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Beers Biographical Memoirs

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Photo of Colonel John A. Elwell superimposed on the 'Castle.'



(reprint from Biographical Memoirs, J. B. Beers & Co., Chicago, 1906)

COL. JOHN A. ELWELL. The inspiration, the magnetic force, the motive power of any successful enterprise or corporation, always rests primarily upon the enthusiastic faith and executive ability of some individual. St. Louis, Michigan, stands to-day in its progressive spirit and substantial prosperity a monument to the abiding faith and personality of Col. John A. Elwell, who, more than thirty years ago, relinquished a home in the eastern metropolis to cast his fortune with, and to bend his energies to the development of what was then the little village of St. Louis, uninviting in aspect, located in a sparsely settled region, almost without any of the evidences of civilization.

Colonel Elwell is a native of Sweden, born near the ancient city of Goteborg December 13, 1832. His father was a graduate of a Swedish university and an officer in the Swedish army, dying in 1869, aged sixty-six years. Colonel Elwell's mother died in 1878, aged seventy-two years. John A. Elwell passed his early boyhood days with his parents in his native land, and attended the excellent schools of that country until he was fourteen, then graduating from the high school near Goteborg. From the school room he passed into the office of a mercantile establishment, and at the end of a year his uncle, located in New York City, sent for him to comet there. As an office boy he entered his uncle's establishment, which was devoted to a general shipping business, and from that position he gradually advanced until, at the end of seven years, he became junior member of the firm of Ryberg, Pentz & Company. This connection continued from 1857 to 1872, years of almost uninterrupted prosperity in which the firm became interested in a fine line of vessels. While he maintained an office in the Home Insurance building, in New York City, he had his residence in Elizabeth, New Jersey. During the years he lived in that city he showed his public spirit on many occasions, often at a great personal sacrifice. He was twice elected a member of the city council, where his sound business sense often proved of great public benefit.

In 1874, in company with his personal friend, Benjamin Richardson, a New York capitalist, Colonel Elwell became interested in the promising land around St. Louis, Michigan, and together they came West to look over the country. The date of his arrival in the then little unkempt village was a red letter day, but the people did not know it until later. It had long been (as it now is) the habit of eastern capitalist to lend their means to western enterprises, but to spend their profits in their own section. Not so with Colonel Elwell. He saw the possibilities, he realized the need, and he cast his lot with the new town. He brought with him capital—and more, his trained business judgment—and he at once became the hub on which St. Louis's wheel of prosperity turned and he occupies the same position today. Whether it meant the building of railroads or telegraph lines, schools or churches, street lighting or other public improvements, he was active and interested—giving financial aid or security, advising, directing, working, he was always found in the front rank. His investments were successful for himself and for the town, and of his abundance he gave freely to those less fortunate and to charitable institutions.

When Colonel Elwell came West with Mr. Richardson it was at the solicitation of E. L. Craw, the promoter of the Chicago, Saginaw & Canada railroad. Before the end of 1875 certain of the eastern bondholders, who had pledged further financial contributions in aid of the completion of the railroad as then planned, failed to fulfill their obligations. Hence during the year 1876 steps were taken to have a receiver appointed, and at that time Colonel Elwell made application to the United States Circuit court at Grand Rapids, Michigan, "to lease the road;" to furnish all necessary rolling stock, engines, etc., at his own risk and expense, and to operate it (the railroad) as lessee, at a fixed rental. The application was granted, and he continued as its lessee and general manager until the property was sold in 1883, to the Detroit, Lansing & Northern Railroad Company, he having during that period built, at his own expense, extensions amounting to nearly twenty miles of road. During his occupancy and management of this little railroad line he established the United States mail service, the post offices at every station west of Alma to Lake View and the American Express, appointing his station agents, as agents for the Express Company, for whom he stood as a surety. He built, also at his own expense, a telegraph line from St. Louis to Lake View, and had the railroad surveyed and partially graded for a further extension from Lake View to Howard City, there to connect with the Grand Rapids & Indiana railroad from Saginaw to Grand Rapids. Though the latter was completed by the Colonel's successors, it had its inception in his marvelous comprehension of the future of this region, and to him must be given the credit for the perseverance that furnished a through line from Saginaw to Grand Rapids. In the development of the town, no one has done more by erecting good and substantial dwellings, as is attested by his own late residence and that of his son-in-law, Dr. A. R. Wheeler.
Colonel Elwell aided in the establishment of the First National Bank, and was one of the largest stockholders and its first president, holding the latter position several years. He was twice elected president of the St. Louis board of trustees. Politically Colonel Elwell is independent. Originally he was a Gold Democrat, but lately, with few exceptions, has voted the Republican ticket. He is a communicant of the Episcopal Church, and Emanuel parish finds in him a hearty and liberal supporter, who did much toward the erection of the beautiful church edifice. Besides the large amount of property he possesses, he is also a stockholder in the Chemical Company and the beet sugar factory.

