In December of 1892, a crowd gathered at a courthouse in Waco, Texas, for the federal auction of the Waco and Northwestern Railroad. As railroad properties went, the Waco and Northwestern was none too impressive—just fifty-four miles of poorly managed track connecting the small eastern Texas communities of Bremond and Ross. But this obscure property was a vital link in Collis Huntington’s plan to control railroad traffic across the Southwest. In contrast with his Central Pacific’s fairly straight line across the North, Huntington had no formal charter to cross Texas. His routes comprised a mismatched patchwork of large and small Texas roads that he’d been able to piece together. The Waco and Northwestern, in receivership since 1885, provided a crucial link. Huntington had just settled a long and nasty battle with financier Jay Gould, his principal rival in Texas. After racing one another across Texas in a furious battle to be the first to lay tracks to coveted cities, the two had settled on a truce to coordinate construction and pool freight traffic. Now, Huntington needed the Waco and Northwestern for access to Waco, and as a connection to the Texas Panhandle. As usual with railroads, this one came with a significant sweetener—nearly 500,000 acres of land deeded by the state.
Christopher Dart, a special commissioner appointed by the courts to handle the sale, called the gathering to order. In the crowd was Julius Kruttschnitt, the Southern Pacific’s general manager for Texas and Louisiana, and Huntington’s handpicked representative. Huntington had told Kruttschnitt he could bid as high as $1.25 million for the road. But nobody, least of all Kruttschnitt and Huntington, expected he’d have to go anywhere near that high. There was someone else in the crowd that day, a tall young man of about twenty-four. He was not a local man, and if anyone took notice of him it was perhaps because of his imposing frame and the contrast between the intense youthfulness of his face and his stiff, awkward gait.
Kruttschnitt opened with a bid of $800,000. He and a couple of other interested parties bid the price incrementally up from there. Then the young man spoke up with a bid of $1.1 million. Kruttschnitt realized too late that he was in a bidding war with a determined buyer. As he stood trying to balance in his mind Huntington’s desire for the Waco and Northwestern versus his limitation of $1.25 million, the young man left him and the other bidders behind, with a winning bid of $1.365 million. It was all over in a matter of minutes. Commissioner Dart tapped his gavel and announced the winning bidder for the Waco and Northwestern Railroad—Edward Howland Robinson Green, on behalf of his mother.
The news, relayed by a sheepish Kruttschnitt, infuriated Huntington. And that, of course, had been the point. Huntington was quick to strike back. Using all of his considerable economic and political power, he and his associates magically produced liens against a large chunk of the land that went with the sale. Then, both local and state governments waded in, claiming that the land, all half-million acres, belonged to them. Through their lawyers, Ned and Hetty responded that they had believed in good faith that the land was included in the sale, pointing out that a railroad without any land was worth practically nothing. If the land wasn’t included in the sale, they wanted out. Now Huntington filed a second motion, asking that the Greens not be allowed to withdraw from their bid. In essence, Huntington had decided that if the Greens wanted to jump into the Texas railroad business, he would make it an experience they would never forget. Let them watch their $1.365 million go down the drain as the railroad died.
Litigation over the Waco and Northwestern stretched on for three years. One effect of the battle was that it made Hetty a folk hero among California farmers who hated Huntington. A group of San Franciscans sent her as a gift a .44 caliber revolver, along with a holster, belt, and cartridges, and a note promising that if she ever came to visit, they would turn out ten thousand strong at the depot to greet her. For Hetty, accustomed now to being on the receiving end of unflattering articles about her personal idiosyncrasies, this was an unfamiliar gesture of embrace. She relished it. She loved to tell friends about the gift, and also about the time, during the height of the battle, that Huntington came to see her at her office at the Chemical Bank. No doubt he went with the idea of intimidating her. During the course of the conversation, he threatened that if she and Ned (who remained in Texas) didn’t relent, he would see to it that Ned was tossed in a Texas jail. Hetty’s eyes narrowed on Huntington. “Up to now, Huntington, you have dealt with Hetty Green, the business woman. Now you are fighting Hetty Green, the mother. Harm one hair of Ned’s head and I’ll put a bullet through your heart!” She made a motion toward the revolver on her desk (perhaps the one sent to her from California). Huntington, surprised and alarmed, left the office so quickly that he forgot to take his silk hat. He sent an assistant for it the next day.
