- Thomas Fortune Ryan
Thomas Fortune Ryan (1851 - 1928) was a U.S. tobacco and transport magnate. Part of his fortune paid for the construction of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in
Virginia and Tennessee
Thomas Fortune Ryan was born on
17 October, 1851 near Lovingston, a small Nelson County community south of Charlottesville in Virginia’s Piedmont. Despite certain myths regarding his background, Ryan was neither orphaned nor penniless as a youth and he traced his ancestry to Protestant Anglo-Irish settlers in the 1600s, not the Potato Famine Onmigration. Ryan’s father was a tailor and manager of a small hotel.
Thomas’ mother, Lucinda Fortune Ryan, died in 1856 when he was 5. His father remarried and moved to
Tennesseetwo years later. Ryan was reared by his mother’s extended family in Lovingston, VA who were Protestants.
In 1868, seeking his fortune outside the post-Civil War South, 17-year-old Ryan moved to Baltimore to seek his fortune. En route to
Maryland, Ryan converted to Catholicism after long discussions with a fellow passenger on the train.
In Baltimore, John S. Barry, a prosperous dry goods merchant, hired him. By 1872, Barry helped Ryan secure a brokerage assistant position on
New York City
Ryan opened a brokerage firm, Lee, Ryan & Warren, with two partners the following year.
In 1873 he married his former boss’s daughter,
Ida Mary Barry, whose family were devout Roman Catholics. With her he had seven children. The first one was financier and writer John Barry Ryansr. 1874 - 1942.
John Barry Ryan Male born Sept 8 1874 in NY Thomas Fortune Ryan Male born Aug 4 1876 in NY William Keane Ryan Male born Aug 25 1878 in NY Allan Aloysius Ryan Male born May 5 1880 in NY Clendenin James Ryan Male born Sept 13 1882 in NY Mary Loretta Ryan Female born May 13 1885 in NY Joesph James Ryan Male born Nov 4 1890 in NY
In 1874, his firm purchased Ryan a seat on the
New York Stock Exchange, making him the youngest member in Exchange history. At the same time, Ryan became active in politics, especially the Tammany Hallmachine that controlled much of the city's operations, which gave him political and industrial contacts across the city.
Ryan's fortune began in
public transit. In 1883, he founded the New York Cable Railroad and bid on the proposed route from lower Manhattanto Midtown. After numerous legal and financial problems, in 1886 Ryan re-organized his cable railroad as the Metropolitan Traction Company. By 1893, construction of Ryan’s rail system was underway on Broadway. Metropolitan continually acquired additional lines so that by 1900 Ryan controlled most of New York’s streetcar operations, totaling 3,000 cars and 300 miles of track.
Ryan’s most profitable investment was
tobacco. Having invested in tobacco stocks throughout the 1890s, Ryan joined his assets in 1898, forming The Union Tobacco Company. Shortly thereafter, Ryan merged his company with that of his greatest competitor, James Dukeof North Carolina, forming the American Tobacco Company. Together Ryan and Duke developed the British-American Tobacco Companyto protect American tobacco trade in Europe. Upon his death, he also had major holdings in R. J. Reynoldsand Liggett & Myers.
In 1905, amid public outcry, Ryan purchased the Equitable Life Assurance Society, a major company in the insurance industry with a $400 million in
assets. Although Ryan strove to make Equitable more responsive to its policy holders, public reaction to his purchase of the company was overwhelmingly negative. His reputation for cutthroat business dealings in the streetcar and subway businesses made the public distrustful and, in 1909, he sold his Equitable stock.
Also in 1905, Ryan's Metropolitan street car system was threatened by a major competitive development, New York’s increasingly popular
subway system. He merged his company with August Belmont’s Interborough Rapid Transit Company. But the joint company’s finances were shaky, and Ryan pulled out. Meanwhile, some $35 million that Ryan had raised in a bond issue were misappropriated. Ryan was investigated for corruption in 1908, but the grand jury brought no charges.
Meanwhile, Ryan was making fortunes with coal mines, banks, public utilities and railroads. He owned Royal Typewriter and backed the maker of the Tommy gun. At one time Ryan had controlling interest in 30 corporations.
As her husband’s wealth grew exponentially, Ida Barry Ryan began making large benefactions to Catholic charitable organizations in New York, Virginia, and across the country.
The Ryans funded churches,
convents and hospitals in Manhattan, including the architecturally important St. Jean-Baptisteon the Upper East Side. In Washington, D.C., they paid for a gymnasium and dormitory at the Jesuit-founded Georgetown University.
In 1901, the Ryans funded the construction of Sacred Heart Church and Sacred Heart School on Perry Street in
Manchester, Virginia(now part of Richmond). In the same year, the Ryans made their most enduring act of generosity, donating $250,000 to build a new cathedral in Richmond. Soon thereafter, they donated an additional $250,000 to ensure that the interior would be of the highest workmanship. The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, dedicated in 1906, remains one of the finest architectural landmarks in the city. Other gifts in Virginia included the Cathedral High and the Cathedral Primary schools in Richmond, as well as Catholic churches in Harrisonburg and Newport News. The Ryans' lifetime contributions to Catholic charities around the country totaled $20 million.
Ryan was the wealthiest native Southerner when he died in 1928. The Ryans' philanthropy also extended to cultural interests, including Southern history, the fine arts and exploration. Ryan financed and selected
Charles Hoffbauerto create " The Four Seasons of the Confederacy", a series of paintings commissioned for a major gallery in what is now the Virginia Historical Society. For Jamestown's 300th anniversary in 1907, Ryan donated a collection of portraits of key players in Virginia’s settlement. Ryan also helped finance Richard E. Byrd’s flight to the South Pole.
By 1912 Ryan announced his intention to retire and was well along in transforming his Oak Ridge property in
Virginiainto a world-class estate. Ryan re-established his roots in his native state of Virginia. In the same year he was a Virginia delegateto the Democratic National Convention.
October 17 1917, on his 66th birthday, his wife Ida died from heart disease. Despite a place for her in the crypt of Richmond’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, she was buried in Hyde Park, New York. Twelve days later Ryan married the widow Mary Townsend Lord Cuyler. On November 23, 1928, Thomas Fortune Ryan died the nation’s 10th wealthiest man and the South's wealthiest native son. He was buried at Oak Ridge, where his second wife, Mary, was also interred. He left a fortune of more than $200 million to his descendants.
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