Captain William C. Beck, a leading coal operator and a prominent old-timer of Pittsburg and Crawford county, has had a panorama of personal experiences and successes in southeastern Kansas and especially in the vicinity of Pittsburg covering a period of nearly forty years, embracing, in fact, the authoritative and established history of this region from pioneer days and conditions to the present. He grazed cattle over this section when Pittsburg and Girard were spots as wild and undeveloped as could be found in any corner of the county at the present day. It is interesting to know that at that early time he discerned and indicated the limits of the coal outcrops which to-day make up the Pittsburg district, and prophesied the growth here of a large and important industrial and commercial city. In the work connected with the early settlement and upbuilding of the region now comprised within the limits of Crawford county he took a most important part, and his connection with all the subsequent activity and progress of this country has been by no means of a trivial character. Mr. Beck is a man of notable business acumen and ability and achievements, and as he has met opportunities in this life he has taken advantage of them and not only turned them to his own profit but added greatly to the sum total of general prosperity and welfare, so that his career is an integral part of the record of Crawford county and a most interesting phase of its worthy and progressive citizenship.
Captain Beck was born in Armstrong county, Pennsylvania, April 26, 1837, his parents being Adam and Margaret J. (Gould) Beck, both of whom lived and died in Pennsylvania. On both sides of the house have been distinguished and patriotic men and women, active and prominent in the general affairs of life, and conspicuous for their connection with the wars of American history. Captain Beck's maternal great-grandfather. George Gould, was one of Wolfe's gallant army that fought and won at Quebec. His maternal grandfather and his paternal great-grandfather are of honored memory because of their participation in the war of the Revolution. His maternal grandfather, George Gould, was in the war of 1812, and was also a manufacturer of some of the powder fired by the American soldiers of that conflict. Adam Beck followed the occupation of miller in Pennsylvania, and was a highly respected citizen of his community.
William C. Beck was reared on a farm in Pennsylvania until he was thirteen years old, up to that age having laid a good educational foundation in the common schools of the neighborhood. His father died when he was thirteen years old, and he was then bound out to James E. Brown, a very wealthy banker of Kittanning, Pennsylvania, and for some time served as his bank clerk. He also clerked in a store and had some further opportunities of attending school. His career, beginning with the time he left home, has, in fact, been a varied experience, not without its hardships, insufficient, however, to daunt for a moment the eager restlessness of his character or check him in his advance toward better things. Among other things, he learned the trade of nailer in a rolling mill, and also taught school. He received an appointment as a cadet at West Point, and spent about a year in that school, where the drilling and military instruction stood him in good stead at the outbreak of the Civil war which shortly followed. He had become an expert swordsman and rifle shot, and when the war came on his services were in great demand for drilling recruits, which he did with most painstaking care and contributed not a little to making the Pennsylvania forces of the highest standard of efficiency during the rebellion.
After he had drilled several companies he organized and drilled the Finlay Cadets, the members of which, including himself, enlisted July 4, 1861, and were mustered into the service of the government on July 24, 1861, as Company D of the Sixty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers. He was elected Captain of the company, and led it through the following battles of the war: Yorktown, April 5, 1862; Hanover Court House, May 27, 1862; Mechanicsville, Virginia, June 26, 1862; Gaines Hill; Malvern; Harrison's Bar; Gainesville; Antietam; Blackford's Ford; Kearneysville; Fredericksburg, where Captain Beck was wounded; Chancellorsville; Gettysburg, where Company D lost half its men; Rappahannock Station; New Hope Church and Mine Run, on November 30, 1863. In the winter following the last-named battle the company camped near Culpeper, and on the 5th of May, 1864, Captain Beck was captured near Robinson's Tavern and taken as a prisoner to Macon, Georgia, where he was held until Atlanta fell; he was then kept at Savannah until the capture of that city, and was then moved to Charleston, where he and a large number of other officers who were prisoners were exposed to the fire of the Union army. Soon after, the yellow fever became epidemic at Charleston, and he was removed to Columbus, South Carolina, where, along with twelve hundred other officers, he received his welcome exchange. He had undergone the horrors of prison life for seven months, which was his most trying experience during the war. On December 19, 1864, he was mustered out at Washington, with a most creditable record as a gallant, fearless and efficient soldier.
