Dr. Edward H. Williams Family

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Edward & Cornelia

Edward Jr., William, Anna

Family Information

Edward: born June 1, 1824, died December 21, 1899.
Cornelia Pratt: born January 16, 1827, died July 16, 1889

Married: June 15, 1848

Edward Jr.: born September 30, 1849, died November 2, 1933
William Williams: born March 9, 1854
Anna Williams Dreer: born July 25, 1858, died November 16, 1943


Dr. Edward H. Williams


Compiled by Rev. Edward H. Williams IV from letters and newspaper clippings together with recollections of conversations with E. H. Williams Jr. and E. H. Williams III.
March 27, 1981

One of the remarkable sons of Woodstock, Vermont, born in a gracious and spacious white house near the southeast corner of the village green was Edward Higginson Williams born on June 1, 1824. The home into which he was born was doubtless one characterized by breadth of vision, and intellectual ferment. The former, one deduces from the fact his mother, Mary Ann Wentworth Brown was the granddaughter of a Tory merchant of Boston who had sailed away with Lord Howe when Washington was able to train the guns from Fort Ticonderoga on the city from Dorchester Heights. His father, the Hon. Norman Williams, on the other hand was the son of Jesse Williams, who, as a 16 year old merchant apprentice, was driving oxcart loads of provisions from Mansfield CT, to supply Washington at Dorchester, while his father Phinehas, already settled at Woodstock, and its senior selectman was charged by the committee of safety with procuring incredible quantities of meat for the patriot army. Even the fact that Norman Williams, after graduating from the University of Vermont in 1810 served as quartermaster in the War of 1812, failed to dim the romantic interest he felt for the charming daughter of the retiring barrister-at-law who had come from St. Stephen, New Brunswick to settle on a hill farm near the Hartland town line. They were married in Woodstock on December 11, 1817. Young Ned, as he was known, had three brothers and three sisters.

One gets a hint of the intellectual ferment and inquiry that surrounded the boyhood days. We have, in her own elegant handwriting, the account of his older sister Mary Ann, scarcely 11 years old, a lively and observant account of a trip taken with her parents from Woodstock to New York City in April of 1829, concluding with a description of St. John's Episcopal Church where, with 2000 children she attended a service of the Sunday School Union. The parents were among the active organizers of the new Church of St. James, at the west end of the Green in 1827. Dana in his history of Woodstock tells us that Norman Williams was Clerk of the County Court (the sign from his office is still displayed in the Library) and devoted his energies for a year or two as editor of the local newspaper. Mother Mary Ann designed the present arrangement of the Vermont State Seal, and was hostess to the Ladies of St. James who gathered for sewing for the poor, while she read aloud from the Episcopal Church papers.

To come back to young Ned, I recall seeing a scrap of paper dated about 1832, given him by his father addressed to one of the local merchants introducing him as the bearer of cash to pay a bill, and requesting the payee to give a receipt for the same. Doubtless one of the considered lessons to train him in self-reliance. The need for the introduction may have stemmed from the fact that Edward began his schooling in Montreal, then returned to continue it in Woodstock, where his mathematics teacher was the noted Hosea Doton. His math copybook still survives.

When he was 14 he went to Pontiac Mich. for a year to live with his uncle the Rev. Dr. George Palmer Williams, who had been his Sunday School teacher. (This is the man commemorated in the pulpit window at St. James. It had been the altar window in the older church replaced in 1907.) From his uncle, and a Col. John Berrien, the State Engineer, then building the Michigan Central Railroad. He learned the rudiments of surveying with level and transit. He continued to concentrate on mathematics on his return to Woodstock, but in 1841 he spent a short time in Boston, where he become acquainted with the engineer for the Boston and Worcester Railroad. Railroads fired the imagination of youth of his days as automobiles in our fathers', and planes in our own.

But the course of young Edward's life was altered by an accident. He developed what seemed to be asthma, with recurrent fevers and ague. The symptoms were severe enough to incapacitate him a good deal, and since the medical college in Woodstock was at its height, being associated with Middlebury at the time, the faculty and students came often to the home, and developed a keen interest in him. So much so, that they persuaded him to study medicine, as it was thought that it would be a less strenuous lifestyle than engineering for him. As a result he entered the college and graduated in 1846. During 1847 he interned at Bellevue in New York. On his return to Vermont he married Cornelia Bailey Pratt, the youngest daughter of John A. Pratt and his wife Sarah Bailey. Her father was an ardent and active agriculturist, who had been associated with the introduction of Merino sheep into Vermont, an incorporator of the Windsor County Fair, and on the committee to build St. James Church.

