- Historic Sites
Biggest Of The Four
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
For a while it looked as though Stanford would lose his sanity, and even his life. But a month later, he told an American minister in Paris: “I have been successful in the accumulation of property, and all of my thoughts of the future were associated with my dear son. I was living for him and his future. That is what brought us abroad for his education. Now, I was thinking in the night, since Leland is gone what my wealth could do. I was thinking that since I could do no more for my boy I might do something for other people’s boys in Leland’s name.”
A few weeks later Leland and Jane were sitting in front of Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard. What, Stanford wanted to know, would it cost to duplicate Harvard’s physical plant. Five or six million dollars, said Eliot. Stanford thought for a while, then smiled. “Well, Jane, we could manage that, couldn’t we?”
As it turned out, the physical plant was superb, a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, with Charles A. Coolidge’s warm, muscular, Romanesque buildings spreading majestically but not overpoweringly out across it. But Stanford knew there was more to a college than plant, and he begged Andrew D. White, the retired president of Cornell, to head his new school. Too old, said White; try David Starr Jordan out at Indiana University. Stanford went to see him, and Jordan thought the railroad baron “revealed an unusually attractive personality.” He took the job—and kept it for twenty years.
Leland Stanford Junior University opened in 1891. Stanford, his health damaged by those winter nights in the Sierras and broken by his son’s death, died just two years later. He did not live to see his college fulfill its initial promise, but he had no doubt that it would, and today Leland Stanford is remembered as the founder of one of the finest schools in the nation. His old Big Four partners have some San Francisco hotels named after them.