Col. C. Adams Stevens, the Western Adventurer/Embezzler

C. Adams Stevens, by Rensselaer Churchill
C. Adams Stevens, photographed by Rensselaer Churchill

The Greenbush Bridge was the third bridge to cross the Hudson River between Albany and Greenbush (first was the Livingston Avenue, then the Maiden Lane), but practice did not make perfect, and this third crossing was not made smoothly. The first company chartered to build the bridge was led by a colorful character going by the name of Colonel C. Adams Stevens, who built up a local company, drew in a number of prominent investors, fought with the Legislature and got caught up in a bit of embezzlement. The bridge had been authorized by the Legislature in 1872, but by the time it came to fruition in 1882, Stevens was no longer involved.

The closest we can find to a biography of C. Adams Stevens is this brief paragraph from the New York Herald of March 11, 1875, written when he was in the midst of a Legislative investigation:

“Who Is Colonel Stevens? The gentleman has had a somewhat eventful history. He is now about sixty years of age, tall and commanding in appearance, cultured and dignified in manner. He was born in New Jersey, and, while quite young, came to Albany and studied law. In 1850 he went “West” and started the LaCrosse Democrat, which afterward was purchased from him by Mr. “Brick” Pomeroy. During the war he was a colonel in a Western regiment, and, having been taken prisoner, remained in the hands of the rebels for some nine months. Confined in the same cell with him was a nephew of President Grant. The Colonel is also said to have been intimately connected on several occasions with General Fremont in business speculations.”

Stevens was acting president of the Albany and Greenbush Bridge Company when he was brought before the Assembly in 1875. At this remove the whole affair is hard to sort out, but it appears the Committee on Commerce and Navigation was investigating the bridge company. It may well be that the politicians who were somehow upset with the bridge company were engaged in river steamboat and towing enterprises that were opposed to the construction of a bridge. Stevens didn’t take it very well, calling the Committee “a set of frauds and thieves,” and saying he would not submit his books for examination “unless he were allowed a special Police force to keep them from being stolen by the subcommittee.” He then rolled up his sleeves and goaded the legislators to “come on,” that he was ready for them. Apparently at the time the Assembly had the power to jail those whom they found in contempt, and indeed jail was threatened against “Mr.” (not Colonel) Stevens, but he was released on a voice vote.

Shortly after, it may have become clear why Stevens didn’t want the Assembly looking at his books, as the Times headline read: “A Western Adventurer’s Career – Col. C. Adams Stevens, Who is Charged with Embezzling $200,000 of the Albany Bridge Company’s Bonds.” Here’s how The New York Times told the tale of Colonel C. Adams Stevens, datelined July 26, 1876:

“Col. C. Adams Stevens, a Western adventurer, but a man of remarkable shrewdness, is exciting a good deal of attention here on account of an examination now pending, in which the Colonel is charged with embezzling $200,000 worth of bonds of the Albany and Greenbush Bridge Company. Four years ago Col. Stevens came to this city, engaged a fine building on State street, fitted it up in luxurious style, and making the ground floor an office after the style of a banking-house, had printed on the windows in letters of gold “Office of the Boston, Albany and Hoosac Tunnel Railroad Company.” Then the Colonel began operations. He called about him several of our citizens, who possessed both money and influence, explained to them that the railroad was about to be built with money furnished by Brown Brothers & Co., of New-York; that the road would shorten the distance between Albany and Boston thirty or more miles; would make a direct connection, whereby coal could be brought from the fields of Pennsylvania and sent to the North and the East, and would in various ways help Albany to an incalculable degree. He wanted no money to assist in building the road – not a dollar. That was already provided for. But a bridge was needed across the Hudson to serve as the connecting link. He proposed to purchase the South Ferry from the City of Albany and build a new and substantial bridge.”

The Colonel talked a good game. The Boston, Albany and Hoosac Tunnel Railroad Company had been around since 1850, and it’s not clear how Stevens got hold of it; it is not clear it was ever related to the actual Hoosac Tunnel, which had originally been started by the Troy and Greenfield Railroad, but was finally completed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Offers were made for the purchase of several blocks in Albany on which to erect a “grand depot.” The City aldermen were apparently willing to sell the South Ferry property for “a mere song.” The company was formed with the legendary Dr. John Swinburne (then health officer of the Port of New York) as president, and Albany City Bank’s J.H. Pratt as treasurer. Stevens was the vice president and, in 1873 and 1874 at least, acting superintendent. Capital stock of several hundred thousand dollars was raised, “of which Col. Stevens secured unto himself a trifle over half.”

