Named for the victor of The Battle of Lake Erie, Oliver Hazard Perry Payne was born in Cleveland in 1839. As a very young man he became acquainted with a schoolmate whose life was destined to have a great impact on him: John D. Rockefeller.
Payne completed his formal education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and Yale University, leaving Yale when the Civil War began to accept a commission as a first lieutenant in the 124th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Oliver Hazard Perry Payne as an officer in the Union ArmyBefore the war was done Lt. Payne rose to higher rank and saw more fighting than his famous namesake.
The 124th was a component of the Army of the Cumberland and was destined to see intense combat during its two-and-a-half-years of its existence. Death and illness created many vacancies and Payne found himself promoted to colonel in command of the regiment when he was just 24 years old.
This came at a terrible cost as he led this Cleveland regiment through fierce battles like Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Resaca, Dallas, New Hope Church, Allatoona, Kennesaw Mountain, Peachtree Creek, Jonesboro, and Lovejoy’s Station.
In the late autumn of 1864, exhausted and run down by the effects of a near fatal gunshot wound, Payne resigned his commission and returned home to Cleveland to recuperate and consider his future.
But the war wasn’t quite done with him. On March 13, 1865, he was honored by being granted the brevet rank of general—a recognition of the service he rendered his country during America’s deadliest war.
Payne began his business career in Cleveland by launching Clark, Payne, and Co.—for a time the largest oil refinery in the city, and his erstwhile classmate John D. Rockefeller’s only serious competition.
Payne made a fateful decision in 1872, selling his refinery to Rockefeller and becoming the newly created Standard Oil Company’s first treasurer. This position, which he held until 1884, was destined to make him one of America’s wealthiest citizens. He used his great resources for the benefit of others, making very large donations to educational institutions such as Yale, Phillips Academy, and Western Reserve University.
His generosity led to the creation of Cornell Medical College, an institution he endowed with $8 million dollars over his lifetime.
Medicine was a particular interest of Payne’s, and many of his philanthropies were intended to advance its progress. Beginning with his grievous wound in the Civil War, skilled medical care saved Oliver Payne’s life several times, inspiring a lifelong interest in medical science.
Payne had one great personal indulgence.
He commissioned a steam yacht named Aphrodite, constructed by the Bath Iron Works, and launched in 1898. At more than 300 feet in length the yacht was quite capable of crossing the Atlantic, taking Payne on annual trips to Europe until the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 made the voyage impossible.
As an example of Payne’s generosity, he gave this beloved yacht to the U.S. Navy for use a patrol boat. He never saw it again, dying six weeks after the donation was completed. The Aphrodite was returned to the family after the war.
Plans for Aphrodite from The Marine Record, February 1898The yacht’s original interiors were removed and stored during its conversion for naval service. A fire destroyed the warehouse where these materials were stored, requiring the yacht to be extensively rebuilt. Sold overseas in the late 1920s, the former Aphrodite was sunk by the Germans during World War II.
Payne never married and lived in New York City in later life. Upon his death in the summer of 1917, his will provided very generously for several Cleveland nieces and nephews, who included William Bingham II, Elizabeth Bingham Blossom, Frances Payne Bolton, and Harry Payne Bingham.
His example of philanthropy inspired these younger relatives to follow suit, establishing a family tradition of quiet generosity that benefits large numbers of people across the country to this day.
Spared by fate many times during the Civil War, the onetime Colonel Payne served several important roles over a long lifetime, soldier, businessman, and notable philanthropist.
From his family plot in Lake View Cemetery his spirit can reflect upon a life well done—a life devoted to service to his country, his community, and his family.
Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.