[Ed note - The Elwells moved into the Castle on Delaware Hill in 1884. See note after this article.]

For one who hears even the faintest call to duty, public or private, it could not be supposed that the great crisis of the Civil war should pass without Colonel Elwell taking an active part in its operations. From his father he inherited a love of military affairs, as well as a personal bravery that has won high commendation from superior officers. In 1855 he joined the Brooklyn City Guard, known as Company G, Thirteenth Regiment, N.G.S.N.Y., one of the finest military organizations in that State, and of which company he is still a veteran member. From private to corporal, second sergeant, and orderly sergeant, his promotions were rapid, and on April 23, 1861, he was appointed second lieutenant. His regiment was then at the front in active service. In the year 1862 he was elected first lieutenant, and during that year, together with several of the officers and men of the old Thirteenth, he organized the Twenty-third Regiment of the New York State troops; he was then raised to the rank of major, and before the end of the year to that of lieutenant-colonel. During the months of June and July, 1863, his regiment was ordered to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to aid in repelling Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee had then advanced with his cavalry and artillery as far as Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and there burned the United States barracks, and his troopers had plundered and largely devastated the country in that vicinity. Colonel Elwell had at that time been placed in command of the outposts and picket lines, with a detachment of three regiments—his own, the Fifty-third New York and the Fifty-sixth New York—at Oyster Point, distant about four miles from the temporary fortification at Harrisburg. On the 28th of June, 1863, he encountered the advance guard of Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, commanded by General Jenkins, who, being supplied with artillery, commenced shelling the outposts and camp. Colonel Elwell's command was well posted. The skirmish continued during that day until evening, when the Confederates withdrew. Result—two dead and four wounded of the Confederates, and several prisoners taken; no casualties on the Union side. Thence the regiment proceeded under special orders, under command of Maj. Gen. "Baldy" Smith, toward Gettysburg. During that campaign, from constant exposure and lack of proper supplies from the quartermaster and commissary departments, his health failed him, and he therefore tendered his resignation during the latter part of the year 1863, the field, staff and line officers of his regiment unanimously petitioning him to reconsider his action.
The handsomely embossed and framed set of complimentary resolutions embodying a unanimous request from the officers of the regiment, soliciting Colonel Elwell at that time to continue his connections as the commander, reads as follows:

Twenty-third Regiment,
N. G. S. N. Y.
BROOKLYN, Dec'b. 17th, 1863.
Dear Sir:—The undersigned, officers of the Twenty-third Regiment, N. G., have learned with feeling of deep and sincere regret your contemplated retirement from the service and feel impelled, not alone by motives of strong personal attachment but also by deep regard entertained for the well being of their regiment, to urge upon you, in the most earnest manner, a further reconsideration of this proposed step.
The regiment has already lost too many of its older and most prominent officers, the men who united in its organization and to whose fidelity and care it owes today much of its peculiar character and distinction. The effect of these changes is not to be mistaken; officers and men alike perceive their discouraging influence and are alarmed at the prospect of further withdrawals, which seriously threaten the disintegration of the entire body.
You, dear sir, stand as the one connecting link to unite the future with the past. Among our officers there is none in whom the regiment has been so accustomed to rely as in yourself, and no one more identified with its growth and reputation from the beginning; for these reasons especially it is felt that you should be urged to relinquish, for the present at least, your plan of retiring.

