He took the mate’s exam in New York City in 1874. He became first mate and then Captain of the Pactulos, a 191 foot long full rigged ship built in Thomaston, Maine in 1865 by Chapman & Flint Company, which did regular trade routes between San Francisco, New York and Liverpool. He is mentioned in the book Landlubber’s Voyage Around the Horn written by Morton MacMichael in 1883 describing the voyage of the “Pactolus”. MacMichael describes Burnham as:
“…a native of Connecticut…He is stouter than the captain, has a short reddish beard, blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and when rigged out in a pea-jacket, high-top boots, and a big flat topped Scotch cap, is the picture of a jolly sailor. He has been in many parts of the world in the course of his life at sea, and has plenty of yarns to spin of his adventures and experiences. "He went on to say that Mr. Burnham is well read and even had tattoos that made him a "walking art gallery.”
At this time, Burnham held the record for the fastest trip from San Francisco to Liverpool by a sailing vessel. In those days, the Captain of the ship shared heavily in the profits of the cargo he carried which greatly benefited Burnham. Captains were not only responsible for operating the ship, but also negotiating cargo contracts on land. While Master of this ship he discovered Burnham's Bank near Cape Horn in 1885. No matter how exotic or remote the port, Burnham always spoke of his years in Bridgewater and asked for news from his adopted home town.
Captain Burnham House
Captain Burnham bequeathed funds to the town of Bridgewater for the establishment of a library and if funds permited, a school - now known as the Burnham Library and the Burnham School. In the Captain’s House there is a post office corner made from the screen-line of the old Bridgewater Post Office and items from a typical old-time country store. Old farm implements are also displayed. In addition to the Captain’s House, the Historical Society has the Elijah Peck House, built in 1820 and purchased by the Town of Bridgewater in 1969.
Captain William D. Burnham
In 1899, Captain Burnham entered into a new venture as manager of American-Hawaiian Steamship Company after serving as port captain for Flint & Company for six years. The idea of converting inter-coastal fleets from sail to steam was the brain child of George S. Dearborn of the New York shipping agency Dearborn and Company, which finally came to fruition in 1899 with the acquisition of Hawaii and its formal organization as a territory the next year. These actions gave Dearborn the opportunity he needed to obtain funding to link the agencies and partnerships that dominated the square rig sailing traffic around Cape Horn.
The American-Hawaiian Steamship Company was incorporated in 1899 with William D. Burnham serving as one of seven directors and company manager. He was known for his ability to maintain low costs of operation, to keep a strict schedule and to preserve the value of equipment. In fact, many of his ships were in operation for over 20 years when the industry average was 10-14 years. Burnham went to Hawaii in 1900 to negotiate with Sugar Factors, who controlled the marketing of the Hawaiian crop, and was so impressed with the possibilities of the Hawaiian trade, that the new company decided to expand their fleet, even before their first ship sailed.