JOHN H. LEEDS, NEW HAVEN: Superintendent of the Stamford Manufacturing Company.
The Leeds ancestry is identified in history with the city of Leeds, England, in which the family, centuries since,
was an important one. In 1680 three brothers, Leeds, emigrated to New England, one of whom settled in Stamford,
in this state. A descendant of the last was Joseph H. Leeds, a fanner, resident at the Leeds' place in Darien,
where his son, the subject of this sketch, John Harris Leeds, was born March 4, 1836. It was not, as is said of
many, an accident that determined the course of his life, but the prevention of an accident. The New York &
New Haven Railroad had been opened but a few months, and had but a single track. Just at dusk, June 24, 1849, John
H. Leeds, then thirteen years of age, chanced to be on its line at a crossroad halfway between Darien and Stamford,
when he heard a train coming from the east. He knew there was also a train coming from the west, although it was
hidden from sight by a deep cut and a sharp curve. All the horrors of a collision were in unless he could prevent
it. He would try. In an instant he sprang on to the track, and, facing the New York bound train, waved his hat
to attract the attention of the engineer, and then bounded to one side, barely escaping being crushed as it went
thundering by. As it passed him in its lightning speed he pointed to the west, and shouted to the engineer, "Another
train is coming this way." The engineer at once reversed his engine, and whistled "down brakes,"
and then blew a long and loud alarm. The other train was still unseen, but its engineer was on the alert, and,
hearing the signal, in turn reversed his engine and whistled the same signal. But such was the speed of both trains
and the feebleness of the brakes then in use that when the trains stopped they were only an engine's length apart.
When the boy gave the warning they were rushing for each other at full speed. On board the two trains were five
hundred people, — men, women, and children. It is fearful to contemplate the horrors that were inevitable had not
the lad been at the crossroad and done exactly the right thing. He certainly had not been born in vain, and the
passengers thought so as they shuddered at their narrow escape. The railroad company, acting upon their sense of
obligation, gave him a free pass over their road, good for life, and also presented him with an elegant silver
goblet, with this inscription:
PRESENTED BY THE PRESIDENT AND DIRECTORS
THE NEW YORK & NEW HAVEN RAILROAD COMPANY
JOHN H. LEEDS.
"Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclined."
Annexed is a copy of the letter from the company accompanying the present, together with young Leeds' reply:
STAMFORD, August 15, 1849.
My Dear Young Friend:
The president and directors of the New York & New Haven Railroad Company, by a unanimous resolution, have assigned
to me the pleasing task of presenting to you the accompanying cup, as a slight testimonial of their approbation
of your manly conduct in preventing a collision of their trains.
May the impulse which prompted. you then continue to animate you, cheered with the pleasant recollection of having
done unto others as you would they should do unto
H. J. SANFORD, Director.
To MASTER JOHN H. LEEDS.
DARIEN, August 17, 1849.
Mr. H. J. Sanford:
SIR, — I acknowledge with feelings of gratitude and pleasure the receipt of the very handsome present from the
New York & New Haven Railroad Company through your hands, but beg to disclaim any merit for an act which the
impulse of the moment prompted and duty urged me to do.
Probably the lives of some of my fellow creatures were saved through my humble endeavors, and the conscionsness
of that is sufficient reward.
Yours very respectfully,
JOHN HARRIS LEEDS.
The railroad company did not lose sight of the lad, for three years after he removed to New Haven and went into
their service to learn to be a mechanical and constructing engineer, beginning as an apprentice and going up through
all departments. At one period he ran an engine on the road. He remained in their employ until 1860. At that date
he engaged with the Stamford Manufacturing Company as their superintendent and consulting engineer, taking charge
of the mineral branch of their business, they being the oldest and largest manufacturers of chemical and dyeing
extracts in the United States. He has continued with them to the present time.
