New York in History and Anecdote
Random header image... Refresh for more!

W.R. Grace, the Businessman Mayor

Some years ago, New Yorkers chose a self-made billionaire businessman who had never held office to be the 108th mayor of the City of New York. His major opponent, a politician then apparently without business experience, argued that at least a decade at the public trough was a requirement for the office. Many commentators apparently shared this belief, or at least seemed to think that a businessman mayor was a new idea.

It wasn’t. Being mayor was once a lot less work than it is now. City government didn’t do very much. If the streets are cleaned by herds of pigs, you don’t need sanitation workers. If the law is enforced by elected sheriffs and ward constables, public order is not your responsibility. Cholera and riots, then, become acts of fate. (One early 19th-century mayor considered his a record of glorious achievement: he replaced the fence around City Hall Park. Period.) One could tend to business while dealing with public affairs in one’s spare time.

Once New Yorkers began electing their mayors, the chief executives tended to be men who could endure campaigning. As the elites found, more and more, that politics required time more profitably invested in their businesses, they abandoned the field, leaving it to Tammany and other scum who were interested in doing the day-to-day work of winning elections.

We still elected businessmen mayors. James Harper, elected in 1843 on the Know-Nothing ticket (an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, pro-slavery party), was a partner in Harper Brothers, Publishers. Edward Cooper, son of the philanthropist Peter Cooper, had inherited his father’s glue factories. William F. Havemeyer, wealthy sugar merchant, served three terms as mayor, 1845-’46, 1847-’48, and 1873-’74. Seth Low, mayor of Brooklyn before the city’s consolidation in 1898 and elected mayor of New York in 1901, was also a businessman. These men inherited money and status.

Another was a self-made man. Although his public service is nearly forgotten, his name is remembered because the company he founded still bears his name: W.R. Grace.

William Russell Grace, the 54th and 56th mayor of the City of New York, had been born in Ireland in 1832. His early adolescence coincided with the repeated failures of the Irish potato crop between 1845 and 1847 that caused the Great Famine. Along with the widespread starvation, disease, and emigration which followed the blight, there arose a hidden psychological consequence. Ambitious young men who had seen the collapse of the rudimentary social welfare system in Ireland were revolted by what they perceived as the failure of Irish society. Billy Grace was among them. At thirteen, he ran off to sea.

He first entered New York as a merchant seaman. Once ashore, he worked as a cobbler’s helper, printer’s apprentice, and clerk. He found that he liked business, and after he returned home in 1848, he became a broker. Three years later, he traveled to South America with his father, who was leading a colonization scheme involving a Peruvian sugar plantation. At twenty-two, Billy became a ship’s chandler in Callao, Peru.

W.R. Grace had arrived amidst a kind of gold rush, for the wealth of the world was being flung at Peru’s feet, all for a unique resource: guano, dried bird dung. Millions of birds interrupt their annual migrations by resting on the Guano Islands, off the Peruvian coast. Over time, they left behind mountains of dried excrement. In the 1840s, agricultural science rediscovered what the Incas had known before Pizarro: that guano is an amazingly rich fertilizer.

Thus Peru became the world’s largest and most accessible source of guano. World demand became a passion and then madness. Chinese immigrant workers shoveled the guano into wagons, which were dumped into barges, which lightered the cargo out to hundreds of waiting ships. Having gone around Cape Horn, the clippers and square-riggers were in immediate need of naval stores: sails, rope, spars, masts, ship’s blocks, turpentine, tar, pitch, oakum, nails, kerosene, hard tack, salt pork.

In 1854, Grace adopted an elemental rule of retailing: go where the customers are. He equipped a store ship, a floating warehouse, and had it towed to the Guano Islands. The customers found his store convenient, and Grace himself was brisk, well mannered, and a fun-loving charmer. New England captains often brought their families along on their voyages. Grace met Lillius Gilchrest, a captain’s daughter, aboard her father’s ship; on September 11, 1859, they married. She brought patience, good humor, and courage to an extraordinarily successful marriage.

By 1862, W.R. Grace was rich. He moved to New York, where he worked out of 47 Exchange Place and, later, India House, using a secondhand desk placed near the door so he might be handy to callers. He speculated in real estate. He dealt in sugar and rubber. He operated, chartered, and invested in ships to carry his cargoes and those of other merchants: sewing machine oil, shoe-pegs, grindstones, glassware, shoe nails, tacks, stoves, scales, wallpaper, cutlery, lamps, tools, files, flatware, machinery, and novelties, among many, many other things. His passion for sail never left him: he built up the last great fleet of sailing freighters and did not own a single steamship until 1893.

Grace was an independent Democrat who had never taken more than a layman’s interest in politics. Nonetheless, in 1878 he had been mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor. Two years later, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He favorably impressed several professional politicians, including John F. “Honest John” Kelly, the Tammany Hall boss. In September 1880, the Irving Hall and Tammany Hall factions of the Democratic Party began negotiating a single ticket for city office. Irving Hall suggested Grace for mayor; Kelly agreed. On October 22, 1880, with two weeks before the election, Grace was nominated.

