Biography of James L. Wells
Bronx County, NY Biographies

JAMES L. WELLS - (By W. S. Downs) - A district does not achieve greatness unless there is directed toward its welfare the best of the thought and labor of its able citizens, men with a vision of its future and with a willingness to plan and work to change that vision into reality. That there has been bestowed upon James L. Wells, by his appreciative fellow citizens the title of "Father of The Bronx," is striking proof of the extent to which he is responsible for the development and prosperity of this region, whose remarkably interesting history is set forth in accompanying pages of this work. There follows the outline of his active and useful life, which, in both public and private, has been inseparably identified with his native Bronx.

James L. Wells, son of James and Maria Wells, natives of England, was born at West Farms, at that time in the town of Westchester, and after attending the public schools entered Columbia College, now Columbia University, where he was graduated as a Bachelor of Arts in 1865, and Master of Arts, in 1868. As a young man he entered the real estate field and therein found the opportunity and the sphere that have directed the business aspect of his life. He has had charge of some of the most important realty developments in The Bronx, and his success and prominence in this line of endeavor brought him to the presidency of the Real Estate Exchange and Sales Room of The City of New York. Mr. Wells has been identified with the disposal of large tracts of real estate in The Bronx and has long ranked high among the leading operators in this field. His incumbency of the presidency of the Real Estate Exchange and Sales Room of The City of New York dates from April 3, 1891.

It would be impossible to give the details of Mr. Wells' activity in real estate, and it is almost as challenging a task to tell the complete story of his participation in public affairs. In 1869 he was elected a member of the Board of Education of the Second School District of the old Town of West Farms, serving until 1874. He was elected to the New York State Assembly of 1879 and 1880, and in 1879 represented the First District of Westchester County, his district extending from the Harlem River to Hastings, including the old towns of Morrisania, West Farms, Westchester, and Yonkers (then including Kingsbridge), a territory now represented by thirteen Assemblymen. He secured the passage of the following bills, among others: To facilitate the movement of the Harlem River; to reduce interest on unpaid taxes and assessments; to extend the New York water supply in the Twenty third and Twenty fourth wards; for the registration of the bonds of the old towns of Morrisania and West Farms; for the drainage of lands in the Twenty third and Twenty fourth wards and others acts in retaliation to local improvements in the city of New York; for the reduction of expenses in street opening proceedings; and the bill transferring the care of the streets, avenues and public works in the Twenty third and Twenty fourth wards from the Park Department to the Department of Public Improvements. This bill was vetoed by Governor Robinson, but afterward was approved by other governors. From his earliest activity in public affairs he strongly favored and urged the completion of a final map of The Bronx.

In a mass convention of citizens, irrespective of party, he was nominated for Alderman of the Twenty third and Twenty fourth wards. He was also nominated by the Republicans and was elected, being the only Republican chosen that year in the Twenty third and Twenty fourth wards. In the two following years Mr. Wells received similar nominations and was elected. He served in the Board of Aldermen for the years 1881, 1882, and 1883. In 1882 he was appointed the chairman of the Committee on Public Works, although the Board was opposed to him politically. He personally prepared and secured the passage of hundreds of resolutions and ordinances providing for local improvements, the extension of the water supply and the sewering, grading, flagging, paving and lighting of streets and avenues, the naming of streets and numbering of houses, and providing for gates at railroad crossings. He also secured the passage of the ordinances for the construction of the bridge across the Harlem Rivet at Second Avenue, and the charters under which the elevated railroad was built and is operated from One Hundred and Twenty ninth Street to Fordliam.

Mr. Wells advocated as a citizen the bill creating the new Parks and Parkways in The Bronx. He was appointed by Judge Lacombe, then corporation counsel, to examine and value for the city of New York all the lands, about 4,000 acres, taken for these Parks and Parkways. He was reappointed by Judge Morgan J. O'Brien and by Judge Henry R. Beekman.

Mr. Wells was one of the originators of and a leader in the movement which resulted in 1890 in the passage of the bill creating the Department of Street Improvements in the Twenty third and Twenty fourth wards. A special committee of the State Senate, consisting of C. P. Vedder, George Z. Erwin, Frank P. Arnold, Charles A. Stadler and Michael C. Murphy, was appointed to examine into and report upon the condition of the public affairs of the then Twenty third and Twenty fourth wards. Mr. Wells was a member of the Citizens' committee that escorted the Senate Committee over the district and was one of the witnesses for the people in the investigation that was held. The Senate Committee reported that the district "had been sadly neglected," and that "the city officials had evidently failed to provide the necessary improvements tha should be made in this interesting and growing section of the city."

At a non partisan mass convention held at Zeltner's Hall on September 29, 1890, Mr. Wells was unanimously nominated for the office of Commissioner of Street Improvements of The Bronx, but he immediately declined in favor of his friend, Louis J. Heintz, to whom he had pledged his support. When it became evident that further legislation was necessary to protect the newly created Department of Street Improvements, Mr. Wells was prevailed upon to accept a nomination for the Assembly of 1892. He was nominated by the Republicans and endorsed by the independent citizens, and was elected, although the district gave a majority of over 3,000 for Roswell P. Flower, the Democratic candidate for Governor.

At this time the agitation for a five cent fare and continuous ride on the elevated railroad began and was approved by him and an Assembly politically opposed to him passed the first bill on the subject. He also introduced the first bills for the construction of the Willis Avenue bridge and the One Hundred and Forty ninth Street bridge and assisted by his vote and influence in securing necessary legislation for rebuilding the Third Avenue bridge, the extension of the water supply, the improvement of Van Cortlandt Park and amendments to the street opening law.

