Railroad innovator 'Buffalo' Miller brought bison to Bergen to develop 'cattalo'

A wealthy inventor and politician, Ezra "Buffalo" Miller earned his nickname the easy way.

Edgewater-born Miller spent decades in New York and Wisconsin being called "colonel" before returning to Bergen County in his 60s. That somewhat changed after the aging militiaman bought his first slice of Mahwah in late 1872 and shipped in a pair of American bison.

His plan, like that of intrepid Midwest ranchers at the time, was to make a heartier breed of cattle for mass domestication. Only, he wanted to do it where no one was trying: Northeast New Jersey.

"The colonel has taken great pains and expense to domesticate the buffalo, and has bred and crossed them with ordinary cattle on his place," the Monmouth Democrat reported in March 1879. "He claims that they are as tame and affectionate as common cows, and will get fat on what our cattle starve upon."

Curious experimenters had been crossbreeding bison with cattle for at least 30 years before Miller showed up in Mahwah, according to an 1899 Popular Science Magazine report by John Dafoe. Miller was nonetheless one of the earliest business-minded ranchers to attempt to actively develop "cattalo" as the American bison neared extinction due to mass culling in the 1870s and 80s, Dafoe wrote.

A bison strolls near a timberline on Sept. 8, 2022 near Lindbergh Hill at the Grand Canyon North Rim, Arizona.
A bison strolls near a timberline on Sept. 8, 2022 near Lindbergh Hill at the Grand Canyon North Rim, Arizona.

The trend would take off in the 1890s, Larry Barsness wrote in 1985's "Heads, Hides and Horns: The Complete Buffalo Book." During that decade, New York City socialite Rutherfurd Stuyvesant threw some of his money at attempts to develop bison-cattle hybrids on his estate off Route 517 in Allamuchy and Green townships in Warren County.

All of the 19th-century cattalo breeding programs failed, however. Each attempt to crossbreed the species proved too hard on pregnant cows, according to Barsness. Stuyvesant ended his program after 19 of his Galloway cows died calving hybrids.

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Building bison base Oweno

Miller's program had ended by the mid-1880s but it was not due to a toll on his resources. While the farm was at its peak in the early 1880s, with a reservoir, conservatories, gardens and miles of drives, Miller was ailing.

He was elected to the New Jersey state Senate in 1883, at the age of 71, but barely attended sessions at the statehouse, said Miller's great-great-granddaughter, Gwen Babcock. When he was sworn into office in 1884, he already seemed ill, according to a report in the Passaic Daily News. He died the following July, after being confined to his house due to exhaustion, the newspaper reported.

The three-story house was known as one of the most beautiful rural homes in the United States before it burned in 1899, Babcock said. An 1884 report from the Bergen Democrat claimed the mansard-roofed home had 45 rooms, including a library with its own reception room, a sewing room and a conservatory. All were cabinet finished in solid walnut and designed under the watch of Miller. The total cost for the three-year construction project: $137,000.

Babcock said there were a mere 30 rooms designed by Miller, with suites for each of the five children and their families. Gardens and fish ponds were juxtaposed by a pasture where cattle, bison and cattalo grazed. A stable, carriage house, a conservatory and other outbuildings filled out the estate.

"By 1877, it was reported that they had spent over $100,000 and that they would spend another $100,000," Babcock said.

Miller's money was self-made, though his upbringing was far from penniless. Born on a large farm near the Hudson River, he was the son of Ezra Miller, a native of Westchester County, New York, and Hannah Ryerson, the only daughter of George Ryerson from Pompton Township.

Miller grew up in various towns in lower New York and attended prep school in Flushing, New York, Babcock said. At 21, he was known as a brilliant mechanical, mathematical, hydraulic, and topographical engineer, she added.

At about that age, he enlisted as an artilleryman in the 2nd New York Militia. By 30, he reached the rank of colonel. By 36, he would leave New York for Wisconsin to work as a state surveyor for railway construction. There, he was commissioned a colonel in the Wisconsin militia, elected a justice of the peace and gained a seat in the Wisconsin State Senate, Babcock said.

Finding wealth in Wisconsin

Wisconsin was also where Miller became rich after he began examining ways to more safely couple rail cars, Babcock said

At the time, most rail cars were connected using a link-and-pin coupler. The system required workers to perilously place themselves between cars to guide the link into the couple pocket and manually insert a pin.Some workers lost fingers or hands, said Jim LuBrant of the New Jersey Transportation Museum. Others were crushed.

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“One of the problems with the link and pin was that the link had to be supported, usually by hand while the cars were being moved together,” LuBrant said.

The system was also mostly hopeless in preventing railcars from plunging into each other during sudden decelerations in a process called telescoping.

Miller toiled for about a decade with the problem before unveiling a hook-based coupler that linked upon engagement. Patented in 1866, the coupler was paired the following year with a railcar buffer and platform that helped to add structural strength to the entire train.

“My friends kindly predict I will make a fortune,” he wrote in 1869. “I only know I am working hard and rendering a valuable service to the world.”

Though not concerned with finances, Miller’s patents inevitably made him rich. Having moved back to New York in the late 1860s, he set his eyes on land in his home county of Bergen.

Miller started with 50 acres just east of the train station, Babcock said. Over time, he amassed roughly 356 acres in a community called Cragmere and named it Oweno. Roads in the area still bear the name. In 1884, the Mahwah Post Office was briefly given the name in an attempt to avoid confusion with Rahway, the Montclair Times reported.

Oweno was sold in 1908 to developer George Dunlop of Spring Valley, New York. Before then, it was among a handful of estates owned by wealthy gentleman farmers hailing from New York during the late 19th century, according to records kept by the Mahwah Museum. Among them was Theodore Havemeyer, who developed sugar refining techniques at his Brooklyn plant and built a red-brick Georgian mansion on an estate now part of Ramapo College.

There was also Clarence Chapman, who built what would become Ramapo Valley Road's Carmelite Retreat Center. Alfred B. Darling, the owner of the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City and the estate that is now Rio Vista Mahwah, is still remembered locally as the namesake for all things Darlington.

David Zimmer is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: zimmer@northjersey.com Twitter: @dzimmernews 

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Ezra Miller bred Bergen County bison to develop cattalo hybrid