit line for Atlantic Avenue,
and as a conduit for the farmers (and the substantial farm produce) of
Long Island. The LIRR wasn't removed from Brooklyn, until a small
clique of real estate speculators lead by the Litchfield brothers
prevailed circa 1859-1861.
It should be noted, that the activities of the Litchfield brothers, as
well as that of governmental officials, as described below, was quite
the norm for the time period. In fact, "Robber Baron" business
practices as well as "Urban Machine Politics" are considered to be two
of the three "antecedents" of Organized Crime in the United States.
(See" Organized Crime by Howard Abadinsky, 1997, pg 39-69.)
Part I - Why The Litchfield Brothers
To break it down to its simplest terms, the Litchfield brothers simply "went where the money was".
During the mid 1840's through the mid 1850's, three of the Litchfield
brothers, Electus Backus, Edwin Clark and Elisha Cleveland, owned
substantial, if not controlling interests in several Midwest railroads,
viz.: the Cleveland & Toledo RR, Toledo & Illinois RR,
Belleville & Illinoistown RR, Michigan Southern & Northern
Indiana RR, Terre Haute & Alton RR- and last, but not least, the
Demoine Navigation & Railroad Company- which wasn't a railroad at
all, just an Iowa land scam. Source: US Railroad Directory, 1856
(see pgs 111,123,133,138,140,157). The fourth Litchfield brother,
Erasmus Darwin, comes into play during the early 1860's, utilizing his
position as a London banker, and as the "Collector" for the Tunnel
Closing Special Assessment Tax. The fifth Litchfield brother, Egbert
Delos, makes his appearance in future dealings with James J. Hill (in
Minnesota), but apparently played no part in the brother's Brooklyn
Many of the railroads cited above, together with the New York Central
RR and the Hudson River RR, were used to form the "first all rail line"
from New York City to Chicago during the mid 1850's. This was well
before Commodore Vanderbilt was involved with the New York Central, or
the Hudson River RR. However, in the Financial Panic of 1857, the
Litchfield brothers "found their interests overextended, and could not
hold their control in the reorganizations that followed". This fully
explains the total, virtually desperate focus E.B. Litchfield and his
associates were able to level at Brooklyn's Long Island Railroad in
particular, and Atlantic Avenue in general. As far as the Litchfield
brothers were concerned, in 1857, Brooklyn became the only game in
town...at least until Minnesota came a knocking..." (Source 1:
Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders, Vol 2, pg 806, by
John N. Ingham, 1983. Source 2: Machines and Morality: The 1850's, by Robert Sobel, 1973, pg 66- 67, 235-238. ).
A question that begs an answer, is why the opposition to the LIRR was
"inconsistent" during the 1850's? The answer is world affairs, relative
to the financial activities of the Litchfield brothers. Opposition to
the LIRR in Brooklyn first nebulized during the period of 1850- 1853.
This period coincided with the Litchfield brothers mainly focusing
their attention on Brooklyn real estate speculation, as exemplified by
E.B. Litchfield becoming Alderman for the 6th Ward during 1850- 1851,
their purchase of the square mile sized Vecht- Cortelyou farm (1852) which was the origin of Park Slope, and E.B. Litchfield's January 1853 applications to the City of Brooklyn,
for permission to build and operate a streetcar line connecting the
Litchfield's Brooklyn real estate holdings with the Fulton and Montague
Street ferries, via Brooklyn Height's Montague Street.
With the start of the Crimean War in October 1853, the prices and demand for
U.S. grown grain skyrocketed, as the Russian Empire, then known as the
"bread basket of Europe [today's Ukraine]" was now at war with the
British Empire, French Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of
Sardinia, and the Duchy of Nassau. A large portion of the grain grown
in the U.S. at the time, came from today's Midwest (Ohio), and other
adjacent areas, then partly referred to as the "Pacific Northwest
Territories". This translated to an increase in the value of Midwest
land usable for agriculture, and also the railroads needed to provide
transportation access. Thus, in 1853, the Litchfield brothers refocused
their attention away from Brooklyn, to renewed speculation in Midwest
land and railroads.
