William Gurley
William Gurley

Information on this page is from History of Rensselaer Co., New York by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, published in 1880.

WILLIAM GURLEY is of New England origin, and a descendant of the eighth generation from William Gurley, the founder of the family in this country, who was born in Scotland, 1665, was brought here when young, married Hester Ingersoll, daughter of John Ingersoll, of Westfield, Mass., and became one of the first settlers of Northampton, Mass. He was accidentally drowned in the Connecticut River at the age of twenty-two, leaving an only child, a son, about one week old, Mr. Gurley's father.

Ephraim Gurley was a native of Mansfield, Conn. He was born in 1789, and married Clarissa Sharp, a native of Willington, Conn. In the year 1813 he settled in West Troy, Albany Co., N. Y., where, in 1816, he started an iron foundry, and two years later removed to Troy, then a newly incorporated but already thriving city, where, in connection with Mr. Alpheus Hanks, he established the first iron foundry in Rensselaer County, - a business which has now grown to be a most important interest in this section of the State.

Mr. Gurley was born in the city of Troy, March 16, 1821. His father dying in 1829, he and a younger brother, Lewis E., and a sister, Clara A., were left to the sole care of a widowed mother, of comparatively feeble health and of small pecuniary means. Rightly judging that knowledge and virtue were the foundation of all true excellence, she gave her children not only a careful religious training at home, but also the best education afforded by the schools in her immediate vicinity.

William, choosing the profession of a civil engineer, attended the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, - then and now an excellent scientific school, - from which he was graduated with the usual honor in 1839.

After following the business of a surveyor for some years, he turned his attention to the manufacture of the instruments with whose use he was already familiar, learning the business in the shop of Mr. Hanks, then a well known maker of surveying instruments and church bells in the city of Troy.

He remained five years with Mr. Hanks, and entered into partnership with Jonas H. Phelps, in the year 1845, and with him prosecuted the same business much more extensively for the next seven years, at the end of which time the firm was changed by the withdrawal of Mr. Phelps and the accession of his brother, L. E. Gurley. The new firm, under the name of W. & L. E. Gurley, at once greatly increased their facilities; and for the past thirty years they have been by far the most extensive manufacturers of engineers' and surveyors' instruments in the United States. The great fire of May 10, 1862, entirely consumed their establishment; but, nothing daunted, even for an hour, they at once commenced to rebuild on a scale nearly four times larger than the first, and have since been abundantly rewarded for their courage and foresight.

The prominence of Mr. Gurley as a business man, and his well known intelligence and integrity, have long been recognized by the community with which his life has been identified; and, though always refusing to seek any position in public life, he has never shrunk from what he conceived to be his duty as a man and a citizen, and very few in the community have been more actively engaged in all enterprises which tend to elevate mankind. But few years of his mature life have passed free from the cares of public office; and he has ever been interested in, and a liberal contributor to, the educational and religious institutions of the city. For many years he was connected with the Young Men's Association, and in 1851 was elected its president. As alderman of his native ward he served with general acceptance from 1860 to 1864, and as fire commissioner he helped, in 1861, to inaugurate the greatly improved system now so much approved in all our larger cities. In 1867 he represented the city of Troy in the State Legislature, and was a member of the committee on the affairs of cities.

As a recognition of the mechanical ability of Mr. Gurley, he was in 1868 appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury to act on a commission, in connection with Prof. Henry and other scientific experts, in examining the best meter devised for determining the products of distillation, to be subsequently adopted by the department.

Mr. Gurley is the oldest trustee of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, having been elected in 1851. He was secretary of that institution from 1861 to 1872, and has been vice-president since 1872. He was a trustee of the Troy Female Seminary for many years, and in 1872, when its existence was imperiled, he appeared before the Common council of the city and obtained a resolution giving power to purchase the same within one year. By the personal efforts of himself and brother - they being among the largest contributors to the fund - the large amount of fifty thousand dollars was raised and paid to the city within the specified time, thereby perpetuating an institution so widely celebrated and so tenderly cherished, on the very spot where its prominence had been attained.

He was one of the directors of the old Market Bank of Troy until it was closed, and was elected president of the National Exchange Bank of Troy in 1877, and, enjoying the confidence of the community, as well as that of the stockholders, he was enable to retrieve its losses and close up its affairs with a success which has been rarely witnessed in any similar undertaking.

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