The young couple married in Woodstock on 15 June 1848 and settled in Proctorsville, where his old teacher, Mr. Doton was in charge of building the Rutland Railroad. Here their son Edward Jr. was born - an event commemorated by a Vermont State historical marker, honoring the son as the founder of national honorary engineering society, Tau Beta Pi. Another event of historical note was to take place while they lived there. As a young doctor without an established practice, Dr. Williams had time to spare, and pursued his old love of railroad engineering, by helping his old teacher running the level or transit.

On September 13th 1848, one of the workmen tamping a charge of dynamite accidentally struck a spark which set off the charge, blowing the tamping bar up through the man's head. This was Phinehas Gage, whose treatment became a noted case - the first in American medical annals of trephining, a procedure but recently described in a European medical journal. Dr. Williams cared for Mr. Gage for the first two days, until the company doctor, Harlow by name, could be summoned from Rutland. This man later claimed the entire responsibility for the case, which Dr. Williams took no special pains to challenge, since Dr. Harlow was the doctor in charge and there were many at the Woodstock Medical College that knew the facts. Phinehas Gage lived for another 12 years, but, bereft of his emotional and intellectual self-control, his behavior became erratic and unpredictable.

Click here for further reading on the Phinehas Gage case.

Prof. E. H. Williams Jr. in a lengthy letter to the Springfield Reporter, dated January 29, 1923 details the facts and points out another reason the matter was allowed to drop, which is of more immediate concern to this story. Dr. Williams decided to move to Northfield, Vermont to join with his brother-in-law Dr. Samuel W. Thayer in practice there. This was after Edward Jr. was born on September 29th 1849. While in Northfield, in a violent fit of coughing, the doctor raised a beech nut burr, which had lodged in his vocal cords during his stay in Michigan some ten years earlier. As it had been the focal point of the infection which had produced the so-called asthma which had forced him to the less active life of medicine, he now felt free to return to his real love, engineering.

The Railroad man

So in 1851 we find him assisting in the construction of the railroad from Caughnawaga , Canada, to Plattsburgh, New York. Because of his medical training he was the only white man allowed by the Canadian government to remain overnight in the Caughnawaga Indian Reservation. It is one of the evidences of the trust and warmth of affection that he inspired all through his life, that he was formally adopted into the Caughnawaga tribe. It is from this period that comes the story I often heard grandfather, Edward Jr. tell. He was probably not yet five at the time. Dr. Williams was called to attend someone injured in an accident on the opposite side of the St. Lawrence. The mighty river was in spring flood with ice floes making passage hazardous. The Caughnawaga volunteered a man (I'm not sure it wasn't the chief) to be the rear man in a canoe for the doctor. Little Edward was to go along, but lie flat in the bottom of the canoe, as the swiftness of the current made the crossing dangerous. Little Edward, overcome with curiosity, raised himself to get a view. The Indian barked, "Boy keep head down or Indian chop off!" Needless to say there was little need for the reinforcing admonition of his father. The Caughnawaga era ended for the family, with Dr. Williams as chief construction engineer, replacing his predecessor at his death in 1854.

The few details of the succeeding years indicate a steady rise in the importance of the positions Dr. Williams held. Until 1856 he was the assistant to the superintendent of the Michigan, Southern and Northern Indiana Railway for two years, and then division superintendent at Laporte Indiana. On his appointment to assistant superintendent of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad in 1858, the following remarks appeared in a newspaper notice headed, "The Right Man in the Right Place - E.H.Williams Esq. has been appointed... the M & M R.R. Co. have been fortunate in securing such a man as Mr. Williams for that important trust. Mr W. was formerly superintendent on the western division of the Michigan Southern Railroad, and while there gained an enviable reputation for good management and business capacity." This notice may have been clipped from the paper at Janesville, Wisconsin, as it is there that the family resided during this job, and it was there that the daughter whom some of us knew as Aunt Anna was born. She later became the wife of William F. Dreer, the noted seedsman of Philadelphia. She was ten years younger than her brother Edward, and some seven or eight years junior to the brother William who died of TB at Barnard, Vermont while a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1859 Dr. Williams left to become the Assistant Superintendent of the Galena and Chicago Union, a pioneer road west of Chicago. He remained with it through its absorption into the Chicago and Northern, becoming the manager of the division from Chicago west to the Mississippi in 1864. But the next year, at the age of 41 he was called to one of the most prestigious posts of railroading - the Assistant Superintendency of the Pennsylvania Railroad, succeeding shortly to be its Superintendent. An article in the Chicago Railway Review pointed out that this company rarely brought in outsiders, preferring to train its own management team. This article remarked that he was noted for his "energy of purpose and action, a versatility and facility of resource, an instinctive genius for system and organization, and withal a mingled firmness and kindness towards subordinates, which in their regard for their superior, tempers respect with affection."

