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Biography of James W. Eaton

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JAMES W. EATON

A TRULY representative Albanian who has contributed largely to the architectural adornments of the city of his adoption, and whose name will always be favorably associated in the construction of the new capitol, is James W. Eaton. His life is specially interesting and instructive as presenting the more solid characteristics which are essential in the formation of a type of true manhood – a type which will ever be a blessing to any community. He was born at Somerville, N. J., not far from the city of New Brunswick, on the 22d of August, 1817. His ancestors were among the Puritans of the old Massachusetts Bay colony, who in 1629, with five shiploads of colonists under their leader, John Endicott, landed at Salem and Charlestown, just nine years after the settlement at Plymouth. Here, breathing the purer air of liberty in civil and ecclesiastical matters than they enjoyed in the old world, actuated by a spirit of piety, and filled with noble impulses, they engaged manfully in the trials and struggles incident to pioneer life in a new wilderness land.

The father of the subject of this memoir was Josiah Eaton, a native of Keene, N. H., who after Hving several years in the old granite state removed to New Jersey and took up his residence in the town of Somerville. The mother of James W. Eaton was Gertrude MacEll, born in New Jersey, and of Scottish-German origin. Both parents were persons of high character and were faithful followers of the apostolic advice – ” diligent in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” They were not, however, fully satisfied with their New Jersey home, and with a view of enlarging their sphere of activity and providing better for their family they gathered up their little household effects in the year 1828, and slowly sailed up the Hudson, landing on the shores of the old Dutch city of Albany. As he looked upon the ancient structures of the city old Josiah Eaton, who was a stone mason by trade, thought he would soon find plenty of work to do in replacing crumbling foundations or in laying new ones. And so he told his wife they would make Albany their permanent residence. In this decision he acted wisely. When the family reached here their son James W. was but eleven years of age, but he was not brought up to eat the bread of idleness. He soon commenced to learn the occupation of his father. The pecuniary means of the Eatons were at that period quite limited, but by hard work and strict economy they managed to make a comfortable living.

For several years young Eaton worked at his trade in the summer, and atttended the old Lancaster school during the winter, besides enjoying a brief period of instruction at a private school. He was as diligent in his studies as he was faithful and industrious in his trade, and succeeded in acquiring a good practical education in the ordinary branches, which was to be of the greatest advantage to him in carrying forward the more important works of his business life.

Mr. Eaton worked steadily at his trade until he reached the age of twenty-three, and had saved a little money from his hard earnings, when he settled down in life as a young married man. In 1840 he was happily united in marriage to Miss Eliza M. Benner, who after a companionship of fifty years still lives to be ” a crown of glory” to her husband.

Of their two surviving children, Calvin Ward Eaton was formerly a member of the firm of VanSantford & Eaton, lumber dealers, while James Webster Eaton, Jr., a graduate of the Albany Boy’s academy and of Yale college, is the senior partner of the well-known law firm of Eaton & Kirchwey, whose offices are established in the Tweddle building, Albany.

Not long after his marriage Mr. Eaton embarked in the contracting and building business, which he followed with success. In this he found a congenial and profitable occupation, in which he has continued to devote his best energies. When he commenced his building operations he was thoroughly prepared for his work by years of previous experience and study in masonry and architecture. He went to work with a strong will and a determination to succeed. His reputation as a builder rapidly increased, and today over five hundred buildings, both public and private, are standing monuments of his enterprise, energy and mechanical skill. In the line of beautifying the city by handsome structures he set an example which has been carefully imitated by the younger architects. He had already achieved a high reputation as a first-class builder, when a new field of labor was offered to him. In 1874, the commissioners of the new capitol, consisting of Hamilton Harris, William C. Kingsley, William A. Rice, Chauncey M. Depew, Delos DeWolf and Edward A. Merritt, nominated and appointed him superintendent of construction of the new capitol – subject to the consent and approval of the governor.” And on the 1st of June of the same year Governor John A. Dix gave ”such consent and approval.” Mr. Eaton held this office through the administrations of Governors Dix, Tilden, Robinson and Cornell until the position itself was abolished in 1883. His superintendency gave great and general satisfaction to all parties, and it may moreover be asserted that in the midst of political changes in the executive department of the state he performed his services in a manner which reflected the highest credit upon his character as an upright, honest and faithful public servant.

Retiring thus honorably from his efficient superintendency of the new capitol building, Mr. Eaton found time to devote himself to the improvement of his own real estate matters, and to the erection of various private residences. He has managed his own affairs with discretion, and enhanced the value of public property. And now, having attained the height of his worldly ambition, he is passing a serene age in the bosom of his family and among his friends, enjoying the fruits of a life devoted to the development and prosperity of the city of his early adoption.

Mr. Eaton early united with the church, and is at present a leading member of the First Methodist Episcopal church of Albany.

In politics he is a republican, having cast his first presidential vote in 1840 for General William Henry Harrison, and his last, in 1888, for his grandson General Benjamin Harrison.

Of a naturally vigorous constitution, with a kindly disposition, modest and retiring in his manners, Mr. Eaton belongs to that class of the older school of gentlemen – sons of daring pioneers, whose ranks are greatly thinned year by year by the hand of death, but whose works and labors of love will long remain as an inspiration to struggling, earnest, rising young men.


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