Center for Pacific Northwest Studies
Western Washington University
|Bennett was born in Keswick, York, Ontario (just north of Toronto) on October 14, 1843. His roots, however, were decidedly American. His father’s family were natives of Virginia, and his mother’s family were the Spragues of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. |
At the age of seventeen, Bennett moved to New York, finished school and took a job with the U.S. Government building troop barracks. In 1864, he went to the oil regions of Pennsylvania and began his career doing risky but lucrative projects on a contractual basis, most of which involved transportation or mining.
These endeavors took him westward where his good fortune continued and where he was introduced to several key players who would, in the coming years, be instrumental in guiding the destiny of the settlement on Puget Sound known as Fairhaven.
Bennett first met Edward Merton Wilson in Utah where they were both engaged in railroading and mining. In the summer of 1884, Wilson came to Washington Territory to work with Bennett on the contract for the Cascade division of the Northern Pacific Railroad during the years 1884-1886. In 1887, Wilson built branches of the Northern Pacific in Montana. Wilson then took his earnings to Tacoma where Bennett was now headquartered, and invested in real estate.
Edgar Lea Cowgill was a stock broker in Philadelphia before relocating to Tacoma in 1884. He was engaged as a clerk in Bennett’s railway construction supply store at South Prairie, Washington, where E.M. Wilson was manager. During the years 1886-1888, Cowgill built miles of railroad for Bennett.
Bennett became interested in a coal mine in Skagit County near the present town of Sedro Woolley, which he purchased from E.B. Ebey (son of Colonel Ebey of Whidbey Island). He hired Wilson and Cowgill in February of 1888 to study the possibilities of developing the mine and building a railroad to Fairhaven where the ore would be shipped. A favorable report was generated, and Bennett’s investment in the town of Fairhaven was launched.
The first step in developing the city of Fairhaven was the acquisition of properties. In November 1888, Bennett formed the Fairhaven Land Company with his associates E.M. Wilson, E.L. Cowgill, and brothers C.X. Larrabee and S.E. Larrabee (or, Larabie) whom he had met through business dealings in Portland. They bought the majority of Dan Harris’ townsite property, platted by Harris in 1883, for $70,000.
While negotiating land deals, Bennett was also developing his railroad, the Fairhaven and Southern, linking his Skagit coal mine property to Fairhaven. For this project, he sought the aid of a young civil engineer he had met while working on the Northern Pacific Cascade project. John Joseph (J.J.) Donovan accepted his offer of employment and moved to Fairhaven in January, 1889, with his new wife, Clara Nichols Donovan.
Donovan was also hired as the chief engineer for the Fairhaven Land Company and in 1889, re-platted the now expanded Fairhaven properties. From this plat arose the current street names of Larrabee, Donovan, Cowgill, Wilson and Bennett.
Additional acreage was acquired for the town of Fairhaven when Bennett and associates, operating as the Bellingham Bay Land Company with added partners Edward Eldridge and Erastus Bartlett, purchased the land immediately to the north of Fairhaven known as Bellingham. This land was then re-incorporated into Fairhaven.
The boom was on. Lot prices soared, the population rose from 400 people to 8,000 within one year, and building construction was non-stop.
Bennett and Donovan were also laying track to the north into Blaine and New Westminster, connecting Fairhaven with British Columbia. These railroad interests, however, were soon sold to James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railroad which was expanding into this region.
Toward the end of 1890, Bennett was losing interest in Fairhaven, spending more time and energy on developing the city of Tacoma. C.X. Larrabee subsequently purchased his interest in the Fairhaven Land Company (renamed it Pacific Realty), also the Fairhaven Hotel, and Bennett’s remaining share of the Fairhaven and Southern RR for a total of $495,954.50.
There is no doubt that Bennett’s influence on the development of Fairhaven was profound. Not only what he achieved during the boom years of 1888-1890, but for the quality of the men he brought to Fairhaven who stayed and became an integral part of Fairhaven’s legacy in the years to come.
Nelson Bennett also remains a renowned figure in the history of the city of Tacoma for his contributions there both economic and philanthropic. He died in Tacoma on July 20, 1913.