Hamilton County Pioneers - the Websters

Sunday, March 15, 2009 - by John WIlson

When Thomas Webster was a boy living near Birmingham, England, his father took him to see George Stephenson and his amazing new locomotive. From that day forward, he knew that his future would be as a machinist, helping to produce the powerful new engines that would change the way people traveled and shipped freight around the world. Thomas Webster eventually made his way to Chattanooga, where he capped off his remarkable career as a builder of engines and foundries. He had been apprenticed at age 13 in an engineering firm, then when he was 17 he struck out for America to ply
his trade. At New York City he worked in the shops of the Long Island Railroad. Then in 1843 he moved to Philadelphia. He was foreman of the Reading Railroad car shop, and he held a position with Eastman, Harrison and Company Locomotive Works, building machinery for Russia. While with the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Webster was entrusted with delivering engines to many new railroad enterprises throughout
the country. One of these deliveries of a Baldwin Locomotive was to the new Nashville
and Chattanooga Railroad. The engine parts went to wagons over rough mountain roads to Pittsburgh, then via steamboat along the Ohio and Cumberland rivers to Nashville. While there, Webster was persuaded to take a position as the N&C's master mechanic.

Thomas Webster moved in the winter of 1857 to Chattanooga, having decided to set up his own foundry. His Chattanooga Foundry and Machine Works was erected on King Street near South Market. His associates in the foundry operation included Pleasant Andes Mitchell, who had helped build the N&C, and John A. Lee. Webster continued to travel throughout the South on various projects. He built the English Company's shops at South Pittsburg, and he completed the first three furnaces at Birmingham, Ala.

Thomas Webster became an active member of the Presbyterian Church at Chattanooga, and he served as an alderman. He was one of the prime movers in setting up a city water company. The Websters lived on King Street near the foundry. He had married Kate Rhodes of Philadelphia in 1844, and they had three sons and three daughters.

The families remained in Chattanooga during the opening months of the Civil War. However, at the time of the first attack on the city in June of 1862, they packed some of their belongings in an ox cart and hurried to a retreat near Green's Lake. When his Union threat had subsided, the Websters returned to King Street. The Webster foundry during this period was kept busy night and day making ammunition and casting cannon. One of the largest cannon was dubbed the “Lady Lilla” in honor of one of the Webster daughters. He also helped develop a powder mill at Augusta, Ga., that gave much aid to the
Confederate forces. The Websters were among those gathered at the Presbyterian Church on Aug. 21, 1863, for a special service of fasting and prayer called by President Jefferson Davis. A scream of a shell came across the top of the church and the boom of a Federal cannon was heard. The church began to empty though Dr. B.M. Palmer never paused in his long prayer. Thomas Webster gained use of a boxcar and the family placed some of their furnishings and necessities there. Little Lilla Webster carried her favorite doll in her arms in the ride to Acworth, Ga. Thomas Webster later took the last boxcar south from Chattanooga to Griffin, Ga. The oldest Webster son, John William, joined the Confederate forces at age 18. Serving with Ashby's brigade, he was in the thick of fighting in numerous battles, but was never wounded.

The King Street foundry was destroyed by the war, but it was rebuilt and returned to operation. Thousands of tons of shells were gathered from battlefields around Chattanooga and heaped in the foundry yard to be reshaped into new iron products. However, the Webster foundry was struck by “an incendiary fire” shortly after reopening and was again ruined. The loss included patterns that had taken years to develop. The foundry was rebuilt at the same six-acre site and remained in operation until the winter
of 1874 when Webster sold many of his patterns to one of his young workers, John Cahill. Webster then started a firm manufacturing small castings and brassware on Montgomery Avenue (Main Street), but this factory was washed away in a flood in 1875.

The Websters later lived on McCallie Avenue near Houston Street. Their daughter, Kate, married the energetic promoter Charles E. James, and they lived nearby. Little Lilla married George Washington Davenport, and they were also McCallie Avenue residents. The third daughter, Irene, married R.H. Bowron.

John William Webster, like his father, started out as a machinist. He ran the first engine on his brother-in-law's “dummy line” in 1886, then he was an engineer for the Chattanooga Southern Railroad. He was also an official of the Chattanooga Railway and Light Company. At age 61, John William Webster took a position as a streetcar conductor. Known affectionately as “Daddy” Webster, he was “a great favorite of
the streetcar boys, who gave him a Confederate uniform.” When he died in 1918, he was buried in this suit of gray. He had married Susie McCarver, who wrote a history of Chattanooga.

Thomas Webster also had twin boys, Harry and Thomas B. Harry worked for James Supply Company and was an iron and steel broker. A bachelor, he lived with his brother on McCallie Avenue. Thomas B. was in the hardware business. Like his other married brother, he had no sons -- so this male line of Websters died out.

Thomas Webster lived until 1908 when he was 90 years. Two years earlier, it was said he was “as active and alert as any man of quick wit and a clear conscience should be.” He had recently been introduced at the opening of a new Masonic hall at Seventh and Cherry as the city's oldest living Mason.

A railroad freight depot was built at the site of the old Webster foundry on King Street. It was later operated as John's Railroad Salvage, then as the Freight Depot Marketplace.

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