William Thompson Powers

William Thompson Powers

William Thompson Powers

WILLIAM T. POWERS, manufacturer and capitalist, was born at Bristol, N. H., July 8, 1820. His parents Jonathan and Anna Powers, were natives of the same place. In 1826 the family removed Lansingburgh, N. Y., where he received a common school education, and after he was eighteen years of age learned the trade of cabinet maker. He early showed aptness and skill at machine work, a faculty which ever after proved useful and profitable to him.

In June, 1847, Mr. Powers and his family, then consisting of his wife and one child, William Henry, came to Grand Rapids. His chief business capital at the time was a good trade, about $300 ($7,400 in 2014), in cash, a pair of willing hands and a spirit of energy and determination. Here he began work in a small shop at the southeast corner of Fountain and Ionia streets, where he rented bench room. Soon afterward he secured better quarters by the east bank of the river above Bridge street and began working by machinery, using water power; making furniture of nearly all kinds then produced, and chairs, not only for the home trade, but for exportation, and having a salesroom near the foot of Canal Street.

About 1851 he formed a partnership with Ebenezer M. Ball, under the firm name of Powers & Ball, in the furniture trade, their business place being near where is the south entrance to the Arcade. In 1852 they built a sawmill to which they added a larger structure for a factory, on Erie street, where the business grew rapidly; soon giving work to some forty employes, and establishing an export trade in ready made stock for chairs, furniture and McCormick reapers. In January 1855, this partnership was dissolved and Mr. Powers turned his attention to lumbering, operating a steam mill with a circular saw, the first of its kind in this part of the State, which the firm had built above Leonard street on the west bank of the river. About the same time he constructed a machine with a gang of circular saws for slitting thick plank into siding and flooring. Again he added furniture making to his business, and for a time before the civil war had an extensive sales room on Canal street, near Erie.

In 1865 and 1866 he purchased the river frontage necessary and in the three following years constructed the West Side Water Power Canal, a description of which is given in this book. As a builder since he came to Grand Rapids, Mr. Powers has erected some thirty or more structures for houses, mills, stores, factories and other purposes. Most prominent among these is Powers’ Grand Opera House. Notable in his work, also, is the Arcade artesian well, where so many thousands daily partake of its refreshing waters, free — a public benefaction. In 1880 he caused the organizing of an electric lighting plant and company in this city, the first city lighting by electricity in the State. The works are operated chiefly by water power. William T. Powers & Son in 1885 purchased and have since operated the Michigan Iron Works at the foot of Louis street. Indomitable and persistent industry and energy have marked the career of Mr. Powers in Grand Rapids; and besides his successful enterprises at home he has been actively and prosperously engaged in the development of valuable properties in and near Spearfish, Lawrence county, (South) Dakota — the Black Hills region — where he has a water power of some 300 to 400 horse power, some manufacturing buildings, and about 400 acres of land.

He has always exhibited great interest in the material growth and advancement of Grand Rapids. He was chosen City Treasurer in 1853 and again in 1854, serving two terms. In 1857 he was elected Mayor and served one term, during which he started and gave a lasting impetus to the system of street improvements that has been so prominent a factor in city development and progress. Similarly he has stimulated municipal growth by his service in the Board of Public Works from 1873 to 1878, where he was prominent in the establishment of the water works system. As a politician he has never sought office, but has been a steady and active adherent of the Democratic party. As a man, an influential citizen and a neighbor, he is held in universal esteem. From a modest beginning, he has built himself a fine estate and secured a handsome competence, in the accumulation of which he has exhibited rare forecast and sound judgment. He is yet vigorous and in active business. Mr. Powers married, in 1839, at Troy, New York, Louisa Hall, a native of London, England. Of six children born to them, four are living — William Henry, Sara A., Mary L. and Charles Ball Powers.

© 1891, History of the City of Grand Rapids, Albert Baxter. (edited)

William T. Powers’ Timeline
1820 — Born Bristol, New Hampshire
1826 — Family moves to Lansingburgh, New York
1847 — Moves his wife and son to Grand Rapids, Michigan
1848 — Powers’ & Ball Furniture Manufacturing and Ware Room (Showroom)
1852 — Builds first steam-powered circular saw in Michigan
1853, 1854 — Grand Rapids City Treasurer
1857 — Grand Rapids Mayor
1857 — Street grading and gutter improvement begins under his administration
1859 — Sells circular saw to William A. Berkey
1863 — Quit claim to give the “Arcade” to the City of Grand Rapids
1865–66 — Purchase west side riparian for West Side Water Power Canal
1866 Aug – Write contract for west side, east side water power rights
1873 Jan — Sinks First Artesian Well in Grand Rapids “Iron John”
1873  Jan — Breaks ground for Powers’Opera House
1874 May 12 — Powers’ Opera House opens
1880 Mar 20 — Establishes Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company, first electric company in Michigan
1880 Jul 24 — Demonstrate 14 carbon-arc electric street lights by hydroelectric power
1881 Apr-Jun — “Moonlight” tower test from 100′ wooden extension to fire bell tower
1881 Nov — Constructs World’s first hydroelectric power plant. It will be added onto in 1882 & 1883
1909 — Dies at 29 College Ave NE, Grand Rapids, Michigan

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