The dispute ended in 1895 with the court deciding that the land had not, in fact, been included in the sale, but that the Greens would not be held to the purchase. It was a muted victory for both sides. Hetty got back the hefty deposit Ned had put up to secure the sale, and Huntington got his railroad. He paid $1,505,000, or, $255,000 more than his outside figure of three years before. Ned and Hetty asked to be reimbursed for $25,000 in lawyer’s fees accrued during the case. A judge granted them half the amount. Huntington, showing he could hold a grudge as well as Hetty, sued, over a paltry $12,500, and had the decision overturned. Hetty, who hated to spend needlessly, probably considered the $25,000 in court costs some of the best money she had ever spent—if only to see Huntington squirm.
About the time the Waco and Northwestern imbroglio started, Hetty took over another obscure, run-down branch line. This was a fifty-two-mile branch line of the old Texas Central Railway Company (different from Huntington’s Houston and Texas Central), connecting the towns of Garrett and Roberts, east of Dallas. When the Texas Central went through a financial reorganization, Hetty was faced with the prospect of turning in her $750,000 for a fraction of their value. Instead, she surrendered the bonds, plus $75,000 in cash to buy the spur line. This, she would turn over to Ned as the final test of his business abilities. Texas would be his principal home for the next sixteen years, a place big and wide enough to accommodate his bigger-than-life personality and appetites, and give him some of the happiest years of his life. It was there that Ned would prove himself as a businessman, not just an apprentice, with decision-making capacity and capital of his own. Ned would develop into one of the Lone Star State’s most colorful characters, leaving his mark on politics, railroading, agriculture, sport fishing, and automobile racing.
In January of 1893, Ned arrived in Terrell, Texas, thirty miles east of Dallas, to assume his position as president of the newly christened Texas Midland Railroad Company. At twenty-four, Ned Green was terribly young and inexperienced for the grandiose title of president of a railroad. But then, the Texas Midland wasn’t much of a railroad. It wasn’t just the small length of track that made the railroad seem insignificant; it was clearly outdated and poorly maintained. The wooden bridges were sagging badly and required frequent jacking; the cars were old and worn. Passenger and freight service on the line were unreliable.
Terrell today is part of the Dallas metro sprawl, but in 1893 it was a small, out-of-the-way town. Ned’s arrival, thanks to his mother’s notoriety and wealth, created immediate excitement. He made a grand entrance at the American National Bank carrying a certified check for $500,000, to be used to whip the railroad into shape. The deposit amounted to twice the existing assets of the bank. When the bank officers got over their shock, and confirmed the identity of this tall, cheerful, young man, they immediately made him a vice president of the bank.
Though the money was Hetty’s, when it came to decisions on what to do with a sagging railroad, she made it clear that her son was in charge. At first, for all of his confident bluster, Ned was terrified. When faced with a business decision, he told journalist James Morrow years later, he would immediately telegraph his mother in New York for advice. Her terse response: “You are on the ground. Mind your own business.” He would have to make his own decisions. He became so frustrated at her obtuseness that he traveled to New York to see her.
She asked him, “Suppose I were not here?” She drew from her New Bedford past an old whaling parable about a captain with two sons. “His sons were his mates,” Hetty said. “They wore uniforms and looked very spruce. But they didn’t take their turn at the wheel or stand watch. Finally the captain died, and no one on board being competent to navigate the ship, it went on the rocks. I sent you to Texas to learn the railway business. I can’t teach you by telegraph from New York. Go back and do the best you can.”
