Biography of Edward S. Smith

EDWARD S. SMITH. – The death of Edward Slade Smith, at San Francisco, California, on December 31, 1885, and incidents relating to his life gathered from recollections of Judge Charles H. Berry, Honorable John A. Mathews and Doctor James M. Cole.

Edward Slade Smith was born in what was then Chemung, now Schuyler county, in the State of New York, February 28, 1827; and hence at his decease he was nearly fifty-nine years old. His parents were Joel and Anna Smith, both early settlers in Winona, Minnesota, and both of whom are now dead. There were born to them six sons and four daughters. Edward Slade Smith, the second son, gave early promise of those traits of character of that enterprise, activity, and great perseverance, which were the leading features of his life. His school advantages were not adequate to his ambitious needs in after life; but his native genius and inherent judgment seldom failed him. After a reverse in his early business career, his experiences became his best educators; and they afforded him knowledge not attainable in colleges. However, his common-school acquirements were sufficient for his business purposes; and his mind was enlightened, and his views of life broadened, by extensive reading and intercourse with the able men of the West.

In 1852 he came to Minnesota. Having been previously engaged with his eldest brother, Lorenzo D. Smith, in the lumber business at Gibson, New York, he very naturally saw the advantages that the site of the Falls of St. Anthony afforded for an immense water-power and manufacturing city. There had been a small mill put up somewhere in the neighborhood of the falls by the military authorities of Fort Snelling; but its use had long been abandoned. Seeing an unoccupied location, and conceiving it to be a grand opportunity, he built the first sawmill erected by a civilian at what is now Minneapolis. Finding his squatter right contested by what he regarded as political favoritism, and to avoid what he supposed would be a legal or a military ejectment from the premises, he sold out his interest in the mill and its location, and in 1853 established himself in Winona, Minnesota. Soon after his arrival there, he joined William Ashley Jones in the purchase of an undivided interest in what was known as the west half of the Stevens’ claim (eighty acres), which extended along and back of the river front, and on which the Porter Flouring Mill and others are now situated.

On the 14th of December, 1854, he was married at Winona by Reverend Hiram S. Hamilton, of the Congregational church to Miss Mary Frances Burns, daughter of John Burns. It was not long before he became a prominent factor in the building up of the city of Winona.

Together with his brother, L.D. Smith, Abraham M. Fridley, William Ashley Jones, C.H. Berry, H.H. Johnson, H.D. Huff, and other prominent and well-known charter members of the Old Transit Railroad, now the Winona & St. Peter, he invested largely in an attempt to build the road by obtaining congressional and state aid. After a very large expenditure of money and labor by his brother, himself, and his associates, Congress, on March 3,1857, passed an act by which the Transit Railroad was to receive through the state one million, two hundred thousand acres of land to aid them in constructing the road. In 1858, also, the legislature, at its first session, afterwards confirmed by the people of Minnesota, authorized a loan of five million dollars to aid in general construction of railroads; and after an amendment of its charter, and a change of its name, ground was broken on the line of the Transit road on June 9, 1858.

The work was pushed with vigor by the contractors, De Graff & Co.,; and five hundred thousand dollars of state bonds had been received by them, when the financial crash of 1858-59 came; and all work was suspended. The state bonds soon became almost worthless in the market, and the railroad finally bankrupt. The deceased was in New York with some of his associates endeavoring to raise money for construction when the news reached them of the repudiation of the state bonds. They had been in Wall street; but no bonds could be placed there. They met in conference upon the situation; and the prospects seemed gloomy enough, when a smile was seen spreading over Smith’s jovial face. He was asked by one in a nervous tone, “What do you see in the situation to amuse you?” He replied, “I was just thinking that if the bonds could not be used here in Yew York, I can use them at home; for I have enough to paper a room.” The remark of the deceased was characteristic of the man; for he could not be suppressed; and, discharging their hotel bills, the party started for their Western homes.

On returning to Winona, the deceased soon realized that the Transit road, with all its franchises, would pass into other hands; and he at once turned his attention to other fields of labor. Having a good water-power upon his property at Glen Mary, in Burns’ valley, he constructed a flouring-mill of good capacity, that yielded a fair income to its owners. As a means of drawing trade to Winona, he was active in the construction of good roads into the city, and subscribed liberally for that purpose. The long and permanent embankment across the low-lands at the foot of Lake Winona, usually called “The Dyke,” the foundations of which he helped to lay, contributing the first five hundred dollars expended in that work, is a monument to his sagacity and liberality. He followed that contribution from time to time with very much more, and in all matters of public interest was always active.

In the somewhat turbulent state of early society in Winona, Edward S. Smith could ever be relied on as upon the side of law, harmony and good order, and very many were the rough places which it was his province to make smooth. These kindly acts are retained in the memories of those who survive him.

