Another James W. Ellsworth

Portrait of James W. Ellsworth

Portrait of James W. Ellsworth

Last night I impatiently googled my name to see if this site would pop up.  It didn’t.  I’ll give google’s crawlers a few more days and try again.  I did, however, find information about another James W. Ellsworth, someone important enough to have a wealth of Internet content all about him.  I feel it is important to note that I am distantly (but trace-ably) related to this person, and also that the ‘W’ in this case stands for William and not the Wilson that gives me my middle initial. 

James W. Ellsworth was born in Hudson, Ohio, on October 13, 1849.  His grandfather, Elisha Ellsworth had emigrated from Torrington, CT to Hudson in 1816.  There, he and later his son and grandson held large tracts of land in the town and even facing the town green itself.  It was in the family store, Ellsworth and Buss, which faced the Hudson town green, that James worked as a boy.  He went to preparatory school at Western Reserve Academy, a place that he would extensively endow later in life.

After completing his time at preparatory school, James worked for a year at a Cleveland drug wholesaler.  In 1869, at the age of 20, James moved to Chicago to work for Ames & Company, a coal-mining firm, as a commissioning agent.  From there, James W. Ellsworth’s skill for business allowed him to rise rapidly in the company, and within the next ten years Ames & Co. became James W. Ellsworth & Co. Under this company, his empire boomed.  James expanded to coal properties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia and had offices in Chicago, New York City, and Pittsburgh.  It was in this era of expansion that James was responsible for one of Chicago’s first skyscrapers, the 14-story Ellsworth Building, built in 1892, which still stands on the 300 block of South Dearborn St.  

James W. Ellsworth’s greatest business undertaking was the Ellsworth Mines in Pennsylvania.  It was around this mining complex that James created his own version of the George Pullman model town, Ellsworth, PA.  The town, created for employees of the mines, featured a colonial building style that James especially liked.  The town was a huge success.  Two decades later, James applied lessons learned in creating Ellsworth, PA in improving his own hometown of Hudson, OH with such features as new buildings, a community center, a clock-tower, electricity, indoor plumbing, and paved roads.

From 1896 to 1898, James served as president of the Union National Bank of Chicago, where he signed National Bank notes.  National Bank notes of that time were issued by banks and backed by bonds held by the Treasury.  They were a form of currency that evolved into the common paper money used in the United States today, and resembled their successors up until recent changes in the designs of U. S. bills.

James was a close friend of President William McKinley and an avid Republican.  He was also a proponent of prohibition and arranged a deal with Hudson, OH that it would remain dry for 50 years in exchange for his providing some of the amenities listed above, free of charge.  In upgrading utilities in Hudson, James received resistance from several telephone and electrical companies who refused to move their wires underground.  Determined, James built his own power company and ran his own underground transmission lines.  He handed over the deed to the power company and the water treatment plant he had also built, to the town of Hudson.  James moved telephone lines underground in the same manner, by starting his own telephone company and forcing out the competition.  His company, Western Reserve Telephone, is now known as Alltel. 

Lincoln Ellsworth, James W. Ellsworth’s son, later wrote that his father’s proudest accomplishment was his work on the World’s Fair.  James “could justly claim to have been one of a small handful of Chicago men who made the Exposition the artistic and Cultural triumph it became.” Chicago had won the competition to host the fair, officially known as the World Columbian Exposition.  It was James W. Ellsworth’s plan and vision that developed into the 1893 World’s Fair, most famous for its giant Ferris Wheel, with compartments the size of railroad cars.  The Fair would have a profound impact on American culture for the next 30 years, and would also contribute to James W. Ellsworth’s personal collections, as discussed later.

James W. Ellsworth married Eva Frances Butler of Chicago on November 4, 1874.  They had two children, Lincoln and Claire, before Eva died in 1888.  In 1898, James re-married, this time to a New Yorker, Julia Clark Fincke.  He had no children with his second wife.

In addition to maintaining (and constantly adding to) his estate in Hudson, Ohio, James maintained homes on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, on Park Avenue in New York City, in Switzerland, and many other places.  In 1904, he bought and later restored the villa Palmieri, near Florence Italy.  Boccaccio supposedly wrote the Decameron while at the same Palmieri centuries earlier.  It was at Palmieri where James W. Ellsworth’s life would come to an end, on June 2, 1925 at the age of 75.

As were many Gilded Age millionaires, James W. Ellsworth was an avid connoisseur and collector.  His most notable piece, and that which he was most proud of acquiring was Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of a Man’.  James acquired the painting from the Princess de Sagan in Paris in 1889.  The now-priceless masterpiece hung on the wall of his home in Chicago.  Today, the painting can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which considers it ‘remarkable for its quality and condition’. 

Another important artifact resulted in James W. Ellsworth’s work as the principal Director of the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  At the end of the exposition, James acquired the Cross of La Rabida, part of the Spanish pavilion at the event.  The cross itself came from the place where Columbus stated right before he departed on his famous voyage in 1492, the Monastery of Santa Maria de la Rabida in Palos, Spain.  Years later, James donated the artifact to the Western Reserve Academy, in whose chapel it is prominently displayed.

James was also an avid coin collector.  One of his most notable possessions was also a result of his work with the World Columbian Exposition.  As a Director of the Exposition, James was present in Philadelphia for the 1892 minting of the first Columbian half dollar.  James received the very first coin minted.  James also at one time owned two of the fifteen known 1804 silver dollars, considered one of the rarest and most famous coins in the world.  Another of his notably rare coin possessions was the finest known 1787 Brasher doubloon.

James also owned a Gutenberg Bible and many other collectible books, including first editions of many classics.  He also owned collections of Chinese porcelain, ancient Greek statuettes, oriental rugs, tapestries, and autographs.

James was unable to spend much time with his children because he had to constantly attend to the businesses that had made him successful.  His son Lincoln would soon eclipse James in fame through his expeditions to the polar regions.  While they were not close, James had a profound impact on Lincoln, who greatly admired his father.

If I did not have for him the warm affection a son feels toward a less austere and preoccupied father, I at least had an immense respect for him, and a great admiration. One of the things that made me persist in the Antarctic in the face of sickening discouragements was my determination to name a portion of the earth’s surface after my father. I knew that if I could cross that ice-locked continent I was bound to discover new territory. On the most recent map of Antarctica a segment of 350,000 square miles of mountain and high plateau is lettered: ‘James W. Ellsworth Land (U.S.)’. That much I could do for him.
               – Lincoln Ellsworth (in Beyond Horizons)

The land that Lincoln named after his father is located on the still-mostly-unexplored western portion of Antarctica.  It is bordered by the Ronne Ice Shelf, Marie Byrd Land, Bellingshausen Sea, and Palmer Land (the Antatctic Peninsula).  Unfortunately, the claim was never verified by the United States, so the land is not officially American soil.  It is also referred to simply as Ellsworth Land (as you can see in the below map), leading to the misconception that the land was named after Lincoln and not his father, James.

Lincoln Ellsworth's Flight Path from 'Lincoln Ellsworth' (see sources)

Lincoln Ellsworth's Flight Path from 'Lincoln Ellsworth' (see sources)

So there you have it.  I share a name with a prominent industrialist from the Gilded Age and about 350,000 square miles of Antarctica.

Bowers, Q. David. ‘Col. James W. Ellsworth, Numismatist.’ 
Ellsworth, Lincoln. Beyond Horizons. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1938.
‘Lincoln Ellsworth.’
Vince, Thomas L. ‘James W. Ellsworth: If You Seek His Monument.’


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