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A man who both as a public official and as a prominent citizen has been an important factor in moulding Rock Island’s municipal history is William McConochie.
The son of John and Annie (Campbell) McConochie, he was born at Gatehouse, a little village on the southwest coast of Scotland, January 11, 1847. His father’s ancestors had lived in that part of Scotland since the days of Wallace and Bruce. His mother’s family were Highlanders, and were of the house of Argyle.
The elder McConochies, with their family, emigrated to America in the spring of 1853. Coming westward they settled at Joliet, Illinois, where on August 11th, but a few brief weeks after locating in their newly adopted home, the father died from the effects of a sunstroke, leaving his wife and little ones alone among a strange people and in a strange land. On exactly the same date (August 11th) twenty years later, his wife followed him to the grave. Both are interred at Joliet.
William McConochie attended the public schools of Joliet and the Scotch lad was an apt and proficient pupil. During the winter of 1861-1862, when the South had seceded from the Union, when both sides were active in their preparation for the death struggle; when the martial spirit prevailed and predominated above all else, when the sound of fife and drum were heard throughout the length and breadth of the land; when youth, rugged manhood and old age vied with each other in their efforts to join those rapidly swelling ranks that were so soon to meet in desperate conflict, the fire of patriotism, fanned into a fierce blaze by the stirring times and scenes, filled the breast of our young Scot and he determined to have a part in fighting the battles of the country of his adoption. But an apparently insurmountable difficulty presented itself-he was too young. Probably no one felt more keenly than he the handicap of youth at that time, yet nothing daunted, he determined that willy-nilly he would be a soldier, and to such determination as his no barrier could successfully be interposed. He had saved some money by selling old iron and rags, and by sawing wood for the neighbors, for in those days wood was the common fuel, and there was plenty of demand for a pair of strong arms and a saw. With the few dollars that he had accumulated he ran away from home and followed some regiments that were going to Cairo, Illinois. After a good many rebuffs, he succeeded at last in being taken along as a drummer boy in one of the companies. His ambition was attained. He was a real soldier on his way to the front. All this time he had been traveling, and had entered his regiment, under an assumed name so that his mother could not find him and have him brought unceremoniously back home. He soon learned from stern realization that the life of a soldier was not as bright and alluring as his young fancy had pictured it in the beginning, but unflinching and undaunted he struck resolutely to the self-imposed life of hardship, enduring its hardships and privations until after the Chattanooga campaign, when the regiment to which he was attached came North with a lot of Rebel prisoners who were to be taken to Rock Island Arsenal, where a Union Military Prison was located. But William McConochie did not reach Rock Island that time, for passing through Joliet from Chicago at midnight the thermometer down below zero, the soldier lad hungry, cold and scantily clad, the spirit of homesickness and the spirit of war had a little battle between themselves, and the spirit of homesickness conquered, and the boy stopped at Joliet to see his mother. After a few days visit he again enlisted, this time with a Chicago regiment at the front; this time, in his own name. The officers thought him an unusually bright recruit to master the tactics so quickly. They did not know, and never knew that the supposed recruit, still less than eighteen years of age, was in fact a veteran who had seen two years of hard military service, and had participated in some of the greatest and most sanguinary battles in the southwest. Mr. McConochie served as a soldier until some months after the close of the war, always being a private.
After his return to civil life in 1865, he learned the trade of stone cutting. In 1867 he crossed the plains, but soon returned to this part of the country, living at Rock Island, Anamosa, Cedar Rapids, Nauvoo, or wherever his work as a stonecutter might take him in quest of employment.
In 1868 at Rock Island he married Miss Isabel Kitson, a young lady of that city. Six children blessed this union, three sons and three daughters. The oldest son, Captain John McConochie, died in 1896 at the age of twenty-seven. The other two sons, Captain W. H. McConochie and Robert F. McConochie, both of Rock Island. are members of the contracting firm of Wm. McConochie & Sons. The daughters are Isabel, now Mrs. Hollingsworth; Mary, now Mrs. Dade, and Maggie McConochie, at home.
