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Gray Eminence in a Gilded Age: The Forgotten Career of Senator James McMillan of Michigan

By Drutchas, Geoffrey G. | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Gray Eminence in a Gilded Age: The Forgotten Career of Senator James McMillan of Michigan


Drutchas, Geoffrey G., Michigan Historical Review


On Monday, August 11, 1902, Michigan residents awoke to learn that their senior United States Senator, James McMillan, had died the day before from massive heart failure at his summer home in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. Over the previous weekend, Michigan newspapers had brimmed with coverage about the coronation of Queen Victoria's son, Edward VII. Now their headlines shifted to a man whose own spectacular rise to wealth, power, and position offered an American saga more immediately relevant and engaging than anything happening in far-off London.

Some newspapers claimed that James McMillan's life was a rags-to-riches story. Although this was not exactly true, there was much else about McMillan's life that had the makings of a legend. Accordingly, the Detroit Journal paid front-page tribute to the late senator with a fanciful artist's sketch showing the muse of history inscribing McMillan's name in the halls of fame. The caption read: "A name that will be writ large in Michigan history." (1) History, however, refused to cooperate. Within a few decades, McMillan was virtually forgotten, particularly in the realms of Michigan industry, commerce, and politics where he had been such a formidable presence. How and why did this happen? The answer appears to be rooted in the ambiguity of McMillan's legacy as one of the foremost figures of Michigan's late Gilded Age.

Though his fame and fortune were acquired in the United States, James McMillan was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on May 12, 1838, the eldest son in a family that included seven brothers and one sister. McMillan's parents, William and Grace, were Scottish immigrants, but they were hardly poor. Involved in the railroad business, William McMillan was a founder of the Great Western Railway. Even if the family's resources were more modest when McMillan was young, his parents clearly had high ambitions for him from the start. McMillan was enrolled in a leading Ontario grammar school. (2)

Despite having a fine mind, McMillan chafed at the prospect of prolonged studies. At age fourteen, he quit school to become a full-time apprentice clerk in a Hamilton hardware store. Diligence and a flair for business made McMillan a star employee. Within a short time, he was virtually in charge of the store; but he was ambitious, and soon it was time to move on. McMillan opted to head to Detroit, which at that point was a thriving midwestern town. (3)

McMillan arrived in Detroit in 1855, and he was quickly hired at $60 per month by the Buhl & Ducharme Company, a prominent hardware wholesaler. The future looked bright. But the financial panic of 1857 caused economic problems for all Detroit merchants. McMillan, still a junior clerk, lost his position. McMillan's father lent a hand, however. Using his influence in the railroad business, he secured a job for his son as a purchasing agent for the Detroit-Milwaukee Railroad at $1,500 per year. The young McMillan thus gained a foothold in the industry that was to be the arena for some of his greatest business triumphs. (4)

Advancement came rapidly. At one point granted temporary leave from his job as a purchasing agent, McMillan worked with a contractor who was extending the Detroit-Milwaukee Railroad between Lowell and Grand Haven, Michigan. Although he was not yet twenty-one, McMillan was put in charge of purchasing supplies, handling finances, and hiring and supervising the thousand or so men who were engaged in the construction project. His success in managing these tasks resulted in the lucrative offer of a railroad construction job in Spain. But McMillan turned it down in order to devote himself to a future in Michigan. (5)

McMillan's prospects in his adopted country were certainly not hurt by his marriage on June 7, 1860, to Mary L. Wetmore. Her father, Charles Wetmore, was one of Detroit's wealthiest grocers. The newlyweds moved into a small house on Lamed Street, only a stone's throw from the site of their future mansion on East Jefferson Avenue.

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