The end of the Crimean War in 1856, led to a major drop in demand for
U.S. grain, and a subsequent drop in value of Midwest land and
railroads, starting a series of events in the U.S. that led to the
Panic of 1857- and the return of the attention of the Litchfield
brothers to Brooklyn. Other major factors of the value decline in
Midwest land speculation and railroads, was the failure of Ohio Life, a
bank with a free-wheeling New York office and extensive speculative
Midwest railroad and land mortgage holdings, as well as the Dred Scott
Decision of March 6- 7, 1857. The specter of slavery spreading through
the new Midwestern states, threw a major damper on land speculation in
that region, as immigrants would certainly not come to new slave
holding territory. In fact, "the difference between western and eastern
through passengers entering Chicago from the east, a measure of net
immigration, declined from an estimated 108,000 passengers in 1856, to
a mere 10,000 in 1860". (Source 1: The Panic of 1857, Calomiris and
Schweikart, 1991 Source 2: Fishlow, American Railroads, pg 202- 203).
Its noteworthy that the first "Broadside Posters" calling for a series
of public meetings against the LIRR to be held at the Brooklyn
Athenaeum starting on March 9th, suddenly appeared in early March,
1857, within a day or two of the infamous Dred Scott Decision. It
should be further noted, that Supreme Court Justice Catron, in
violation of the Constitutional mandate for a separation of powers,
gave a "heads up" on the court's ruling to politicians in late
February, well before the Dred Scott decision was publicly announced by
the court in March. The Litchfield brothers were now solidly re-focused
on Brooklyn- until Minnesota beckoned them in 1862. (Source1:
Collections of the New York Historical Society. Source 2:
Machines and Morality: The 1850's, pg 256- 257.)
Their immediate objective, became the abrogation of the "Tripartite
Agreement" of 1855, a contract between the City of Brooklyn, the LIRR
and the Brooklyn and Jamaica RR. This contract, which was created and
sanctioned by a special law of the State of New York in 1853,
"permanently" granted to the LIRR the right to use steam power in
Brooklyn, and removed the LIRR from under all City of Brooklyn
Part II - The Circumstances Surrounding the Closing of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel
During the 1850's, downtown Brooklyn's newly created Tenth Ward was
burgeoning with nascent commercial development. This ward was bounded
on the west by Court Street and on the east by Flatbush Avenue- and
bisected north and south by the street surface running section of the
LIRR. If a rational and honest state of affairs would have prevailed at
the time, the Atlantic Ave tunnel would have simply been extended
eastward to Flatbush Avenue, thereby making the contentious Brooklyn
10th Ward whole.
However, certain interests wanted to politically and economically
exploit this situation. Seemingly out of nowhere, came a mysterious
rabble rouser known only by the nom- de- plume of "Pro Bono Publico".
Virtually singlehandedly, "Pro Bono Publico" organized "public
meetings" against the LIRR and the tunnel- but was in hearty support of
the newly proposed "Atlantic Avenue Drive & Promenade"
project. Note that 19th century "public meetings" commonly entailed the
distribution of money, free food and alcohol to the attendees. These
"meetings" quickly grew into a political pressure group- the "Tenth
Ward Association". The Brooklyn City Common Council members- and State
Legislators- from this large and populous ward must have relied heavily
on the constituency of "The Tenth Ward Association".
