Sprague, John Wilson (1817-1893)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D
  • Posted 5/12/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11066

John Wilson Sprague was born in the state of New York, became a successful businessman in Ohio, served the Union cause with distinction during the Civil War, and then moved to the Northwest in 1870 as regional director of the Northern Pacific Railroad and head of its local subsidiary, the Tacoma Land Company. His opinions and influence played a significant role in the railroad's decision to select property on Commencement Bay for its western terminus. Sprague became a popular Tacoma civic leader and proved to be a skilled businessman. He was instrumental in forming Tacoma's Chamber of Commerce, founded one bank and headed another, invested in a variety of businesses and utilities, and was active in civic affairs. When the city of Tacoma and the railroad-controlled city of New Tacoma were merged by the territorial legislature in 1883, Sprague became the first, if interim, mayor, serving until a successor was elected five months later. Just weeks after his death in December 1893, Sprague was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition of his heroism during the Civil War.

New York and Ohio

John Wilson Sprague was born in White Creek, New York, on April 4, 1817, and attended local schools there. At the age of 13 he entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in nearby Troy (sources disagree as to whether or not he graduated). When he was 23, Sprague and a partner started Wallace & Sprague, a wholesale and retail grocery business in Troy. In 1843 he married Lucy Wright (1819-1844) and she soon gave birth to a daughter, Lucy (1844-1931), but died shortly after the child's birth.

In 1845 Sprague moved to Huron, Ohio, where he worked as a merchant and in the shipping and sales business. He then settled in Sandusky, Ohio, and served in 1851 and 1852 as the Erie County treasurer. While in Sandusky Sprague remarried, to Julia F. Choate (1826-1886), and before the decade was out they had four sons: Otis (1854-1917), Winthrop (1856-1903), Clark (1858-1928), and Charles (1859-1902). Julia also gave birth to two daughters, but both died in infancy.

Union Hero in the Civil War

On April 25, 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, John Wilson Sprague joined the Seventh Ohio Volunteers to fight for the Union Army and was made a captain in the unit's Company E. In August 1861, while heading home on leave, he and a small group of other Ohio men were captured in West Virginia by Confederate troops. He was held at the infamous Libby Prison in Virginia, then moved to South Carolina where he was held in Charleston and then Columbia.

After five months Sprague was released as part of a prisoner exchange in January 1862. He returned to duty with the Ohio 63rd Infantry Regiment. On January 23, 1862, he was promoted to colonel. He led the regiment at the siege of Corinth, Mississippi, and in other battles.

On July 22, 1864, Colonel Sprague's troops were escorting 400 supply wagons. As the column neared Decatur, Georgia, they heard cannon fire. The town was under attack by powerful Confederate forces. Sprague halted the wagon train and the majority of the troops were dispatched to the town to repulse the attack there. Three companies under Sprague's command stayed behind to protect the valuable supplies. The supply train came under heavy attack by superior forces. Colonel Sprague and his infantry repelled the Confederate attack. Their losses were limited to two wagons and some horses and equipment.

Days later, on July 30, 1864, Sprague was promoted to brigadier general. He served under Major General William T. Sherman (1820-1891) during the famous "March to the Sea" campaign and later during the northern campaign in the Carolinas.At the end of the war Sprague received the brevet rank of major general. In April 1865 he was made assistant commissioner of the Arkansas District Freedman's Bureau under the command of Major General Oliver O. Howard (1830-1909). The Freedman's Bureau was established to help former slaves and poor whites after the Civil War. Sprague directed the bureau's operations in Missouri, Kansas, and the Indian Territory. He left the military in September 1865, turning down an offer that would have made him a lieutenant colonel in the regular army.

Working on the Railroad

A little more than a year after mustering out of the army, Sprague started what would be a long and prosperous career in the railroad industry. On February 15, 1867, he became resident director of the Winona & St. Paul Railroad Company in Winona, Minnesota, and served in that position for four years. In 1870 Sprague accepted the position of general manager of the western division of the Northern Pacific Railroad and moved to a small settlement on Commencement Bay in Washington Territory's Pierce County.

