Michigan Transportation History

William A. Smith

Public Michigan Republican Congressman Senator Railroad Person Lawyer Grand RapidsPoliticalGame WardenAdministrator

William Alden Smith (May 12, 1859 – October 11, 1932) was a Grand Rapids lawyer and newspaper publisher and a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator.

Early Life

Smith was born May 12, 1859, in Dowagiac, Michigan. He received his education from the common schools. In 1872, his parents moved to Grand Rapids. He held various odd jobs until receiving an appointment in 1875 (or possibly 1879) as a page in the Michigan House of Representatives.

Law Career

While still a teenager, Smith studied law in the office of Burch & Montgomery under the guidance of Marsden C. Burch?. In 1882 (when he was 23 years old), Smith was admitted to the bar. He seems to have practice independently for a few years. In 1883, Smith gained an appointment as the assistant secretary of the Michigan State Senate. Smith eventually joined in partnership with Fredrick W. Stevens?, who later formed Smiley, Smith & Stevens?.

Smith was retained as general counsel for the Chicago & West Michigan Railway? and the Detroit, Lansing & Northern Railroad.

Political Career

From his position as assistant secretary in the Michigan State Senate, Smith must have gained an acquaintance with James A. McMillan's political machineMcMillan Machine. In 1883, Smith was appointed State Game Warden, which was probably the first national appointment of a state-level game warden. Smith served in this capacity until 1891.1

In 1894, the stalwarts elected Smith to Congress for the 5th congressional district. Smith was re-elected five times, serving from 1895 until his appointment to the Senate in 1907. While in the house, Smith chaired the Committee on Expenditures in the State Department in 1895 and then the Committee on Pacific Railroads between 1897 and 1901.

Between 1888 and 1892, Smith served on the Republican State Central Committee.Central Committee

As U.S. Senator

In 1906, Smith sought the U.S. Senate seat of Russell A. Alger who had declined to seek re-nomination. Smith won this seat in (what appears to have been) a special January 1907 election. However, Alger died before the end of his term and Smith was selected to fill out the remainder of the term, seated on February 6, 1907. On March 4, 1907, he began his regular term and was reelected in 1913 (another January election?). He declined a third term.

While in the Senate, Smith chaired the Committee on Canadian Relations, the Committee on Territories, and the Select Committee to Examine the Several Branches in the Civil Service.

RMS Titanic Investigation

Probably Smith's most notable Senate activity was his chairing of Senate investigatory hearings into the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The hearings began once survivors reached New York. Smith's report on May 28, 1912 led to important reforms.2

"What this nation needs is a severe lesson that will strengthen the pillars of its faith. We are running mad with the lures of wealth, of power, and of business. We are setting society into castes, with the forces of wealth and power on one side and destitution and poverty on the other. It takes a terrible warning to bring us back to our moorings, and to our senses."


Smith was a principal builder of the Grand Rapids, Kalkaska and Southeastern Railroad?Railroad starting in 1897. Later, in 1900, he bought into the Lowell and Hastings Railroad?. He was also a director of (as yet) unknown transitTransit and steamboatShipping lines around Grand Rapids.

In 1906, Smith purchased the Grand Rapids Herald?Newspaper to be an organ of his (and the Republican Party's) political viewpoints. He soon promoted the city hall beat reporter Arthur Vandenberg? to be editor of the newspaper. In its first year, the Herald backed the candidacy of George Ellis? for Mayor of Grand Rapids.


Smith received an honorary degree (M.A.) from Dartmouth College in 1901 for (as yet) unclear reasons.

In 1885, Smith married Nana Osterhout of Grand Rapids. They had one son, William Alden Smith, Jr. Smith is buried in Grand Rapids's Woodlawn Cemetery.


1. Michigan, Department of Natural Resources, "DNR Law Enforcement Division Celebrates 125 Years, March 1, 2012.

2. "Hard Names for Smith," New York Times, May 29, 1912.


Michigan, Department of Natural Resources, "DNR Law Enforcement Division Celebrates 125 Years, March 1, 2012.

Wade, Wyn Craig. "The Senator and the Shipwreck." Michigan History 63 (November/December 1979): 10-19.

William Alden Smith at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

White, Arthur S., ed. s.v. "William Alden Smith" A third volume devoted to Kent County. Historic Michigan, Land of the Great Lakes series. Dayton, Ohio: National Historical Association, 1924.

Senate Titanic Hearings

For information about Smith's role in the Titanic aftermath, see

Kuntz, Tom. The Titanic Disaster Hearings. Pocket, 1998.

Wade, Wyn Craig, "The Titanic: End of a Dream," Penguin Books, 1986.

Senate Historical Office, "Senate Committee Investigates Titanic Disaster, April 14, 2003.

Citation: When referencing this page please use the following citation:

R. D. Jones, "William A. Smith," Michigan Transportation History (Ypsilanti, MI: 2020), www.michtranshist.info/.

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Page last modified on February 19, 2020, at 06:53 PM EST

Page last modified on February 19, 2020, at 06:53 PM EST