William Russell (1832-1904),
was born in Riverstown, near Queenstown (Cobh) in County Cork, Ireland on
10 October 1832, to James Grace and Eleanor Mary Russell.
William was raised in the family home in Ballylinan, Queen's
County (present-day County Laois). He became one of the most
prominent businessmen between Latin America and the United
States in the post-Civil War era and the company he founded, W.
R. Grace & Co., developed into the leading commercial
multinational linking the Americas through trade and commerce.
Ireland in 1846 bound for New York. The push factor was the
famine afflicting Ireland in that era, while the pull factor was
provided by the opportunities in the Americas. Grace eventually
found his way to Peru in 1851 where his father invited William
to join him in an agricultural enterprise. William, however, was
no farmer. He gravitated towards Callao where he joined Bryce
Brothers, a ship chandler and purveyor engaged in supplying the
large international fleet taking guano off the Chincha Islands.
ships anchored off the Chinchas each year loading this rich
fertiliser that was revitalising over-used lands in Europe and
the United States, and the ships needed re-victualling and
refitting for the long return voyage to the Atlantic via Cape
Horn. William soon pitched in with his own ideas.
to take an old hulk, stock it with provisions for sale and
anchor it amidst the guano fleet. This saved the guano ships
from having to make a separate voyage to Callao, the port of
Lima, before returning to the Atlantic. The young entrepreneur
put Bryce Brothers ahead of its competitors and William was on
his way, quickly recognised for his talents and energies by the
older Bryce brothers, and much appreciated by ship owners,
captains, and masters in the guano fleet.
not only a talented young entrepreneur, but a gregarious and
charming young man. He met Lillius Gilchrest, the daughter of
George Gilchrest, one of the ship captains. Lillius was
travelling with her father on these long voyages and after a
courtship there amidst the most improbable circumstances of
stinking dung consignments, William and Lillius returned to her
hometown of Tennants Harbor, Maine, USA, and married on 11
September 1859. Their first child, Alice Gertrude, was born on
11 June 1860 on the storeship anchored at the Chinchas.
By 1862, the
Civil War was raging in the United States and William had
transferred himself to Callao to be closer to the commercial and
political capital of Peru, Lima. He returned to Ireland in 1862,
on the advice of doctors who told him that he did not have long
to live, as he suffered from Bright's Disease. William had a
wonderful homecoming in Ireland and returned to Peru via New
York in 1863. He lived forty-one more years, confounding the
doctors' diagnosis and embarking upon an immensely successful
career not only as a pioneering entrepreneur spanning the
Americas, but also being elected the first foreign-born Mayor of
New York in 1880, launching a high-profile trajectory into US
politics in the late nineteenth century.
meantime, William began inviting his younger brothers, cousins,
and other family members, by blood or marriage, to join him in
Peru to help operate the expanding business. The first of these
brothers was Michael who came in the 1850s. Others followed as
the company founded by William, W. R. Grace & Co., expanded the
reach of its commercial activities to include not only Peru and
the United States, but also Europe and other Latin American
countries, especially along the west coast of South America in
the 1870s and 1880s.
William, a good friend of the Union in the struggle between the
States, moved his growing family to New York, then emerging into
a rising cycle of business expansion and prosperity as the
commercial and financial capital of the United States. It was a
natural move for William. He left his brother Michael Grace in
Callao in charge of Grace Brothers (which absorbed the old Bryce
Brothers) and from New York, while living in a fashionable
neighbourhood in Brooklyn Heights across from Manhattan, William
moved with the times. He had married a US-American girl, had
developed close personal and business ties with North Americans
while in Peru, and New York drew him like a magnet. The other
pole of his growing business was Peru, and the biggest business
in Peru at the time was building railroads, the apotheosis of
modernity which had captured the imaginations of Peruvians.
centre of the railroad building fever in Peru was Henry Meiggs,
a flamboyant, charismatic entrepreneur who had made and lost
several fortunes all the way from California to Chile before
showing up in Peru in the late 1860s. Once there he contracted
for the first major railroads to be built in Peru. The Peruvian
government indebted itself for over $30 million to pay for the
railroads, and Meiggs went to work. William met Meigg's
purchasing agent in New York, Joseph S. Spinney, and through
Spinney the flow of goods - locomotives, cars, ties, iron,
lumber - began from the US to Peru, much of it transported
through the Grace houses, on many ships chartered, or built and
owned outright, by the Graces. Under William's guidance from New
York, the houses grew from simple ship chandlers to purveyors of
guano and nitrates, railroad supplies, and just about anything
Peruvians and other Latin Americans needed. William hired a
young American, Charles Flint, who became a master salesman,
travelling into the interiors of Peru, Ecuador, and Chile,
sizing up markets and measuring needs. Flint eventually broke
with the Graces much later in his career, putting together the
US Rubber Company after he and the Graces had diversified into
the rubber business of Brazil and Bolivia in the 1880s.