Dr. Williams made several practical contributions to railroading. One, of major importance, was his encouragement of George Westinghouse in his experiments and efforts to devise an air brake for railroad trains, a major breakthrough in safety equipment. A second, noted in his obituary in the Bethlehem (PA) Times, was the fact that he spent some time in 1860 in the Lehigh valley, studying the properties of anthracite coal, which induced him to introduce its use on his line west of Chicago. Beside these major innovations he also is credited as the inventor of the modern railroad time table.

To return to the matter of respect and affection, I have a clipping of an Illinois paper of 1865 which chronicles a testimonial gift of a "chickering piano valued at $650 and a parlor easy chair costing $80." sent by the employees of the old Galena division of the Chicago & Northwestern to the Williams' new home in Philadelphia, or rather Altoona, where they first settled. It is worth quoting the letters of transmittal and of acknowledgement, as much for their flowery Victorian expression as for the contents:

"Chicago, June 10, 1865

Dear Sir:

I have the honor to request, in behalf of the employees of the Galena division...one of Chickering's pianos as a slight testimonial of their esteem.

While we cannot consider it any adequate expression of the sincere regard which all who were connected with the old ëG.&C.U.RR.' entertained for you personally, or of the high respect engendered for you as an officer of the road... yet we trust you will look upon it more as an earnest of the sentiments of the givers than for any intrinsic merits of the gift - and that its melodious chords ëwhen waked and kindled by the master's spell' may be in some sort, a symbol of the harmonious feelings which have marked our intercourse with you...

Jno C Gault, for committee"

The reply, equally flowery, and clearly gracious, is as follows:

"John C. Gault, Esq.

The elegant piano and comfortable chair, which you forwarded to me on behalf of the employees of the ëGalena Division', and for which I am indebted to their generous kindness, have been duly received. Please extend to the donors the sincere thanks and hearty acknowledgements from Mrs. Williams and myself, for these flattering testimonials of their regard.

During my connection with the road, my association with the officers and employees were of the most pleasing character, and the recollections of which are so vividly impressed upon my memory, that it did not require this last substantial token to entitle them to my confidence and esteem.

I accept the gift with pride and shall ever hold the donors in grateful remembrance.... Kindly and truly yours,

Edward H. Williams"

His tenure as a Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad is covered in some detail in the volume which the road published earlier this century on its superintendents, a copy of which I have seen, but do not have at hand at this writing. Something of his character and wisdom during this period are reflected in a letter of condolence at his death to Mrs. Dreer:

"In a reprimand (to me) he closed his last sentence with a smile and these words, "I want sometime to see you a superintendent." It was a new thought to me. I had never expected or thought of being anything more than a Station Agent... this was in 1858. In 1870 the Doctor invited me to join his staff in the middle division of the Penn. RR. It was the proudest day of my life. In reply I told him of (an offer to join the Chicago Burlington and Quincy RR) and I asked him to tell me what to do. I knew he would tell me the best way. In three minutes he said, "The position offered is full of promise. The CB&Q RR is the finest road in the west, and its management able and honest. You are safe there. Accept their offer as you can grow there faster than here."

The letter speaks for itself.

A Third Career

We turn now to the third career upon which the doctor turned railroadman now entered - that of manufacturing. On January 1, 1870, along with a few associates, including John H. Converse, a lifelong friend from boyhood days in Woodstock, he entered the partnership of Burnham & Parry, which became Burnham, Parry, and Williams, the holding company which owned and operated the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, the largest firm of its kind in the world. The new associates were to make it a worldwide household name, as he not only revamped its manufacturing method, but was a travelling salesman for its products in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Through his influence Baldwin Locomotives found their way to Sweden, Russia, Australia, India, Japan, and Mexico. But his first and probably most significant sale was to the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose equipment upgrading he had planned. He brought to his associates the largest order they had ever received, but with a penalty clause in the contract. The contract awarded a bonus for full delivery in advance of the deadline, but penalized them for every day they slipped past the delivery date. Since the order called for delivery in a few months of more locomotives than were normally produced in a year, his partners thought that he had taken leave of his senses. His solution was one of the landmark events in American manufacturing. As far as I know, it was Dr. Edward H. Williams who invented assembly line production. He seemingly wasted precious days by stopping production to rearrange the shops. A central track was laid down its length, with side tracks placed at right angles. The component parts of the locomotives were assembled on the side tracks and added to the mainframe rolling down the center. It worked, and the contract was fulfilled eighteen days ahead of schedule. This was years before Henry Ford, credited as originator of the assembly line, made his first automobile.

