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Capt. James E. Davidson (1841-1929)
Maritime biography and death notice.

Courtesy of "Links to the Past" website.

History of the Great Lakes, Vol. 2 by J.B. Mansfield
Published Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co. 1899.



Captain James E. Davidson is possessed of great determination, energy and self- reliance, and is thrifty and industrious. He was born in Buffalo, N. Y., in 1841, a son of Joseph and Elizabeth (Smith) Davidson, natives of Scotland, who came to the United States in 1828, locating at Buffalo. The father was a stone contractor and was awarded the contract by the Government to build the first piers at the harbor in Buffalo, in which city he continued in active business for upward of twenty years. Both he and his wife departed this life in 1852, leaving three children: James, Elizabeth, who married John Bell, a merchant of Victoria, New South Wales, and Ellen, who became the wife of William Starkey, a well-known vessel owner of Ashtabula, Ohio.

James E. Davidson was only eleven years old when his parents died and of necessity he became self-supporting. He always had a desire to become a sailor, and when but a small lad established a ferry across the river at Buffalo, a year later commencing sailing on the lakes and soon becoming a thorough and reliable seaman. At the age of seventeen he became second mate and two years later was appointed master, meanwhile continuing his studies in the Buffalo public schools in winter, and taking a course at Bryant & Stratton's Business College. About the year 1862, Captain Davidson left the lakes and went to the Atlantic ocean for further experience in seamanship. He shipped before the mast in some of the largest packets plying between New York, Liverpool and Calcutta, after two years returning to the lakes, and that winter resumed his studies in a commercial college. He shipped on the lakes again in the spring of 1865, and from master he soon became owner of the vessels he sailed. After spending a winter in Buffalo shipyards learning construction, he went to Toledo, where he was appointed superintendent of a shipyard, and then to East Saginaw, where he started a yard and commenced to build vessels. This venture prospered, as he exercised great care in his work, and he practically gave up sailing and devoted his entire time to shipbuilding, his new vessels being added to his own fleet or sold as occasion offered. In 1873 he disposed of his yard at West Bay City, since which time, a period covering a quarter of a century, Captain Davidson has constructed and launched many of the finest wooden vessels and steamers on the lakes, and this volume is an appropriate one in which to name them:

Steamers Appomattox, Venezuela, Rappahannock, Sacramento, Shanandoah, Thomas Cranage, City of Venice, City of Genoa, City of Naples, City of Berlin, City of Paris, City of London, City of Glasgow, Bermuda, John Harper, Alex Nimick, Majestic, George G. Hadley, Nicaragua, Madagascar, Britannic, Germanic, Roumania, Bulgaria, Australasia, Siberia, James Davidson, Oceanica, George T. Hope, W. P. Ketcham, S. S. Wilhelm, Walter Vail, Panther and Phenix;

schooners Crete, Athens, Armenia, Abyssinia, Algeria, Granada, Grampian, H. A. Darr, William D. Becker, Aberdeen, Dundee, Paisley, George B. Owen, Tokio, Adriatic, Baltic, Mary B. Mitchell, Celtic, Polynesia, Mary Woolson, Harold, Atlanta, Nirvana, John Shaw, E. M. Davidson, Kate Winslow and Laura Belle;

car transfers (Nos. 89 and 90, builder's number), Wisconsin & Michigan railway No. 1 and Wisconsin & Michigan railway No. 2;

log boats (Nos. 87, 88, builder's number), Wahnipitae;

fire tugs W. H. Alley and Geyser;

large lighters Hurley Bros. and Anchor Line;

fuel lighter Cuddy-Mullen Coal Company;

light draught barges, Mikado and Tycoon;

tugs Prodigy, Industry, G. A. Tomlinson, Rita McDonald, Temple Emery, Perfection, C. B. Strohn, Washburn and Andrew A. McLean;

fishing tug Maxwell A.;

ice barges Andrew T. Gray Co., Nos. 1 and 2.

Capt. James Davidson's name in connection with the great shipbuilding industry is therefore well and favorably known throughout the great chain of lakes. The large barge Wahnipitae, which carried more than 2,000,000 feet of lumber, was built by him and was by far the largest on the lakes. It must be a matter of just and honorable pride as well as a great satisfaction to Captain Davidson to contrast the early years of his life as a sailor with the present, remembering that the first vessel he sailed was the little schooner Sea Gull, of about 150 tons register, and that he now builds, owns and sails the magnificent steamers of the present day. He has gone quietly and steadily about his life work, always industrious but making no display, seemingly impressed with the maxim that the value of life consists in being faithful in the work undertaken and to the trust imposed. His shipbuilding interests are extensive, and at this writing he owns and operates a fleet of twenty-seven large-sized vessels, besides four new ships launched in 1898. He has been ever since its organization a member of the board of managers of the Lake Carriers Association. Captain Davidson does not devote all his time to his shipbuilding industry and the management of his large fleet, much of that devolving upon his son, James E., who, like his father, has a clear comprehensive mind, is quick and accurate in his judgment, and prompt in acting on his decisions. The Captain is financially interested in the Frontier Elevator Company, at Buffalo, and is vice-president and director of the Frontier Iron & brass Works, at Detroit; he is also a stockholder in the Hane Electric Company, and has an interest with Romer, Lovell & Co., in Bay City; is a director of the First State Bank, in Hillsdale, Mich., and president of the Michigan Log Towing Company, of Bay City.