Once he got over his nerves, Ned made the most of his opportunity. He made himself a student of railroading, studying schedules and timetables and statistics. He hired a staff of seasoned, capable railroad professionals and gave them sufficient license to revamp and rebuild. And he took a personal interest as well. He expanded the line to establish and improve connections to larger roads. He added three miles to the southern terminus of the railroad to improve its connections with other railroads. Then he pushed the northern end out by 14 miles, from the small hamlet of Roberts to the larger town of Greenville, and, finally, up to Paris, Texas, allowing for connections with large east-west railroads. Within four years, the Texas Midland’s trackage had increased to 125 miles.
With his staff of experts advising him, Ned replaced the old wooden bridges with more durable steel, added heavier-duty track, replaced rotting ties. “No expense was spared in making the road the leading model of the Southwest,” wrote S. G. Reed in his seminal volume, A History of Texas Railroads. “He was the first to use ‘burnt gumbo,’ a red brick-like substance baked from black waxy soil, as road ballast, because of its low cost and advantage of absorbing water without disintegration. His locomotives were of high speed type. The passenger equipment was the most luxurious in Texas. It included the first café lounge cars and observation sleepers to be operated in the Southwest, the equipment forming part of a through train between St. Louis and Galveston over the Frisco and [Houston and Texas Central]. Green also introduced the first locomotive electric headlights to be used in Texas, in 1894, and the first steel box car in 1900 and later, when the automobile had appeared, he was the first to adopt high speed gas-electric rail cars to meet that competition.”
Ned was popular with his upper-level staff, because he was eager to learn, without being pushy, and because he readily agreed to most of their suggestions for improvements. He was popular with the rank and file as well, from the engineers to the immigrant laborers driving spikes, because he was affable, personable, and never seemed above sharing a jovial greeting or conversation, regardless of a man’s rank or position. Nothing delighted him more than to board one of his own locomotives and ride the line in the cab beside the engineer.
Ned also showed a budding interest in science, one that would lead him into an incredible array of pursuits later in life. The infestation of the cotton boll weevil from Mexico in the late 1890s threatened not only the cotton farmers, but the Texas railroads that depended heavily on cotton for freight revenues. As federal and state agriculture officials searched for a solution, Ned stepped in with an offer to build and outfit a demonstration farm to test possible remedies. The 400-acre farm, bought and outfitted for about $50,000, helped lead to new varieties of cotton more resistant to the weevil.
Hetty would never have spent this money herself, but she left him pretty well alone in Terrell. Still, Ned’s reputation for being an affable soft touch concerned her, and when she learned that requests were pouring in from Texas politicians and others for free passes on Texas Midland trains, Hetty responded with characteristic wit. She printed up biblically inspired cards for Ned to pass out in response to the incoming requests:
Monday—“Thou shalt not pass.” Numbers xx, 18.
Tuesday—“Suffer not a man to pass.” Judges iii, 28.
Wednesday—“The wicked shall no more pass.” Nahum I, 15.
Thursday—“This generation shall not pass.” Mark xiii, 30.
Friday—“By a perpetual decree it can not pass.” Jeremiah v, 22. Saturday—“None shall pass.” Isaiah xxxiv, 10.
Sunday—“So he paid the fare thereof and went.” Jonah 1, 2.
Ned’s prominence naturally earned him invitations to the best Terrell homes and mothers plotted to fix their daughters up with him. But Ned preferred a more unrestrained life. He settled first in a hotel in Terrell, and then moved to the second floor of a two-story building. The large suite became known informally as Green Flats. Ned lived there with several other bachelors, and proceeded to build for himself a sort of backwater Xanadu. He threw frequent parties with women and drinking, and it was the sort of place that might well not have been tolerated in conservative Terrell if not for his prominent position and bankroll. During his early days in Texas, Hetty had kept Ned living on wages as slender as those he had drawn in Chicago. With his improvements the railroad prospered, and Ned was in a position to indulge and invest in his pleasures. At about the same time, a flame from the past—Mabel Harlow, the prostitute who had taught Ned the ways of life in Chicago—appeared, evidently by chance, in Texas. It was to lead to a long and colorful relationship.