At the time Sprague moved west, the Northern Pacific was making plans to extend its lines all the way across the county, hoping to become only the second transcontinental line, after the Union Pacific. Sprague pushed hard to have land on Commencement Bay selected for its western terminus, and in 1873 the railroad announced that this was its intention. Sprague, serving as head of the railroad's Tacoma Land Company, bought land around Commencement Bay for the railroad and began industrial development in the area. Docks for oceangoing vessels were built and huge warehouses went up on filled tidelands.

With two other railroad officials, Sprague selected the Northern Pacific route from Kalama, on the Columbia River in Cowlitz County, to Tacoma. By January 1874 the Northern Pacific had completed the line between Tacoma and Kalama, where a train ferry allowed passengers to continue on to Portland and other points south. The inland portions of the transcontinental line were far from finished, and would remain so for many years, but Tacoma was on the map and would stay there, thanks in no small part to Sprague.

Indeed, for a time there were two or more Tacomas on the map. In 1869, Morton Matthew McCarver (1807-1875) had platted "Tacoma City" (an earlier plat had used the name "Tacoma") along the Commencement Bay waterfront a few miles north of present-day downtown Tacoma. McCarver was a tireless booster who also deserved considerable credit for the Northern Pacific's decision to locate its western terminus on Commencement Bay, and he hoped his plat would become home to the railroad. But the railroad had other plans, and in 1875 the Tacoma Land Company platted its own town on the considerable property it had purchased slightly south of the earlier town, naming it "New Tacoma." Tacoma City, although still in its infancy as a town, almost immediately became known as "Old Tacoma" (it eventually became Tacoma's Old Town neighborhood). The two Tacomas incorporated as separate cities, but were eventually merged into the single city of Tacoma in 1884.

Not surprisingly Sprague was one of New Tacoma's early residents. He built a home there and he and Dr. H. C. Bostwick (1829-1916) were reported to have the only houses with yards in New Tacoma. In 1877 he constructed a more impressive house at 924 A Street. That same year Sprague left his employment with the railroad and became a supervisor of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company (part of the same conglomerate that controlled the Northern Pacific). He was also involved in many local enterprises. He founded the Tacoma National Bank and was its first president, and was also president of the Union Savings Bank. Sprague got involved in the utilities business as one of the founders of the Tacoma Gas Light Company and, later, the Tacoma Light and Water Company. On the charitable side, Sprague established a benevolent society to aid the city's poor.

Old Friends, Turbulent Times

On October 9, 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893) and his party, which included General Sherman, arrived at Kalama. Sprague joined the party there and reminisced with Sherman, his old Civil War friend and commanding officer. The presidential party took the train to Olympia, where they visited Tumwater Falls, then went on to Steilacoom for further sightseeing. There they boarded the steamer George E. Starr for the trip to the Tacoma railroad wharf. President Hayes became the first president to visit Tacoma, and Sprague entertained the presidential party at his home. After the reception the president stepped onto the porch and shook hands with Tacoma residents.

In 1883 the Northern Pacific finally completed its transcontinental line and on September 8 that year Sprague, although no longer directly employed by the railroad, was given the honor of helping hammer in the symbolic golden spike at a ceremony at Gold Creek, Montana. He resigned from the Oregon Steam Navigation Company shortly thereafter, tired and in ill health after 13 busy and eventful years.

After a short rest period Sprague regained his health and, somewhat reluctantly, resumed his role in Tacoma's civic life. The 1883 legislation consolidating Tacoma City and New Tacoma called for a December 1883 election of a single mayor, marshal, and common council to oversee the coming merger. Tacoma leaders urged Sprague to run for mayor. He indicated he would not run but would serve if elected. He was elected and became the first mayor of the consolidated City of Tacoma. In May 1884 an election was set for a two-year regular mayoral term but Sprague declined to run. He stayed active and shortly after leaving office helped to organize the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, which he served as its first president.

Jacob Robert Weisbach (1832-1889) was elected mayor in the May 1884 election. Tacoma was experiencing an economic downturn and the mayor and many residents looked for someone to blame. The Tacoma Daily Ledger provided a scapegoat when it launched an anti-Chinese campaign. By February 1885 Mayor Weisbach and other leading citizens had identified Chinese residents as the source of the city's economic problems. They then sought a solution to what they called the "Chinese Problem" and found their answer in the expulsion of Chinese inhabitants. To bring this about they formed an Anti-Chinese League and held public meetings that large crowds attended. The League and Weisbach, who was its chairman, sought ways to drive the Chinese out. Employers were encouraged to fire their Chinese employees. Threats of future actions against Chinese residents were made. This was not enough for members of the Anti-Chinese League who in October threatened more dire consequences and set a deadline of November 1 for all the Chinese to leave.

