Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low is descended from a goodly number of individuals who believed that, as George Washington once wrote, “happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.” No one personified that connection like William Washington Gordon I, Juliette Low’s paternal grandfather. In recognition of all he did for the city of Savannah and the state of Georgia, Daisy sculpted a bust of him. She insisted it be placed in Savannah’s City Hall, where it remains today.
William Washington Gordon I was born to Elizabeth Meade and Ambrose Gordon on 17 January 1796, at the tail end of the eighteenth century. Ambrose’s Revolutionary War service gave him such an admiration for the man under whom he served, General George Washington’s nephew, William Washington, that he named his first-born son after him and called him “Washington.” It also gave him an expanse of land in Georgia, which is why that son was born in Augusta rather than his father’s home state of New Jersey.
Washington Gordon maintained his ties with the north through his schooling in Rhode Island and later in New York, when he became the first Georgian to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Law was of greater interest than the military, however, and by the time he was 24 he had been admitted to the bar. Thus began a career of public service that included two years as a recorder in Savannah’s Police Court, three years as city alderman, a term as Savannah’s mayor, an elected member of the Georgia House of Representatives and later the Georgia Senate, and—like his father before him—leadership in the Georgia Hussars.
In 1826 Gordon married Sarah Anderson “Addy” Stites, the daughter of Mary Wayne and Richard Montgomery Stites, a Savannah attorney. Addy’s uncle, Judge James Moore Wayne, built the home in which Washington and Addy lived—the home that is now the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace. Four of the Gordon’s seven children lived to adulthood.
Washington Gordon is best remembered as a founder of the Central of Georgia Railroad and Banking Company. In the 1830s, when railroads were new, the far-sighted Gordon used his legal acumen and his network of like-minded associates to build a line that would bring cotton from the hinterlands to the Port of Savannah. He was in a virtual race with a railway line in South Carolina that threatened to steal the cotton export traffic and route it through Hamburg—on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River near Augusta.
In March 1836, Washington Gordon became the Central of Georgia’s first president and in that year work began on the railroad. According to historian Charles J. Johnson, Gordon “traveled constantly throughout the state supervising construction, negotiating rights-of-way with planters, and dealing with labor disputes.” (1) Financial depressions and natural disasters beset the enormous engineering feat, and Washington Gordon died just months before the line was completed in 1843.
What his Central of Georgia Railway did to seal the economic success of antebellum Georgia is difficult to overestimate. He was honored in 1850 when Gordon County was named after him. If you travel to Savannah today, you will see visible proof in Wright Square: the Central of Georgia monument to William Washington Gordon. It is a tall, elegant memorial made of red granite and limestone. According to the Central of Georgia Board of Directors, the four winged figures at the top “represent Agriculture, Manufacture, Commerce and Art…and are bearing, typically, the world of our day, forward with great rapidity to a state of unequalled prosperity.” (2)
Most recently, William Washington Gordon has been inducted into the National Railroad Hall of Fame (NRRHF) for his contributions to U.S. railroad history. Full disclosure: I nominated him. Really full disclosure: my husband, Simon Cordery, is chair of the nominating committee of the National Railroad Hall of Fame! However, he has nothing to do with who actually gets admitted to the Hall of Fame. That decision is made by the Board of Directors of the National Railroad Hall of Fame. Click here to see Washington Gordon at the NRRHF–including his portrait.
By the way, there is a whole other story about the Wright Square monument in Savannah and it also concerns moral and civic duty, but since it’s really Daisy’s mother’s story, we’ll save it for another blog.
(1) Charles J. Johnson, Jr., “William Washington Gordon,” Bio File—Gordon, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, Georgia.
(2) “Gordon Monument,” Copy of the Central of Georgia Board of Directors Minutes, 12 July 1883, Monuments/Memorials—Savannah, Gordon, Georgia Historical Society.