About a year after moving to Terrell, Ned moved to Dallas. Dallas was close enough for him to keep tabs on the Texas Midland, but far enough away and in a large enough city that his arrangement with Mabel Harlow wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. He took rooms on the second and third floors of a brick building known as the Cullem and Boren Store, at the corner of Elm and Griffin Streets, in a business section of town. He outfitted the rooms as living quarters and installed Mabel Harlow as his “housekeeper” at $200 per month. While her skills with a duster and mop remain undocumented, Ned seemed satisfied with the arrangement, which they kept for years. It’s not clear when Hetty became aware of Mabel Harlow. She disapproved of the relationship, but as it became obvious that Mabel was not going to be just some passing fancy, Hetty grew to tolerate her—coldly—referring to her as “Mabel Harlot.” At least, Hetty reasoned, this extended fling would keep Ned away from the altar. Hetty may not have liked the idea of her son living with a prostitute, but it was better than having him married off to some respectable girl from Chicago or Dallas and giving her a legal claim on the fortune.
In the 1890s, the Texas Midland Railroad counted among its directors one somewhat surprising name—Edward Henry Green, Hetty’s husband. Though Hetty had separated from Edward, the couple never divorced. From time to time, Sylvia and Ned visited him in New York and Bellows Falls and Hetty and Edward shared some holiday meals together. The Texas Midland directorship was a small bone for a man whose financial activities had once been so robust, and it probably served to help keep him paid up at the Union Club. Certainly, Edward had no money of his own left to invest with. He was broke, living out his once-grand life reading books in quiet studies and enduring one small humiliation after the next.
In September of 1893, at the time that Hetty and Ned were brawling with Huntington, Edward might have picked up a copy of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and learned of his own demise. “Mrs. Green has been a widow for many years and her daughter is about 20 years old,” the article stated. “Since the death of her husband Hetty Green has become a financier of unusual shrewdness. She has indicated by her actions that she has small faith in brokers and that if she wants anything done the best way is to do it for herself.”
Even those who knew she wasn’t a widow knew that Edward was out of the picture financially. In March 1889, the World noted that Edward “lost all his fortune in the crash of 1884, and since then he has received no assistance from his wife to rehabilitate himself. He is still 6 feet and 6 inches in height, but his financial figure has dwindled almost to nothing. He comes down on the Street two or three times a week, but his flyers are of the most modest description.” Five years later, little had changed, except perhaps for girth, age, and lack of mobility. “Her husband sometimes assists her in a purely advisory capacity,” the Times reported on Christmas Day in 1894. “He is seventy years old, weighs more than 250 pounds, and it is exceedingly difficult for him to get about. He spends most of his time at the Union Club.”
While Edward sank ever deeper into obscurity, Hetty continued her surge into national prominence, aligning her fortunes with one of the nation’s most powerful and visible banks. From its squat, columned, Greco-Roman facade to its roster of second-and third-generation blue-blood directors, the Chemical National Bank, located at 270 Broadway, bespoke solidity, security, and sober, conservative prosperity. These were all qualities that Hetty craved after the Cisco failure, and demanded of the institution she would entrust with the guardianship of her millions. Founded in 1824, the bank was an offshoot of the New York Chemical Manufacturing Company, which a year earlier had begun manufacturing nitric acid, blue vitriol, refined camphor, and other industrial chemicals, as well as paints, dyes, and drugs.
In 1844, the bank was reorganized as independent from the manufacturing company, but retained the “Chemical” in its title. It prospered from the start. The shareholders list represented the cream of New York finance and society—Cornelius Vanderbilt, Anthony Drexel, Russell Sage, and a long list of Roosevelts were among the shareholders and depositors. Annie Leary, Hetty’s closest friend, did her banking there. Like Hetty, the bank established a reputation for maintaining large cash reserves in good times and bad, and for keeping its head when everyone else lost theirs. When the financial panic of 1857 prompted banks to stop payments in gold, the Chemical earned national respect for being the only major bank that publicly vowed to continue using gold until its reserves ran out. After an initial run, the bank’s reserves actually increased as depositors, impressed by the show of confidence, switched their assets to Chemical.
