Who was Ben Holladay? --Written by Jerry Adams
We've had the pleasure of getting to know and visit with Jerry Adams, local history buff. His love for history and this town have made for some fascinating write-ups that he displays at the Weston branch of the Mid-Continent Library. Mr. Adams kindly shared his information with us and agreed to let us share it with our readers. Thanks again, Jerry! Now on to the question:
Who was Ben Holladay?
Around Weston, Ben Holladay was known as “The Stagecoach King,” or founder of the local distillery, opened in 1856, and owner of the fabulous three story International Hotel, opened in Weston in 1858, which burned down six years later in 1864 during the American Civil War. That site is now the location of the Weston Historical Museum. Other than those who have read these locally-promoted facts on Holladay, very few people in the region know the complete story of this truly historic and iconic individual, or the fact he resided in Weston for approximately 15 years before becoming famous and moving on.
Perhaps the following excerpt from an article published in Northwest Magazine on March 6, 1967, by Ellis Lucia, author of “The Saga of Ben Holladay, Giant of the Old West”, best describes who the man really was:
“He is indeed the last big Western pioneer. Holladay was one of the most powerful and influential men of his generation. He was a two-fisted frontiersman who did much to tame the West, and did it not from the safety of a desk, but by risking his hide out on the plains. He was the greatest transportation tycoon this nation has ever known. He developed the vast Overland Stage Lines across the plains, later the Wells Fargo system. He had steamships to the Orient, sternwheelers on the rivers, freighters rolling everywhere, a Pacific Northwest railroad, and centers of power from coast to coast. He kept his stages running during the Civil War on President Lincoln’s request to hold the West with the North. He established towns, resorts, hotels, banks, newspapers and business centers. He was a rugged adventurer, Indian fighter, explorer, builder, politician, and wealthy member of the international set. Yet, despite his many achievements which laid the foundation upon which the West stands today, he was downgraded by his enemies during his last defenseless years. He was branded the worst of the robber-barons and given an unhappy low place in history. Even the early leaders of Wells Fargo, once his friends, contributed to degrading him.”
Ben Holladay was the oldest of eight children born of the marriage between William Holladay (1764-1832) and Margaret Hughes (1799-1863). Ben was born on October 14, 1819 in Nicholas County, Kentucky, and died at the age of 67 on July 8, 1887 in Portland, Oregon. Margaret was his father’s second wife, who was first married to Fannie Ammon from 1769 until her death in 1816. She died in childbirth with the ninth child of their 26 year marriage. William Holladay fathered seventeen children between his two marriages. When he married Margaret in 1818, she was 19 years old and he was 54.
Ben Holladay was not an educated man, but he possessed a strong drive to be successful and a warm, friendly personality. He left his home in Kentucky as a young teenager when he boarded a riverboat on the Ohio River. His travels took him to the Mississippi River and then to the Missouri River, finally making landfall at Liberty Landing. There, he was met by his uncle, Andrew S. Hughes, who was a lawyer in Liberty and the instigator of the Platte Purchase, which was signed in 1836. Hughes was an agent for the Indian tribes and was a signor of the treaty as a sub-agent. In 1838, Holladay first arrived in Weston at the age of 19, along with his cousin, Bela Hughes, son of Andrew S. Hughes. Bela Hughes later purchased half interest in the city of Weston from the original owner, Joseph “Joel” Moore. According to a letter published in the book, Weston—Queen of the Platte Purchase by Mrs. B.I. Bless, Jr., Holladay lived in Weston from 1838 until the early 1850s, a period of approximately 15 years, before moving to San Francisco to continue his upward spiral of success and to operate his growing transportation empire. He owned several homes in Weston at one time or another. While the original Holladay home, located across the road from the entrance to the McCormick/Holladay Distillery, burnt down in the 1930s, the rock wall in front of the replacement home still exists and can be viewed from the road.
During his early years in Weston, Holladay was a dram shop owner, operated a tavern, managed a general store, started a drug store, and in 1839, opened his first hotel in Weston. It must be remembered, however, that a hotel in that time period, accordingly to J.V. Frederick in his book, “Ben Holladay the Stagecoach King”, was any log, frame, or earthen structure, with or without a floor, where a man could stretch himself out reasonably protected from the weather. He was also the first postmaster of Weston. In an article written by Jack Sullivan, “Ben Holladay: The Man and His Whiskey”, he writes, “By 1864, Holladay was accounted the largest individual employer in the entire United States and during his lifetime was as celebrated a figure as Bill Gates is in his own time. “ He had gone from Weston postmaster to multimillionaire, only to lose his entire vast empire in the stock market crash of 1873.
A number of books have been written about Ben Holladay, but the two most notable are by J.V. Frederick and Ellis Lucia. The internet has a multitude of various articles written about Holladay, but his exploits and notoriety have been lost or misplaced in much the same way Weston was once known as the “town that time forgot”. The saga of Ben Holladay and the early history of Weston from 1838 to 1865 ran on an upward parallel to fame and fortune before both came crashing down following the Civil War. Weston, according to information posted in the Lewis and Clark Exhibit, was in 1855 the largest city in the United States between St. Louis and the State of California, with a population of 6,000 residents. Think about that for a second! Weston, founded in 1838, was larger than Kansas City, St. Joseph, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, Phoenix, Tucson and all cities in that area at that one point in its history.
Again from the book Weston—Queen of the Platte Purchase is the story of the marriage of Ben Holladay to Notley Ann Calvert, daughter of Colonel Smith Calvert, descendant of Lord Baltimore of Maryland: “So on the eve of the new momentous year, 1840, he rode up to a group of sidesaddle-riding young damsels, singled out Notley Ann, put her on his horse and rode away with her. Because of the objection of her parents of marriage to Holladay, he and his sweetheart eloped to the home of Capt. Andrew Johnson, whose wife was an older sister of the bride-to-be where they were married by the Justice of the Peace, Tom E. Weston.” In his book about Holladay, J. V. Frederick describes him as “exceedingly ambitious and a dynamo of energy, yet friendly and likeable. Quick of temper, six feet tall, and blackly handsome, he was thoroughly western; he swore in moderation, drank, and gambled. Though willing to risk his entire fortune when a greater one could be acquired, he always kept a cool, calculating head and keen eye.” I wonder if Margaret Mitchell would have still chosen Rhett Butler and Atlanta to write about in Gone with the Wind in 1936 if she had known about Ben Holladay’s adventures in the Midwest. Probably so, but it does raise the question: with the treasure trove of historical information on Weston and Ben Holladay available at the Weston Historical Museum, when might the next inspiring author invest the time and research into another possible best seller?
Weston Historical Museum (January 31, 2018 JAA)