Mr. Wells was one of the organizers of the North Side, now Bronx, Board of Trade and presided at its first meeting, held on March 6, 1894. He declined the presidency of the board in favor of John C. De La Vergne. On the death of Mr. De La Vergae, Mr. Wells was elected president of the board and was reelected each year until 1902.

In 1895, Mr. Wells favored the act providing for the Grand Boulevard and Concourse and was one of the committee that visited Albany on March 20th and urged Governor Morton to sign the bill.

On June 11, 1895, Mayor William L. Strong appointed Mr. Wells one of the Commissioners of Taxes and Assessments of The City of New York. The office terminated on January 1, 1897, by reason of the Charter of Greater New York, which went into effect on that date. During Mayor William L. Strong's administration Mr. Wells was one of the Mayor's most trusted advisers on matters affecting The Bronx, and he assisted materially in securing favorable action and liberal appropriations from the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. He was also largely instrumental in securing the support of the Mayor in favor of the Manhattan Rapid Transit lines into The Bronx.

In 1897 Mr. Wells was selected by the North Side Board of Trade and the Taxpayers' Alliance of the Twenty third and Twenty fourth wards to represent the interests of the people before the Greater New York Charter Commission and the Committee of the State Legislature having in charge the organization of the form of government of New York City. On January 13, he delivered an address before the Greater New York Charter Commission in favor of Home Rule for the boroughs and against the abolition of the Department of Street Improvements. He delivered similar addresses throughout the district, at a mass meeting held in the Real Estate Exchange, and before the Committee on Cities of the Senate and Assembly.

Since the organization of the New York Rapid Transit Commission Mr. Wells has been frequently before that body urging the claims of The Bronx for additional rapid transit lines.

In 1899 Mr. Wells was one of the committee that escorted the State Railroad Commissioners through The Bronx and urged upon them the importance of compelling the Manhattan Elevated Railroad' Company to extend its lines to Fordham, Bedford Park and West Farms in accordance with its franchise acquired in 1882. He was one of the witnesses on behalf of the residents of The Bronx when the matter was formally considered by the Board of Commissioners.

On April 25, 1900, Governor Roosevelt appointed Mr. Wells a member of the Charter Revision Commission. Hon. George L. Rives, the president of the commission, selected Mr. Wells as chairman of the Committee on Borough Government. He reported and carried through the scheme of Home Rule and Borough Government. He embodied these provisions in the charter which went into effect January 1, 1902. Mr. Wells was constant in the discharge of his duties as a member of the Charter Revision Commission and made addresses in every borough of Greater New York and before the Committee on the Legislature in behalf of the Home Rule provisions of the new charter. He secured the appointment of Mr. W. W. Niles, Jr., as counsel for the Committee on Borough Government.

John D. Crimmins, a fellow member of the Charter Revision Commission, wrote of Mr. Wells:

Mr. Wells, with persuasiveness and intelligence, born from observation of the workings of the present Charter, brought into the framing of the Amendments much that is valuable and which, when enacted, will make conditions that shall largely facilitate the administration of the affairs of the people of every Borough and forward intelligent public improvements.

In 1901, Mr. Wells was the Republican candidate for the presidency of The Borough of The Bronx, and was defeated, and in 1902-03, by appointment of Mayor Low, was president of the Department of Taxes and Assessments of New York City. In 1905, he was the Republican candidate for president of the Board of Aldermen, and in 1906 he was the candidate of his party for Congress.

In 1914, Mr. Wells was called to a wide field of service in his election to the office of treasurer of the State of New York in which he served by two reelections until January 1, 1921.

In 1916, he received a plurality of 249,150 and in 1918 a plurality of 188,975. Although 1918 was an off year he received 1,285 votes more than the combined vote polled by all the other candidates for treasurer in that campaign. Twice he was given the largest plurality ever received by a candidate for State office in New York State. To the responsible duties of the treasurership he brought a trained business mind, intimate knowledge of the workings of the machinery of government, and proved ability in the public service. His administration was marked by capable handling of the public funds. He was a founder of the Twenty third Ward Bank, and a founder and trustee of the Dollar Savings Bank.

Mr. Wells is an Episcopalian in religious identification and was for many years a warden of St. Ann's Protestant Episcopal Church of Morrisania.

Mr. Wells married, July 13, 1887, Florence Edith Fowler, and their children were: 1. Edith Lee, born June 14, 1888, married Rev. C. C. Harriman, Rector of St. Ann's Protestant Episcopal Church of Morrisania. 2. James L., Jr., born February 14, 1899.

These are the facts, in barest outline, of the long and eventful career of James L. Wells. To talk with him of them is to have them illuminated by a thousand flashes of his keen wit, interesting reminiscence, and discerning insight into human nature. Mr. Wells has worked tirelessly for his borough and its people, has not evaded the burdens his constituents have laid upon him, has stood firmly in defence of his convictions when necessary, and stands in the respect and esteem of the community as a civic leader whose work is good.

The Bronx and its people
A History 1609-1927
Board of Editors: James L. Wells,
Louis F. Haffen
Josiah A. Briggs.
Historian: Benedict Fitspatrick
Publisher: The Lewis Historical Publishing Co., Inc.
New York 1927

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