In railroad construction, and in the use of mechanical appliances, he had but few superiors in the wide West. When the line of the North-Western Railroad coming into Winona across the Mississippi river was changed, an attempt was made by its management to pull up the oak piles driven by the old contractors, as they were needed for immediate use. After a vain attempt had been made made, in which the costly machinery of the company was pulled to pieces, the deceased offered to pull and deliver them when needed, for a reasonable consideration. Mr. Smith was told by the engineer-in-chief and the contractors that three machines at least would be required to draw the piles as fast as needed, and that fifteen hundred dollars would scarcely build them. Smith replied, “Very well, you will pay me then all the more willingly.” An agreement was made, and the piles were rapidly pulled and delivered from three machines made on the ground from the capping of the old bridges at a cost of fifteen dollars for each extractor.

It was the practical ingenuity of the man that in 1871 led to his selection by General J.W. Sprague to assist operations as manager of the interests of the Northern Pacific Railroad on the Pacific coast. The selection and purchase of the Kalama site was influenced by his judgment; and the purchase of the site of the city of Tacoma was intrusted entirely to his tact and judgment. How well and faithfully his duties were performed, let the magnificent city overlooking Commencement Bay attest.

When, in the autumn of 1873, Jay Cook failed, and the contractors on the road from Kalama to Tacoma were unable to pay the men, and it was necessary to meet the requirements of Congress to complete the road to Tacoma before the close of the year, the railroad company, through the individual efforts of Captain Ainsworth, put the work into his hands. Sixteen miles of road remained unfinished; and it was necessary to construct them within a few weeks. A force of three hundred men were encamped under arms at the end of the work refusing to work until paid, and threatening to fire on anyone else who should attempt to work on the road. Mr. Smith went out with others to the men, and was principally instrumental in inducing the men to return to work. Under his direction, the railroad was completed within the time required by the charter. The authority for that important work was contained in a letter from Captain Ainsworth of a few lines, and which was a veritable carte blanche as to mode of work.

The Wilkeson coal mines were discovered by him from information received from one of the United States surveyors, who had seem some float coal in a ravine near the mines. Several vain attempts at exploration with others were made, his companions giving up the search. When, taking a pack upon his back, he pursued his way through fallen timber and vine maple, camping with a single companion (W.C. Wallace) in the forest until success crowned their efforts. After testing the coal in Portland, San Francisco, and in domestic use, he hastened to secure title to the mines that yielded the first coking coal found in Washington Territory. Coke ovens had been established by his enterprise, and the mines are now quite extensively worked by the Tacoma Coal Company, a large interest in which is held by the heirs to his estate.

It was largely through his discoveries that faith was inspired in the practicability of the present line of railroad to Wilkeson. Mr. C.B. Wright reposed great trust in his judgement; and Mr. Wright’s influence in the board of directors decided the building of the road up the Puyallup valley to the Wilkeson coal mines in 1877. This thirty miles of road was afterwards a potent factor in anchoring the terminus of the Cascade division at Tacoma, and in stimulating the work of counteraction when hostile influences were at work endeavoring to divert the terminal point, and to defeat the construction of the road across the Cascade Mountains. Mr. Smith acquired large interests in Tacoma real estate; and from the time of the location of the railroad terminus at Tacoma in 1873, he never lost heart or faith in the ultimate future of the city, but exerted every effort for its settlement and development. In the first few years of this early period he built and carried on the sawmill near the railroad wharf, in which Mr. M.F. Hatch subsequently became an owner, beside opening his coal mine at Wilkeson, already mentioned.

Mr. Smith had a high sense of honor, and was a great lover of justice. He suffered no man to deal unfairly with him, and in resisting any such attempt was uncompromising. His charities were many ad unostentatious. They were not done in the face of the public, and were generally made known by him only to the recipient. He aided many to help themselves and their inclinations to do so was with him a test of their worthiness. And yet, if anyone was really helpless, within his observation and means, he helped them so quietly that his hand was not seen by others. Knowing from his character what he would have done if living, his executors have made a large donation of land in aid of the Methodist University in course of construction at Tacoma.

In Politics, through his life, he was a Democrat; though he had no taste nor desire for office. He had a great admiration for Senators Ben Wade and Thurman of Ohio; and when in Washington, District of Columbia, during their senatorship and that of his personal friend, Senator Daniel S. Norton, Democratic senator from Minnesota, they were all to be found together during adjournment in one or another of their rooms, the most jolly in their fund of anecdotes of any brainy men in the nation. Mr. Smith’s jovial but self-poised nature, his humor and ready wit, his sterling qualities of strong sense, truth and firmness, made his host of friends; and he was at once recognized as the peer of any of his associates. He was a man cast in no common mold, and attached to him warmly those who came much in contact with him.

At the time of his death, which resulted from blood-poisoning, he had just completed a fine residence in Tacoma, and was intending other improvements that would have made his residence and grounds as desirable as any in the city. These he had to leave, though not unprepared; for his views of life and death were based upon the firm belief in a just and merciful God, and a philosophical existence beyond the tomb. His widow still survives him, together with their children, Frank, Fred, Harry, Fanny, Nora and Maud. May his memory be preserved and honored as one of the noblest types of a Western pioneer.


History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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