The cashier during the 1857 crisis, thirty-one-year-old George Gilbert Williams, was a rising young star who had started as an office boy. By the time Hetty made her first deposit in 1885, Williams had been an employee for more than forty years, and president for eight. By then, his personal reputation for hard work, thrift, and financial sobriety were so intertwined with the bank’s reputation that many people looked on him as the physical embodiment of everything the Chemical National Bank was and wanted to be.
It required a special individual to deal with Hetty in any business or legal relationship, let alone to serve as her banker, and Williams was more than up to the task. Furthermore, Williams and Hetty seemed genuinely to like and respect one another. Williams exhibited a rare mixture of deference and toughness that Hetty found appealing. He was a dapper, fastidious man with a high starched collar, thinning gray hair, kindly eyes, and a Victorian beard-and-mustache combination that cascaded over the lips, reducing his mouth to a mere hint of a line. He was a man of firm and unchanging habit. Each day, regardless of the weather, he eschewed carriages and walked the several miles from his home on West Fifty-eighth Street to the Chemical Bank. Each summer he rented the same room at the same hotel in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn (The Oriental), from which he emerged at precisely six o’clock in the morning for a swim in the ocean, before catching the ferry to lower Manhattan.
Like Hetty with her Robinson ancestors, Williams had descended from an old Rhode Island family, including Roger Williams, founder of the state, and William Williams, who signed the Declaration of Independence. But to Hetty, his greatest attribute was his unwavering, almost obsessive politeness. In his professional dealings, Williams exhibited a level of courtesy that even then was considered old-fashioned. To Williams, politeness was more than just kindness; it was sound business. “Politeness pays,” he would tell his employees. “A grain of politeness saves a ton of correction. No institution is too important to ignore the laws of courtesy.” Williams no doubt had his largest depositor in mind when he said, “I have observed that many a tattered garment hides a package of bonds and that gorgeous clothing does not always cover a millionaire.”
Hetty was a shrewd enough judge of character to know the difference between those behaving out of conviction and those simply being obsequious in the presence of wealth. And because Williams, in essence, was Chemical National Bank, his insistence on comportment infiltrated every layer of the bank. “It is the invariable rule of the Chemical National Bank that every employee, from the humblest clerk to the highest official, shall be courteous to everyone,” he said. This philosophy created a welcoming atmosphere for Hetty that went above and beyond merely stroking a major depositor. The employees at Chemical went out of their way to accommodate Hetty, and to avoid raising eyebrows at her unorthodox habits. They made no issue about her old clothes, or about her ways of economizing, which at times included arriving at the bank with a metal pail containing dry oatmeal, to be mixed with water and heated on a radiator for lunch, so as to avoid a restaurant tab.
The employees of the bank created a protective environment for Hetty. At times she used an office, but she declined offers for permanent office space for fear that the tax collectors would try to pin her to New York for tax purposes. Often she sat at a desk in the back and the tellers created a sort of shield for her from the prying eyes of the public and from reporters who more and more frequently came around in hopes of finding a story.
The bank also supplied Hetty with assistants to help with everything from clipping coupons as they came due, to supporting her in negotiations over securities, to simply keeping tabs on her ever-expanding holdings.
And this was important, for Hetty’s wealth was rapidly becoming a financial empire. In addition to her heavy holdings in government bonds and railroads, she was becoming a real estate owner of epic proportions. She owned dozens of buildings in block after block in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Boston. Some of the property had come to her through her father’s estate, but most she acquired through foreclosures on mortgages she held. This was a direct result of Hetty’s large cash holdings, and her ability to act as a one-woman private bank. She rarely, if ever, bought a property outright on the open market. Once she owned a property, she held on to it. She rarely improved vacant lots with buildings, or improved buildings by renovating them. To do so would only add to her tax exposure, not to mention the cost of construction. It made more sense from her perspective to leave a property alone and wait for development to grow around it.
