General Thomas L. Kane: the Pioneer

“General Thomas L. Kane: the Pioneer,” Ensign, Oct. 1971, 2

General Thomas L. Kane:

the Pioneer

The unusually severe winter of 1863 was upon Pennsylvania in November when General Thomas Leiper Kane, the soldier, returned home to his family from the wars.

He rejoined his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children a battle-honored major general, having distinguished himself in action through the darkest two years of the Civil War.

He was also a physical wreck—lame from a leg wound, tormented with aches and pains caused by a head wound, and struggling with pneumonia-prone lungs.

To make matters worse, he was without funds. His family had been staying with relatives in Philadelphia. When he arrived, there was no time or place to rest.

With characteristic verve, he packed up his family, ignoring his physical and financial problems, and headed for the Allegheny highlands of northwest Pennsylvania, where he had recruited his Civil War “Bucktail” Regiment. It is in these mountain highlands that the first snow of the season always falls. This beautiful area is still known as the “icebox of Pennsylvania.”

These were the thickly forested highlands that General Kane had explored for two years prior to the Civil War. It was here that he had met the mountainmen he had trained into one of the most honored Union regiments. It was here that he had felt he had a future, and here he was to spend the last twenty years of his life.

The little clearing where the Kanes built their log cabin that winter, racing the snows of the season, is now the city of Kane, Pennsylvania, a wooded, naturally air-conditioned community of seven thousand.

A close friend and admirer of Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers since 1846, General Kane now had the opportunity to be a true pioneer himself. He cleared the tall trees and thick underbrush and built the cabin with the aid of a few friends. That winter in the highlands was one of the most severe in local history. The little family barely survived—probably it was the worst ordeal of their lives.

Spring found the general cutting timber, building a sawmill, and getting a lumber business underway. He had perceived a strong demand for eastern hardwoods in Pittsburgh, Erie, and the East, partly because of the war. Unfortunately, fire destroyed the sawmill that summer, burning the lumber he had set aside for his own home and delaying its construction for five years. Meanwhile, the family built and moved into their barn.

He explored the area’s resources. He promoted roads and other improvements. Soon he was involved in land development, in addition to harvesting the rich timber resources of the area.

To provide a badly needed labor supply, he encouraged and assisted Scandinavian immigrants in settling in the highlands. They successfully adjusted to the forested country, so much like their native land.

To accommodate the influx of settlers and workers, General Kane laid out a townsite and encouraged the Pennsylvania Railroad to build a spur to serve it. The railroad named its station Kane, after the general, and the new town adopted the same designation.

Over the years Thomas Kane became a prominent landholder as well as railroad builder. Despite his physical afflictions, he became financially secure. An able speaker as well as an ardent patriot, he responded to the need for leadership in the new developing area and became a man of influence in western Pennsylvania.

By 1870, when his old Union Army associate General Ulysses S. Grant came to visit him for a fishing vacation, General Kane was well on the road to success, having completed a large, gracious home on his mountaintop estate. By this time General Grant was president of the United States. General Kane called on the surviving former Bucktails in the area to act as an honor guard for their former comrade in arms. Also present was General Kane’s brother, Dr. John Kent Kane, a physician who had served on General Grant’s staff.

In the nine years from 1863 to 1872, General Kane had made a spectacular financial comeback. But the pioneering effort had exacted its toll, finally proving too much for his thin, cough-wracked frame. He fell seriously ill, and again his family despaired for his life.

Among those who received the news of his critical illness was his close friend in the West, Brigham Young, whom he had continued to counsel and advise over the years. In an effort to help the general regain his health, the Church leader invited him and his family to come to Utah on the new transcontinental railroad, which had been opened three years earlier, in 1869, and be his guests.

“Your counsels to me are precious,” Brigham Young wrote to General Kane. “And let me say that when I perused your late letters, I felt in my heart the Spirit of God is with the General.”

General Kane managed to get the approval of his physician. And so, with his wife, two younger sons, and a cook, he arrived in Salt Lake City on November 26, 1872, just in time to accompany Brigham Young and his family to St. George to spend the winter. The Church president hoped that the sunny, dry climate of Utah’s Dixie would benefit the general’s condition.

For three months General Kane rested, reminisced, soaked up the warm sun, breathed deeply of the bracing western air, and talked with Brigham Young about the pioneering problems of both Kane and Utah. He regained his health, threw away the crutches he had arrived with, and even gave away his cane. (Another Church leader, Elder Joseph F. Smith of the Council of the Twelve, who later became the sixth president of the Church, received the cane. His son, President Joseph Fielding Smith, has the cane today.)

The three-month interlude in St. George was the last personal visit the two long-time friends shared.

