David Bell, one of the most prominent manufacturers and ship builders on the chain of lakes, was born December 7, 1817, at Amesfield, Dumfriesshire, a border county of Scotland, on the Solway Firth. In 1834 he was apprenticed to the millwright trade, of which he quickly acquired a practical knowledge. Afterward he visited England and there acquired additional experience and skill. Having a brother in St. John, N.B., he determined to come to America, and accordingly sailed for New York in the spring of 1841. During a portion of this time he was in the employ of the Boston Steam Engine Works, receiving $1.50 per day. In the fall of 1841 he visited his brother at St. John, and worked there in a machine shop about a year. In 1842, he removed to Buffalo, N.Y., and was at once engaged by the Buffalo Steam Engine Works, and shortly afterward went to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked for the Cuyahoga Steam Engine Works for a while. Returning to Buffalo, he was soon employed in building the propeller Hercules, the first screw steamer to successfully sail the Great Lakes. In 1845, Mr. Bell formed the partnership with William McNish, under the firm name of Bell & McNish. From this time onward Mr. Bell, being at work for himself, instead of others, demonstrated his great ability as a skillful engine builder. What his firm lacked in capital they made up in knowledge and enterprise. They erected a small shop on the site of what is now Mr. Bell's foundry and machine shop, and there prosecuted their business to the best of their ability. One of the first engines built by this firm was the one put in the elevator built by Joseph Dart, which was the first in the world devoted to such a purpose. This engine gave such satisfaction that the same firm successfully built engines for the elevators Seymour and Wells, Evans, Stirling, Bugbee and others. The firm also constructed marine engines for a number of passenger steamers that were then rapidly taking their places on the lakes, and the same firm also built the "handy tug engine," which enables tugs to pull a tonnage so largely disproportionate to their displacement.
In 1850 the copartnership between Mr. Bell and Mr. McNish dissolved, and Mr. Bell continued the business alone until 1854, when he rented his shop, sold his machinery and tools to the Buffalo Steam Engine Company, and became superintendent of that company at a salary of $2,500 per year. Soon after he resigned that position, and paid a visit to Scotland. Returning to Buffalo in 1855, he took possession of his old shop, and began again to build up a business in that city. Not long afterward, his shop having burned down, he erected a large building on the triangle bounded by Norton, Evans and Water streets. In 1858, Mr. Bell, having some time previously assisted in putting a steam engine in the Black Hawk, the first steamboat tried on the Erie canal, and which had a stern wheel like steamboats on the Mississippi river (and which proved a failure), built the steamtug and fleet of canal boats that made a triumphal voyage on the canal, which is celebrated in history as being an occasion of the finest illumination in Buffalo up to that time and for many years thereafter.
In 1861 Mr. Bell began to build the first iron propeller ever launched on the Great Lakes. This vessel was named the Merchant, was of 720 tons burden, and was built for J.C. & E.T. Evans. The new propeller was a success, notwithstanding numerous baleful predictions of failure that were made when she was on the stocks. Mr. Bell had the fullest confidence in her success from the first, and more vessels of the same kind followed the Merchant rapidly into the water.
During the progress of the war of the Rebellion, Mr. Bell rendered powerful aid to the Government of the United States. His swift, handsome and powerful tugs were purchased by that government, and were of great use on the Atlantic waters. One of the tugs built by Mr. Bell was towing the Constitution when she was scuttled off Newport News, and it was also one of his tugs that carried the information to President Lincoln that led to the eventful destruction of the Merrimac.