"The immediate results of these "meetings" was series of City of
Brooklyn Common Council Ordinances during the very early 1850's, which
hampered the operations of the LIRR (speed, hours of operation, etc.),
and also attempted to revoke its right to use steam power within City
limits. It should be noted, these deleterious City Ordinances
originated ca 1850- 1851, while E. B. Litchfield was the Alderman for
Brooklyn's Sixth Ward- the Ward from which the new 10th Ward was then
carved from. At that time the Litchfield brothers had other
pressing business in the Midwest, so they temporarily lost interest in
the LIRR. However, once instigated, the anti-LIRR movement in the newly
created 10th Ward didn't just go away. E.B. Litchfield "passed the
torch" (which he would pick up again in 1857) to the newly
elected Abraham B. Baylis, the first Alderman of the newly created 10th
Ward. However, the LIRR soon silenced Baylis, by appointing him a
Director of the railroad." (Sources: Source 1: (see pg 36), Source 2)
Pro Bono Publico & Company had a master plan: remove the LIRR,
close the tunnel and build the Atlantic Avenue Drive & Promenade-
essentially a sweeping real estate development project. To effect this
plan- and create a source of public funding for the private real estate
aspect of their project, they pushed through the NYS Legislature in
1859 the "Tunnel Act", Chapter 484 Laws of 1859. This law banished the
steam powered LIRR from Brooklyn, closed the tunnel- and created a pot
of public money totaling $130,000- a huge sum of money in the late
1850's. This pot of public money was to be generated by a Special
Assessment District created under the "Tunnel Act"- but was to be given
over to private entities for their own use.
There is very little evidence that "Pro Bono Publico" had any wide
spread support for closing the tunnel beyond the questionable "Tenth
Ward Assn." and their political operatives- who were purportedly
"blackmailed" into compliance. In fact, according to the following
Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, Ten Thousand Brooklynites signed a
remonstrance to the State Legislature Against passage of the proposed
tunnel closing Act of 1859. In fact in 1853, over four hundred
landowners and business people of Atlantic Avenue (said to be the
majority) signed a petition to the City of Brooklyn IN FAVOR of using
steam power on the LIRR, and also desirous of a new streetcar line be
superimposed over the LIRR and Furman street: (Source 1 And Source 2)
Further, it was later argued in Court (Litchfield vs. Vernon), that the
closure of the tunnel and the elimination of the LIRR's steam powered
downtown Brooklyn route in reality inflicted injury on the property
value and commerce of downtown Brooklyn. Those pleadings fell upon deaf
ears. (See pg 125)
The legal mechanism by which the public money was subsequently
collected by and retained by private interests under the "Tunnel Act"
and a subsequent companion State Act, was later found Constitutional by
the NYS Appeals Court in 1869 (Litchfield vs. Vernon). HOWEVER- the
same court proceedings (Litchfield vs. Vernon) exposed the fact that
the actual execution of the "Tunnel Act" - and thereby the closing of
the tunnel, was nothing more than a huge Fraud perpetrated upon the
people of Brooklyn. This betrayal of the public trust was perpetrated
by then Mayor of Brooklyn Samuel S. Powell.
Its noteworthy that only a couple of years earlier, in 1857, Mayor
Powell was the LIRR's staunchest ally, vetoing a Common Council
ordinance that could have barred the LIRR from Brooklyn at that time.
How a portion of graft and blackmail does change things. Source
So who in the world was "Pro Bono Publico" ? Maybe the devil can be found in the details...
As Bernstein said to Woodward (Watergate) "follow the money trial". As
per contemporary Court writings (The People Ex Rel Crowell vs.
Lawrence), the tunnel was thought by the Court to have been removed for
the $130,000, with E.B. Litchfield's shill company the Brooklyn Central
& Jamaica Railroad becoming the Assignees of the assessment money
and contractor for its removal. Note the Brooklyn Central & Jamaica
RR then assigned all the assessment monies to E. B. Litchfield
personally, with E. B. Litchfield's brother E. Darwin Litchfield
becoming the tunnel closing Assessment Collector (as per Litchfield vs.
Vernon). (See pg 190 lines 6 and 7 here).
The way E. B. Litchfield enticed some of the property owners to pay him
the Assessment money, was that in exchange for paying the Assessment,
Litchfield gave them undisclosed amounts of stock in his railroad
(watered the stock). He was able to collect only about one half of the
Assessment in this way. The other half of the property owners refused
to pay, on the basis that the removal of the LIRR's steam power and the
tunnel was ruinous to their property and businesses, and that the
Tunnel Act itself was unconstitutional. These land owners then went to
the Courts for relief. (See Source)
According to the Court records (People Ex Rel Crowell vs. Lawrence),
the tunnel was assumed by the Court to have been "filled up"- that's
the actual term they used. On the face of it, the basis of the sum they
came up with, $130,000 made perfect sense, as it cost the LIRR $66,000
to build it, so it followed that it would cost about as much to "fill
it up". The other half of the assessment was damages for the loss of
the right to use steam. As anyone who has been on the tunnel tour can
tell you, it never was all "filled up" (See pg 142 here).
