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Captain William D. Burnham (Continued)






The company continued to be innovative by shortening the trip around Cape Hornusing the Straits of Magellan hereby cutting the journey from 125 days to an average of 50 days in 1903, all with Captain Burnham in charge of operations.


Another break through was the conversion of the steam engines from coal to oil burners. The Lassoe-Lovekin oil burner revolutionized the industry and made possible the 50 day journeys which caught the attention of the U.S. Navy, convincing them to convert their fleet to oil burners. All this innovation profited the officers and shareholders of American-Hawaiian, including William Burnham.


Burnham’s work with American-Hawaiian brought him ashore after 23 years at sea, prompting the Captain and Mrs. Burnham to settle in Port Chester, New York, while maintaining a summer residence in Sharon, CT.


Their son, Frederick William, started suffering from epilepsy as a young adult, a devastating diagnosis for the family, and received treatment at the Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York. Unfortunately, not much was known about the disease or its treatment in those days, so those afflicted often suffered alone and away from public view. The Burnhams lived in Port Chester for the remainder of their lives.


With all the American-Hawaiian Steamship success, the company still had its setbacks, especially during the building of the Panama Canal, the railroad across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec Mexico and the American involvement in World War I. Even though the company anticipated and prepared for the canal and railroad, the many delays in the building of the canal and labor problems with railroad increased sailing time and affected profits.


Captain Burnham retired in 1914 with the first opening of the Panama Canal. He confided in one of his associates, Roger D. Lapham the head of the Los Angeles office of American-Hawaiian, that he planned to retire once the Panama Canal opened. Lapham saw him a short time afterwards and noted that he had lost weight and looked “a shell of his old self.” This prompted Lapham to resolve that “no man should retire and expect to exist on just memories.” Roger Lapham acknowledged that Captain Burnham was a dynamic character he had learned much from over the years and could tell many stories of their adventures.


During the War, all American-Hawaiian ships were under government control, but still operated by the company. The American-Hawaiian fleet carried a total of a million tons of cargo to the allies over the war years and brought home 122,361 American soldiers at the war's end.[1]  After the war, the company never did return to the Hawaiian run, so beneficial to the company in its early years, and found that public policy was more crucial to their success than the effectiveness of their organization.


Over the years, William D. Burnham never forgot Bridgewater and made contributions, including many books to the one room library originally housed at Town Hall. While visiting Bridgewater and the Litchfield Hills during his retirement years, he felt that Bridgewater had much to offer, but was disturbed by its declining population and wanted to put “Bridgewater on the map.” This may have laid the groundwork for the bequests he would soon make. When he wrote his will on April 16, 1917, he made bequests to his wife who died in 1920, his son, extended family members, the town of Sharon and Sharon Cemetery Association, the Methodist and Congregational Churches and the town of Bridgewater, hoping that Bridgewater would once again become a thriving town.


When he died on March 27, 1919, a tribute to his active life was best summarized by this statement read into the minutes of the July 14, 1919 meeting of the Marine Society of the City of New York which reads in part:[2]


“Whereas by the hand of death our esteemed friend and associate has been taken from our midst and from the scene of his early activities. Now we, his associates and personal friends deem it proper that there should be placed on record our sense of the value of his life and labor in the following minutes…that in Capt. Burnham’s passing there has departed one of the most remarkable men in our maritime affairs…of great executive ability, a true judge of human character, he built up under the American flag the largest freight line of the US…He was a strict disciplinarian, honorable in all his dealings; he despised all crooked ways, he was simple and democratic in his tastes, with no care for outside show; he was a true friend, a strong, honest, determined and sturdyman, whose place it will be hard to fill among us; And be it further resolved, that this resolution be spread upon the minutes of this society and that a copy be engrossed and presented to his family as a mark of our sympathy and esteem.”[3]


The will was contested in regard to money left for the care of Captain Burnham’s son Frederick William Burnham who passed away on January 4, 1946. After some legal wrangling, the stipend for his son was increased to $35,000 and Bridgewater started their plans to first build a library and then a school with their bequest. Both were built as modern marvels of their time to grace the main road through Bridgewater. We can only hope that Captain Burnham would be pleased and that residents appreciate his generous contribution to this wonderful town.




[1] “The American-Hawaiian Steamship Company”, 1899-1919 by Thomas C. Cochran and Ray Ginger, Business History Review, vol.28, pg 343-365


[2] The Marine Society of New York is a charitable and educational organization composed of seafarers who have been officers or captains of merchant vessels under the US flag.


[3] Waterbury Republican, Sunday edition, May 11, 1930 pg 4


Other sources: Bridgewater Historical Society records on Capt. William Burnham, articles mentioned above, Burnham genealogy, genealogy research

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