Biography of Nelson Bennett

NELSON BENNETT. – Though Toronto, Canada, must be accredited as the birthplace of the distinguished personage whose name heads this brief sketch of a most active, useful and busy life, yet were his parentage and ancestry thoroughly American. On the paternal side the Bennetts were natives of Virginia, three generations back; and his mother was of the ancient and time-honored family of the Spragues of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He was born October 14,1843; and his father died when he was seven years of age, leaving a widow and six children. The family resided upon a farm; and Nelson was afforded the opportunity of acquiring a good rudimentary education in the grammar schools near Toronto. The custom was to work on the farm six months, and go to school the remainder of the year. This was continued until his fourteenth year.

In his seventeenth year he left Toronto, and came to Orleans county, New York, the old home of the family, where he attended school for one year. During much of his first year in New York, he was sick from the effects of a singular but severe accident. He was riding horseback through the timber, his horse being on a lope, when he came to a limb extending across the road, which he thought he could avoid by ducking his head. The limb,, however, so caught his body, and drew it forward in such manner that the pressure caused extreme internal injuries, from the effects of which he suffered for about a year. His health being recovered in 1863, he was employed by the United States government, in a corps of artisans, whose chief occupation was building barracks for troops. In this service he remained until 1864, when he went to the oil regions of Pennsylvania. Then and there he first displayed the proclivities which have rendered his after-life so prominent, and his name so well-known. He commenced contracting. While there he sank twenty-seven oil wells, with varied success, and made considerable money.

In the fall of 1865, he migrated to Pettis county, Missouri, where the town of Sedalia now stands, and invested the money made in oil in large tracts of land. In the spring of 1866 he went to Iowa and secured employment by the North Western Railroad Company, and worked on their roads in Iowa during that year. In 1867 he went out on the Union Pacific, and followed on the line of construction till the track reached Fort Bridge. He abandoned railroad construction when the mining excitement borne out into the Sweetwater country in Dakota, and remained there while the excitement continued. Among the occupations necessitated by his Sweetwater experiences was fighting the Indians for about two years of that period.

Mr. Bennett had now become a miner. He left the Sweetwater country for the Little Cottonwood mines in Utah. For the next two years he engaged in mining pursuits in Utah, at which time he entered into a contract with Walker Brothers to transport a quartz mill from Ophir cañon, a district in Utah, to Butte City, Montana. This was the commencement of a freighting and transportation business out of which a train was built up of 150 animals, mostly Kentucky mules. The business was pursued under the old style of freighting, – twelve animals constituting a team, each team drawing three wagons. During the time Mr. Bennett pursued the freighting business in the Rocky Mountains, he opened a wagon road from Eagle Gorge on Snake river, by way of Big Lost river, through the Challis and Bonanza mining districts in Idaho Territory. He it was who also sent the first team into the Wood river district with supplies and materials for miners. In one of his expeditions during the year of Howard’s campaign against the Nez Perces, his train had just passed Dry creek, in Idaho. The hostile Nez Perces came up and intervened between his train and the head of the train following, that of James Brown. Bennett’s train was not delayed; but Brown had to return to Pleasant valley.

His singular good fortune, luck, or call it what you will, seemed never to desert him. A year later his train was making a second trip into the Challis and Bonanza districts of Idaho. A large train had gone ahead; and they were intercepted by hostile Bannacks, who fought them and held them at bay for two days and two nights, killing one man and stampeding the animals and running off a number. Colonel Green, U.S. Army, came up; and the Indians fled. Bennett’s train came up after the arrival of the soldiers and the flight of the Bannacks. The soldiers were entirely out of provisions and really in need. Bennett sold out his whole outfit, consisting of grocery bacon, canned fruits, canned salmon, and a well assorted stock intended for the miners. Script was issued to him, as that was one of the years in which the appropriation had fallen short; and Bennett did not receive his pay for eighteen months.

Whilst Mr. Bennett has been carrying on this freighting enterprise west of the Rocky Mountains, Jay Gould had undertaken the extension of the Utah Northern Railroad from Ogden to Butte City. That great financier had sent out, as superintendent of construction, Washington Dunn, wit whom, in 1881, Nelson Bennett became intimately acquainted. Through that intimacy Mr. Bennett entered upon the railroad contracting business. It is out of place to follow in detail the contracts he undertook. Since that date, a part of which time doing business under the firm name of Washington, Dunn & company, and in his individual capacity, he has built five hundred and fifty miles of railroad, including the Stampeded or Cascade Tunnel of the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Cascade Range of mountains. The latter stupendous and colossal work was completed in May, 1888. Mr. Bennett took the contract for its construction January 21, 1886, requiring its completion within twenty-eight months from the date of contract. He gave bonds of $100,000 cash, and ten per cent of the contract price for the fulfillment of the contract. He finished the great work, and had seven days to spare.

During all the time that Mr. Bennett was engaged in freighting and railroad constructing, he was steadily occupied in other pursuits, – merchandising, the lumber business, dealing in agricultural implements, stock-raising, mining, and dealing in mining properties. He became largely interested in developing mines; and, although almost universally successful in any enterprise in which he enlisted, he has in his hope to develop mines expended some fifty thousand dollars, only realizing out of those ventures a thousand dollars. But indomitable he is still mining and not discouraged as to the future result of those investments. It would not be Nelson Bennett to give up, nor would it be him not to be crowned with a successful result.

Since completing the Cascade Tunnel, Tacoma has been his headquarters; and he has contributed largely to the marvelous growth of that city. Early in 1889 he became interested in Fairhaven, Whatcom county, in the extreme northern part of Washington, on Bellingham Bay. The Fairhaven enterprise comprehends the development of the Lower Puget Sound region, the possibilities resulting from which it is premature to predict. They must be estimated in the future, though it is quite proper to add that the success of the short period already passed through promises grand results. Already twenty-five miles of railroad have been constructed, while another section of twenty-five miles is ready for tracklaying. A large force of men are not at work extending the line south of Skagit river, and gradually approaching connection with the Northern Pacific. There is also work being done on the line connecting Skagit river with the Eastern branch, which is heading eastward to pass through one of the Skagit passes of the Cascade Range to enter and open the rich mining region of the Okanogan, and connect it with Puget Sound.

Another railroad is being constructed which extends northward from Bellingham Bay to New Westminster, and possibly to Vancouver and other more remote points in British Columbia. Mr. Bennett is the president of the Fairhaven & Southern Railroad Company. He has purchased the entire control of the Westminster & Southern Railroad Company properties. He is the president of the Fairhaven Land Company, a company which is engaged in the development of the city of that name on Bellingham Bay. He is the president of the Skagit Coal Company, which is at present and for the past year has been engaged in developing the vast coal fields of the Skagit river basin. He is largely interested in and principal promoter of the Fairhaven Iron and Steel Company, who are about erecting the necessary furnaces and works for the development and utilization of the rich iron deposits in the valley of the Skagit.

He was the pioneer builder of the street railroad system of Tacoma, and is now the principal owner of the street railroad system of Butte City, Montana, which has three miles of cable road and six miles of motor lines. He is president of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, as also the Tacoma Hotel Company. With all these manifold engagements, he still finds time to contribute by his presence and council to every enterprise suggested for the benefit of the public. He is ever ready to advise and to assist the needy. In vigorous and hearty manhood, full of intellectual vigor and physical strength, his life of usefulness and benefit to his race promises to be prolonged. No one in a more eminent degree illustrates the pluck and push of the men who have made our western civilization than Nelson Bennett.



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

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