William Russell Grace

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William Russell Grace

William Russell Grace (1832-1904), Irish-born American entrepreneur and politician, dominated commerce between Peru and the United States and promoted industrial and agricultural development in South America.

William R. Grace was born in Queenstown, Ireland, on May 10, 1832. Desiring adventure and travel, he went to sea at the age of 16 but returned 2 years later to work in his father's ship chandlery business. In 1846, at the height of the potato famine in Ireland, he joined a group emigrating to Peru. Shortly after arriving there, the group disbanded, and Grace went to work as a clerk in a ship chandlery firm in the port city of Callao. At that time guano, a natural fertilizer, was Peru's principal export to the United States and Europe. Aware of the opportunities for trade in this, Grace provided supplies for the guano fleets. By 1852, as a partner in a trading firm, he was traveling extensively in Peru, exploring opportunities for commercial and industrial development and becoming the principal agent for Peru's commercial relations with Europe and the United States.

Forced to leave Peru for reasons of health, Grace settled in New York in 1865. A wealthy man by now, he founded the trading firm of W. R. Grace and Company, designed primarily to act as commercial correspondent for his Peruvian company. He also established other trading partnerships in London and San Francisco.

Slowly acquiring a fleet of their own, the Grace companies built up a triangular trade between Europe, the United States, and Peru and became the principal importers of Peruvian goods in the Northern Hemisphere. Grace also secured developmental capital for Peru and was responsible for building that nation's railroads and equipping its army. So extensive did his interests become that in 1890 a Grace firm assumed the interest payments on Peru's defaulted foreign debt in return for control over much of the nation's transportation and industrial enterprises.

Although he had no experience in politics, Grace was elected mayor of New York in 1880, largely because of a widely publicized gift of $40,000 worth of supplies for famine-struck Ireland. Reelected in 1884, he headed reform administrations which cleaned up much of the city's chronic political corruption.

Constantly expanding his business interests, Grace played prominent roles in scores of commercial, industrial, and financial enterprises in the United States and South America. A devout Catholic, and the first Catholic to be elected mayor of New York City, Grace gave much time, energy, and money to Catholic philanthropies. He died in New York City on March 21, 1904.

Further Reading

Grace's grandson, Joseph P. Grace, presents the history of the Grace enterprises as well as a biographical sketch in W. R. Grace and the Enterprises He Created (1953).

Additional Sources

James, Marquis, Merchant adventurer: the story of W.R. Grace, Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 1993. □

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William Russell Grace

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