Offices were at 128 State Street, just a few doors uphill from the State Geological and Agricultural Hall, above Lodge St. An 1873 filing with the State Engineer and Surveyor listed the company as having $260,000 in capital stock, of which $31,000 was subscribed, and $3100 was paid in. The company claimed $718 in engineering costs, and $957.94 for office expenses, agents and clerks. The officers of the company were nearly all from Albany and Greenbush.

A call was made on the stock, and suddenly the Boston, Albany and Hoosac Tunnel Railroad Company vanished. Col. Stevens made another call on the stock and the Albany gentry forfeited their investments instead and quit the company. Col. Stevens created a new Board, which authorized a new bond issue of $200,000, and paid the Colonel $15,000, with a “snug installment” in advance, for doing it. Mysteriously, the Colonel disappeared. The police found him some time later at the Astor House in New York City, “where he was living in fine style.” He charged his accusers of trying to defraud him, and said that “Without me the $200,000 worth of bonds are not worth fifty cents, and you know it.” In fact, the Times questioned whether he could be held for grand larceny, as the bonds “are not supposed to be worth $25.”

A report of the Boston, Hoosac Tunnel and Western Railroad Company included an appendix from 1874, with civil engineer George S. Morison reporting on his search for routes from the Hoosac Tunnel to the Hudson River or a connection to the New York Central and Albany & Susquehanna railroads. He said that Col. Stevens’ company had begun a survey of a route to Petersburgh. Morison and Stevens drove over the northern part of Rensselaer County looking at routes. In fact, he called a route the Stevens Route, which followed the course of the Hoosick River as far as Petersburgh Junction, “thereby passing around the first two ranges of parallel hills, and leaving the valley so far north that the gaps in the third range have become comparatively low.” It would have passed through a Potter Hill Tunnel, which was never built.

On Feb. 24, 1877, the Albany Evening Journal tried to catch its readers up with the events:

“Our readers will remember the arrest, in New York, some months since of C. Adams Stevens, at the instance of certain of the directors of the Albany and Greenbush Bridge Company, his arraignment before Justice Clute, and his subsequent discharge on information as to where $200,000 of the bonds of said company were deposited. The bonds were recovered by one of our detectives, and delivered to Justice Clute. There were then replevined by the officers of the Bridge Company, and were passed over to James Kiernan, at that time Under Sheriff. He deposited them for safe keeping in the Albany County Bank, where they remained until yesterday.

Sometime since, upon proceedings instituted at the instigation of the Bridge Company, Worthington Frothingham, Esq., was appointed Receiver of the effects of said C. Adams Stevens, and on the 9th of the present month he disposed of them at public auction, at the City Hall, for the sum of $365, his interest in the Bridge Company stock selling for $309. The report of the Receiver was filed Thursday, whereupon Judge Van Alstyne issued an order to Sheriff Kiernan, directing him to deliver to William Smith, of the Bridge Company, purchaser of Stevens’ interest in said company, the bonds aforesaid, and yesterday morning the order was obeyed, and the delivery made.”

In 1881, the Albany Times reported that an original issue of bonds, negotiated by C. Adams Stevens with the Fidelity Insurance, Trust and Safe Deposit company of Philadelphia, had been scuttled by the legislative investigation, and the bonds were never issued. It said that in 1880 “like negotiations were had with the Farmers’ Loan & Trust company, of New York, to secure $600,000 in bonds to be issued. The bonds were not issued, and today releases from the companies named to the Greenbush bridge company from the obligation, were filed in the county clerk’s office. This frees the bridge company from all financial impediments.”

In 1904, the ghost of the old railroad was raised again, in an article in the Ithaca Daily News on Dec. 6. In its “Around the State” section, the News reported that “There are good prospects of another important electric line being constructed between Albany and the east through Rensselaer county, and under an old charter granted over 31 years ago to the Boston, Hoosac Tunnel and Albany Railroad company ….” But other than naming Stevens and the other former officers of the company, no further information was forthcoming.

More than this of Col. C. Adams Stevens, we have not learned. We don’t find him other than in Albany, before or after the scandal. We don’t find him listed among Union officers.

The portrait above was posted at Cowan’s Auctions, as a 3.25 x 5 inch mounted albumen photograph marked as “C. Adams Stevens / 225 lbs. Democrat.” The only information Cowan’s provided was the same as what was in the Times, but we’re sure it’s the same Stevens because the photograph has a back mark of photographer Rensselaer Churchill of Albany.

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