After his marriage Mr. McConochie spent most of his time in Rock Island. In the early seventies there was begun the work of improvement at Government Island, the plans requiring the construction of many new buildings which were to be built of stone. This, of course, required the services of stone-cutters, and here Mr. McConochie found employment. He continued in that employment for about twenty years. There were times and seasons when the work at the Arsenal was slack and his services were not required. At such times he would go else-where in search of work, his journeys in quest of an opportunity to ply his trade some-times carrying him far down into the south-west.
For several years past Mr. McConochie has been a contractor, and most of his time has been spent at home except the year 1898. During that year the firm of Wm. McConochie & Sons had a large contract in Oklahoma, and as the two junior members of the firm, William H. and Robert F. McConochie, were engaged in the war with Spain, the former as captain of Company A, of Rock Island, and the latter as sergeant of that company, the full burden of supervising and taking charge of the work fell upon Mr. McConochie, and he was obliged to spend most of that year upon the scene of the contract. attending to duties that would otherwise have been assumed by his sons. William H. McConochie, then captain of Company A, as has been stated, succeeded his brother John in that office, the death of the latter having occurred two years before the outbreak of the Spanish War.
But Mr. McConochie’s active life has not been devoted exclusively to commercial, pursuits. Upon the panorama of politics he has been one of the city’s striking figures. A staunch Republican; he has been repeatedly honored by his party with municipal offices, the only ones to which he ever aspired. In 1887 he was elected alderman from the Sixth Ward, and in 1889 was for the first time elected mayor of Rock Island. He was reelected in 1891. In 1899 he was again a candidate for mayor and was elected. Once more in 1903 he was a candidate for that office and was elected, making eight years in all that he has served Rock Island as its chief executive, one year longer than any other individual had previously held that office.
His administrations were exceptionally prosperous ones for the city, and he was largely instrumental in inaugurating and carrying forward public improvement by special taxation. He laid the first paving brick ever put down in Rock Island, organized the paid fire department, and was mayor when the various fire stations were built. He was a firm friend of the park system which the city was endeavoring to establish and exerted all his influence toward aiding in the improvement of Spencer and Garnsey Squares, and cooperating with him the public-spirted citizens of Rock Island were liberal in their contributions of statuary, fountains and ornaments for the beautification of these bright oases in the districts of factories and business houses. He extended Rock Island’s sewer and water-main systems, and aided in the building of the electric street railway system, which has done much to change Rock Island from a village to a metropolis. He rebuilt the reservoir system, and constantly urged the erection of a public library building at a time when the city’s public library was housed in rented quarters. Although the library was not built during his administration, yet when the contract was finally awarded his firm were the successful bidders, so that he had an active part in the erection of an edifice of which the city may well be proud. The building of the two new iron and steel bridges which span Rock River and connect Rock Island with that part of the county lying south of the city was done under his administration, and thus the inducement was laid for interurban service to seek en-trance into Rock Island.
Although a firm Republican and stead-fast in loyalty to his party, Mr. McConochie has never been animated by any controversial spirit that would antagonize those of opposite political belief. Consequently, he has hosts of warm friends and supporters among his political opponents, and their votes have been freely given him whenever he has been a candidate for office.
Mr. McConochie is a member of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Rock Island and has been a member of the official board of that church for ten years. He is also one of the trustees. In his fraternal affiliations he is a member of Trio Lodge No. 57, Ancient Fee and Accepted Masons, and has been a member of that lodge for more than thirty-five years, and a member of Barrett Chapter almost as long. For nearly thirty years he has been a member of Rock Island Commandery of Knights Templar. He is a member of no other societies with the exception of the two military organizations, John Buford Post, Grand Army of the Republic, and Shiloh Command, Union Veterans’ Union.
Such is the life history of William McConochie, a man possessed of great executive ability and keen business and financial fore-sight. Through hard work and diligent application to his business he has acquired a modest fortune, and that fortune is an honest one. Kindly in disposition, gentle in speech, yet unswerving in purpose he commands at once the admiration and respect of those who know him. As mayor of Rock Island he held the reins of government in a firm grasp, but he ruled more through persuasion and argument than through the assumption of mere arbitrary power. Conscientious in his dealings with the world, upright and honorable in every relation in life, he is one of Rock Island’s best citizens.