Despite all his accomplishments, Charles Shaw’s career is largely defined by a decade-long battle he fought on behalf of the cable car interests for rail control of New York City’s streets. Cable’s two main rivals: horse-powered rail and underground lines. Both had many powerful backers.
Initially, Charles was hired to perform one task: lobby the state legislature for specific modifications of a bill under consideration in Albany. After earning the modern equivalent of more than a quarter million dollars for his efforts, Shaw was retained by the cable men, who wanted San Francisco-type cars operating on 70 miles of New York City roads.
Charles became the leading voice for cable, and was often vilified for his intense lobbying efforts. He refused to give up, at one point leading a four-man legal team against a cadre of 38 lawyers. The New York Times and other newspapers saw Shaw’s plan as nothing more than a city land grab. But still he fought on, winning some victories and eventually spending over a million dollars in the effort. How high were the stakes? It was estimated that lobbyists representing cable had coughed up close to $5 million … and had still come up empty so far.
Despite debilitating health issues and court setbacks, Shaw won a charter from the city in 1883, but it proved to be a limited victory. Two years later, he submitted a 127-page booklet to city commissioners, defining and touting the benefits of cable rail. In the face of multiple delaying tactics by powerful opponents, he sought for years to control the city’s transportation future.
At the same time, Shaw also retained interest in his hometown of Jay, where he envisioned a three-stage development: extending the Keeseville rail line to the Ausable Valley, flooding the river at Jay so a small steamboat could operate, and building a large hotel there. If nothing else, he was always busy planning or doing.
In 1890, while fighting for cable rail rights to New York City streets, pursuing payments still owed him for lobbying, and resisting multiple illnesses, Shaw faced a fourth issue: Lizzie, his wife of nine years, suddenly filed for divorce. What followed wasn’t pretty.
This unwelcome distraction was public and nasty, featuring multiple charges of infidelity, perjury, and in-law blaming. His wife’s mother and an unethical attorney were behind the false claims, said Charles, adding that Lizzie (who was in London, where they had married) was not from a family of means. For years he had supported her and her sister without limit.
“They lived on my money during that period, literally in marble halls. They have been known as the best-dressed women in Europe. They have travelled to the fashionable centers of Europe, and been attractive and conventionally respectable figures on the verandas and esplanades of fashion from London and Paris to the Riviera. She is a good little woman when she is in her proper senses, but she has been led astray by her mother. She was the kindest companion in the world while she lived with me.”
She also owned more than $700,000 in cable railway bonds, and several thousand shares of stock in the company as well. But Lizzie wanted more, and she may have been entitled by law. Her opponent believed differently.
Although Charles was ill, he was still up for a fight, and whether or not he truly meant the kind comments about his wife, he didn’t sit idle and wait to see how things played out. A complex plan was put in motion to protect his financial interests.
Fourteen months after the divorce suit was filed, Lizzie returned to court with new and various charges, naming all eight board members of the Cable Railway Company as puppets of Charles Shaw. He controlled everything—even his two brothers/business partners, Percival and Joshua Shaw—and since the time of her initial divorce filing, said Lizzie, they had conspired to swindle her. Charles had been busy rigging finances to prevent her from winning a huge divorce settlement and draining the company’s resources.
Specifically, Percival Shaw had filed four suits against the family-owned business, netting him $2 million, and Charles had prevailed upon the board to issue $2 million in payment to him for providing legal services. He then transferred the money to Percival, who was named by Lizzie as another tool of her husband.
The charge was collusion, and Liz asked to be made a party to both actions, which had occurred without her knowledge. But the court found that everything had been legally executed. Her requests were denied on December 24 and December 28, 1891, while Charles, meanwhile, lay in the hospital, recovering from surgery and unable to attend the proceedings.
Just thirty-six days later, Shaw’s ongoing battles ended when he passed away at the age of 55. The funeral was held in his hometown of Jay, where he was buried.
Throughout his career, Shaw’s intelligence and persistence were admired by legal friend and foe alike. From an attorney’s perspective, he merited the proudest of eulogies: no matter what the cause, Charles Shaw was a good man to have on your side.
Photo: Shaw’s booklet promoting Cable Railway’s (and his own) interests (1885)