The primary way in which E. B. Litchfield enticed the LIRR to assign
him their rights to the tunnel and steam power "removal" assessment
money, was he cobbled together for them their new East River access
route from Jamaica to Hunters Point- track he newly built from Jamaica
to Winfield Jct (NY & Jamaica RR), thence along the preexisting
Flushing RR to Long Island City- which E. B. Litchfield already
controlled. (See pgs 254, 265, 240 and 241- 242 here. Also this Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, of May 10, 1861 pg 2 fully explained the LIRR's new East River access route from Hunter's Point to Jamaica.
A contemporary of E. B. Litchfield's described him as "Flagrantly and
Monumentally Impudent". This was an understatement. After bilking
residents out of $130,000 under the pretense of removing steam power
and closing the tunnel, Litchfield turned around only two years later
(1863) and attempted to partially repeal his "Tunnel Act" of 1859,
thereby restoring steam locomotives to Atlantic Avenue. This bill was
actually passed by the State Legislature, but then "Copperhead"
Governor of New York, Horatio Seymour, ally of "Copperhead" spokesman
Rep. Clement Vallandigham of Ohio and New York City's (Manhattan)
Secessionist Mayor, Fernando Wood of the notorious Mozart Hall, failed
to sign it into law. It's noteworthy that Gov. Seymour also vetoed a
similar steam traction bill for Manhattan's Broadway- upon the advice
of Brooklyn affiliated politician and ill starred Presidential
candidate Samuel J. Tilden (See Source).
In 1863, Atlantic Avenue residents finally grasped the scope of what
E.B. Litchfield had perpetrated, and began referring to the entire
affair as a "Corrupt Swindle". (See Source)
In 1885, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published the following article, in
which "Deacon" William Richardson of the Atlantic Avenue Railroad Co.
fully exposed the chicanery of the Litchfields in the Tunnel Act of
1859 and the hijacking of the Assessment money. Note- apparently,
Richardson didn't realize that it was E. B. Litchfield aka "Pro Bono
Publico" that initially instigated the Brooklyn political problems of
the LIRR in the first place. (See Source).
As for the operational fraudulence of the New York State "Tunnel Act"
of 1859 itself, note that in order for it to become operative, a
Petition of a Majority of Property Owners within the special assessment
district created therein, was required to have been made to the
Brooklyn Common Council, which would then trigger the tunnel closure
and assessment process- as it turns out, there never was any such
petition of property owners. Notice in the following Brooklyn Daily
Eagle article, that in 1860 Mayor Powell complained that a resolution
was brought forth in the State Legislature to require the City of
Brooklyn to pay the tunnel assessment.
Faced with this mutiny among the local property owners who were not
forthcoming with the required triggering petition to the Common
Council, Mayor Powell himself, in typical 19th century corrupt
political machine boss style, fraudulently verified the required though
non existent land owner's petition via the Common Council to the NYS
Supreme Court, thereby falsely triggering the tunnel closure and
assessment process. See pg 183 paragraph 2 and pg 184 of the original
circa 1862 trial of Litchfield vs. Vernon here and the following Brooklyn Daily Eagle article here and Litchfield vs. Vernon, as cited below.
Finally, in the Appeal of Litchfield vs. Vernon, the Court held that
Mayor Powell's fraudulent Verification (which falsely triggered the
Assessment and tunnel closure process) was not worth the paper it was
written on. In Litchfield vs. Vernon, the New York State Court of
Appeals held in 1869, that "the application to the Common Council of a
majority of property owners being indispensable to the validity of all
subsequent proceedings under the act [state "Tunnel Act"of 1859]...the
petition of the Common Council verified by the Mayor to the Supreme
Court, was no evidence thereof in this action... that the finding of
the Court below that such majority had applied to the Common Council
was, therefore, wholly unsupported by the proofs, and error, for which
the judgment in favor of the plaintiff must be reversed, and a new
trial ordered". (See the last paragraphs on pg 124 and 127, the upper
half of page 130, all of page 136, and the top of pg 137 here)
In my opinion, the best summary of the relevant parts of Litchfield vs. Vernon can be found here (see pgs 201- 202). We know Electus B.