Following this is a complete list of the iron vessels built by Mr. Bell: The iron propeller Merchant, which was, as has been stated elsewhere, the first iron boat built on the lakes, in 1862. Then came the Glen Iris in 1863, the Dexter, in 1866; the Metropolitan, a police boat for New York, in 1867; the Philadelphia, the tug Eliza Williams, the Cayuga and the yacht Ariadne, all in 1868. In 1869, the side-wheel steamer Ivanhoe and the tug Nellie Cotton; in 1870, the tug Douglass and the yacht Mary Bell; in 1871, the revenue cutters Hamilton and the Gallatin; in 1873, the G.A. Boutwell; in 1875, the tug M.C. Carrington and the yacht Titania; in 1876, the yachts Rosaline and the G.W. Gardner, and the yacht Esperanza, for the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, of Toronto; in 1878, the steamer Arundel; in 1879, the yacht Flora and the yacht Vanderbilt; in 1880, the yacht Angelique; in 1881, the yacht built for E.L. Dow and for Mr. Wesson of Detroit, Uarda and the tug A.W. Cotton; in 1882, the tug Robert H. Cooke; in 1883, the yacht Waller; in 1884, the yacht Theseus; in 1886, the Sand Beach, a government dispatch boat; in 1887, the yacht Seneca Chief; in 1887, the fireboat City of Buffalo, now the George R. Potter; in 1888, the tug Phil Sheridan; in 1889, the Florence Rice; in 1890, the tug Spalpeen; in 1891, the tugs Keystone and Paddy Miles; in 1892, the yacht Neversink and the fireboat J.M. Hutchinson; in 1893, the revenue cutter Calumet; in 1894, the yacht William McKinley; in 1895, the tug Katherine T. Wilbur and the yacht Primrose; in 1896, the seamless steamyacht Sandusky and the yacht Alert. In addition to the above, Mr. Bell has built a large number of wooden boats, and also the first yacht for Lake Tahoe in the Rocky Mountains, to carry mail across the lakes in connection with the Union Pacific railroad. He also proposed a canal-boat for use of the Erie canal, when enlarged and deepened, which was to be 200 feet long, and 26 feet beam, and to draw, when loaded, 9 feet of water.
Mr. Bell was one of the organizers of the Mechanics Institute, which was formed in 1865, and incorporated in 1869. He was also one of the incorporators, and was unanimously elected its first president. It was largely owing to Mr. Bell's efforts that this institution held its first International Exhibition in Buffalo, in 1869, the result of the exhibition bearing abundant evidence of the soundness of his judgment and of his great executive ability. The receipts were more than $18,000, and, after all expenses were paid, there was more than $4,500 left on hand. Mr. Bell was re-elected to the presidency the next year, 1870.
Mr. Bell is a life member of the Young Men's Library Association, serving as its president one year, and has done much to aid it in its work. He is a member of the St. Andrew's Scottish Society and of the Scottish athletic organizations. He is a promoter of all healthy outdoor sports, and has been president of the Grand National Curling Club, and was pre- sented with a grand testimonial by the society as a token of their high appreciation of his services. He is also a life member of the Society of Natural Sciences. He was also made, in 1895, an honorary life member of the Buffalo Historical Society, to whom he presented a cannon captured by the Americans during the war of 1812, and which now stands in front of the Soldiers' Monument in Lafayette Park.
In May, 1897, Mr. Bell entered into a contract to build a steel tug for the Cleveland Tug Company. This tug is 90 feet long and 23 feet beam, and it is the largest tug on the lakes. Her boiler is a return tube marine, is 12 feet diameter and 16 feet long, and her engine is a fore-and-aft compound, slipper guide style, 20 inches and 40 inches by 30 inches. In 1865 Mr. Bell began to build locomotives, the first one he built being named the David Bell, after the builder. This was the first locomotive built in Buffalo, and its trial trip up to Dunkirk was the occasion of a great celebration. The entire number of engines built by Mr. Bell was eight. It will be seen, therefore, that he was a very successful inventor and builder. He built the first engine for an elevator in the world; the first iron propeller on the lakes; the first revenue cutter ever built at Buffalo, and also the first locomotive built at Buffalo. He is the inventor and patentee of a new style of steam hammer, which has proved to be very effective, and which in its different sizes is adopted to the ordinary blacksmith shop and to the largest forge shops.
