The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Blair, John Insley
(August 22, 1802–December 2, 1899)

–railroad and town developer—was born on a farm in Warren County, New Jersey, to a family of Scottish extraction, direct descendants of John Blair, who in 1720 had emigrated to America from Scotland. The young Blair received a sparse formal education, attending a local school only intermittently during the winter months. Yet he expected to succeed, allegedly telling his mother, "I have seven brothers and three sisters. That's enough in the family to be educated. I am going to get rich."At the age of 11 he became a helper in a store owned by a relative in nearby Hope, New Jersey. There this bright, hard-working, and honest lad had his initial exposure to the world of business. In the early 1820s the always ambitious Blair formed a partnership with another family member in Blairstown, New Jersey, and opened a country general store. Although the partnership proved to be brief, Blair continued the business operations on his own.

    But John Insley Blair became more than a village storekeeper. Early on he acquired other mercantile stores in neighboring communities in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and he commonly placed a family member in charge. With profits generated by those ventures, Blair developed additional interests, including cotton manufacturing and flour milling. Then in the 1830s this budding capitalist became fascinated with the iron industry. In time, he acquired major positions in various Pennsylvania concerns, the centerpiece being the Lackawanna Coal & Iron Company. His mining activities led him into railroading. His most significant railroading venture was the formation of what would evolve into one of the most profitable domestic carriers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (DL&W) Railroad. Not only did Blair own a sizable portion of that expanding road, but he also successfully speculated in real estate, especially in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the DL&W established its maintenance and operational headquarters.

    Always on the lookout for attractive business opportunities, Blair eventually seized upon investments in the trans-Mississippi West. In the summer of 1860, following his participation in the Republican presidential convention in Chicago, he visited eastern Iowa. "Blair seems to have no sooner touched Iowa soil," observed one historian, "whereupon he perceived the boundless opportunities for opening up the West and the great possibilities of a trans-continental railroad with all its advantages to the Union."Quickly Blair acquired an interest in the Cedar Rapids & Missouri River line, a future core unit of the Chicago and North Western Railway, and in 1863 he participated in the survey work for that line through much of central and western Iowa. In charge of two of the railroad's affiliates, the Iowa Railroad Construction Company and the Iowa Railroad Land Company, Blair did much to win local financial support and to develop townsites, including Blairstown in Benton County. The triumph of these ventures prompted him to become involved in other trans-Chicago carriers, most notably the Sioux City & Pacific and the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley railroads. Blair liked to develop a frontier pike, promote townsites and dispose of land, and then sell or lease the railroad to another company.

    Blair's mining, manufacturing, real estate, and railroad investments made him an enormous amount of money, creating an estate at the time of his death estimated to be worth between $50 million and $70 million. Yet Blair was generous, contributing funds to Princeton University and Grinnell and Lafayette colleges. His favorite educational institution, however, was Blair Presbyterian Academy, a coeducational secondary school in Blairstown, New Jersey, that he helped to found in 1848 and continued to fund throughout his life. Unlike some contemporary industrial leaders, Blair did not live in splendor; he maintained a modest lifestyle. A devoted husband and father, Blair in 1828 married Ann Locke, and they were parents of a son, DeWitt Clinton Blair. Blair did not slow down until shortly before his death; in his mid 80s, he traveled extensively, and into his 90s he rose early to begin another business day.
Sources include John H. Brown, ed., Lamb's Biographical Dictionary of the United States (1900); "Early Railroad Builders of Iowa," North Western 7 (June-July 1911), 41; Anthony L. Cassen, ed., "Surveying the First Railroad across Iowa: The Journal of John I. Blair," Annals of Iowa 35 (1960), 321–62; Robert J. Casey and W. A. S. Douglas, The Lackawanna Story (1951); and Dictionary of America Biography (1957).
Contributor: H. Roger Grant