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William Collins Whitney

In office
March 7, 1885 – March 4, 1889
Preceded by William E. Chandler
Succeeded by Benjamin F. Tracy

Born July 5, 1841(1841-07-05)
Conway, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died February 2, 1904 (aged 62)
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Flora Payne
Profession Politician, Businessman

William Collins Whitney (July 5, 1841 - February 2, 1904) was an American political leader and financier and founder of the prominent Whitney family. He served as Secretary of the Navy in the first Cleveland administration from 1885 through 1889. A conservative reformer, he was considered a Bourbon Democrat.


Early life

William Whitney was born at Conway, Massachusetts of Puritan stock. The family were descended from John Whitney of London, who settled at Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1635. William Whitney's father was Brigadier General James Scollay Whitney; his mother, Laurinda Collins, was a descendant of Plymouth governor William Bradford. William Whitney had a well known older brother, industrialist Henry Melville Whitney (1839-1923), president of the Metropolitan Steamship Company, founder of the West End Street Railway Company of Boston, and later founder of the Dominion Coal Company and Dominion Iron and Steel Company in Sydney, Nova Scotia on Cape Breton Island. His sister Lucy Collins "Lily" Whitney married Charles T. Barney, who became the president of the Knickerbocker Trust Company.[1] Another sister, Susan Collins Whitney, married Henry F. Dimock.

Educated at Williston Seminary, East Hampton, Massachusetts, Whitney was graduated from Yale University in 1863 and then studied law at Harvard. He left in 1864 to study law with Abraham R. Lawrence in New York City, and in 1865 was admitted to the bar.[1][2]

On October 13, 1869, he married Flora Payne, daughter of Senator Henry B. Payne of Ohio and a sister of Whitney's Yale classmate, Colonel Oliver Hazard Payne, later treasurer of the Standard Oil Company. The Whitneys had five children:

Political career

Whitney was active in organizing the Young Men's Democratic Club in 1871. He was an aggressive opponent of the Tweed Ring, and was actively allied with the anti-Tammany County Democracy of 1871-1890. In 1872 he was made inspector of schools, but the same year met defeat in the election for district attorney.

Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney in his office (circa 1885)

From 1875 to 1882[3] he was corporation counsel of New York, and as such brought about a codification of the laws relating to the city, and successfully contested a large part of certain claims, largely fraudulent, against the city, amounting to about $20 million, and a heritage from the Boss Tweed regime. In 1882 he resigned to attend to personal interests.[4]

In 1883, through the Broadway Railroad Company, Whitney became involved in a struggle with Jacob Sharp and Thomas Fortune Ryan for the Broadway street-railway franchise. Sharp initially won the franchise by means of bribery, but in December 1884 Ryan formed an alliance with Whitney and Peter A.B. Widener. By arousing public opinion, instituting court action, and prompting legislative investigation, they defeated Sharp. The Ryan syndicate finally received the franchise in 1886.[5]

During President Cleveland's first administration (1885-1889), Whitney was United States Secretary of the Navy and did much to develop the United States Navy. The contracts issued under the previous administration were investigated impartially by a committee appointed by Whitney and comprising Commodore Evans, Commodore Belknap and Herman Winter, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Steamship Company. Whitney promoted the adoption by industry of the technology needed for the construction of steel steamships and modern naval guns and the domestic manufacture of plate armor. He also reorganized the finances and logistics of the Navy Department and helped make the Naval War College a success.

When Whitney left office in 1889, steel vessels completed or under construction included the armored cruiser (later battleship) Maine; monitors Puritan, Amphitrite, Monadnock, Terror and Miantonomoh; protected cruisers Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Newark, Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and San Francisco; dynamite-gun cruiser Vesuvius; dispatch vessel Dolphin; gunboats Yorktown, Concord, Bennington and Petrel; and torpedo boat Cushing. These constituted the nucleus of the "New Navy"[6][7]

During Whitney's four years in the cabinet, his home in Washington, D.C., was a social center of great attraction. In 1888 Yale conferred upon him the honorary degree of LL.D.

