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WILLIAM BENJAMIN PHELPS was born in Eaton, Madison county, N. Y. on September 24, 1817. He came from Puritan stock and always felt pride in the fact that his grandfather, Elijah Phelps, fought as a private in the battle of Bunker Hill. His father was John Phelps, who was a farmer and died at the age of forty-six years. The early years of the subject were passed with his uncle at Springfield, Mass., where he obtained his education. On October 7, 1839 when he was twenty-two years old, he removed to Oswego traveling on a packet boat. There he taught penmanship and composition for a time, and then found employment in the office of Penfield, Lyon & Co. His first business venture on his own account was as a partner in a hat store; this  was not successful and its failure gave him a lifelong distrust of mercantile business.  After a brief period of work in a shoe store he entered the employ of the chandlery firm of Cooper & Barber, and in 1852 began work for a steamboat company. The business was at that time rising to the height of its prosperity and many men of good capacity found the beginning of successful careers in connection with the lake commerce of the place. Mr. Phelps's business capacity, his energy, and his popularity soon gave him a purser's berth; this was then a lucrative position, for it was not uncommon for a lake steamer to sail with a passenger list of from 1,000 to 1,500. Mr. Phelps performed the duties of his position on several well-known vessels to the satisfaction of his company and soon gained a wide popularity. About the year 1851 he went to New York as a steamboat agent and in 1857 removed from Oswego to Buffalo; but the outlook there was not sufficiently attractive to him and he returned to Oswego. At the beginning of the season of 1860 he was acting as chief clerk of the Ontario Steamboat Company and continued his connection with that organization several years. He finally, in common with other men of foresight, became convinced that the already numerous railroads would eventually outstrip the steamboats in commercial operations and he counseled the sale of the Ontario line and aided in its accomplishment in 1867. In 1867 he was appointed superintendent of the Oswego appointed superintendent and Syracuse division of the D L & W Railroad, then the Oswego and Syracuse Railroad. In this responsible position he remained nearly twenty years giving the highest satisfaction to both the company and to the public and only resigned it in 1885 to accept the lighter duties of general agent of the same road a station which he filled at the time of his death.

   Mr. Phelps always entertained a strong liking for military affairs and was chiefly instrumental in continuing Fort Ontario as a military station, visiting Washington and having personal interviews with the secretary of war General Sheridan and others for that purpose. His interest in military matters prompted him to store his mind with a large fund of statistical information on the subject and he was especially well informed in the military history of the country. He was a charter member of the old Oswego Guards organized in 1837 and served as fourth corporal from which fact he derived his familiar title of Corporal. He was also an honorary member of various military organizations in Central New York.

   In politics Mr. Phelps was a staunch Republican, but not an active partisan. His influence was always exerted for the cause of good government. He served as alderman of the third ward and was honored with reelection. In 1878 he was beaten by Thomas Pearson in an exciting contest for the mayoralty of Oswego.

   Socially Mr. Phelps was one of the most companionable of men, and his popularity wherever  he was known was boundless, while his domestic life was of the most enviable character. He was married on December 24, 1843 to Caroline Matilda Stone who died on September 25, 1889. They had four children who survive Mrs. B. S. Ould, Mrs. C. H. Bond, John P. Phelps, and W. B. Phelps, all of whom are residents of Oswego.

    It is proper to close this brief sketch of the life of Mr. Phelps with the following words of eulogy written by one who knew him well:

   “Men like Mr. Phelps are unfortunately the rarest of the earth. But few communities are favored with such a character. As wit, raconteur and bon vivant, this quaint little man could keep a company in a roar. Some of the quips and sallies that have dropped from his lips have provoked to laughter the mightiest of the land. His smile was sunny, a true index of his disposition almost invariably genial, inquiring, reminiscent, and sanguine. This was his social side--a good fellow, a prince of good fellows. From another standpoint a good citizen was revealed, one whose love for his country, her history, her institutions, was so great, so high, so manifest in his every-day doings as to be worthy of standing as the type of sincere patriotism. And more prominent than all perhaps was the business side of Mr. Phelps. He was essentially a man of affairs and however much his attention might be solicited by other matters, he never permitted it to stray from his work sufficiently long for the latter to suffer. It was in the routine of his duties as the representative of the railroad, perhaps that the manifold qualities which endeared the man to his fellows were best shown. His ear was ever inclined to the tale of the needy, his mind was ever ready to sympathize with the afflicted, while thousands in straits of trouble were made partakers of his generosity and kindness. His monument has long been raised in the hearts of these.”

    Mr. Phelps died on May 17, 1893.

Source: Churchill, John C.  Landmarks of Oswego County, New York. Syracuse, N. Y.: D. Mason & Company, Publishers, 1895, pp. 867-871.

 

 

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