dramatic business expansion in the 1870s, William developed an
affinity for his adopted city, and soon found himself in the
middle of its politics, running for mayor in 1880 on a reformist
Democrat ticket. He was elected in 1880 and again in 1884, each
time for a two-year term. His career as mayor carried his
attention away from Latin America for much of the 1880s. In the
meantime, the other pole of his growing business, Peru, suffered
a disastrous setback in its national destiny.
Peru and Bolivia went to war against Chile. When the War of the
Pacific ended four years later, Chile emerged victorious as a
major power and Peru and Bolivia were humiliated, stripped of
territories and saddled with a huge debt. The Graces had
supported Peru in this war, buying and sending arms to the
Peruvians and vehemently advocating the intervention of the
United States to preserve the territorial integrity of Peru
after Chilean victories. In New York, William presided over his
growing family and the fortunes of the city, and when he left
office in early 1887, he was a nationally recognised figure in
enterprises expanded even more in the closing decades of the
century. The Grace Line was formally established in this period,
and the line became the principal conduit of commerce, and later
passengers, between New York and the west coast of South America
for much of the following century. With Charles Flint, William
plunged into the rubber boom along the Amazon before Flint
eventually broke with the Graces and pushed them out of rubber.
William assumed the leadership of a powerful political and
economic faction in the US desiring to build a trans-isthmian
canal across either Nicaragua or Panama as a private venture.
They eventually lost out to the Panama lobby and President
Theodore Roosevelt's own vision of destiny, but when the Panama
Canal was completed in 1914, one of the first ships to pass
through was a Grace Line steamer, taking advantage of the new
route to make connections between the US and South America even
more rapid and efficient.
his biography of William Russell Grace, Marquis James described
him as follows: 'Billy was not tall for his age, but he was well
set up and strong. He had blue eyes, tawny hair, and an
excellent temperament for a first son, being a daredevil and a
natural leader. He was hotheaded and a fighter. He taught John
[a younger brother] to fight, so that the crippled boy could
hold his own against most boys of his size who had sound legs.'
(James:1993, p9) When comparing William to brother Michael,
Marquis James wrote, 'William had the gift of leadership, the
sounder judgments, the greater foresight. In making a decision,
he bore in mind more factors. Though William fought it, the hot
temper of his boyhood could still assert itself. He would blow
up at Michael in a stiff letter ; then apologize for his
language, though not his opinion. The younger brother would
write that no apology was necessary.' (James: 1993, pp. 64-65).
Early on he
had fallen in love with Peru and its people, and much of
William's character comes through in this letter he wrote to his
brother John in 1872. 'I like the Peruvians. I always enjoyed
their society and I never looked upon them as more deceitful
than [other] people [...] The English in foreign lands, I never
liked; they are, in my experience, presumptuous and
self-opinionated [...] I know [mercantile] houses in Peru that
were in my time hated as haters of Peru.'
William. He hired and promoted Peruvians who demonstrated the
same work ethic he expected of his family and his US American
and Irish subordinates. He imparted to his brothers, his
nephews, and all who came to work for him, a devotion to
learning the languages and cultures of the countries of Latin
America. When he died on 21 March 1904 in New York City, he was
remembered for weaving new and stronger ties between the United
States and Latin America through his many enterprises, both
private and public.
York Times wrote that 'even in this country of self-made
men, of great business houses, and of great fortunes, the career
of ex-Mayor William R. Grace was a conspicuous one. He developed
markets, he established transportation lines, he embarked in
mercantile ventures, and directed them with such skill that
while he was building up a personal fortune he was also
contributing to the expansion of this country and of other
countries. Whenever he took an active part in politics, it was
as a man of sound principles working in behalf of honesty and
efficiency in public administration.' And the New York Daily
News, as always with a penchant for the colourful, produced
this epitaph: 'Romantic life story of an Irish lad who ran away
from home to be a Robinson Crusoe, who twice became Mayor of New
York and died a multimillionaire.'
arguably was the embodiment of the American dream at the turn of
the century, and the one for which William R. Grace's
contemporaries remembered him best.
Marquis, Merchant Adventurer: The Story of W. R. Grace
(introduction by L. Clayton, Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly
Resources Press, 1993).
Lawrence A., Grace: W. R. Grace & Co., The Formative Years,
1850-1930 (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1985).