In Chicago, she owned property from the Loop to the northern suburbs, from the shores of Lake Michigan to undeveloped land southwest of the city. She owned the Howland Block at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe, with nearly 200 feet fronting on Dearborn. The lone structure was a dated, five-story building, but the property was growing more valuable by the year. She also owned numbers 183 through 187 Wabash Avenue, another plot on Wabash near Harrison Street, and 80 feet of frontage on Michigan Avenue, and houses at 211 and 213 Monroe Street, and six apartment buildings on Sibley Street.
Among her largest holdings was a 480-acre tract southwest of Chicago in an area known as Gage Park. Hetty had acquired the property under foreclosure in 1877 for less than $200,000, and kept the land largely undeveloped. She leased some of it to truck farmers, who raised cabbages, cucumbers, and tomatoes for sale at local markets. Schoolboys from the area earned pocket money on vacations by helping farmers work Hetty’s fields. One of these boys, Frank Mikulecky, recalled years later that the only building on the property was a lonely brick house sticking out like a sore thumb from the scraggly fields on South Western Avenue, the eastern boundary of her land. Mikulecky, remembered Hetty living “incognito” in this forlorn house when she visited Chicago.
She owned apartment buildings in St. Louis and Boston. Hetty owned mines in several states, including the famed Central Eureka Mine in Sutter Creek, California, which by itself earned Hetty some $12 million in gold and quartz production. She held mortgages on high-grade property. In New York, she held mortgages ranging from warehouses in lower Manhattan to mansions along Millionaire’s Row on Fifth Avenue—where she herself refused to live. Among her holdings was a $400,000 mortgage on the Stern House on Fifth Avenue near East Sixty-seventh Street—one of the grandest homes in the district. One day, when Hetty visited a swank Fifth Avenue real estate office, a clerk looked at her unfashionable black dress and homely hat and figured she must be applying for a house-sitting job the office had advertised. “No more caretakers needed!” the clerk barked, preparing to usher her out. “I am Hetty Green,” she said. “I came here just to talk over a loan of half a million dollars your firm wanted to borrow from me for a customer.”
Municipalities around the country were coming to see Hetty as a reliable source of funding for civic improvements. In 1900, for example, the rapidly growing city of Tucson, Arizona, desperately needed to modernize and expand a water system that as recently as the end of the Civil War had relied on wagons carting water from nearby springs at five cents a bucket. The city turned to Hetty, who purchased the $110,000 bond issue—making possible a modern water and sewer system.
More than once she bailed New York City out of a pinch. It is staggering to think of a major city coming to a single person, hat in hand, but such was the scope of Hetty’s fortune. Despite her reputation as a miser and a hard-nosed dealer, Hetty usually offered rates that were more than fair. Although she could be ruthless when dealing with an enemy, she rarely if ever took the opportunity to kick a borrower when he was down. That was bad business, she always said. In 1898, she lent the cash-strapped city $1 million at a rate of 2 percent, well below the prevailing rate of 3 to 3.5 percent. In 1901, she advanced the city another $1.5 million. “Hetty Green is smart,” an anonymous New York finance official told a reporter from the Times in July 1901. “During the summer months there is not much demand for money in Wall Street. She loans New York City a million and a half, and just when the money market gets active in the fall the money comes back with good interest.”
Hetty traveled frequently to survey her properties in cities around the country. Sometimes she traveled with Ned or Sylvia, but often she traveled alone, invariably by day coach rather than in a more expensive sleeper car. In an age when women rarely traveled unaccompanied, Hetty fearlessly traversed the country. She carried with her a black reticule that became the stuff of legend wherever she went. Reporters frequently speculated that the bag was ever stuffed with millions of dollars’ worth of bonds, a claim Hetty denied. One item she did carry in the bag was a ring of keys, fifty or so of them—keys to many of her properties. They jangled in her reticule the way that charms might have jangled in the bags of other fifty-something women of the era.