Alexander County

Biography - William M. Williams

CAPTAIN WILLIAM M. WILLIAMS. There are few citizens of Cairo who do not enjoy a personal acquaintance with Captain William M. Williams, claim agent of the Mobile & Ohio Railway Company for the division from St. Louis to Cairo, a man who, though deeply engrossed in the concerns of one of this section's largest transportation companies, has found time to cultivate his social nature and to enjoy the pleasures of companionship with his fellow men. As a settler he is one of the mile-posts of progress, the span between Cairo's infancy and its strong and vigorous life as a metropolis, for he first became a resident of the city in 1855. Captain Williams was born near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, May 4, 1831, a son of Isaac and Mary (Torrence) Williams. From Pennsylvania the parents of Captain Williams moved into Virginia and then on into Kentucky, and while living there both passed away, the mother in 1844 and the father in 1855. She was a daughter of Albert Torrence, an Irish gentleman who settled about Fort Pitt, and there reared a family, while Mr. Williams was a son of George Williams, a native of North Carolina, who tilled the soil in Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and at his death in the last-named state left a large family.

Captain Williams' education came from the country districts of Pennsylvania and Virginia, where his father was engaged in farming, and he made the best of his youthful opportunities. That he was of manly parts early is evidenced by his publishing The Daily Wheeling Journal, of Wheeling, Virginia, when only seventeen years of age. This gave him an experience of great value in later life and his contributions to local publications of recent years reflect the training of the period when he was associated with the staff of a newspaper. When he abandoned the paste-pot and the editorial pencil, he engaged in the manufacture of salt at West Columbia, Virginia, in the Kanawha Valley, and continued that business until he came to Cairo, Illinois, in 1855, and associated himself with a cousin in the wholesale house of Williams, Stephens & Company. The firm erected the first brick building in the village, the one now occupied by R. Smyth & Company, at Nos. 503-507 Ohio street, and the business of the concern was important for that day of river transportation, but was dissolved in 1859. During the four years of Captain Williams' connection with this enterprise he chanced to meet many of the distinguished men of the country as they passed to and fro, and more than a half a century afterward he contributed to the local press of Cairo, upon invitation of friends, a few articles upon the famous people he had known and his impressions of them. Of the old historic characters of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, he knew them all, and of the very few who made reputations for themselves in other channels subsequently especially the Bard of Hannibal, Mark Twain he has a distinct recollection. Leaving Cairo in 1859, Captain Williams went to Arizona and engaged in mining as the superintendent of the St. Louis Mining Company. The presence of Americans in that (at that time) really Mexican field aroused the antipathy of the "Greaser" population, and they fell to and slew them all but the Captain himself, and the enterprise was abandoned. He next joined W. S. Grant, who had a government contract for furnishing supplies for the troops and animals serving in both Arizona and New Mexico, and remained in the West until the outbreak of hostilities ushering in the Civil war. He then returned to Washington, D. C., made his final report and settlement with the Government, and cast his fortunes with the Confederate cause. He was connected with General Van Dorn's army, operating in the country east of the Mississippi river, and while he took part in the contest was in detached service. He was in the vicinity of Vicksburg when that city fell into Federal hands, and then terminated his connection with military and took up civil life in the city. Entering the river traffic and establishing a small line of steamboats plying in and out of Vicksburg, he did a profitable business while he remained a resident of that city.

In 1870 the wheel of fortune turned toward Cairo again for Captain Williams and he returned to this city. He first built a distillery, but soon disposed of it, and during the next few years he devoted himself to independent pursuits. In 1880 he entered the employ of the old St. Louis & Cairo and Mobile & Ohio Railroad as its claim agent, and for a time did the work of the whole system. This field of activity has given him the opportunity of his whole life to become acquainted with human nature. An account of the hundreds of episodes showing the lengths to which mankind will go in an effort to put the railroads under obligations, in the experience of the Captain alone, would make a salable volume or two and cover a field not yet touched by the pen of an author.

The life of Captain Williams has been so closely given to his employers that he has not been a positive factor in his home affairs. He has ever been a strong Democrat and has always been capable of giving a reason for the faith that is in him, but has lived to see but one of his school of politics fill the presidency since the war. He remembers the campaign of 1840, and the campaign slogans of each party, and an appeal to his generous fund of political information brings out many incidents of the methods used and the leading characters engaged in our ante-bellum battles for the presidency.

Captain Williams was married in Covington, Kentucky, in 1863, to Miss Rachel Williams, his own cousin, who died in Cairo in 1904. Two daughters were born of this union; Mary Louise, who passed away here May 9, 1911, leaving her father as the last of his family; and Caroline Or 'Lea, who died in childhood. The Captain is a Master Mason and a consistent member of the Episcopal church.

In front of his office at the Mobile & Ohio station in Cairo there is a small park covered with stately shade trees planted by himself more than twenty-five years ago, and upon one corner of this triangular plot stands "Captain Billy Williams," a cannon, a gift to the city from the president of the Mobile & Ohio Railway Company, and from the old Confederate Fort Morgan, at Mobile, from whence it was transported and found a final resting place upon an emplacement erected at the expense of Captain Williams and his friend, Colonel W. Butler Duncan, of New York City, President of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad Company.

Extracted 15 Jan 2018 by Norma Hass from 1912 History of Southern Illinois, Volume 2, pages 680-681.

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