After leaving the army Captain Beck returned to Kittanning and entered the bank in which he had been previously employed, becoming its bookkeeper. His brother, Captain George A. Beck, was then cashier of the bank, he having also served through the war as Captain. When government troops were being hurried to the Texas border in order to thwart the machinations of Maximilian of Mexico, Captain George A. was offered a lieutenant colonelcy in the Mexican army, and he and his brother started out on this errant expedition to become soldiers of fortune. When they reached Texas, however, they decided to divert their military ardor in another direction and go into the cattle business. They purchased a large bunch of cattle in Llano county and started north with them, having the Chicago market as their destination. They drove their herds up through Indian Territory, and on June 6, 1866, arrived at Baxter Springs, Cherokee county, Kansas. Here they decided to rest themselves and their stock for awhile, and while there the brothers both made claims for government land in that county, although the official survey had not yet been made. On June 15, 1866, they crossed over what has since become the dividing line between Crawford and Cherokee counties, and located at the spot where Opolis was afterward founded. This early settlement makes Captain Beck one of the earliest inhabitants of the county, and he is certainly among the very few survivors of that pioneer period. During that summer of his and his brother's residence within the present bounds of Crawford county he did a lot of prospecting, particularly for coal, his previous experience in the Pennsylvania coal fields giving him quick insight into the conditions here. He discovered the outcroppings where Pittsburg now stands, as also those at Midway and many other places in the district, and the Pittsburg coal region of to-day has almost exactly the same limits that he marked out at that time, after a rough examination. His far-sighted business and industrial sense foretold much of that growth and prosperity which now rank Crawford county among the richest in the state. He and his brother kept their cattle at feed on the luxuriant grasses of this county until the advent of the frost king, and then drove them to Chicago and disposed of them.
Captain W. C. Beck returned to Pennsylvania, but by no means abandoned Crawford county with its undeveloped wealth. In the early spring of 1868 he and his brother returned, and brought with them, as far as Pleasant Hill, Missouri, which was the end of the railroad at that time, the machinery for a saw and grist mill. Leaving their outfit at Pleasant Hill for the time, they came to Crawford county and laid before the settlers their plan for the establishment of a lumber plant at some point where it would be most convenient to the majority and therefore of the greatest degree of usefulness. The settlers all welcomed the advent of this important addition to their industrial establishments, especially one so necessary to civilization and one which has always followed closely in the wake of the pathfinding and homeseeking pioneer. But considerable discussion arose as to where this plant should be located, and as constituting an event of such transcendent importance in the pioneer history of Crawford county it is worth while to notice with particularity the history of this valuable institution. It was finally decided to hold a public meeting of the settlers, called by Squire Cadwallader to assemble at the house of a settler on the county line between Cherokee and Crawford. There were present there on the appointed day the representative men of the new community, and a regular organization was effected, with president, secretary, etc. Three locations were proposed for the mill, as follows: Neutral City, in Cherokee county; a point in Crawford county just this side of the county line, and at Iowa City, a settlement situated near the present site of Pittsburg. After prolonged deliberation, the county line spot was decided upon as the most favorable for all parties concerned. Captain Beck and his brother accordingly brought the machinery overland from the railroad and erected a mill at the designated spot, where they began sawing logs and grinding feed in May, 1868. They did a big business and remained in that locality for one and a half years. There was no other means of getting lumber in this section, and the mill supplied the greatly needed material for the houses and various buildings of the settlers. Some of the first buildings of Girard were erected with the lumber made at this plant and hauled thither by ox teams. In 1870 the Beck brothers moved the plant to near where Pittsburg now stands, and in 1871 Captain W. C. Beck withdrew from the business, and his brother finally moved the outfit to Lightning Creek. Thus Captain Beck was instrumental in giving Crawford county one of its most important industries, and one which was indispensable for the rapid progress of the community.
In 1868 Captain Beck paid seventeen hundred dollars for one hundred and sixty acres of coal land, on a part of which the city of Pittsburg now stands. He did nothing at the time toward the development of the resources of this tract, as, indeed, the time was not ripe for such at that time, but returned to Pennsylvania, where he was engaged in business for twelve years. He came back to Crawford county in December, 1883. By this time the city of Pittsburg was well under way, and was just about to enter upon its rapid and permanent growth. He started a small grist mill in the town, but soon sold that and engaged in the working of his own coal lands, having been one of the leading operators of this vicinity ever since. His largest coal interests are now at Midway, although he owns many acres of coal land both here and in Missouri, in addition to much valuable city real estate.
Captain Beck is a director in the First National Bank of Pittsburg. He has the reputation of being one of Pittsburg's most public-spirited citizens, often putting himself out and freely offering his time and energies and pecuniary help towards getting new enterprises and industries located at this city. He has been a director of the public schools near Pittsburg, and was a member of the city council for two years.
Captain Beck is prominent in fraternal circles. He is a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, is prophet of the Tonkawa Tribe of the Improved Order of Red Men, and is treasurer of the order for the state of Kansas; he is the oldest member of the local lodge of the Ancient Order of United Workmen, having held membership for thirty years.
It was mentioned in a preceding paragraph that Captain Beck became an expert rifle shot. He has a gold medal that he won in Pennsylvania for best marksmanship in a contest between the rifle clubs of the counties of Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Clarion, Mercer and Venango. That was the famous Bucktail region, productive of renowned sharpshooters, and the victory is the more creditable on that account. He has several other medals and trophies won in similar contests in other places.
Captain Beck was married at Girard in 1871 to Miss Sarah M. Houston, who is a member of another pioneer family that settled in this county in the year 1868. They are the parents of three children, William G., Earl Gould and Leonore E., the wife of C. A. Beck.Pages 545-551 from A Twentieth century history and biographical record of Crawford County, Kansas, by Home Authors; Illustrated. Published by Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, IL : 1905. 656 p. ill. Transcribed by Carolyn Ward, in November, 2003.
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