In dealing with foreign nations he often dealt not only with diplomats but even with royalty, and a number of honors came his way. For his contributions to upgrading the equipment of the Swedish railways, King Oscar knighted him making him a member of the Order of the Polar Star. Through his acquaintance with a boyhood Vermont friend, Admiral Dewey, he was introduced to the Emperor of Japan, and at the Emperor's insistence built the first railroad in Japan - not a very long one, but, as the old railroad joke goes, "as wide as any other." And of course it had a Baldwin locomotive. The Emperor made him a member of the Order of the Chrysanthemum, entitled to wear the flower emblem with one less petal displayed than that of the Emperor himself. At home, he received an academic honor which meant much to him when he was made an honorary alumnus of the University of Vermont, since his father had been a graduate of its first class.

In 1879 the United States made him its Commissioner to the Sydney Exposition in Australia. I remember as a boy poring over his scrap book of this trip. In it were complimentary memberships in clubs in Cairo, Bombay, Calcutta, Darwin, Adelaide, and Sydney, and passes for use on literally dozens of railroads in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. There were pictures of the Pyramids, of elephants with chair howdahs, and countless locomotive and railway scenes, many of them taken by himself. I believe it was on this trip that his habit of carrying his doctor's case with him proved a godsend, as there was a railway collision in Egypt, and he was able to minister to the wounded as first doctor on the scene.

There is an amusing story his oldest granddaughter Olive B. W. Parke tells of an incident in these world travels. He and Mrs. Williams were on a return trip to Japan, and a cigar ash fell on a pongee suit he had bought for tropical weather. His wife did an adroit job of mending the hole while they steamed across the Pacific. When they put in at Yokohama, he found a tailor who had similar material, and ordered two suits to be made just like the one he had brought to the shop. Shortly before re-embarking they collected the two new suits, and on opening the package in their stateroom, found the two new suits precisely like the original, even to having an exactly matching darning mend at the same spot as the original.

Our mention of Mrs. Williams brings us to point out how deeply devoted the Dr. and his wife were to each other. She was often his companion on travels, and at her death in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, where they made their final home, on July 16, 1889, he was deeply affected. A longtime associate, in a letter to their daughter says, "Their devotion to each other was grandly beautiful, and oh so rare." The Doctor gave, in her memory, to UVM, Williams Science Hall, which now houses the Arts Department.

Dr. Williams was not only devoted as a husband but had an abiding feeling for his native town. After retiring from the Pennsylvania RR. in 1870 his wider travels may have inspired a deepening of this feeling. In any case he bought a place on the back road to Taftsville, long known as Sunnyside. The old home in which he had grown up he had torn down to make room for the memorial building for his father and mother - The Norman Williams Public Library. He and his wife came to the opening, but according to Dana's History of Woodstock seemed to be happier in seeing old friends and neighbors than anything else.

It is true that Dr. Williams became quite wealthy, and had homes in Rosemont, PA. and Santa Barbara CA. He had built a remarkably fine collection of Japanese art, half of which his daughter Anne Williams Dreer gave to the children of Woodstock as a memorial to him and his wife. But at his death in 1899, just four days before Christmas, only a small gathering of family and close friends attended a service conducted at his son-in-laws home by Archdeacon Ramsey of Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara. Later he was reburied in the family lot in the River Street Cemetery in Woodstock.

In a commencement address at UVM on June 18th, 1928, Alba B. Johnson made Dr. Williams and his lifelong friend and associate John H. Converse the subjects of what he had to say. In summing up he remarked, "These men both loved their native state of Vermont, and though living elsewhere their ties of affection for it were never weakened. Both were successful from the material standpoint by which most men measure success, but in a larger and better sense they both achieved a success which has no relation to material wealth. They realized the higher happiness which comes from service and from the life of the spirit."

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