Captain Ward

Eber Brock Ward was Michigan’s most famous and most innovative Rich Man for much of the 19th century; his best comp is certainly Henry Ford, who flourished about 75 years later. I don’t think anyone’s written a full-blown biography of Ward, but there are pieces of him all over my library.

Bruce Catton’s Michigan says this:

Men who ought to have known better feared that those who planned the new [Sault Ste Marie] canal were much too optimistic. E.B. Ward of Detroit was the lakes’ chief steamboat magnate, just then, and he wrote anxiously to a Michigan Congressman protesting that the locks, planned to measure 350 feet in length by 70 in width, were much too large; 260 feet by 60 feet would be ample, because steamboats too large for such locks would be too big to get up the St. Mary’s River, which had shallow places with hard-rock bottoms…. [page 120]

…Captain Ward, as competent a businessman as the lakes country afforded, had turned out to be a terrible prophet, not because he lacked intelligence, but simply because neither he nor the other men who were industrializing this wilderness had any notion how fast the process was going to go, once it got started. [122]

The CCC’s Michigan Guide tells us:

Early in 1853, Captain Eber B. Ward, a Detroit shipping magnate, purchased the [John] Biddle estate [in Wyandotte] and established the Eureka Iron and Steel Company on the waterfront, the first plant of its kind in the Detroit area. A blast furnace and rolling mill were built, and a settlement was platted. In the next 20 years, Wyandotte pioneered in the steel industry with two important firsts: the first steel analysis laboratory in the United States (1862), and the manufacture of the first Bessemer steel [properly, this was Kelly-patent steel] in America (1864)…. Because of the mill’s position between the ore beds of upper Michigan and the coal fields of Ohio and Indiana, it seemed probably that it would become one of the most successful plants in the Nation; but Ward had overreached himself. When he fell dead in Detroit in 1875, his partners, hit by the panic of 1873, permitted the mill to fall into ruin…. [T]wo years before his death, Captain Ward had drilled an oil and gas well on his property, which, although it proved unproductive, revealed the existence of an immense salt bed of good quality and not too deep to be exploited commercially. [470]

Ward gets quite a bit of attention from Jean McHugh in her biography of Alexander Holley; here’s one paragraph:

Ward’s sole aim was to build the experimental plant and to rush it into operation. He was a strange person. To his credit, he rarely interfered with Durfee’s operation [Wyandotte’s Kelly-patent mill]. He has been described as a man of extremes: self-controlled and passionate, shrewd and credulous, persistent yet changeable. He was not an ironmaster in the true sense of the word and had little real understanding of the details of Durfee’s experiments. In his anxiety to make a financial success of the venture, Ward seemed always ready to listen to any suggestion, no matter how ridiculous. He probably had no intention of creating difficulties for Durfee, but seemed unable to resist trying out a persuasive scheme, especially if it were put forward by those unfriendly to Durfee. [175]

He’s mentioned four times in James C. Mills’ Our Inland Seas; this one is typical:

The large steamer Planet, built by Captain Ward at Newport, in 1855, and which was a leviathan of the time, was added to the [Goodrich] line about 1863. She was of twelve hundred tons, and splendidly furnished, but ran only until 1866, when she was taken off the line and dismantled. [240]

Finally, and most surprisingly, Ward and his sons show up in Peter Morris’s wonderful Baseball Fever:

For five years, Ward tried desperately to make businessmen of his sons, but failed miserably. He put Charley in charge of a business in Toledo, and Charley proceeded to run up thirty-seven thousand dollars in debts. Captain Ward bailed him out, and Charley ran up another two hundred thousand dollars in debts that his father again had to make good. E. B. Ward made similar attempts with Milton, with no more success. Milton ran up large bills in Ludington, Milwaukee, and Ripon, Wisconsin, without making much pretense of following his father’s instructions. Both sons of the state’s “first real captain of industry” became notorious for their “questionable industry,” though it’s unclear whether this should be attributed to insanity, rebellion against their father, or mere laziness. In 1874, the Detroit Evening News announced that “Milt Ward has at last found his strong point. He says that he can sit in a chair, and balance longer on the two hind legs than any man in the West.” [235-36]


I’ve no plan to write Ward’s missing biography, but I’m intrigued enough that I’ll be posting some things about him in this Journal from time to time.