Friday, January 9, 2009

Ten years ago he was a teamster -- now he is a millionaire


Figuring on Big Things and Carrying Them Through Successfully.

Nelson Bennett, one of the most noted of Western railroad builders, arrived from Tacoma yesterday and is at the Palace. He is accompanied by his family and George F. Orchard, a Tacoma Pioneer.

Mr. Bennett did the grading and rock work on a large tract of the lining of the Oregon Capitol Railway and Navigation Company, and on the Montana division of the Northern Pacific. He also did a good deal of work on different roads in Utah. He built the Cascade division of the Northern Pacific from Pasco, at the mouth of the Snake river, to Puget Sound, including the big Cascade tunnel, the heaviest piece of work done on any road for years.


This was a Herculean work, but Mr. Bennett rushed it through in a hurry, completing it in two years, when thousands of people said it was impossible to be done short of ten years, if indeed it could be finished at all. Many people predicted that it would bankrupt the road. On this tunnel Mr. Bennett made a great deal of money -- how much is not definitely known. He had also made large sums on his other contracts, and he is looked upon as one of the wealthiest contractors in the country. Every contract he has touched made money for him, and his wealth is now variously estimated at from $5,000,000 to $7,000,000.

A year or so ago he secured for fifty years, and for a small sum, the entire franchise for streetcars in Tacoma. This he sold only a month ago to Henry Villard and others for $187,000.

Mr. Bennett has been scarcely ten years in coming to the front as a millionaire. Not that long ago he was a poor man.

He began as a simple laborer with a team on a Utah road. He made some money for a time, but made a miscalculation as to the hardness of some work in a cut, and went bankrupt.


Washington Dunn had the principal contract on the Utah and Northern road, the one in question, where Mr. Bennett had sub-contract. When Bennett summed up his work he found he was $100,000 behind. He went to Mr. Dunn and offered to convert over to him 700 or 800 mules and his grading outfit, but Mr. Dunn told him to go ahead and he would wait.

Many stories are told of the hard times he had at that time, of his struggles and efforts to get up again. Mr. Bennett himself, it is said, now laughs about them and looks back upon the time as one of the happiest periods in his life. But while he felt certain he would rise, he did not then expect to amass more than $100,000 or so. He changed his base and moved to Bear Lodge, M. T., with his family and established a home there. While pushing railroad work too, he and his brothers, under the name of Bennett Brothers, established a small agricultural implement and hardware store. It grew and stores were also established at Butte, Missoula, and Stevensville. Contracts were taken on Oregon and Montana roads.

About this time Washington Dunn, the chief contractor on the Northern Pacific, died suddenly of heart disease in a sleeping car at Missoula. Mr. Bennett, who had contracts under him, soon took the position vacated. Then he got along faster. Four years ago he removed to Portland and made that the headquarters of his operations.

When he took the big contract for the Cascade tunnel he moved to Puget sound. He is now and for some time past has been heavily invested in Washington Territory property. Everything has gone his way, and among all the builders of railways in the Northwest and none are so prominent or more talked about than Mr. Bennett. People have got to thinking that whatever he has taken hold of, no matter how difficult, will go through.

Mr. Bennett is a thick-set, dark-eyed man with a jet black hair, and is altogether one of the most unassuming of men.


His success has not changed him, and going about, as he does, careless in dress, he would scarcely be taken for one of the shrewdest figures in Western railway building. He has always figured for big things. It has been his delight to put his brain against others on the heaviest contracts going.

Mr. Bennett is about forty-five years of age. He and his family are in California for a brief change of climate. They will visit Monterey and probably Los Angeles and San Diego before returning to their home in Washington Territory.

[San Francisco Examiner, January 26, 1888]


A story of Puget Sound as told by Will Visscher in Chicago Times-Herald.

A pen picture of the enterprising men and the bustling men days of the 1889-90.

How a well known city arose out of a howling wilderness, as if by magic, until it numbered 10,000 people--the way its promising future was blasted.

It came and it went, as does as does a vivid dream.

One night in 1890 I was at work at my desk in a Puget Sound city. [Tacoma, Washington] ‘Twas 11 o'clock, and a brusque stocky man [Nelson Bennett], reputed to be four times a millionaire, came into the little den and said:

“Do you want to get rich?”


“Then put on your hat and coat and come with me."

“How long will it take?"

“Get you back here tomorrow evening in time to do your work."

The night was perfect, clear and moonlit. A cab stood at the curb. The stocky man followed me into that.

“Drive to the Ocean dock," he said.

Soon we were on board a trim little steamer, and we drank champagne and played whist for hours; then turned in.

At nine o'clock next morning I was on deck. The vessel lay at anchor near a small horse-shoe shaped cove, and about us lay the grandest bay I have ever seen, and I have seen Naples.

The glorious body of water was framed in a great margin of primeval forest rising to the timberline in many places of snow-capped mountains. The trees were great firs and cedars, from 200 to 400 feet tall, beneath them small deciduous trees and a tangled undergrowth of brush and vines that seemed as if it would hinder the progress of a cinnamon bear.

