Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Spring 2004)
The Robber Baron Behind the 1881 E. Howard No. 3 Striking Town Clock
By Ben Simons
IN 1881, WILLIAM HADWEN Starbuck presented the town of Nantucket with a magnificent striking clock made by the E. Howard Watch & Clock Co. of Boston. The clock drove the four faces that gazed upon the town from the tower of the Unitarian Church on Orange Street until its mechanism was electrified in 1957. The town retained possession of the original clockworks until 1999, when they were donated to the Nantucket Historical Association. Now the original E. Howard clock is in the process of being restored and will be installed in the stairwell leading to the roofwalk of the new NHA Museum Center on Broad Street, opening in 2005.
The Howard Watch and Clock Co. of Boston was one of America's premier clockmakers of the period. The company manufactured five different flatbed striking models—from No. 0 (smallest) to No. 4 (largest). Nantucket's No. 3 striking clock cost its donor $1,000. It was installed in the South Tower and began operating on July 28, 1881. On June 25, 1881, the Inquirer and Mirror reported: "The vane and balls upon the South Tower were removed yesterday, by Charles H. Robinson, preparatory to gilding the dome." In addition to the donation of the clock, William Hadwen Starbuck had offered to pay for repainting the exterior of the church and for gilding the dome.
The town's generous benefactor is described in accounts of the clock's arrival simply as "William Hadwen Starbuck of New York." Well known to the citizenry of the day, Starbuck's identity has been obscured behind the story of his generous gift. But when a name appears on the pages of history with such seeming nonchalance, it cries out for further examination. The resources of the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library provide ample opportunity for such investigation; and in this case, they reveal a highly interesting tale.
Though not an island resident, Starbuck certainly had island pedigree, being a descendant of settler Edward Starbuck, Quaker foundress Mary Starbuck, and the nephew of island merchant William Hadwen. But who exactly was this "grateful son" of Nantucket, and how had he arrived at a position in life that allowed him to return the favors the town of Nantucket had bestowed upon him in his youth?
The NHA archives contain several obituaries of Starbuck, along with a photocopy of a check in his hand for $10,000,000 dated August 8, 1881, drawn on the Farmers Loan and Trust Company, No. 20 Exchange Place, New York, endorsed by one "H. Villard." The same year that saw the arrival of the E. Howard No. 3 clock in Nantucket also witnessed a massive capital venture involving one of Nantucket's most successful native sons. In the age of the great robber barons, who was this Nantucket capitalist, and where were his hands getting soiled?
The second son of George and Elizabeth Starbuck (of West Brick on Main Street), William Hadwen Starbuck (known as "Hadwen") was educated in Nantucket's public and private schools until completion of high school. A childhood playmate described him as "the most generous of boys and of a jocund sprightli-ness that always made him a leader in the sports and games incident to boyhood," adding that he was "kind and void of malice." In the glow of remembrance, the acquaintance attributes Starbuck's future success to the boyish good nature, kindness, and sportive energy picked up in the Nantucket of his childhood: "His boyhood was a prophecy of his successful business career and munificent benevolence."
Starbuck began his career in the counting room of Wainright & Tappan of Boston. He gained several years' experience before starting the partnership of Tappan & Starbuck in New York. The firm was involved in ship brokerage and became a successful player in the field of ship ownership and management. The business prospered for some time, but eventually its fortunes took a turn for the worse, and it was at that point that Starbuck entered into his partnership with one Henry Villard. (The Villard mansion on Madison Avenue in New York City at one time was the home office of Random House and then the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York before being incorporated as the entrance of the New York Palace Hotel, built by Harry B. Helmsley in 1977.)
Villard was a witty and charismatic Bavarian, born Ferdinand Heinrich Hilgard, with some experience in German railroads. He came to New York in 1835 and had a successful career as a journalist covering the Lincoln- Douglas debates (Villard was an abolitionist) and the Civil War as a correspondent for the New York Herald and the New York Tribune. He later bought the Nation and the New York Post. In 1866, Villard married Helen Garrison, only daughter of William Lloyd Garrison. In 1874, he became interested in the affairs of Oregon steamships and railroads, scouting the "vast region drained by the Columbia and its tributaries [that] formed a very empire in its extent." In a move characteristic of high-finance schemes of the day, Villard discovered that the company controlling the region, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, could be purchased for $3,000,000. He secured a four-month $100,000 option on its stock, returned to New York, and incorporated his option under the name "The Oregon Transcontinental Improvement Company," with 60,000 in unpaid shares.
