William Fletcher Weld was one of the true merchant princes of Boston’s golden age. In looking for material on him, I wasn’t able to find any of the funny stories, or strange coincidences that are usually out there, just accounts of how much money he made, which at his death was estimated to be between US$ 17 and 20 million.
His father, William Gordon Weld, who had fought pirates and captained his own ships, died with little if any money for his family. William Fletcher then set to work to make it back, first by working in a counting house, then buying waterfront real estate, and ultimately getting into the ship-building business, and the rest as they say…is history.
The following is a brief excerpt from Isabel Anderson’s book, Under the Black Horse Flag.
A Weld ship flying the black horse flag
THE FOUNDER OF THE FLEET
…The story of the William Fletcher Weld shipping trade is so full of incident and anecdote that it can best be prefaced by a summary of his larger accomplishments. Very early in his young manhood he bought wharf property and began ship‑building. In 1833 his firm built the largest ship of the day, the Senator, and from that time forward ship after ship was added to the list until his vessels became a fleet, and William F. Weld and Company were believed to be the largest firm of ship‑owners in America. At one time he controlled the markets for Manila and for Russian hemp. His own counting‑rooms were on 4~ Central Wharf. Eventually he took into the firm with him his two sons, William Gordon Weld and George Walker Weld. Richard Baker, Jr. was, I think, always his partner, and although they had disasters, William F. Weld continued the partnership, for he said that Baker could transact more business in a few hours than any one else could in a whole day.
Later my grandfather became engaged in the development of railroad systems over the country, and grew to be a large stockholder and director in many Western railroads besides those in New England When the clipper ship industry had almost dropped away, this interest took its place. It was largely through his influence that the Boston and Maine was brought into Boston in 1844. He himself imported the rails for this road and transacted the business so much to the satisfaction of Messrs. Thompson and Forman, the leading iron‑masters of England, that they sent for him to visit them. This visit resulted in his becoming their sole agent for the distribution of all their rails throughout America.
By negotiating these sales to Western railroads, he joined with others in opening up the vast and rich areas which lay beyond the Mississippi. It was really a patriotic service which added greatly to the national wealth, and brought him into contact with all the principal men of the Great West.
His investments as time went on became very diversified—mill stocks, coal stocks, railroad stocks and bonds. Most of his railroad investments were in the territory of Illinois, Kansas, and Iowa, following close upon the opening‑up of these great prairie lands and farming communities. The coming of means of transportation into these States made agriculture suddenly profitable and homesteaders thronged out there in great numbers. A story runs to the effect that an engineer on one of the first trains leaned out of his window and called to the fireman, ‘Say, what town is this we’re coming to? I never saw it before.’
The fireman replied, ‘Must have sprung up since we ran through here yesterday.’
‘Guess it did,’ said the engineer. ‘Look out behind and see if any more have sprung up since we passed to‑day.’
My grandfather had also some real estate holdings. One was a building first used as a Masonic Temple and then by the United States Court until 1885 when it was sold by auction…
As for my grandfather, no panic affected him. He made his investments wisely and then retained them, rarely selling, but preserving a belief in their ultimate value, so that he contributed a stabilizing influence among other merchants and bankers.
In later years he believed that real estate in large growing cities was the only safe investment of property in this country for a long series of years to come.
He even directed in his will that this policy should be carried out by his trustees. Other financiers have said that he had a sagacity rarely equaled in the business life of any other American merchant.