We cannot escape the conviction that you are not to be spared at this time, and that however urgent private claims may be the claims of the regiment, for your continued services, have never been more pressing than at this very moment.
Be good enough, then, to receive the unanimous solicitation of your fellow officers to defer your resignation at least until the regiment becomes more fully consolidated, which course is the more strongly urged upon you in the persuasion that it is alike the desire of every member of the organization.
With expressions of the greatest personal regard, we remain, dear sir, Yours very truly,
Pres. and Capt

[Here follow the signatures of all the regimental officers—field, staff and the line.]

On April 8, 1857, in New York City, Col. John A. Elwell was united in marriage to Miss Catherine N. Jenkins, who was born in New York, daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth (Beekman) Jenkins, the former a contractor and builder of prominence there. Mrs. Elwell died in St. Louis, Michigan, March 27, 1898, aged sixty-three years. To this union were born children as follows: (1) Elizabeth A. married W. W. Collin, a lumber merchant at Buffalo, New York; (2) Susan Anina died April 25, 1902; (3) Helen L. is the wife of Dr. A. R. Wheeler, a successful, physician at St. Louis, mentioned elsewhere in this volume; (4) Amy E. married Dr. F. Edgar Farley, a professor in Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts.

Colonel Elwell is a Mason, his membership being in Montauk Lodge, A. F. & A. M., Brooklyn, New York. Although he has retired from active participation in many of the enterprises that formerly engaged his attention, he still retains a keen interest in all public matters. His health is not of the best, but loving children and many friends minister to him, and are helping him to bear bravely such afflictions as have come with the advancing years. His life has been spent for the public good, and every citizen of St. Louis wishes him many happy years in which to reap the utmost benefits of his well spent life.

The Elwell House - now owned by the Church FamilyThe Castle on Delaware Hill

[most of the information in this article was taken from a booklet by George Healy entitled The Castle On Delaware Hill]

[Photo by Henry G. Kubin,© 1999]
The Elwell "Castle" was finished in 1884, and the Colonel's family moved in. All of the lumber used in its construction had been hand-picked and inspected by the Colonel and Mr. Leach, and was native Michigan wood. The ceilings were all twelve fee high.

A beautiful two-story carriage house had been built on the spacious grounds, with stables to contain the family's fine carriages and horses, and with a comfortable apartment above for the hostelry.

In the summertime, lawn parties were in vogue, and the Elwells' spacious grounds were the perfect setting for teas and soirees. The girls were young and beautiful and very popular.

On November 19, 1890, Helen Elwell, the third daughter , married the popular young Dr. Aaron R. Wheeler of Saint Louis. Colonel Elwell deeded lots 1,2, 11 and 12 over to the Wheelers, and a large commodious house and barn were built just north of the Castle on the southwest corner of Delaware and Saginaw Streets. Dr. Wheeler was the first Village President. For many years two beautiful homes and accompanying carriage houses were the sole structures on the entire square block.

After the death of his wife and his second daughter, Susan, the Colonel lost interest in the house and, in 1906, sold the Castle. The property went through several hands between 1909 and 1956. Around the '40 the owner of the estate, in direr straits for money advertised rooms for rent and even put up a sign on Washington Avenue called the house the "Castle Hotel."

Between 1957 and 1963 Orville L. Church and his wife, Naoma L. Church obtain title to the Castle and some of the original surrounding lots. At the time of this article Mr. & Mrs. Church have passed away..


Last Updated July 1, 2008