Litchfield and his brothers used the special assessment tax district
created for the contrived closure of the Atlantic Avenue tunnel as a
financial vehicle to raise money for a real estate project, while
Brooklynites were promised the "Atlantic Avenue Drive And Promenade"
which never happened. The legend about E. B. Litchfield losing the
money buying Confederate War Bonds was in reality a red herring.
Part III : Where did all the money the Litchfields stole from Brooklyn
Answer: To an attempt to take over the lands and railroads of the
northwestern United States via federal railroad land grants and other
financial tools, and then mortgage this wilderness property to unwary
European investors at vastly inflated sums.
No doubt E. B. Litchfield used his brother E. Darwin Litchfield, then a
London banker, to launder the money hijacked from Brooklyn to acquire
all the stock of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad First Division,
their new land and railroad speculation entity in Minnesota, which
already owned 307,200 acres (480 square miles) of federal land grants.
The Brooklyn loot was likely used as seed money to construct more track
in Minnesota, thereby leveraging more massive federal land grants,
which in turn enabled E. B. Litchfield to issue more St. Paul &
Pacific securities in Holland with these land grants used as collateral.
It appears the Minnesota federal railroad land grants were extremely
generous, the initial 307,200 acres were the reward for building only
the first 10 miles of track. The total federal land grants accumulated
by E. B. Litchfield in the construction of the St Paul & Pacific
Railroad First Division would have been much greater, as the land grant
for this railroad was increased to 10 sections (10 square miles) of
federal land granted for every mile of track built, and the aggregate
amount of land grant authorized for this railroad was 5 million acres.
This land was unsettled wilderness, but the Dutch investors didn't
bother to look.
E.B. Litchfield soon availed himself well of his experience gained in
Brooklyn during his fraudulent closure of the Atlantic Avenue tunnel.
Essentially, E. B. Litchfield mortgaged to Dutch bondholders for top
dollar, the virtually worthless Minnesota wilderness. By late 1869, he
had issued securities of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad First
Division to Dutch investors totaling $13 million, with Litchfield
allegedly having embezzled some $8 million (a tremendous sum in the
1860's) by faking construction work. See notation for the year 1857, and also page 132
The Dutch investors only became aware of this massive railroad and land
fraud in 1873, when they finally sent a representative to physically
look at the land grants belonging to the St. Paul & Pacific. The
Dutch investors had bought a huge "pig in the poke". (See
Veenendaal pgs 130- 133, as well as the pages cited at this link to Albro
End Notes & Source Materials:
As a genealogical aside, it should be noted that William B. Litchfield
was the son of E. B. Litchfield. In turn, the noted New York City based
20th century architect Electus D. Litchfield was the son of W. B.
Litchfield, or rather E. B. Litchfield's grandson.
As a historical aside, where did Edwin C. Litchfield get the exorbitant
sum of money required to build his antebellum "Villa" (which still
stands inside Brooklyn's Prospect Park) ? Answer: Probably by selling
and/or mortgaging Federal land he didn't really own in Iowa ("above
Raccoon Fork" aka the "River Grant"), during the 1850's. See Source.
The brothers had been legally "ejected" from their Iowa property in
1859 by the rightful owners, the Dubuque & Pacific RR. Note in the
case cited above, the Litchfields were the plaintiff.
It must have cost the Litchfield brothers a good dollar to have
Congress pass a Joint Resolution for them on March 2, 1861, a scant two
days before the administration of Abraham Lincoln took office. The
Litchfield brothers needed their own version of a "pardon" in order to
clear up their purported Iowa land titles. They were only one step
ahead of the fraudulent land transfer lawsuits. See Source:
More info related to E.B. Litchfield can be found on our webpage: The LIRR's E.B. Litchfield's Unexpected Connections