Mr. Leeds ever has been, and now is, an exceedingly busy man. He has largely served the public in many and varied
capacities, and how worthily is shown by the testimonials bestowed upon him by his associates. The positions he
has held have been such that, while of invaluable service to the community, they have been generally with no recompense
save in the consciousness of well doing. He was alderman in 1863-64, and was assistant, judge of the city court
for two years, this office being then selected by law from the board of aldermen. During the construction of the
Derby railroad, which occupied two years, he was its city director. He was for many years a member of the volunteer
fire department. In 1862, when the department was reorganized, he was one of the first fire commissioners under
the new regime, and was president of that board for about fifteen years. Steam fire engines, fire alarm telegraphs,
and paid firemen were introduced under his presidency. One of the new steam fire engines, by order of the board,
was named in his honor "John H. Leeds." When the imposing firemen's monument in Evergreen cemetery was
dedicated he was appointed orator of the day. He was for several years president of the board of steam engines
and boilers; chairman of the fire and water departments of the city for two years; and represented the city in
making contracts for water supply. In 1875, owing to increased business duties and the claims of the Stamford Manufacturing
Company which required his services abroad, he withdrew from all public offices. Upon this the city passed and
presented highly complimentark resolutions signifying their sense of his eminent services. These were ordered to
be engrossed and presented in a permanent framed memorial. The fire department also presented a magnificent and
costly badge, a miniature steam fire engine, and fire apparatus, with the city coat of arms highly embellished
with diamonds and rubies. Rarely has any citizen on his withdrawal from public service been so honored. In 1879-80
he was sent to the legislature as the city's first representative. His colleague, Colonel Dexter R. Wright, was
chosen speaker of the house. It was the first legislature that met in the new state house. Hem was one of the committee
on railroads and one of the peculiarly important committee on the construction of the dome of the state house.
Mr. Leeds was state director of the Wethersfield penitentiary for six years, from 1879 to 1885. He is now a director
of the Yale National Bank the New Haven Savings Bank, the New Haven Water Company, and a managing director of the
Stamford Manufacturing Company, in whose business he has passed most of his time for years in Europe and the Orient.
Mr. Leeds' first trip to Europe was in 1876, when he opened a barytes mine on the south coast of Ireland. Since
then his time has been mostly spent in matters of a commercial and productive nature that are found only in the
Orient, where he obtained many of the supplies of crude materials, such as dyes, drugs, and chemicals that are
used by the Stamford Manufacturing Company. He is a most extensive traveler, the nature of his business requiring
him to go to rarely visited places and among half civilized and rude people. Besides every country of Europe, he
has visited Asia Minor, Syria, Northern Egypt, nearly every island of the Grecian Archipelago, all the cities of
the seven churches of Asia, as well as Tarsus, Antioch, Aleppo, and the whole of Palestine. In the two years, 1884-85;
he traveled over 80,000 miles by steamship, railway, horse, canal, and on foot. His business transactions have
been with all the tribes of the Orient, Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Koords, Bedouins, Arabs, and Egyptians.
His experiences have impressed him with the conviction that, as a body, they are commercially and politically dishonest,
and morally corrupt; while religious fanaticism is the controlling element of their lives. Mr. Leeds was married
January 27, 1858, to Miss Frances A. Hine of Milford.
Physically, he is one of the largest and most powerful of men. He stands 6 ft. 1 1/2 in., has heavy broad shoulders,
a chest measurement of 46 inches, and weighs 25o pounds, but not accompanied with extraneous flesh. His health
is vigorous, and his constitution is one capable of long sustained and continuous labor. He is of a serious turn
of mind, and, being full of business, has little time for the lighter conversation and frivolities of life. This
record shows that he has had a wide acquaintance with men and a useful and honorable career, working with and upon
those material forces that move civilization on its ascending pathway.
Illustrated Popular Biography
Compiled and Published by J. A. Spalding
Press of the Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co.
Hartford, Conn. 1891
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