On January 22, 1863, Captain Davidson was wedded to Miss Ellen M., daughter of John Rogers, of Buffalo, and they have had seven children, five of whom are now living. The eldest, James E., who so capably manages the large shipbuilding industry during the absence of his father, became associated in business with him some years ago. The family homestead in Bay City is situated in Center street; they have also a handsome residence in Buffalo, New York.

Contributed by Jim Petrimoulx.

  • Transcribed (Feb. 2007)

    Saginaw Daily News - February 3, 1929 (Page 2)


    Built Kate Winslow at Saginaw in 1870 -- Worked Way Up From Ranks.
    (By Associated Press)

    Bay City, Mich., Feb. 3 --
    Capt. James Davidson, millionaire capitalist and shipbuilder and one the first men in the United States to employ a saw mill in cutting timber in the building of ships, died at his home here, this morning, after an illness of eight weeks. He was 87 years old.

    Stricken with pneumonia two months ago, when he was forced to give up business, he recovered nicely, the the infirmities of age left him so weakened death ensued.

    James E. Davidson, Republican national committeeman for Michigan, is a son.

    Mr. Davidson was born in Buffalo August 12, 1841, of Scotch parents. After sailing on the lakes summers and working in a shipyard and attending business college in the winters, he secured his own barge and became a captain, hauling wood along the canals. The he came to the Saginaw valley and in 1870 built at Saginaw the Kate Winslow, then the largest ship on the Great Lakes. In 1887, he removed with his family to Bay City where he has since resided.

    He was heavily interested in Bay City banks and in the Davidson and Tomlinson fleets of lake boats.

  • Related Pages/Notes
    James Davidson
    Capt. James E. Davidson

    1867 Great Lakes Map
    (click to enlarge)

    Related Pages:
    Davidson Shipbuilding.
    Church, Hubbard H.
    Tripp, Samuel J.
    People Referenced
    Bell, John
    Elizabeth (Smith) (mother)
    Elizabeth (dau.)
    Ellen (dau.)
    Ellen (Rogers, wife)
    James E.(son)
    Joseph (father)
    Rogers, John
    Starkey, Wm.
    Subjects Referenced
    Ashtabula, OH
    Atlantic Ocean
    Bay City, MI
    Bryant & Stratton Bus. Col.
    Buffalo, NY
    Buffalo shipyards
    Center St., Bay City
    Detroit, MI
    East Saginaw, MI
    First State Natl. Bank
    Frontier Elevator Co.
    Hane Electric Co.
    Hillsdale, MI
    Iron & Brass Works
    Lake Carriers Assoc.
    Michigan Log Towing Co.
    New York
    Romer, Lovell & Co.
    Toledo, OH
    West Bay City, MI
    Vessels Built:
    Car Transfers:
    Bldrs. Nos. 89 & 90
    Wisc. & Mich. Rwy. #1
    Wisc. & Mich. Rwy. #2
    Log Boats:
    Bldrs. Nos. 87 & 88
    Fire Tugs:
    W.H. Alley
    Large Lighters:
    Hurley Bros. & Anchor Line
    Fuel Lighter:
    Cuddy-Mullen Coal Co.
    Light Draught Barges:
    Andrew A. McLean
    C.B. Strohn
    G.A. Tomlinson
    Maxwell (fishing)
    Rita McDonald
    Temple Emery
    Ice Barges:
    Andrew T. Gary Co. #1 & #2
    E.M. Davidson
    George B. Owen
    H.A. Darr
    John Shaw
    Kate Winslow
    Laura Belle
    Mary B. Mitchell
    Mary Woolson
    Wm. D. Becker
    Alex Nimick
    City of Berlin
    City of Genoa
    City of Glasgow
    City of London
    City of Naples
    City of Paris
    City of Venice
    George G. Hadley
    George T. Hope
    James Davidson
    John Harper
    S.S. Wilhelm
    Thomas Cranage
    Victoria, New S. Wales
    Walter Vail
    W.P. Ketcham
    Internet References
    Links to the Past
    Online book, "History of the Great Lakes," Vols. 1 & 2, by J.B. Mansfield.
    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.