Citizen Train | The Story of America’s Strangest Entrepreneur

George Francis Train was born in Boston in 1829, but by the age of 4 he had lost his parents and siblings to yellow fever. So, he was brought up by his grandparents who had hoped their grandchild would become a Methodist minister. Instead, he was lured to the booming transport industry, in which he would become one of America’s most famous transport entrepreneur’s of the 19th century.

Train began his journey to fame and fortune through the shipping business, before turning his attention to railroads and tramways. There he became a pioneer of horse drawn tramways, bring his venture from America to Europe where he set up tram systems in France and Britain.

In 1860 Train, along with Cork businessman Hugh Roche, surveyed a line for a tramline in Cork city. Still, it wasn’t until 1872 when the Cork Tramway Ltd was at last established and running across the Leeside streets. Locals christened the trams ‘Train Cars’ but, its failure to service the suburbs and pressure from rival transport companies saw the Cork Corporation pull the brakes on the Cork Tramway Ltd in 1875.

Train spent most of his life travelling the world at a fast pace. He claimed on one occasion to have travelled the world in 80 days and at another time he claimed he done it in 60. In 1873 Author Jules Verne based the character of Phileas Fogg on Train for his novel Around the World in 80 Days.

Train referred to himself as Citizen Train and refused to shake hands with people for fear it would drain his energy. He was a vegetarian, a feminist, a supporter of the Fenian movement and a Minister in the Church of the Laughing Jackass. He ran for the Presidency of the United States many times and never once held public office throughout his life. George Francis Train was egotistical, eccentric and eloquent. With such characteristics he easily gained attention and these attributes drew the attention of authorities in Cork in 1868.

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Train set off from New York City on the royal mail steamer Scotia in early January 1868 and on board he entertained his fellow passengers with long speeches on every subject of the day, including the Fenian movement. This was a time when the Fenian scare was at it’s peak. Just months previously a failed Fenian uprising in Ireland shook the British authorities who responded with a severe clampdown on nationalist sentiment. On board the Scotia Train’s ecstatic support of the Fenians scared one passenger into sending a cable to Cork to warn the authorities of the coming trouble maker.

On the night of January 17th the Scotia moored at Rochespoint while a tender from Queenstown called the Jackel went to pick up mail and passengers, of which there were just three – the eccentric Mr Train, a British salesman Mr Gee and an American rail conductor Mr Durrant. On the tender going out to collect the passengers and mail were Inspector Richards and Head Constable Mahony.

The three passengers were escorted to the quayside at Queenstown where their luggage was searched. Among the items seized from Train’s luggage were a number of pamphlets on Fenians and the pro-independence Irish-American newspaper The Irish People. Mr Gee and Mr Durrant were released when nothing incriminating was found in their belongings but, Mr Train was marched through Queenstown led by Inspector Richards and Head Constable Mahony, surrounded by armed police and followed close behind by a swath of curious onlookers.

George Francis Train |
Train’s bid for the US Presidency

The spectacle paraded in the direction of the house of Magistrate John Newman Beamish. When the lawmen and their prisoner, and the many onlookers, reached their destination they were informed the Magistrate was not at home so, they turned around and paraded to the house of another Magistrate, Mr T.H Tarrant. Throughout this procession, Train loudly denounced the police which drew both cheers and jeers from those who followed in the procession and those who looked on at the sidelines.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”2FB3C9″ class=”” size=”19″]”Train wrote how he was “incarcerated in a felons cell”, but failed to mention that he received special treatment, was able to order food and newspapers and enjoy the comfort of a furnished cell.”[/perfectpullquote]

Train was brought before the Queenstown petty sessions on January 18th where Inspector Richards informed the court that ‘Mr Train had in his possession, documents for the furtherence of Fenianism.’ Train was ordered to spend some time in Cork County Jail on the Western Road, (nowadays known as UCC), and he was escorted there by two constables. To his utter disgust, Train was placed in a third class carriage headed for Cork City with his two armed constables. He demanded to be upgraded to first class and when his demands were ignored, Train insisted on paying for first class travel, including the return trip for his two guards. This deal was accepted by the authorities.

While under arrest in Cork, Train kept himself busy writing about his ordeal. In a letter to the American Consul, Train recalled how he “passed the night on the floor of the police barracks in Queenstown…..for the offence of having an Irish American newspaper in my trunk.”

Later describing his brief time in Cork Jail, Train wrote how he was “incarcerated in a felons cell”, but failed to mention that he received special treatment, was able to order food and newspapers and enjoy the comfort of a furnished cell.

Train railed against the authorities for damaging his reputation and wrote “I demand compensation from the British government to the extent of one hundred thousand pounds sterling.”

He did not languish long in that felons cell by the River Lee and by the 25th of January he was in the plush surroundings of the Imperial Hotel on the South Mall in Cork City from where he wrote a letter to the President of the United States.

Written on Imperial Hotel letterhead paper and sent to President Andrew Johnson in the White House, Train’s letter lambasted President Johnson for letting an American citizen be unjustly arrested by British authorities and he questioned the President’s lazy attitude towards Britain and the Irish question. Train wrote to the US President from his room at the Imperial Hotel: “You have the will but not the backbone.” Then, he asked the President to “call a congress of nations at Washington and establish a code of international laws suitable to our time. Our nation’s capital is too near England.”

Train’s freedom on Irish soil would be short lived and by the time he left Cork and went to Dublin he was wearing handcuffs once again. In May 1868 Train was arrested in Dublin for debts owned to the Ebbw Railway Company and he was sent to the Four Courts Marshalsea Jail for ten months. In his 1902 autobiography Train wrote “it was in that jail in Dublin that a feeling of confidence that I might one day be President of the United States first came into definite form……as soon as I got out of that jail I began my campaign for President.”

George Francis Train never reached the Oval Office and he ended his days sitting on park benches in New York City talking to birds. Train was a divisive figure who was lauded by the few and laughed at by the many and on that January night in Cork 150 years ago the American entrapenuer and presidential hopeful was received with suspicion by the authorities and amusement by the locals. Citizen Train died on January 5th 1904 at the age of 74.

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