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History of the St Andrew's Society of the State of New York
Biographies: John Taylor Johnston

Twenty-eighth President

One of the marked traits of the Scotch character is a fidelity to tradition and a clan sentiment which endures for many generations. What the father has accomplished, that the son desires to do for the honor of the name and the native land. The Johnston Family for two generations exemplified this Scottish characteristic, and both father and son became in turn the presiding officer of the Society.

John Taylor Johnston was the son of John Johnston and Margaret Taylor, and was born on the 8th April, 1820, at No. 16 Greenwich Street, New York City. He died on the 24th March, 1893, at his residence, No. 8 Fifth Avenue, New York City, in the seventy-third year of his age.

When a youth he was sent to Scotland to commence his studies at the Edinburgh High School. Returning to this country he completed his education in the University of the City of New York, from which he graduated in 1839 at the early age of nineteen. He then turned his attention to the study of the law at the Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, and after obtaining his degree entered the office of Daniel Lord, the father of his classmate, Daniel D. Lord. He was admitted to the bar as a counsellor at law in 1843, but practiced his profession only a few years, owing to large corporate interests which demanded his attention.

In 1848 he took the Presidency of the then small Somerville & Easton Railroad, which he and his associates developed into what is now known as the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and with which his business career will always be associated. He remained President of this road from 1848 to 1877, a period of twenty-nine years, and saw his fortune almost entirely dissipated in the efforts made to sustain the credit of the road in the face of the general collapse and discredit of all the anthracite coal-carrying lines. He resigned the Presidency of the road, however, when it went into the hands of a receiver in 1877, and never took any further part in its management.

There is no question but that the Central Railroad of New Jersey owes its present supreme position to the enterprise and ability of Mr. Johnston in building up the road. His business acumen led to the acquisition of the Lehigh & Susquehanna Railroad in Pennsylvania, with its extensive and rich coal lands, and this created a constantly increasing coal traffic for the present road. His forethought secured the terminal facilities for this road in New York Harbor and thus centralized the traffic of the Baltimore & Ohio, the Reading and the Lehigh Valley Roads. By his unsupported efforts he finally succeeded in influencing his Board of Directors to build and lease the New York & Long Branch Railroad, and he continuously advocated and urged the building up of suburban service and stations between Jersey City and Somerville.

The fruit of this wise policy is seen in the present magnificent suburban business done by the Jersey Central. He was also more progressive than his business rivals and associates in securing even grades and avoiding grade crossings, and throughout his entire administration showed a mind in advance of his time in railway enterprise. He was a strong believer in feeders for a main line of railway, and the mountain road at Plainfield, where he had his summer residence, bears his name, and all the suburban villages between Elizabeth and Somerville owe him a debt of gratitude for his efforts in that direction.

Mr. Johnston was interested in the development of art, and up to the time of its sale and dispersion in 1877 his picture gallery was the most important in America. It was always open to the public one day in the week, and it was his habit to assemble in it once a year all the artists of New York. Among the noted pictures were Church’s “Niagara,” now in the Corcoran Gallery at Washington; Muller’s “Last Roll Call in the Conciergerie,” now owned by Mr. Astor; Turner’s “Slave Ship,” and representative works of Meissonier, Jules Breton, Brion, Fortuny, Madrazo, Daubigny, and the Barbizon School. His taste in art was general, and all the schools were represented among his pictures.

One of the leaders in the organization of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from the start he gave this institution his constant and best attention. He was the first President of the Museum and continued to occupy this position until 1859, when his ill-health forced him to resign. He w'as thereupon elected Honorary President for life. The earlier art treasures of the museum were largely gathered together through his generosity and foresight, and the present splendid collection of pictures is due to his direct influence and effort.

He was also President of the Governing Board of the University of the City of New York and took an active part in the management of the Presbyterian Hospital, the Woman’s Hospital and the boards of the Presbyterian Church. He was an elder in the old Scotch Presbyterian Church in Fourteenth Street, and a leader in the church councils, attending several of the General Assemblies as the representative of the New York Presbytery.

He was elected a member of Saint Andrew’s Society on the 30th November, 1841; served as a member of the Committee of Accounts in 1842, 1845, 1849 and 1850; of the Standing Committee in 1846, 1869, 1871, 1875, 1877, 1879-1883; acted as Manager, 1851-1854; as Second Vice-President, 1854-1858; as First Vice-President, 1858-1864, and as President, 1867-1869, thus following in the footsteps of his father, who had been a former officer and President of the Society.

He married on the 15th May, 1850, at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, New York City, Frances Colies, daughter of James Colles and Harriet Augusta Wetmore, and had issue: (1) Emily, born 13th February, 1851, who married Robert W. DeForest; (2) Colles, born 14th March, 1853; (3) John Herbert, born 22d February, 1855; (4) Frances, born 9th January, 1857; (5) Eva, born 19th September, 1866.

His portrait is reproduced from a photograph now in the possession of his daughter, Mrs. Robert W. DeForest.

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