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Washington’s Elisha Ferry oversaw the rebuilding of fire-destroyed Seattle

Elisha Peyre Ferry
Wikimedia Commons

Washington’s first State Governor, Elisha Peyre Ferry, was born in Monroe County, Michigan on August 9, 1825 to Peter Ferry and Clarissa Peyre. Shortly after his birth, Elisha’s family moved to Waukegan, Illinois. Here his father served as a judge during the time Elisha completed high school and attended Fort Wayne Law School in Indiana. Following graduation, Elisha established a law practice in Waukegan which became a 23-year successful venture.

Elisha took Sarah Brown Kellog for his wife on February 4, 1849. Their family would include five children, all of whom were given the same middle name as their father, Peyre, his mother’s maiden name. Devout Episcopalians; the couple raised their children by strict church standards.

In 1852, Ferry became the Presidential Elector of Illinois, along with the first mayor of Waukegan. He was also appointed to the Illinois State Constitutional Convention. When the American Civil War broke out, Ferry joined the Union Army at the rank of colonel and played an active role in rallying the Illinois regiment. During that time, he became good friends with both Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln. (Not a bad thing for a young up and coming politician.) While active in the Union Army, Ferry also served as Illinois State Bank Commissioner.

Following the Civil War, President Grant appointed Ferry as Surveyor General of the Washington Territory. Ferry packed up his family and moved to Olympia. After he and his family settled in, Grant added another appointment to Ferry’s résumé, that of Territorial Governor for four years. When this term expired, President Grant renewed it for another four years.

During his time in office, Ferry was instrumental in removing the British from San Juan Islands and restoring them to the United States. Ferry’s efforts as Territorial Governor placed the Washington Territory on sound financial footing. This was due in part to the territory’s numerous counties being kept current on the payment of their taxes. He also regulated the rail fees and set up the penal system on a centralized state basis rather than county. When his term as Territorial Governor ended, Ferry was able to hand over to his successor a Territory almost debt-free.

Ferry’s activity as surveyor and territorial governor also involved him in the building of the Northern Pacific Railway. As a result, Ferry had a personal hand in planning the railroad’s extension from Tacoma to Olympia.

Elisha now left politics and moved to the Seattle area in 1880 where he was active in banking and law. He became vice-president of Puget Sound National Bank in Seattle and joined a private law firm. In 1887, Ferry retired from the legal field.

In September 1889, Ferry became the Republican candidate for state governor. The election was held on October 1 and Ferry won with an 8,000 vote majority over Democrat Eugene Semple. When President Benjamin Harrison signed the proclamation granting statehood to the Washington Territory on November 11th, Governor Ferry officially began his term.

Prior to Ferry taking office, three of Washington’s cities were destroyed by fire – Ellensburg, Spokane Falls and Seattle. During his first summer as governor, Ferry supervised the rebuilding of these areas. The damaged/destroyed wooden buildings were replaced with new ones of stone and brick. After the work was completed, new residents began to quickly flow into the state.

As the state’s population grew, Ferry was faced with managing a debate over land. Those settling in the western portion of the state sought to privatize land ownership, whereas those who moved into the eastern area wanted the land to be under full public ownership. Unfortunately, the commission Ferry appointed to settle this dispute failed to come to a conclusion during the established time frame. This had the unfortunate result of making it look like Governor Ferry was in cahoots with the corporations.

In August 1888, Governor Ferry faced a situation similar to that of Wyoming Governor Francis Warren when members of a new union by the name of Knights of Labor went on strike. The white laborers demanded higher wages and eight daily work hours rather than the current ten. In an effort to keep the coal flowing from the mine during the strike, Northern Pacific shipped in non-union miners from the East and Midwest; in this case, Negro miners rather than the Chinese who went to Wyoming. Like the Chinese, the Negroes worked for lower wages and the longer the Knights extended the strike, the more profitable the Negroes proved to be to the company’s bottom line.

Ferry’s health now began to fail and caused him to miss some very important votes. It also served to hamper Ferry’s commanding presence in the chamber. In an effort to restore his health, Ferry temporarily left Washington for California in December of 1890. While he was gone, Lieutenant Governor Charles E. Laughton served as acting governor.

Governor Ferry served from November 11, 1889 until January 9, 1893, leaving office due to his health situation. He was onboard a steamer in Puget Sound two years later when he died on October 14, 1895 due to heart failure at the age of 70. He was buried in Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery.

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“He has ‘more than met the high expectations of his friends. His official term has included some trying experiences, but in every instance Governor Ferry has discharged his responsibilities with dignity, wisdom, tact, firmness, probity and resolution. He retires to private life followed by the hearty plaudits of his fellow citizens of all parties, who tender him their best wishes for happiness and comfort during all the years that are before him.”

Editorial in the Post-Intelligencer, the leading Republican paper in the State of Washington following Governor Ferry’s retirement from office – 01/11/1893

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