Ridgefield railroad man: The notable William O. Seymour

William O. Seymour

William O. Seymour

Contributed photo / Hearst Connecticut Media

The Ridgefield Press obituary writer must have been a bit flustered by William O. Seymour’s importance when he wrote on the front page Jan. 26, 1911: “He was a man among men, a consistent Christian, a good citizen, one of the few whom our town could afford to lose.”

Known for his calm and warm demeanor, Seymour might have smiled at the gaffe.

Born in 1833 in Ridgefield, William Oscar Seymour attended local schools and a private prep school in Amenia, N.Y. In his 20s, he established the High Ridge Institute, a prep school serving up to 40 boarding and day students at his home in the “Peter Parley house” — the childhood home of author Samuel G. Goodrich — on High Ridge.

By 1869, Seymour had changed careers to civil engineering, a subject he’d previously taught to young men. Railroads were expanding rapidly — between 1871 and 1900, 170,000 miles of track were added in the U.S. In 1873, Seymour began working for the New Haven Railroad as a “rodman” — a menial job holding a rod used during the process of surveying for a line. By 1877, he was the railroad’s chief engineer.

In the early 1880s he headed west, spending five years designing and building railroads in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota including a 104-mile line from Chippewa Falls, Wisc., to St. Paul, Minn, crossing the St. Croix River with a 2,239-foot long iron bridge.

In 1887, Seymour returned to town where Gov. Phineas Lounsbury, a fellow Ridgefielder, appointed him one of the state’s three railroad commissioners — an important post in an era when the state was served by two dozen railroads and streetcar companies. He remained a commissioner until his death 24 years later.

He was also a leading citizen in town, serving as a probate judge, a state representative, a borough warden, and a member of the Board of Estimate (predecessor to the Board of Finance). He was vice-president of the First National Bank of Ridgefield, which he helped found in 1900. In 1908, he headed the town’s Bicentennial celebration.

When he returned to Ridgefield, Seymour built a sizable house on Parley Lane, a few hundred feet from the Peter Parley house he had earlier owned. The house is still standing, though it underwent a major rebuilding in the 1990s.

Seymour was 77 when he died. Writing a tribute the next week, Ridgefield historian George L. Rockwell said of Seymour: “The welfare of the town was always uppermost with him. Office sought him and not he the office. In public meetings, when debate at times waxed to the point of bitterness, with a few chosen words would he pour oil upon the troubled waters.”—Jack Sanders