About 100 Chinese residents, fearing what might happen, left for Portland or Canada. Several visited Sprague, one of few city leaders who opposed the expulsion. He assured them that this was America and their rights would be protected. General Sprague had underestimated the mob mentality. On November 3, 1885, an anti-Chinese mob went door to door in the city's Chinese neighborhood, physically removing residents and destroying their homes. About 200 people were taken to railroad stations, where 77 who had the money purchased tickets for Portland. In a further injustice those without money were put on freight cars bound for Portland.

Appalled by the anti-Chinese actions of his mayoral successor and fellow Tacomans, Sprague suffered a more personal tragedy the next year when his second wife, Julia, died in 1886. But he stayed active, and in 1889 built the Sprague Building on Tacoma's Pacific Avenue, which survives in 2015 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In October 1890 he married for a third time, to Abigail Wright Vance (1822-1905), a sister of his first wife, Lucy.

Honoring John Wilson Sprague

Sprague's last years were plagued by ill health, and he died of heart failure in his Tacoma home at 220 South Tacoma Avenue on December 24, 1893. Three weeks after his death, on January 18, 1894, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Although the medal was issued posthumously, the process of determining Sprague's eligibility was underway at the time of his death. The citation recognized Sprague "for extraordinary heroism on 22 July 1862, while serving with 63d Ohio Infantry, in action at Decatur, Georgia. With a small command Colonel Sprague defeated an overwhelming force of the enemy and saved the trains of the corps" ("John Wilson Sprague").

On January 14, 1893, while Sprague was still living, a Tacoma ordinance named Sprague Avenue, a major arterial that had had multiple names along its route, in his honor. The war hero, railroad official, and civic leader is further remembered as the namesake of the town of Sprague, Lincoln County, in northeast Washington. The community had been a construction headquarters for the Northern Pacific, and its naming was in recognition of Sprague's efforts to bring rail transportation to the state. There were efforts to have the entire county named after him, but supporters of naming it after Abraham Lincoln ultimately prevailed.

John Wilson Sprague served his nation in war and his community in peace. Upon his death, he became the first Medal of Honor recipient to be buried in Washington. On April 27, 2002, a Medal of Honor gravestone was added to his grave at the Tacoma Cemetery.


Herbert Hunt, Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), 241, 295-296; Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); "Gen. Sprague Dead," Tacoma Daily Ledger, December 25, 1893, p. 1; "The Dead Patriot," Ibid., December 26, 1893, p. 4; "Still Another Gone," Oregonian, December 26, 1893, p. 2; "Many Mourn To-Day," Tacoma Daily Ledger, December 27, 1893, p. 2; "He Rests In Peace," Ibid., December 28, 1893, p. 2; "Civil War Veteran Dies," Oregonian, February 4, 1916, p. 5; "Story by Pioneer Recalls Old Time Railroad History," Olympia Daily Recorder, December 27, 1921, p. 2; "The First President to Visit Tacoma," Tacoma News Tribune, November 2, 1980, p. 4; "Ceremony Honors Civil War Hero," Northwest Guardian, May 3, 2002, p.1; Synthia A. Santos, "The Grand Army of the Republic in Tacoma," The Banner, Friends of the Fort Lewis Military Museum, Spring 2002, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 1-6; William I. Davisson, "Public Utilities in a Frontier City," The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 2 (April 1955), pp. 40-45; "Gen. John Wilson Sprague," The Sprague Project website accessed May 4, 2015 (http://www.sprague-database.org/genealogy/getperson.php?personID=I53324&tree=SpragueProject); "John Wilson Sprague," Military Times website accessed May 5, 2015 (http://valor.militarytimes.com/recipient.php?recipientid=2042); "History," Lincoln County website accessed May 5, 2015 (http://www.co.lincoln.wa.us/About%20Lincoln%20County/history.htm).

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