The New York Times immediately tossed the campaign into the mud. In its first attack editorial, the Times said, “Though neither his birth nor his religion can be held to be of itself a disqualification for the office of Mayor…” Thus the Establishment signaled its disfavor of an Irish-born Roman Catholic mayor. The Republicans chimed in, one orator claiming that Grace would “make this City subordinate to…the Holy Father in Rome.” Despite the outrageous anti-Catholicism of the Times, Grace squeaked in by 2,914 votes.

Tammany’s enduring power rested on social services. The poor don’t think of reform when the local boss immediately provides food, shelter, clothing, and jobs without endless questionnaires. John F. Kelly was called “Honest John” because, having been in Europe during most of the Tweed era, he had been unable to steal. Now he made up for lost opportunities.

Grace and Kelly were allies at best and the alliance did not survive Grace’s first month in office. The boss suggested a man for important office whom Grace found unfit. Grace did not understand that public office existed to support the organization. Kelly called on Grace at City Hall.  Voices were heard from inside the Mayor’s office. Then Grace barked, “No one can dictate to me, Mr. Kelly.” Honest John stomped out of City Hall. Some said he seemed cross. Thereafter it was war.

Grace’s great struggle during his first term was reorganizing the street-cleaning bureau, which was then part of the Police Department. Although vast sums were spent, no cleaning was done and the streets were filthy, with up to a foot of muck in the roadbed. The commissioners had hired an army of Tammany hacks who seemed to appear only to pick up their paychecks. This was unwise in the long run. Paying $10,000 for $1,000 worth of work is incompetence; paying $10,000 for no work at all is an indictment.

In early 1881, after comparing the increasing expenditures of the bureau with the increasingly bad condition of the streets, Grace preferred charges against the street-cleaning commissioners. Grace knew he was dealing with either corruption or incompetence. The legislature enacted a Tammany bill creating a separate street-cleaning department. Then the Governor dismissed Grace’s charges because the commissioners reverted to duty as police officers and were no longer street-cleaning commissioners. Yet because Grace had drawn so much attention to the issue, the streets became cleaner.

Businessmen, too, tried to raid the city treasury. In 1881, Jay Gould, the financier, used his control of the New York World to attack the management of the Manhattan Elevated Railway. He intended to drive down the price of its stock. His attacks were largely accurate, effective, and successful. In late 1881 or early 1882, Gould asked Grace for a meeting to discuss tax reduction. Grace declined the offer, simply stating that the Manhattan Elevated would have to pay its taxes. Gould had a bill written to his order and passed by the legislature. Under public pressure from Mayor Grace, the Governor vetoed the legislation.

The Mayor chose not to run in 1882. Instead, he concentrated on governing the city. Grace returned to business, praised by many who had criticized him during his first campaign. He did not entirely neglect his political fences: he developed a warm friendship with a young Republican assemblyman, Theodore Roosevelt, who shared his interest in municipal reform.

On October 20, 1884, reform-minded businessmen met at the Academy of Music on 14th Street between Third Avenue and Irving Place to choose a clean government slate at the upcoming city elections. They nominated Grace, creating a three-way race between Grace, the Tammanyite, and the Republican, who had agreed to take a dive in Tammany’s favor. Roosevelt, learning of the Tammany-GOP deal, came out for Grace. It was an amazingly dirty campaign. Tammany even called into question whether Grace had been lawfully naturalized. Most people thought Tammany’s violent attacks on Grace were a most powerful endorsement of his integrity, and so he won by 10,000 votes.

Grace’s second term was less dramatic. He understood the job now, and his appointments were generally strong. The legislature approved his bill to require that all city franchises be sold to the highest bidder. Surely, he must have allowed himself a moment of glee when he formally accepted the gift of the Statue of Liberty from the French Republic in the name of the United States.

After his second term Grace again returned to private life. In 1900, he dislocated his shoulder in a fall. Thereafter, he was never an entirely well man. Yet there were flashes of the old fire. Marquis James in Merchant Adventurer, his biography of Grace, writes that the former mayor sometimes rode the 3rd Avenue elevated from his home on 79th Street to his offices on Hanover Square, below Wall Street.  “One day in his seventieth year, he arose to give his seat to a lady. A young man dropped into the seat. Mr. Grace took the young man by the collar and lifted him to his feet.”

On December 7, 1903 W.R. Grace left his office and went straight home with a bad cold. Pneumonia developed in both lungs. He recovered enough to transact business from bed. On March 20, 1904, he asked about one of his steamships.  Then he slipped into a coma from which he never awoke.

New York Press, December 11, 2001


There are no comments yet...

Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment