Spencer Trask

Spencer Trask

Infobox Celebrity
name = Spencer Trask

caption =

"The Man Who Backed Thomas Edison"

birth_date =birth date|1844|09|18
birth_place =Brooklyn, New York
death_date =death date and age|1909|12|31|1844|09|18
death_place =Croton, New York
occupation = Financier, Philanthropist
spouse = Katrina Trask
religion = Episcopal
website =
footnotes =

Spencer Trask was an American financier, philanthropist, and venture capitalist. Beginning in the 1870s, Trask began investing and supporting entrepreneurs, including Thomas Edison's invention of the electric light bulb. He was a director in the Rio Grande Western Railroad, of which one of his partners, George Foster Peabody was vice president. He was also president and the largest stockholder in the company that owns the Bowling Green building. He was a member of the Union League, Metropolitan, Grolier Club, and National Arts Club of New York, and took a prominent part in municipal reform and local politics, especially in connection with the Gold Democrats. In 1897 he reorganized the New York Times of which he was the largest owner, as well as president of the company. His literary work was limited to editorials contributed occasionally to that paper.

Along with his financial acumen, Trask was a generous philanthropist, a leading patron of the arts, a strong supporter of education, and a champion of humanitarian causes. His gifts to his alma mater, Princeton University, were generous enough to set a lecture series to his name, that still continues to this day. He was also a trustee of the Teachers' College (now Teachers College, Columbia University) and St. Stephen's College. ["The National Cyclopedia of American Biography", volume XI, p. 444, James T. White & Company, 1901.]

Supporter of Inventions in the Experimental Stages

Spencer Trask was often a supporter of new inventions in their experimental stages. He foresaw the potential of inventions such as the Marconi wireless telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the trolley car, and the automobile; "to all of these he gave of his time, his money and his judgment, to aid in their development." ["New York State Men--Individual Library Edition with Biographic Studies, Character Portraits, and Autographs", p. 2, Hon. James H. Manning, The Albany Argus Art Press, 1913]

Backed Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, was financed and supported by Trask. For over twenty years he was president of the New York Edison Company, pioneering the development of distributed electricity through capacitors, networks, and transfer stations. The company became known as Consolidated Edison, one of the world’s first electric power companies. Trask was also part of the Edison illuminating business throughout the country, and one of the original trustees of the Edison Electric Light Company, the predecessor to the General Electric Company, being for many years a member of the executive committee. ["New York State Men--Individual Library Edition with Biographic Studies, Character Portraits, and Autographs", p. 2, Hon. James H. Manning, The Albany Argus Art Press, 1913]

Saved "New York Times" from Bankruptcy

In 1896, Adolph S. Ochs, who became the publisher of "The New York Times", came to 25 Broad Street to meet with Spencer Trask. Mr. Spencer Trask and his chief associate, George Foster Peabody, were leaders of an investing group that had recently bought "The New York Times", which was near bankruptcy. With Ochs as publisher and Trask as the financer, "The New York Times" was relaunched with the motto, "All the News that is Fit to Print." ["New York Times", February 2, 1958]

At that time, John Moody, who became the publisher of Moody's Investors Service, was a young financial researcher for [http://www.spencertrask.com Spencer Trask & Company]

Founded Yaddo

With no close heirs, Spencer and Katrina Trask began to entertain the idea of turning their 400-acre, Saratoga Springs, New York estate into a working community of artists and writers. But Spencer Trask's fortune was seriously eroded during the Panic of 1907 and, when he died two years later, he hadn't made a full financial recovery. Following Mr. Trask's death, Mrs. Trask remarried Mr. Trask's friend and business partner, Mr. George Foster Peabody, and moved out of the mansion into a smaller house so funds could accumulate for what had become the Corporation of Yaddo. In 1926, four years after her death, the plan was put into operation and has continued ever since. Yaddo, the name of the estate, is said to have been coined by the Trask's small daughter Christina, who amused her father by her mispronunciation of the numerous dark spots on the lawn caused by the towering trees' shadows. ["The Times Record", Troy, NY, August 8, 1946]

The results of the Trasks' legacy have been historic. John Cheever once wrote that the "forty or so acres on which the principal buildings of Yaddo stand have seen more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community and perhaps the world." Collectively, artists who have worked at Yaddo have won 61 Pulitzer Prizes, 56 National Book Awards, 22 National Book Critics Circle Award, a Nobel Prize, and countless other honors. Many books by Yaddo authors have been made into films. Visitors from Cheever's day include Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Aaron Copland, Philip Guston, Patricia Highsmith, Langston Hughes, Ted Hughes, Alfred Kazin, Ulysses Kay, Jacob Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, Katherine Anne Porter, Mario Puzo, Clyfford Still, and Virgil Thomson.

The success of Yaddo encouraged Spencer and Katrina to later donate land for a working women's retreat center as well, known as the Wiawaka Holiday House.

Supported the Arts, Education, and Humanitarian Causes

Mr. Trask was committed to civic duty, public service, and philanthropy.


Mr. Trask was dedicated to the arts. In his lifetime he was president of the National Arts Club ["The New York Times" January 23, 1908] , a patron and member of the Municipal Art Society of New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the time of his death, Trask's wealth had been greatly diminished by his own generosity.


Spencer Trask was a founder and chairman of the board of trustees for Teachers' College, the school of pedagogy of Columbia University ["The New York Times" October 24, 1902] . He was also actively interested in the Kindergarten Association, and for many years was closely identified with General Theological Seminary. ["New York State Men--Individual Library Edition with Biographic Studies, Character Portraits, and Autographs", p. 3, Hon. James H. Manning, The Albany Argus Art Press, 1913]

Spencer Trask also founded a public lecture series at his alma mater, Princeton University in 1891 with a gift of $10,000, and supplemented by an additional $10,000 from his estate, "for the purpose of securing the services of eminent men to deliver public lectures before the University on subjects of special interest." Over the years, lecturers have included Niels Bohr on "The Structure of the Atom" (1923-1924); Arnold J. Toynbee on "Near Eastern Affairs" (1925-1926); T. S. Eliot on "The Bible and English Literature," (1932-1933); Bertrand Russell on "Mind and Matter" (1950-1951); and Margaret Mead on "Changing American Character" (1975-1976). [ [http://www.princeton.edu/~publect/namedlectures/trask.htm Spencer Trask Lectures Series - Princeton University] ]

National Armenian Relief Committee

In the 1890s, Trask led what some have called 'the first international human rights movement in American history,' in response to the Armenian Genocide. In New York what began as a local committee to aid the Armenians, grew quickly into the National Armenian Relief Committee led by Mr. Spencer Trask. Its board included some of the most powerful men in the United States, including financier and philanthropist, Spencer Trask, Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer, railroad executive Chauncy Depew, Wall Street banker Jacob Schiff, and church leaders Dr. Leonard Woolsey Bacon and the Reverend Fredrick D. Greene. The movement brought together Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, and Christians and Jews. The Relief Committee recruited Clara Barton to take Red Cross relief teams out of the country for the first time, to the Armenian provinces. ["The Red Cross: A History of this Remarkable International Movement in the Interest of Humanity" by Clara Barton, Published 1898, American National Red Cross] [ [http://armenianhouse.org/barton/red-cross/clara-barton.html Report of Miss Clara Barton, President and Treasurer of The American Red Cross] ] The National Armenian Relief Committee provided literature and arranged for speakers for affiliated committees; Theodore Roosevelt, Ezra Pound, H.L. Mencken and William Jennings Bryan were among those who lent their voices. ["American Philanthropy Abroad" by Merle Curti] .

By the end of the year-long drive, Americans raised more than three hundred thousand dollars at a time when a loaf of bread cost a nickel. So deeply had Armenian Relief cut into the popular consciousness that in 1896, a Thanksgiving appeal was launched nationwide, and Americans from St. Paul to San Francisco to Boston gave thanks by sending money to Armenian widows and orphans of the massacres. Citizens of St. Paul boycotted buying turkey and gave their Thanksgiving food money to the cause. ["The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response" By Peter Balakian, Harper Collins]

His Life and Death

Mr. Spencer Trask was born in 1844 to Alanson and Sarah (Marquand) Trask in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a direct descendant of Captain William Trask, a leader in the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. After graduating from Princeton University in 1866, Spencer Trask joined his uncle to form the investment firm Trask & Brown, which became [http://www.spencertrask.com Spencer Trask & Company] in 1881. Mr. Trask became one of New York's leading citizens and one of the country's best known bankers. He was married in 1874 to Miss Katrina Nichols, a famous author of the time. Unfortunately, Mr. Trask's family was beset with misfortunes; his four children died within a single week, and Katrina Trask became an invalid as a result. In an automobile accident in Boston late in his life, the glass windshield injured Trask's eye so seriously that surgeons had to remove it to save the sight of her other eye. Mr. Trask died in a train accident on New Year's Eve in 1909. ["The Syracuse Herald", December 31, 1909]

In commemoration of his life, Daniel Chester French was commissioned to create a statue for Spencer Trask. At a memorial service in the Saratoga city park, "The Spirit of Life" was unveiled by Katrina van Dyke (daughter of Dr. Henry van Dyke, American Minister to the Netherlands), named after Mrs. Katrina Trask. The ceremony marked the first public appearance of the city's mayor (having recently moved from the classification of village to city), and was also attended by representatives of the State Administration of Albany. George Foster Peabody was the master of ceremonies, presenting the statue to the city; Dr. John Huston Finley, President of the University of the State of New York and head of the State Department of Education, was the speaker for the ceremony; and the artist, Daniel Chester French, was in attendance.


External links

* [http://www.spencertrask.com Spencer Trask & Company]
* [http://www.princeton.edu/~publect/namedlectures/trask.htm Spencer Trask Lecture Series - Princeton University]
* [http://www.yaddo.org Yaddo]
* Katrina Trask
* George Foster Peabody
* Kevin Kimberlin

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