An article written by David Bell in May, 1876, with reference to the comparative values of wood and iron in the construction of vessels is of great interest to vessel men, as it conclusively demonstrates the superiority of iron, and the great advantages derived by the use of iron in their construction. This article gives a brief history of the iron steamer Merchant. When completed in 1862 she was valued at $90,000. She was lengthened in 1872, her value thereby being increased to $120,000. At that time, after ten years of service, her iron work was in as good condition as when she was built. In 1875 she struck on Racine reef, and sunk, becoming a total loss, because the season was so far advanced that it was useless to attempt to raise her. From 1862 to 1875, inclusive, she made 2,041-1/2 trips, and during that period she paid to the underwriters for insurance on hull and eastbound freight, $154,535.80, and the total amount received for insurance during the period was $143,913.35, leaving a profit to the underwriters of $10,622.55. During the career of the Merchant she sunk twice in Detroit river, and once in a fog in Lake Michigan, striking on rocks and shoals. There was, however, but little difficulty in raising her, the entire cost being but $17,170.37.
The same principle is more fully established by taking into consideration the history of ten other propellers built of iron, as follows: the Philadelphia, built in 1868, cost $165,000; the Alaska, in 1871, cost $170,000; the India, built in 1871, cost $170,000; the China, built in 1871, cost $170,000; the Japan, built in 1872, cost $170,000; the Cuba, built in 1872, cost $160,000; the Java, built in 1872, cost $160,000; the Scotia, built in 1873, cost $160,000; and the Arabia, built in 1873, cost $165,000; a total cost of the propellers of $1,600,000. Up to 1876 the eleven vessels, including the Merchant, had paid to the underwriters for insurance on hulls and east-bound freight, $940,231.96, and the entire amount paid by insurers for losses was $395,124.53, leaving a profit to the insurers of $545,107.43. This was in addition to the premiums on west-bound freight, which were estimated at $155,000, bringing the total up to $700,107.43. This profit had been made notwithstanding that some of the vessels had been injured, more or less, by striking on rocks and shoals, which the underwriters had paid for. And it was found, too, that the vessels were in good condition as far as their iron work was concerned, as they were when they were launched. The superiority of iron over wood being then generally recognized, as was evident that many boats even on the Mississippi river made of that material.
An incident in Mr. Bell's life is very creditable to him, and shows the estimation if which he was held by his fellow citizens. In 1869 he was the first choice of the Republican party for mayor of Buffalo, but as he was at that time president of the Mechanics Institute, which was then holding its first International Exhibition in Buffalo, he felt compelled to decline the honor, giving as his reason for so declining, that the duties in connection with the Exhibition engaged every moment of his time, and was likely to do so for some weeks thereafter.
In 1844 Mr. Bell was married to Miss Elizabeth Adams, a native of Perthshire, Scotland. By this marriage, Mr. Bell has one daughter now living, who married a son of the late Sir Casimir Gzowski, of Toronto, Canada, the builder of the International Bridge across the Niagara river. Mr. Bell was married to Mrs. Jane Reid, his first wife having died in 1866. By this marriage he has two sons; David and George Burwell, born in 1875.
"Whilst the fierce and ever memorable struggle was being waged in the United States between the North and the South, it may appear strange that perhaps the most honorable and civilizing enterprise of modern times was being launched in the troubled world of commerce, not many hundreds of miles away from the actual scenes of battle.
"It was in the year 1862 that Mr. J.C. Evans, of Buffalo, N.Y., commissioned the veteran shipbuilder, David Bell, of the same city, to build for the company now known as the Anchor line the first iron merchant vessel that ever floated on the Great American Lakes. This vessel, the Merchant, was a screw steamer of about 200 feet length, and her deadweight ability equalled about 700 tons.
"Though her capacity was small, her gross earnings could not have been insignificant, for when carrying flour and bacon from Chicago to Collingwood in those days, not less than $7 to$10 was received; twenty-five cents was not an uncommon price to be paid for the transportation of wheat from Chicago to Buffalo. As the Merchant could carry about 35,000 bushels, her freight would often amount to over $8,000.
"Though the modern successors of the Merchant can carry seven times the amount of cargo, it is doubtful if an $8,000 freight has yet been credited to one of the large modern steamers for a voyage of equal distance. I have not been able to learn what the Merchant's hull and machinery cost, but she was the first iron vessel, and also the first cargo boat, I believe, on the Great Lakes to burn coal under her boilers." [Joseph R. Oldham, in Cassier's Magazine.]
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This version of Volume II is based, with permission, on the work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies site. To them goes the credit for reorganizing the content into some coherent order. The biographies in the original volume are in essentially random order.
Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.