William G. Fargo - Table of Contents

Partial reprint

A Lost Buffalo Landmark: The Fargo Mansion
By Cynthia Hammond
Buffalo Rising, September 4, 2020

Photo source: The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo, Frank H. Severance, ed. Pub. by the Buffalo Historical Society Publications, Vol. 16, 1912, p. 446

A plaque at the corner of Pennsylvania and Fargo Avenue  is pictured above.  If you walk the site perimeter you would not see any other sign of the former 22,000 square foot French Mansard mansion that once graced the center of meticulously landscaped grounds.  The mansion was built between 1867 and 1870 with the cupola reaching the height to 5 stories. 

At the time, it was said to be the finest mansion in the state outside of New York City.  At Fargo’s request, it contained wood from all the states of the Union.  Doorknobs were reportedly made of gold.  It contained a barbershop and the dining room had two stages for entertainment.  The exterior was double layered brick; the foundation was granite.  It was the first residence in Buffalo to have an elevator. 

Fargo died in 1881 and his widow, Anna remained in the home until her death in 1890.  Surviving daughters, Helen and Georgia, lived elsewhere and had no interest in returning to Buffalo or maintaining the expansive estate. (Anna Fargo gave birth to eight children. Tragically, five died while still children, and only the two daughters outlived their parents).  By 1900 the house had been stripped of valuables and was demolished, the rubble of the grand home piled into the basement.  It was just 30 years old. The land was divided into smaller parcels and sold off individually.

William Fargo was born in Pompey, NY in 1818. At the age of 13, he carried mail for a local contractor and eventually moved to Buffalo to work as a messenger between Albany and Buffalo.  Fargo, Henry Wells and John Butterfield founded American Express in 1850 in Buffalo, although headquarters was soon established in New York City.  While the Company began primarily as an express mail service, it diversified over the years to become an international financial services firm. 

While William Fargo died in 1881, his brother James succeeded him as President and introduced financial products such as money orders and travelers checks.  Some readers will surely remember the slightly ominous advertising campaign: ‘‘American Express Travelers Checks:  Don’t Leave Home Without Them.’’

Soon after establishing American Express, Fargo and Wells took an interest in the gold fields of California.  The majority of the American Express directors were reluctant to compete with a powerful rival in the west: Adams and Company.  In 1852, Wells, Fargo and Company was established, offering freight service as well as the buying and selling of gold dust.  Wells Fargo drivers were well armed and the firm was known for its aggressive pursuit of robbers.  The company utilized the Pony Express in the last six months of its short 18 month existence and also via stagecoach. An advertisement to hire Pony Express riders read: “Wanted – young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18.  Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily.  Orphans preferred.  Wages $25 per week…” The invention of the Telegraph ended the Pony Express and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad caused Wells Fargo to focus the business on banking and rail express operations.  Fargo retired in 1872 and spent the remaining nine years of his life at his beloved estate.

In addition to his prominent roles with American Express, Wells Fargo, and several railroads, Fargo also had directorship and shareholder positions in several Buffalo companies.  He also was Mayor of Buffalo from 1862 to 1866, was a staunch Democrat and supported the Union during the Civil War.  Fargo ensured that employees who served in the War would continue to receive partial salary during their enlistment.

The name Fargo has an enduring legacy in American History.  The town of Centralia, North Dakota flourished when it became a stop on the Northern Pacific Railway.  The Director of the railroad was William Fargo, hence the city showed its appreciation with a name change to Fargo.  The TV western, ‘‘Tales of Wells Fargo’’ (1957-1962) featured Dale Robertson as a troubleshooting agent for the Company.  Fans of musicals will surely fondly recall the tribute song from The Music Man.

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