Biography of William Elliott Barnhart

William Elliott Barnhart, who has lived in Kansas City, Kansas, since 1887, has held many large responsibilities in connection with transportation lines, both urban and general railway companies, and has also regulated his private affairs so as to give time for much public service to his home city.

His personal career has been one of many interesting experiences and achievements and his ancestry is also an appropriate matter of record. Mr. Barnhart was born at Cedar Valley in Wayne County, Ohio, December 8, 1857, a son of Frederick William and Clarisas (Gooding) Barnhart.

The paternal ancestry goes back to his great-grandfather Johann Wilhelm Bernhardt. From the German Palatinate, now including chiefly Baden and Rhenish Bavaria, this ancestor emigrated on May 12, 1764, and settled in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. A son of Johann Wilhelm was Philippe Bernhardt, who served as a soldier in the War of 1812. Philippe’s wife was Elizabeth Rice, whose father, Frederick Rice, was a gallant soldier of the War of the Revolution and when he died at Wooster, Ohio, in February, 1848, he was accorded burial with the honors of war. The old family bible of Johann Wilhelm and of Philippe Bernhardt is now in the possession of Mr. Barnhart of Kansas City. About a hundred years ago the family name was changed from Bernhardt to Barnhart so that the spelling and pronunciation might conform.

On the maternal side Mr. Barnhart is descended from George Gooding, who was born in England in 1632, and emigrated about 1650 to Plymouth Colony, settling at Dighton, Massachusetts. Five generations of the Goodings are buried at Dighton. Mr. Barnhart’s maternal grandfather, William Gooding, was one of the early settlers of Ohio. The descendants of George Gooding and of Miles Standish of Mayflower fame frequently intermarried. The Goodings served in all the Colonial wars and the War of the Revolution. It is a fact not generally known that the popular “Yankee Doodle” was composed during the French and Indian war by an English army officer as a satire on a company of Massachusetts militia commanded by Captain Gooding of Dighton.

The home of Mr. W. E. Barnhart during his childhood and youth was at Cedar Valley and Wooster in Wayne County, and at Seville and a farm near Chippewa Lake in Medina County, Ohio. He also spent a part of his youth in Brooklyn, New York. He was an office boy employed in New York City during the great panic of 1873, and was standing on the steps of the banking house of Jay Cook & Company in 1873 when that institution closed and precipitated a panic which for widespread consequences was one of the greatest this country has ever endured. For his higher education Mr. Barnhart returned to Ohio and entered Oberlin College, where he was graduated in 1878 at the age of twenty. He was the youngest member of his class. While in college he paid nearly all his expenses by teaching country school and by tutoring in Greek and Latin at Oberlin and Elyria.

His career since leaving college covers a period of nearly forty years. His first ambition was to become a lawyer. He studied law at Elyria and while a student supported himself by teaching. Going to St. Louis, in 1879, he entered the office of the United States district attorney as a clerk. Somewhat later he realized that the law was not entirely to his liking as a permanent occupation, and in October, 1879, he entered the railway mail service. For about a year he was a postal clerk on the Missouri Pacific Railway. He was then detailed to the office of superintendent of the Seventh Division, Rural Mail Service. One promotion followed another rapidly, and in 1883 he was made chief clerk, later assistant superintendent of the division, and given assistant supervision over the postal service of seven states. In 1884 Mr. Barnhart was sent by the United States Government to the City of Mexico to arrange a better interchange of mails between the two countries. A few months later he received an offer from the Diaz administration to take charge of the railway mail service of the entire Republic of Mexico. This offer on account of family reasons he declined.

It is well known that the Government service in America, even the postal service, does not offer the opportunities for a career such as are found in the English civil service for instance. Mr. Barnhart early realized the limitations, and not desiring to pass his entire life as a Government employe, he resigned and moved to Kansas City, Kansas. He has had his home in that city from October 1, 1887.

At Kansas City, Kansas, Mr. Barnhart became identified with the street railway system during its constructive period. At different times he served in the following capacities: Land agent, secretary, auditor and as superintendent. In 1897 he entered the service of the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railway, now the Kansas City Southern, and filled consecutively the offices of special agent in charge of mail service and insurance, chief clerk to general manager, and tax commissioner. In 1901 Mr. Barnhart became identified with the Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railway as right of way, townsite and tax commissioner. He is still connected with that company, though most of his time is now devoted to his private interests in the oil fields of Louisiana. While making some land purchases for the Kansas City Southern Company in 1900, Mr. Barnhart had the distinction of discovering the Caddo oil fields in Louisiana.

While his business interests have lain largely outside of Kansas City, Mr. Barnhart has become widely known for his active participation in local affairs. In 1894-95 he was chairman of the Wyandotte County Republican Central Committee. In 1895 he was elected a member of the Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Education, was on the board nine years, and seven years of that time was president. While he was in office the city high school building, the Carnegie Library, and many ward school buildings were erected.

Mr. Barnhart was president of the Mercantile Club of Kansas City, Kansas, during the year 1914-15, and in 1915 was elected president of the Associated Charities of the city, an office he still retains. For many years he has served as a trustee of the Congregational Church.

At Elyria, Ohio, April 27, 1881, Mr. Barnhart married Mattie Lake Johnston. Mrs. Barnhart was born at Elyria, Ohio, September 13, 1861, daughter of Charles W. and Mary (Fisher) Johnston. In the maternal line she is a distant relative of Grover Cleveland. Mrs. Barnhart is descended from Peter Johnston, who was born in Lockerby, Annandale, Scotland, in 1735. He emigrated to America and located in Saratoga County, New York, in 1773. Soon afterward he proved his devotion to the Colonial cause by serving as a soldier in the Revolution in Captain Ephraim Woodworth’s company of the Thirteenth Regiment of Albany County Militia. Mrs. Barnhart for many years has been prominent in the Woman’s Club and the general social, civic and church life of Kansas City, Kansas.

Four children were born to their marriage: Marian Florence, born August 1, 1885, was married March 19, 1908, to Samuel Stewart, Jr. Oliver Frederick Johnston, born June 23, 1894, is now a student in the State Agricultural College at Manhattan. Alice Clarisse, born June 16, 1896, is now finishing her education in Oberlin College, Ohio. Charles Eugene, born January 6, 1899, died January 28, 1913.


Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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