Villard then proceeded to the Farmers' Loan & Trust Company of New York, which floated his shares for $10,000,000—the amount we have already seen on the check with Starbuck's signature endorsed by Villard. Villard was able to use his option to purchase control of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. For an initial investment of $100,000, Villard and his associates, including Starbuck, were in charge of capital assets of $10,000,000. Starbuck commented, "Then came the boom of 1879, and soon Villard and I were rolling in money." In a gesture of remembrance for Starbuck's ancestors and the legacy of his hometown, it was reported that "The Oregon Steam Navigation Company, of New York, is, we understand, to adopt for its vessels the blue and white signal flag used on the whaling ships formerly owned by the late Joseph Starbuck."
Villard's reputation on Wall Street was well known. The broker Henry Clews remembered him: "As a stock waterer Villard had probably no superior in that important department of railway management." "Stock waterer" Villard soon issued $18,000,000 in new company stock, and had its price "bulled" up to $200 per share, from the already astronomical $95 per share. Villard's scheme was essentially a land grab. He "envisaged nothing less than seizure of all the possible routes and approaches to the Pacific Ocean in the Oregon and Washington country, thus blocking the line of march of the second transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific." He proceeded to acquire mountain passes, valleys, coal deposits, agricultural land, and any other assets that could prove valuable.
In 1881 (the year of Starbuck's gift to the town), Villard declared a dividend of 11.1%, further fueling interest in the stock. Meanwhile, hundreds of his own immigration agents were honeycombing the small villages and hamlets of England, Germany, Sweden, and Russia with wild promises of a new paradise to entice the inhabitants to make the long journey to America to populate his towns. Reportedly, whole villages in Russia were emptied by the promises of Villard's agents.
Like other speculators of his day, Villard was not so much interested in building the best railroad through the Pacific Northwest as in securing a monopoly on its best land and assets. In fact, the lines were hastily constructed and poorly engineered. A competitor of Villard's wrote: "The selection of the routes and grades is abominable. Practically it would have to be built over." Shortly after a ceremony of laying the golden spike on his new railroad, Villard was in deep trouble. His competitors with real railroad experience were lobbying in Washington to have his land grant forfeited. Rumors of his speculation were afloat and began to affect the price of his stock. He became subject to the blackmail and recrimination of petty partners at all levels of his enterprise.
Villard eventually recouped his losses and in 1890 acquired the Edison Lamp Company of Newark, N. J., which after merging with the Edison Machineworks of Schenectady, N.Y., became the Edison General Electric Company, which, in 1893, became the General Electric Company.
In the end, Villard's scheme proved so beneficial to Starbuck that, according to his obituary, "he retired therefrom." The depth of his involvement is not known, but as Villard's partner, he certainly profited from his lucrative stock maneuvers. After his grand beginning with Villard, Starbuck moved on briefly as president of the Housatonic Railroad until being enticed back to the presidency of the Oregon Transcontinental Improvement Company. He continued in that position until his retirement in 1895, one year before his death.
In an obituary of Starbuck in the Inquirer and Mirror on April 11, 1896, Phebe Ann Hanaford wrote: "When he amassed a fortune, such as no Nantucket man, I think, had ever before secured, he did not hoard it selfishly, but he manifested a benevolence and generosity which won the respect and gratitude of his former fellow-townsmen." As a son of several great Nantucket lines, he "inherited from both the paternal and maternal sides, those characteristics which under favorable circumstances, could not fail to bring him success." Regardless of the particulars of his "fortune," Nantucket welcomed back into its fold this "man of mark," who had remembered his hometown in the gift of the beautiful E. Howard clock. Starbuck lived on in New York City in an "almost palatial home" until his death with all of the respectability he had gathered around him. He was a member of the New York Yacht Club (and owner of the brand-new steam yacht Tillie), and an active parishioner at the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church. On the day of his funeral in New York, flags were set at half-staff in his hometown of Nantucket "upon all public and private places where bunting can be displayed."
Ben Simons is the NHA's assistant curator.
Originally published in Historic Nantucket, Summer 2004 (Vol. 53, No. 3), p. 5-7.