In February 1864, while General William Tecumseh Sherman's notorious “March Through Georgia,” was igniting the South, 47-year-old Prosper Gillett, a New England transplant to Southern-sympathizing Hannibal, Missouri, was focused on a better and more efficient means of installing railroad track.
On Feb. 23, 1864, the Hannibal resident — who spent his lifetime at the leading edge of the fledgling transportation industry — was granted a patent for his invention: The Railroad Track Raiser.
Because at the war's end the rush was on to connect the Mississippi River Valley via rail to the West Coast, this invention was a time-saving and therefore highly regarded piece of equipment.
“No. 41,696 – Prosper Gillett, Hannibal, Mo. – Railroad Track Raiser – Feb. 23, 1864. This invention consists in a combination of levers with a toothed rack provided with a suitable toe to be applied to the track, the said levers being so arranged in relation to each other and to the tooth rack that by the action of one lever the toothed rack can be released and dropped to its original position.” (Source Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents)
Before he went to work for the railroads, New York-born Prosper Gillett owned and operated a packet boat navigating the Erie Canal, which connected Albany and Buffalo, New York. On. Feb. 19, 1839, at the age of 22, he married Delia A. Sellick. Delia gave birth to a daughter they named Ella. Ella was born aboard the packet boat on June 24, 1850. (She lived to be 99 years old.) Prosper continued to work the canal trade, which reached its peak year in 1855. By 1859 Gillett, in search of new adventures, had moved his family to Missouri, and associated with the rapidly expanding yet still fledgling railroads of the state.
He first went to work as a foreman for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad — completed in 1859 — which remained operational throughout the Civil War. He later served the railroad as a conductor.
Later, he assisted in the construction of:
• the Old Central Missouri railroad, between Hannibal and Moberly, which was later renamed the M.K.& T; and
• the Hannibal and Naples Ill., railroad, which later became a branch of the Wabash.
His work as supervisor to tie-laying teams led to another invention – a track layer – as described in the St. Joseph Gazette on March 20, 1869: “Mr. P. Gillett of Hannibal, has invented a track layer, by means of which two men, a boy, and one horse, can lay two miles or more of railroad iron per day. The labor of track laying is entirely obviated, the workmen having nothing to do more than regulating the machinery, and seeing that the rails are placed in the proper places on the ties.”
The newspaper article continued: “The machine runs on the track, and is drawn by a horse. The mode of operating it is something on the style of a steam elevator, the rails being picked off the car by means of a grab hook, and laid carefully on the track. Where the services of eight men are required by the old method, only three are needed by the new, besides the amount of work accomplished by the machine is four times as great as that performed by eight men.”
In addition to his work for the railroads, Prosper Gillett and his wife Delia operated hotels. Beginning in December 1875, the Gilletts leased the Stock Yards hotel near Market Street in Oakwood.
By 1880, Prosper and Delia were operating the “Climax House” boarding house on the southwest corner of Third and Center, and Henry Partlow was proprietor of the Stock Yards Hotel in Oakwood.
In the early 1880s, Prosper Gillett, by then about 65, was appointed conductor of a tie train for the Short Line Railroad. On April 21, 1882, he left with his train for Bowling Green.
The St. Louis Globe Democrat offered the details: “While engaged in switching at that place he stepped between the cars to pull a pin, when his foot became fastened in a guard rail, and the train commenced backing up. Gillette saw his peril, and not being able to disengage his foot, threw himself down with his body off the track while the train passed over his foot, fracturing several bones.”
A special tie train delivered Gillett back to Hannibal, and Dr. Hays and Dr. Joe C. Hearne were called upon to treat the patient. The doctors concluded that amputation would not be necessary, and treated the painful bone breaks.
Prosper and Delia Gillett were married for 57 years. Mrs. Gillett died in July 1897. Prosper Gillett died Jan. 28, 1902, at the age of 84. They are buried together at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Hannibal, Mo. Prosper was survived by two daughters, Mrs. Emmarett Fields of Hannibal, and Mrs. Louis O. Elliott, of Burlington, Iowa.
Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative- style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region's foundation. She can be reached atMontgomery.email@example.com Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com Note: This writer was not able to find an ancestral connection between the subject of last week's story on Mary Louise Gillett, and Prosper Gillett, except that they lived in Hannibal during the same era.