Another notable character in Rensselaer’s history was Russell Sage. Russell Sage’s name appears on almost as many buildings as does Jonsson’s. There is the Russell Sage Laboratory, the Russell Sage Dining Hall, and Russell Sage College in downtown Troy. As a matter of fact, most colleges in New York have at least one building named after him. However, the story behind these institutions is far more bizarre than meets the eye.
Russell Sage was never a student at RPI, and his influence and contributions toward the school while he was alive were small in scale when compared to what his second wife made. Sage was born the seventh child of a poor farming family from Connecticut. He first moved to Troy at the age of 13 to work at his older brother’s grocery store. He soon became a little Horatio Alger in small trade and later in paper money options. By the time he was 24, he was a member of the Troy City Council, a bank director, and a money lender. He then married a pretty young woman, Maria-Henrie Winne, who was the daughter of a local lumber baron. They moved into a posh Washington Park home that Maria’s father gave them. Russell became very interested in politics, and in 1844 became the city treasurer. From 1844 to 1849 he kept the city in the black with his judicious use of city funds. He then ran for Congress in 1850, but was defeated. This did not deter him, and in 1852 he was elected to the representative seat for Troy under the Whig party. It was at this point in his political career that his economic rise was to begin.
Sage’s first big deal was over a railroad project that involved Erasmus Corning and other local political figures. He pushed through a project that involved the City of Troy buying a railroad from Sage for $700,000. This same railroad had recently been purchased by Sage for a mere $200,000. Sage quite openly bragged about his five hundred thousand dollar profit, justifying it by pointing out how much money Troy would save by owning the railroad. The scheme backfired, however, when Corning and others worked the railroad away from Troy.
After the deal in Troy, Sage went on to bigger things. He is responsible for most of the major railroad development in Minnesota from 1852 to the end of the nineteenth century. He was noted for being careful, and yet taking risks and profiting very well from them. It was at this period in his life that he moved from Troy to New York City and began to speculate on Wall Street.
On 7 May 1867, Sage’s wife died of stomach cancer. After the funeral, Sage was a very solemn and depressed man. He devoted the rest of his life to the accumulation of money.
In 1869, Sage was involved, and later convicted, in a case concerning the Usury Laws in New York state. He was fined $500, but his jail sentence was suspended. He was accused of being the gang leader in a usury group. Later that year, Sage married his second wife, Olivia Slocum.
Olivia Slocum was a school teacher from Troy, who had attended the Troy Female Seminary, now known as Emma Willard School. She was forty-one when Sage married her, he was 53. The marriage was not out of love; Sage needed someone to call his wife so that he would not be the prey of “seduction lawsuits.” There is no indication that Olivia and Russell ever really cared for each other, and it seems even less likely that they were ever intimate. Sage continued to have affairs with beautiful and exotic women until his later years, after which he settled down to doing his serious profiteering.
Sage was elected onto the Institute’s board of Trustees on 24 June 1896. His only relative to attend RPI was a newphew, Russell Sage, Jr., who graduated in 1859.
Sage died in 1906, during a vacation that his doctor requested he take to get away from the business. Apparently the withdrawal killed him. His wife Olivia found herself with a $70 million estate almost overnight. She immediately established the Sage Foundation to aid in promoting social and educational causes. It was in this way that this school teacher from Troy, who was at the time the wealthiest woman in the US, began to make contributions to education. In particular, she fought for better women’s education.
Olivia Slocum Sage made two large contributions to RPI. The first was funds for the building of the Russell Sage Laboratory, which was to house the new Mechanical and Electrical Engineering departments. At the time RPI was primarily a Civil Engineering school. When Palmer Ricketts, then President of RPI, sent her a letter suggesting the building of these departments, Olivia replied with a letter which said, in effect, “Good idea.” To lend some weight to her letter, she also enclosed a check for $100,000. Eventually, the total sum donated for that purpose reached one million dollars.
The other major contribution came in the wake of a new addition to the Quadrangle dorms. During the planning for the White dorm extensions, Olivia Slocum wrote President Ricketts stating that she would offer $100,000 for the construction of a dining hall. This hall was to be named after her nephew, Russell Sage, Jr.
Olivia Slocum Sage made two large contributions to RPI. The first was funds for the building of the Russell Sage Laboratory, which was to house the new Mechanical and Electrical Engineering departments. At the time RPI was primarily a Civil Engineering school. When Palmer Ricketts, then President of RPI, sent her a letter suggesting the building of these departments, Olivia replied with a letter which said, in effect, “Good idea.” To lend some weight to her letter, she also enclosed a check for $100,000. Eventually, the total sum donated for that purpose reached one million dollars. The inside is a mixture of Modern Hideous and Archaic Leftover, somewhat indiscriminately mixed together. If you have any artistic sense at all, you will probably be apalled at the mess called “interior design” in this building.
This causes a certain amount of problems with the numbering of rooms, but this doesn’t bother the Administration. So, why should it bother the students? Also, this creates a certain amount of trouble when people decide that the quickest way from their class in the Lecture Hall to their class in Sage Annex is through this room, and class is still being held. (But at least it breaks up the monotony.)
Russell Sage was born in the central New York town of Verona in 1816. He lived a span of about 90 years and had a fascinating life. In his early life, he worked on a farm before taking a job in a Troy grocery store that his brother managed. At the age of 25 he was elected a Troy alderman and simultaneously held the position of treasurer of Rensselaer County for seven years. Then, he was elected to Congress and served two terms, sitting on the Ways and Means Committee. Russell Sage was the first Congressman to put forth the notion that President Washington’s home of Mount Vernon should be purchased by the government and preserved as a national treasure.
He left Congress in 1857 and became a successful financier, although his record was not without blemish. He was accused of charging exorbitant interest rates on loans he would give, and although he was convicted, his sentence was suspended. He went on to find great success in both the rail industry and banking. He held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Sage also became associated with Jay Gould, who although 20 years his junior, developed a reputation as one of the most despicable and dishonest robber barons of his day.
In his personal life, Sage’s first wife died in 1867, and two years later, shortly after his suspended sentence, he married Margaret Olivia Slocum, some said to help redeem his tarnished image. It appears to have been an arranged marriage, but they remained husband and wife until his death in 1906. Russell Sage is buried in a mausoleum in Troy’s famous Oakwood Cemetery.
Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage had an extraordinary life in her own rite. Born in 1828, she also would live for about 90 years. Like her husband, she was born in central New York (Syracuse) and spent some of her early years in Troy, attending the Troy Female Seminary (today known as the Emma Willard School.) After graduating in 1847, she became a teacher with a passion for educational reform and improving the lives of the poor. When she was 41, she married the Russell Sage.
Upon his death in 1906, she was left with a fortune in excess of $70,000,000. Before she passed away twelve years later, she had appropriated that money to a myriad of philanthropic endeavors, many of which bear her husband’s name. One local example of this was the founding of Russell Sage College in downtown Troy. Another is this building, the Russell Sage Laboratory, which for more than a century has been integral to our campus.