At the south point of the cove was a slim attempt at a wharf, and that the shore end of that stood a rickety log cabin and a few tumble-down outhouses. There was a sort of a clearing, of perhaps an acre and these were the only signs of human habitation. My stocky friend joined me on deck and remarked:

“Lots of land in this country.”

“Yes, seems as if there might be."

“I own 300 acres out there."

“Yes? Who owned it before you did?

“The squatter down there."

“What are you going to do with it?"

“Build a city."

“Oh! Build a city?"

“That's what I said. And you are going to help me."

“I am a going to help you?"

“You told me once that some great man had told you that a great newspaper, a great hotel and a great theater would rally a city about them in the wilderness. Here's a chance to put that proposition to a test. I will build the hotel and theater, and you can build the newspaper. I'll furnish the capital for all. What do you say?"

“It's a go. But what else have you got here?"

“Twenty-two years ago the reports of the United States Coast survey said that this bay had a greater natural advantages than any other harbor on the Pacific coast; the largest area of holding ground; safest from storms, and the resources of its shores are the most opulent. Up to that (pointing to the left) are eighty miles square of as fertile land as there is on earth, particularly adapted to the raising of grain, hops, fruit and edible vegetables. Those mountains are full of coal, iron, building stone, asbestos, copper, gold and silver. Here's the finest timber on earth, and these waters are full of the best kinds of fish."

“How do you know all this?”

“I have had cruisers at work for seven years spying out the best locality on Washington shores for the building of the city. The thing has simmered down to this point."

At this juncture a canoe, containing two men, put out from the shore. The man paddling was the squatter. The passenger was my millionaire's agent. The squatter was coming for his first payment of $25,000 for his land, the tract having been sold by him for the round the sum of $100,000.

These matters were quickly adjusted on board, and I discovered in the agent the most brilliant specimen of the genus “boomer” that I have ever come in contact with. He actually tried to sell me lots, then and there, in the new city, and indeed succeeded in selling back to the squatter several corner lots on what had been a few minutes before his wild domain and figures a thousand percent. above what it had just been sold for. Moreover, it was the best purchase the squatter had ever made. The land in his hands was worth nothing as compared to its ownership by a multi-millionaire, and he afterwards sold his lots for another fortune.

We sailed away, back to our own city, and I was at my desk on time that evening.

At Christmas I went back there on business bent. The change was wonderful. Half a dozen sawmills were fairly slicing out lumber, that was borne away as rapidly as it came from the saws, slabs and all, to build houses, shanties, sheds. The townsite was already checkered with streets. Some quite respectable houses had gone up. Real estate offices were thick, saloons were thicker, and there was a dancehouse and a variety theater. Some respectable women were there, living upstairs over their husbands’ places of business.

The city was growing fast, and the noise of saws and hammers was heard all day and far into the night, with detonations of dynamite and giant powder, at intervals, blowing out the great stumps of trees. Men, horse scrapers, wagons and teams were grading streets, plank sidewalks were being constructed, and it was altogether a busy season.

The spot was selected for the printing office. He two-story for that purpose was erected, with the sawed-off stumps of huge trees for foundations. Less than a year afterwards those stumps were taken out and a stone and brick foundation was put in, giving the establishment another floor. In less than three months the Daily Herald was issued, a handsome quarto. There were four presses, that were kept running day and night, with electric dynamo at night and steam in the day time. In three months more the newspaper had to be enlarged to sixteen pages, to carry the advertisements.

The streets of the city were lighted by electric arc lights; the incandescent lights were used in business houses and homes, and the gaslight system was added. There were excellent police, fire, water and sewer systems, and trolley streetcar lines. Handsome business blocks of stone, brick, iron and plate glass were erected. Pretty cottages of Queen Anne, Eastlake, Westlake and Salt lake architecture dotted the hillsides, and there were flowering lawns and springing fountains

In forteen months there stood upon what before had been a howling wilderness, a superb a city of 10,000 people, with all the adjuncts and accessories of the great metropolis. At the immense docks lay vessels of all maritime nations, and a railroad connected the place with the Canadian Pacific on the north at New Westminster, B. C., and with the Northern Pacific on the south at Seattle. It was a great proposition and a good one.

Then there came a big railroad magnet who bought the little railroad, much to the indignation of my multimillionaire friend. He opposed the sale, but men whom he had given stock in his big scheme went back on him in the vote of the shareholders. The railroad magnate had promised great things for the new city with his new transcontinental road. My multimillionaire didn't believe in him. The magnate won, and my multimillionaire sold out his other interests there and left.

This appalled many people who believed in my multimillionaire.

Some people left.

The magnate sent the repair shops to Seattle. Then he moved to the headquarters of the little road to Seattle.

More people left.

Then he ran his transcontinental road into Seattle and the new city became a way station, shortly a byword, and it is only seen on a few maps today. The late panic finished it.

There are probably not a thousand people in the place. There are entire squares of huge houses, where once business was rife, that are now tenanted only by rats. It is pathetic.

The city went down about as rapidly as it went up. Now and then I meet one who was there in the boom times, and we say:

“Oh, but wasn't that a rattler!"

And we do something in the way of reminiscesense.

The most painful part of the story is that it is true. Oh, so painfully true.

Will Visscher.

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