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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Mitchell, Alexander 1817 - 1887


banker, railroad promoter and executive, politician, Congressman, b. Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He migrated to the U.S. in 1839 to become secretary of the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Co. in Milwaukee, which was founded by Chicago capitalist and fellow Scotsman, George Smith. The company (chartered as an insurance business) soon began to operate as a banking concern, and for a number of years Mitchell was involved in a series of disputes with the Wisconsin legislature but continued to evade attempts to revoke the company's charter. The firm's certificates of deposit were widely circulated and were credited with helping to stabilize the currency needs of the Northwest. In 1852 Mitchell worked out a compromise with the state legislature; in 1853 the Wisconsin free banking law was passed, and the company was reorganized as the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Co. Bank. Mitchell acquired Smith's remaining interest in the concern about 1854, and was also first president of the Wisconsin Bankers' Association (1858). During the Civil War he was credited with devising a system which saved many of the Wisconsin banks from failure. Although prominent in many early Milwaukee and Wisconsin banking and capital investment enterprises, Mitchell is primarily remembered as a railroad builder and executive. He was a promoter and stockholder in many of the early state railroad ventures, including the Milwaukee and Mississippi (later the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien), and the La Crosse and Milwaukee R.R. In 1865 Mitchell became president of the virtually bankrupt Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Co., which eventually absorbed the other lines. Mitchell was able to put this road on a paying basis within a year, and, although in 1866 the railroad comprised only about 270 miles of track, by the time of Mitchell's death in 1887 the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul R.R. (renamed in 1874) operated over 5,000 miles of track in seven states. Mitchell was also active in state and national politics, especially following the Civil War. A Democrat: he was elected to Congress in 1870, was re-elected in 1872, and served two terms (Mar. 1871 Mar. 1875). He was not a candidate for renomination in 1874, and in 1877 declined the Democratic nomination for governor. Through his wealth, railroad power, and political connections, Mitchell was for many years one of the most powerful figures in the Midwest. In 1874 he successfully defied the state Potter law (regulating railroad rates) and although the law was held constitutional by state supreme court justice, E. G. Ryan (q.v.), Mitchell succeeded in working out a compromise with state Railroad Commissioner, George Paul (q.v.), and Granger-Reform Governor William R. Taylor (q.v.), which led to modification of rate regulation, the ultimate defeat of Taylor, and the repeal of the Potter Act. Mitchell continued as president of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul R.R. until his death. He died while visiting in New York City. Dict. Amer. Biog.; A. Derleth, Milwaukee Road (New York, 1948); WPA MS.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the Alexander and John L. Mitchell Papers for details.

View a biographical sketch at Wisconsin Historical Collections.

View newspaper clippings at Wisconsin Local History and Biography Articles.

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]
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