Both General Kane and his able wife kept detailed daily journals, as well as copies of all correspondence. Both were alert, keen observers of people and places, and they wrote in an engaging, clean style that even today makes delightful reading. Their papers are priceless, giving firsthand reports on much Church and national history during the years 1847–83.

Consider this excerpt from Mrs. Kane’s account of their journey from Salt Lake City south to St. George in November 1872, referring to their departure from the railhead in Lehi:

“I strolled out on the platform afterwards, to find President Young preparing for our journey—as he did every morning afterward—by a personal inspection of the condition of every wheel, axle, horse and mule and suit of harness belonging to the party. He was peering like a well-intentioned wizard into every nook and cranny, pointing out a defect here and there with his odd, six-sided staff engraved with the hieroglyphics of many measures; more useful though less romantic, than a Runic wand. He wore a great surcoat, reaching almost to his feet, of dark green cloth lined with fur, a fur collar, cap and a pair of sealskin boots with the undyed fur outward. I was amused at his odd appearance; but as he turned to address me, he removed a hideous pair of green goggles, and his keen, blue-gray eyes met mine with their characteristic look of shrewd insight. … I felt no further inclination to laugh. His photographs, accurate enough in other respects, altogether fail to give the expression in his eyes.”

During the 300-mile trip south to St. George, the Youngs and the Kanes stopped at the homes of prominent Mormons en route. This gave Mrs. Kane a rare chance to observe for herself actual living conditions in the homes of the Saints. Her privately printed book did much to correct many misunderstandings then prevalent among easterners.

Before the Kanes left St. George, Mrs. Kane received a patriarchal blessing from Elder William G. Perkins and General Kane received his second patriarchal blessing, also from Brother Perkins. (He had received his first one from Elder John Smith in Iowa in 1846, while the Saints were being driven from Nauvoo.)

Returning to Salt Lake City with Brigham Young, the Kane family bade him farewell on February 27, 1873, and entrained for Pennsylvania. They returned to their labors renewed in body and spirit. New opportunities presented themselves. Soon General Kane organized the New York, Lake Erie, and Western Coal Railroad Company, serving as its president. As such, he ordered, directed, and financed the building of what was described for many decades as the largest railroad bridge in the world, the 2,053-foot Kinzua viaduct that spans the 301-foot deep Kinzua Creek Valley near Kane. Still standing but now unused, the viaduct became a Pennsylvania State Park in 1963.

Mrs. Kane, with characteristic forthrightness, determined to do something about the lack of medical skill in the new community. She encouraged her daughter to enter medical school in Philadelphia. Then she entered school with her daughter, and both graduated as physicians the same day.

When Brigham Young died in 1877, General Kane shelved his personal business and hurried to Utah. After visiting the Young family, he journeyed to Ogden with President John Taylor and others of the Council of the Twelve and continued on with them to Logan to witness the laying of the cornerstone for the temple there on September 18. Then he returned to his home in Pennsylvania.

“When the word came to me of President Young’s demise,” he confided later to Elder John Henry Smith of the Council of the Twelve, “I was somewhat concerned in my spirit as to the position in which matters would be placed, looking as I naturally did, more from a worldly point of view than from the view of faith. But when I met with the Brethren, conversed with President John Taylor, looked over the men who stood around him as leaders, I said to myself, the Lord has made ample provision for the preservation of that cause which lies near to my heart.”

Concern for his Mormon friends was evident also during the last few hours of his life. He died on December 27, 1883, in Philadelphia from a siege of pneumonia, caught while caring for his eldest son, who had been badly burned in a natural gas explosion. Mrs. Kane wrote the following report to his Utah friends:

“Your friend suffered intensely until a few hours of his release, and his mind was wandering from the outset of the attack. Yet in the intervals of consciousness he was fully persuaded of the approach of death, and made efforts to give us counsel and to bid us farewell. In one of these lucid moments, he said: ‘My mind is too heavy, but do send the sweetest message you can make up to my Mormon friends—to all my dear Mormon friends.’

“Nothing I could ‘make up’ I am persuaded could be sweeter to you than this evidence that you were in his latest thoughts.”

Few Mormons aware of the humanitarian aid extended to them by General Kane realize that this compassionate trait was typical of his entire life. From early manhood until death, he distinguished himself by his service to others. His character and courage were an inspiration to all, not just his family or his Mormon friends.

  • While serving as president of the Eastern Atlantic States Mission, Brother Bowen assisted in obtaining for the Church the old Presbyterian Church at Kane, Pennsylvania. The building is expected to be used as a ward chapel and a visitor’s center.

  • For his master’s thesis in history, Brother Zobell wrote a biography of Thomas L. Kane. His material has been published in book form.

This drawing was taken from a photograph of a home built by Thomas L. Kane in about 1870 in Kane, Pennsylvania.