Oakes Ames (January 10, 1804 – May 8, 1873) was an American manufacturer, capitalist, and member of the United States House of Representatives from Massachusetts. As a congressman, he is credited by many historians as being the single most important influence in the building of the Union Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad.
Ames was born in Easton, Massachusetts, the son of Oliver Ames, who had built a business of making shovels, the O.Ames Company. In his youth, he obtained a public school education and later worked in the family workshops to learn each step of the manufacturing process. He eventually became a partner in the business, and with his brother Oliver Ames, Jr. in 1844 he established the firm Oliver Ames & Sons.
Driven by canal building, the settlement of the Midwest, by the discovery of gold in California and Australia, as well as by railroad construction, the shovel manufacturing business boomed. During the Civil War, the firm prospered with contracts for shovels and other tools. By the 1870’s the company was producing 60% of the world’s shovels. The Ameses made a large fortune. Oakes became known as the “King of Spades”.
He was influential in the establishment of the Republican Party in Massachusetts. In 1860, he became a member of the executive council of Massachusetts, and from 1863 to 1873 he served as a U.S. Congressman from the Second District of Massachusetts. In Congress, he became a member of the Committee on Railroads during the early building of the transcontinental railroad.
Ames had been a start-up investor in the Central Pacific , loaning Collis Huntington (an O. Ames & Sons customer) $200,000 of seed money in 1862. Two years later, during his first-term in Congress, Ames served on the House committee that passed an amended Pacific Railroad Bill of 1864.
In early 1865, the Union Pacific was floundering under the direction of Thomas Durant. In almost a year the company had only built twelve miles of track. Abraham Lincoln took Ames into his confidence. “Ames, you take hold of this,” the president told him. “The road must be built, and you are the man to do it. Take hold of it yourself. By building the Union Pacific, you will be the remembered man of your generation.” Thus anointed by his president, the U.S. Representative from Massachusetts turned his energies in Congress to tirelessly working for support of the Union Pacific Railroad and the building of the transcontinental railroad.
The brothers Oakes and Oliver invested two and a half million dollars in the Union Pacific; one million of their personal fortunes and another one and a half million dollars from mortgaging the North Easton shovel works. Oliver was president of the Union Pacific Railroad from 1866 to 1871 during the construction of the transcontinental railroad
The contributions of Ames and his brother Oliver in the building of the Union Pacific are commemorated in the Ames Monument at Sherman Summit, near Laramie, Wyoming, along the original route. The pyramidal monument was designed by famous architect Henry Hobson Richardson (who designed a number of projects for the Ames family) with sculpted bas-reliefs of the Ames brothers by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. One brother facing east, the other west. At the time of its construction, the monument was located at the highest point attained by the UP’s transcontinental route. With a change in the route of the railroad, the monument today is not on any major rail transportation route however it is now only a quarter of a mile from Interstate Route 80.
The city of Ames, Iowa is named for Oakes, as is likely the community of Ames, Nebraska, and of course this building is his memorial. Oakes had three sons and a daughter. Outside of his time in Washington he lived his entire life in North Easton. He was active in many charitable causes and his eldest son and donor of this Hall, Oliver II, was elected the 35th governor of Massachusetts.