William Alexander Steel was born on 11 October 1836 in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, the son of Stewart Steel (1800-1861) and Myrtilla Sterrett (1806-1876). On 16 January 1862, in Joliet, Illinois, he married Frances Louise Sanger (1842-1880), daughter of his business associate Lorenzo P. Sanger (1809-1875). At the height of an illustrious career in the limestone quarry business, while living “in the enjoyment of an ample fortune, surrounded by a happy family and honored by all,” he died in Joliet on 28 March 1879 as the result of a tragic accident, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Joliet. His wife died the following year, 30 July 1880. Their three children were
Never, since the building of Babylon the great, has the resources of stone quarrie[!] been put to the test, as in the building of our own beautiful marble and sand stone city of the lakes. It will be interesting, to our readers to learn something of the men who have dug the material from its bed, fashioned it so deftly, and sent it to take its place in the classic facades that grace our principal streets. We cannot, therefore, more appropriately inaugurate our sketches of the great quarrymen than by presenting the accompanying portrait of one of the largest and most successful stone men in the world – Hon. W. A. Steel, of Joliet, Ill.
Mr. Steel is between thirty-five and forty years of age, and has ever been a very active and energetic business man. He has done very much toward promoting the growth and prosperity of Joliet, during the long term of years he has resided there. He is now the sole proprietor of the heaviest system of limestone quarries there is in this country, which are located in Joliet. From these quarries have been shipped thousands upon thousands of carloads of stone to nearly all the principal points in the great Northwest. From them come many of the large slabs we daily walk over on our principal streets, and the beautiful fronts we look upon and admire, as many of them are built from the immense blocks taken daily from these quarries. The United States arsenal and water-power dam at Rock Island, Illinois, the custom houses and post offices at Des Moines, Iowa, and Madison, Wisconsin, and heavy parts of the State Capitols at Springfield, Illinois, and Lansing, Michigan, and many of the most prominent buildings in this and adjoining States were built from these quarries.
Mr. Steel is well known, especially among the builders and contractors throughout the Northwest, and is identified with many of our most prominent enterprises as well as the building interest. No prominent movement for the public good, anywhere that he has known, fails to find his approval, and, generally his financial assistance. As an illustration of this truth, reference may be made to the gigantic establishments known as the Joliet Iron and Steel Works. Against all obstacles, including the Governor's veto, he procured from the state legislature the power to enable the city of Joliet (of which he was then the chief executive officer) to afford to that corporation the financial aid which enabled it to establish itself prominently upon the rock foundations of that city. These works have now become the third of their class on the globe. This is but one case, evincing the public spirit and sterling worth of this gentleman. Hundreds might be cited, had we the space to enumerate them.
W.A. Steel, Proprietor of the Joliet Quarries, the largest in the Northwest, and producing the best STONE. Correspondence with builders and contractors solicited.
HON. W. A. STEEL, proprietor of the Joliet Stone Quarries, Joliet; was born in Blairsville, Penn. Oct. 11, 1836; his father Hon. Stewart Steel, was a lawyer of eminence in that State; Mr. Steel, when about 17 years of age, spent a short time in mercantile business in Cumberland, Md., and Pittsburgh, Penn.; in 1855, he came West and spent a short time in Joliet on his way to Missouri, where he built six miles of the North Missouri Railroad, and there made his first start in a business career which has been so eminently successful; in 1857, he returned to Joliet, which since that time has been his permanent home. He became cashier for Messrs. Sanger & Casey, who had just obtained the contract for building the State Penitentiary. In 1858, he went to Alton as Deputy Warden of the State Penitentiary; then located in that city, the Warden being Samuel K. Casey, who resided in Joliet, and remained in the sole charge of the commerce and discipline of that institution until July, 1860, at which time he removed the last of the convicts to the new institution at Joliet; he then entered the law office of Judge Newton D. Strong, of St. Louis, having previously pursued his law studies in private; he was admitted to the bar in St. Louis on the 4th of April, 1861. On the breaking-out of the rebellion, he engaged in the construction of four monitors for the Government, viz.: the Tuscumbia, Indianola, Chillicothe, and the Etlah, the last being a full-blooded monitor; he afterward enrolled a battalion of 450 men, called the National Iron Works Battalion; was commissioned Major and placed in command of the battalion, and stationed in St. Louis for the defense of that city, where he remained until after the close of the war. In July 1865, Mr. Steel engaged with his father-in-law, Col. Lorenzo P. Sanger, in opening his present extensive quarries, the largest in the country, the firm being Sanger & Steel, and so continued till March 1, 1871, when he purchased Mr. Sanger's interest, and is now the sole proprietor. Among the