Blair, John Insley, 1802-1899

Alternative names
Birth 1802-08-22
Death 1899-12-02

Biographical notes:

Railroad magnate and philanthropist, of Blairstown, New Jersey.

From the description of Papers, 1861-1873 (inclusive). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122602474

Capitalist, philanthropist, and railroad tycoon.

From the description of John Insley Blair papers, 1830-1896. (New Jersey Historical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 54347020

In the early 1860s Blair made trips to Iowa to explore possibilities for building railroads in Iowa. Through partnerships with various businessmen and political alliances Blair became a major figure in the Iowa railroad business in the 1860s.

From the description of John Insley Blair papers, 1860s? (State Historical Society of Iowa, Library). WorldCat record id: 85857042

Capitalist and merchant.

From the description of John Insley Blair correspondence, 1879. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 79450696

Capitalist, philanthropist, and railroad tycoon, of New Jersey.

From the description of Papers, 1830-1909. (New Jersey Historical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 70956084

Capitalist, railroad magnate and philanthropist, of Blairstown, N.J.

From the description of Papers, 1861-1873. (Rutgers University). WorldCat record id: 28375187

John Insley Blair (1802-1899) was born on 22 August 1802 on the farm of his parents, James and Rachel Insley Blair, about two miles from Belvidere, New Jersey, on the banks of the Delaware River. The fourth of ten children, he went to work in his cousin’s general store at the age of eleven. Seven years later he established his own store in Gravel Hill, New Jersey (renamed Blairstown in 1839), and by age twenty-eight he owned a chain of five general stores and four flour mills. He married Ann Locke (1804-1888) on 20 September 1828, and they had four children: Emma Elizabeth (1827-1869), Marcus Laurence (1830-1873), DeWitt Clinton (1833-1914), and Aurelia Ann (1838-1866).

In 1833 Blair became involved with Selden T. and George W. Scranton in the Oxford Furnace iron mines, opening the Lackawanna Coal and Iron Company in 1846 and the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad Company in 1852. His interest and investment in railroads increased until he was, at one time, the president of sixteen railroad companies and a director or manager of many more. Chief among these was the Sioux City and Pacific Railroad, a division of the Union Pacific Railroad, as well as other subdivisions of the S.C.& P.R.R, including the Cedar Rapids and the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad. He was reputed to be the largest single owner of railroad property in the world, with holdings in the Blairstown Railway, the Cayuga and Susquehanna Railroad, the Chicago and North Western Railroad, the Chicago, Iowa and Nebraska Railroad, the Delaware and Newburgh Railroad, the Hudson and Delaware Railroad, the Lackawanna and Bloomsburg Railroad, the Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railroad, the Sussex Valley Railroad, the Liggett’s Gap Railroad, the Sussex and Warren Railroad, and the Warren Railroad.

His interests extended far beyond railroads, though. He founded the Belvidere National Bank in Belvidere, New Jersey in 1830. The vast majority of his other businesses carried on their transactions through his bank, both in checking and in loans. These included his land interests (the Blair Town Land and Lot Company), his mining interests (the Moingona Coal Company), and his railroad construction interests (the Iowa Railway Contracting Company). In all three of these endeavors, he was associated closely with Congressman Oakes Ames (1804-1873), who, in 1867, became president of Crédit Mobilier of America, a railroad construction company. The company subsequently milked the Union Pacific Railroad for exorbitant fees, charging the Railroad $94 million for construction that cost at most $44 million. A congressional investigation found that thirteen members of Congress had been involved. After the Crédit Mobilier’s corrupt practice became a public scandal in 1872, Ames’ actions as president became one of the best-known examples of graft in American history. Though Ames purchased at least $20,000 in Crédit Mobilier shares for John I. Blair, the latter was not implicated in the scandal. Blair later said of Ames that "a more honest man never lived."

Blair belonged to the Republican Party. He served as a delegate to the Chicago, Illinois, convention in 1860 that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency, and in 1868 was the Republican nominee for governor of New Jersey. Theodore F. Randolph, the Democratic nominee, defeated Blair by more than 4,500 votes. A philanthropist, Blair established the Blair Presbyterian Academy at Blairstown. He also donated money to Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and Princeton University, which named Blair Hall in his honor and named him trustee in 1886. He also helped to establish some eighty townships and over one hundred Presbyterian Churches along his railroad routes. He gave away over $5 million during his lifetime, yet his estate was still worth an estimated $70 million at his death on 2 December 1899.


Brunchey, Eleanor S. "Blair, John Insley." Encyclopedia Americana .

Dictionary of American Biography, s.v. "Blair, John Insley."

National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 7:21, s.v. "Blair, John Insley."

Who Was Who, Volume 1, 1897-1945, s.v. "Blair, John Insley."

From the guide to the John Insley Blair papers Mss 0040., 1831-1898, (DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)


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  • Capitalists and financiers
  • Coal trade
  • Iron industry and trade
  • Postal service
  • Philanthropists--United States
  • Railroads--History--Maps
  • Presidents--Nomination
  • Decedents' estates
  • Presbyterian Church
  • Philanthropists
  • Political conventions
  • Canals
  • Railroads
  • Coal trade--History
  • Railroads--History--Sources
  • Iron industry and trade--History--Sources
  • Railroad companies
  • Schools
  • Education
  • Capitalists and financiers--New Jersey
  • Railroads--United States--History--Sources


  • Clergy--New Jersey--Blairstown
  • Capitalists
  • Merchants
  • Executors and administrators--New Jersey
  • Capitalists and financiers--New Jersey
  • School principals--New Jersey--Blairstown
  • Businessmen--New Jersey--Warren County
  • Philanthropists--New Jersey
  • Philanthropists--New Jersey--Warren County


  • Blairstown (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Warren County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • New Jersey (as recorded)
  • Blairstown (N.J. : Township) (as recorded)
  • New Jersey--Blairstown (as recorded)
  • Illinois--Chicago (as recorded)
  • Blairstown (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • New Jersey (as recorded)
  • New Jersey (as recorded)
  • New Jersey--Warren County (as recorded)
  • Iowa (as recorded)
  • Blairstown (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • New Jersey (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Leipzig (Germany) (as recorded)