Whitney joined Charles T. Barney, Henry F. Dimock, W.E.D. Stokes, Francis W. Jenks, and others in forming the New York Loan and Improvement Company in 1890. This concern developed the Washington Heights section of New York City. Barney was president of the company when he died in 1907, three years after Whitney.[8]

In opposition to Tammany, Whitney was instrumental in bringing about the third nomination of Cleveland in 1892, and took an influential part in the ensuing presidential campaign.

Whitney joined his brother Henry in organizing the Dominion Coal Company Ltd. in 1893 and the Dominion Iron and Steel Company Ltd. in 1899 to exploit the mineral resources of the Sydney district of Cape Breton Island. Other early investors included Henry F. Dimock, Almeric H. Paget and Charles T. Barney.

In the next general election, in 1896, disapproving of the "free-silver" agitation, Whitney refused to support his party's candidate, William Jennings Bryan.[9]

Thoroughbred horse racing

William Whitney was also a major investor in thoroughbred horse racing, hiring the best trainers, buying the best horses, and engaging the services of the best jockey of the day.[10] He established Westbury Stable with a string of Thoroughbred race horses, competing against the successful stable of business associate, James R. Keene. At his vast summer estate near Old Westbury on Long Island, Whitney built an 800-foot stable with 84 box stalls and an adjoining mile-long training track. At the turn of the century, in the United States his horses were trained by future U.S. Racing Hall of Fame inductee John W. Rogers and in England by John Huggins.

He was the breeder of twenty-six American stakes winners, including the great filly Artful from his stallion Hamburg. On June 5, 1901, Whitney won England's Derby with Volodyovski, leased by him from Lady Valerie Meux.[11][12] On October 24, 1903, the New York Times reported that W. C. Whitney had entered into a ten-year lease deal with A. J. Alexander for one thousand acres of the Wood Stud farm property at Spring Station, Kentucky. [1]

Later life

The monument of William Whitney in Woodlawn Cemetery

Whitney was a member of Ward McAllister's Patriarch Society until its dissolution in April 1897.[13] After Flora's death on February 5, 1893, Whitney married a widow named married Edith Sibyl Randolph (née May). He commissioned McKim, Mead and White to build for her a residence in the Italian Renaissance style at Fifth Avenue and 68th Street. She died in a riding accident on May 6, 1899.[14]

At his residence, 871 Fifth Avenue, Whitney gave a debutante ball for his niece, Helen Barney, on January 5, 1901.[15]

He remained active in street-railway affairs until the reorganization of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company in 1902. At that time he retired from all personal identification with the company.[16]

William Collins Whitney died on February 2, 1904, and was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.

The USS Whitney (AD-4) was named in his honor when launched on October 12, 1923 at the Boston Navy Yard. The William C. Whitney Wilderness Area of the Adirondack Park is also named in his honor.


  1. ^ a b The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. II, p. 407. New York: James T. White & Company, 1899. Reprint of 1891 edition.
  2. ^ Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. XX, p. 165. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936.
  3. ^ During nearly the same period, 1875 to 1881, his brother-in-law, Henry F. Dimock, was commissioner of docks for the Port of New York.
  4. ^ The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, op. cit.
  5. ^ Dictionary of American Biography, op. cit.
  6. ^ Lieut. W.S. Hughes, USN, "Our New Navy", The American Magazine, September 1887, pp. 549-560.
  7. ^ Robert Gardiner (ed. dir.), Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships, pp. 139-140, 145-146, 150-152, 159, 163-164. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1979.
  8. ^ "Mr. Barney's Career. Prominent All His Life in Finance, Art, and Realty Operations", The New York Times, November 15, 1907.
  9. ^ The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, op. cit.
  10. ^ Cleveland Amory, Who Killed Society?, p. 502. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960.
  11. ^ London Times, June 6, 1901.
  12. ^ Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. XX, p. 166.
  13. ^ Eric Homberger, Mrs. Astor's New York. Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age, pp. 218-219. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
  14. ^ Dictionary of American Biography, op. cit.
  15. ^ Amory, pp. 502-503.
  16. ^ Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. XX, p. 165.

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
William E. Chandler
United States Secretary of the Navy
1885 - 1889
Succeeded by
Benjamin F. Tracy


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