prominent buildings for which Mr. Steel had furnished the stone may be mentioned the Custom-houses at Madison, Wis. and Des Moines, Iowa, about sixty Court Houses and Jails in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, among them the new Court House at Rockford, Ill., the finest in the State outside of Chicago, and the St. Louis Four Courts; the Government buildings at Rock Island, for which he furnished fully 30,000 car-loads of stone; the railroad bridge over the Mississippi River at Dubuque, the United States Marine Hospital at Chicago, and a portion of the stone for the new State Capitols of Illinois and Michigan, besides which are churches and private buildings without number. Stone from his quarries is to be found in the cemeteries throughout all of the Northwestern States. Besides his quarry interests, he sank and worked the first shafts in the Wilmington coal region. In March, 1870, Mr. Steel was licensed to practice in the Supreme Court of the United States, and in the United States Court of Claims, Jan, 10, 1871; he has not followed the practice of the law except in the United States Courts at Washington, and then only attending the cases of himself and friends. He led the movement which procured the passage of an act of the Legislature empowering the city of Joliet to make an appropriation for the building of the Joliet Iron and Steel Works, the largest in this country, and with two exceptions, the largest in the world; this was accomplished in the face of the most violent opposition, not the least being the Governor's veto. He was married, Jan. 16, 1862, to Frances Louise Sanger, daughter of the late Col. Lorenzo P. Sanger, of Joliet, and has three children – Sanger (now a student in Racine College), Louise, and Frances. Mr. Steel has collected a very valuable library of 6,000 volumes, including works on law, medicine, theology, science and general literature, among which are many old and rare volumes, some of which were printed as long ago as 1537; a further notice of this library may be found in the history of this city, in another part of this work; he also inaugurated the first public library in Joliet, in 1867. Mr. Steel was first elected Mayor of Joliet in 1869, and has three times since been elected to the same office.
Among the private libraries of Joliet is that of Hon. W.A. Steel, which consists of several thousand volumes, and embraces most of the standard works of the day, together with many old and rare books not often found in a private library.
Steel, W.A. proprietor of the Joliet Stone Quarries. Dealer in the best Quality of Dimension, Flagging, Rubble and every kind of building and monumental stone.
A most serious accident, and miraculous escape from death, occurred a little above Lockport at an early hour on Monday morning of last week. Messrs W. A. Steel, Henry A. Sanger, and Jas. O'Reilly, the latter the foreman of the rock excavation work for Messrs. Sanger, Steel & Co., were riding in the buggy of Mr. W. B. Caswell, along the tow path about two miles above Jack's Lock, when, at a slight curve, one hand wheel commenced sliding in and down, and before the buggy could be righted the three gentlemen were precipitated down the embankment over the rocks, some twelve feet and landed in the canal below, with the horse and buggy on them. Messrs. Sanger and O'Reilly only received a few slight bruises, but Mr. Steel was taken out from under the buggy in an unconscious state, and notwithstanding everything possible was done for his relief, he remained in this condition till Wednesday morning, since which time his physicians report him improving. We are glad to note that his friends hope for his complete recovery soon. The horse, though a spirited one, stood quietly in the canal after his rough fall, with both thills of the buggy broken and hanging at his sides.
[The Independent (Wilmington, Ill.) 4 March 1868]
In the 1870 U.S. Census, W. A. Steel is listed as a "stone dealer" possessing $23,000 in personal property and $38,000 in real property.
--HON. W.A. STEEL, of Joliet, Ill., (formerly of this place,) paid our town short visit last week. The 10th anniversary of Mr. Steel's marriage was celebrated at his residence in Joliet on the 16th of January. The assemblage was large and the occasion a decided success.
Mr. Steel is largely engaged in the stone trade. We clip the following from the Joliet Republican in relation thereto: "Hon. W.A. Steel has the largest quarry and does a very extensive business--much more so, perhaps, than many who live here with me would have supposed. During the year 1871 he got out and shipped 512,298 cubic feet of dimension and monumental stone, and 11,000 cubic yards of rubble stone, which is about 40 per cent in excess of the business done by the same in 1870.
[Indiana (Pa.) Progress, 1 February 1871 ]
Special Telegram to The Inter Ocean.
JOLIET, Ill., March 31....
This afternoon occurred the funeral of the Hon. W. A. Steel, an event which has pierced every heart in the community like an arrow. The remains were laid away attended by all the secret societies and public of Joliet.
[The Inter Ocean, 1 April 1879 ]
My mother's father, the young mayor of Joliet, and the youngest lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court at that time, was thrown from his sleigh, landed on a picket fence which caused his death and his wife died of what they called a broken heart the following year, so my mother [Frances Steel] was shipped off at ten years of age to St. Margaret's School in Waterbury, Connecticut.
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