Biography of William G. Lee
Cuyahoga County, OH Biographies

WILLIAM GRANVILLE LEE. As president of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen William Granville Lee is one of the outstanding figures in the railroad world. For over twenty years he has been a resident of Cleveland, and this community has learned to esteem him not only for his high official position but for his local citizenship. Perhaps no better statement of the pride felt by Cleveland people in their distinguished fellow citizen and also of his official standing in railway labor circles could be found than that expressed in an editorial in the Cleveland News in June, 1922. This editorial read as follows: "Many speeches and resolutions could not have furnished such convincing testimony to the good sense and rightniindedness of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen as the action of that big organization gave when it reelected President W. G. Lee, on the first ballot, in its annual convention at Toronto, Canada. In such matters actions speak much louder than words, and in Cleveland, particularly, where President Lee has lived long enough to be widely known, his character and his personality go far toward guaranteeing reasonableness, conservatism and careful though untiring progress in the affairs of the very large brotherhood at the head of which he has served for thirteen years.

"Organizations of all kinds are naturally and properly judged, in large part, by the officers they choose and the way they reward or punish the work their officers do for them. In this instance the election of President Lee for another term is proof enough that the Railway Trainmen are facing the light and going in the right direction. His defeat would have been an ill omen for his own organization and for the railroad brotherhoods as a group."

William Granville Lee has almost continuously for forty five years been identified with railroads as a brakeman, switchman or conductor, or as an official of one of the most powerful unions. He was born at LaPrairie, Illinois, November 29, 1859, son of James W. and Sylvesta Jane (Tracy) Lee. His grandfather, William Lee, was a native of Virginia, and of the same original stock that produced some of the most famous characters not only in Virginia, but national history, including Gen. R. E. Lee. William Lee was a pioneer settler in Southern Indiana. James W. Lee, father of William G. Lee, was born in Jeffersonville; Indiana, in 1835, and became a carpenter and contractor. From Jeffersonville he moved to LaPrairie, Illinois, and subsequently to Lawrence. Kansas. He and his wife lived there for many years, but from 1912 spent their declining years at Cleveland. James W. Lee died in 1919, anct his widow, now in her eighty sixth year, strong and resourceful for her age, resides at Cleveland. She was born at Coshocton; Ohio. Her father, David Tracy, a native of Maryland, as a boy drove a horse on the towpath of the old Potomac Canal, and later settled at Coshocton, Ohio.

William G. Lee had a public school education in Illinois, and was twenty years of age when he began his eventful experience as a railroad worker. In 1879 he became a brakeman with the Santa Fe Railway, his first run being out of Emporia, Kansas. He was next transferred to the Mountain Division of the Santa Fe, with headquarters at Raton, New Mexico, and in the latter part of 1880 was promoted to freight conductor. He remained in that position, with a run between La Junta, Colorado, and Las Vegas, New Mexico, until June, 1883. This service as a brakeman and conductor on the Mountain Railway was performed under trying conditions such as only comparatively few active railway men can recall as a matter of personal experience. At that tithe railroading everywhere was a service of unusual hazards, but in the muntain district particularly it was comparatively new and experimental. No trains were equipped with air brakes or automatic couplers or other safety devices. Moreover, the country was filled with a lawless, irresponsible Set of men who had no respect for railway property or railway employes. Railroad workers were also compelled to spend part of their time in inhospitable railway terminals of that day. The towns were new, the majority of the residents living in tents, and the principal business was gambling and running saloons. Mr. Lee had his experience in a territory where the cowboy was supreme and ruled things in his own particular, not to say picturesque, way. One of the requirements for train service in those days was that one member of each train crew should have some knowledge of telegraphy. Mr. Lee fortunately had learned the Morse alphabet, and was regarded as something of an operator. This knowledge served its good purpose in securing for him early promotion. During the few months he was employed on the Raton Mountains between Trinidad and Raton he unloaded the first consignment of steel used in the bridges that were constructed to replace the old wooden structures spanning the streams in that region.

The only important interruption to his continuous service with railroads came in the latter part of 1883, when he resigned to become deputy recorder of deeds of Ford County, Kansas. He held that office about three and one half years. He then resumed his work as a railroad man, beginning again as brakeman and switchman, with the Wabash Railway, after a few months transferred as a brakeman to the Missouri Pacific at Kansas City, and left that company in 1901 to become a brakeman with the Union Pacific Railway at Kansas City, where promotion was more rapid. Five months later he was promoted to conductor, and was a conductor on the Union Pacific, running out of Kansas City, until he became first vice president of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen.

He had become a member of the Brotherhood early in 1889, and immediately became prominent in its affairs. He served as local and general committeeman and legislative representative, and was a member of the committee that put into effect the first working agreement for conductors, brakemen and yardmen with the Missouri Pacific Railway. On August 1, 1895, Mr. Lee assumed the duties of first vice president of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen, and held that office for fourteen years. On January 1, 1909, he was elected president, or chief, of the Brotherhood and has rounded out fifteen years of active service in that capacity. When he assumed the office of president the Brotherhood had a membership of 100,684, and all funds constituted $1,500,000. On January 1, 1924, the membership had grown to 180,000, with total funds of over $8,250,000.

In 1906 the first collective movement was inaugurated in behalf of train and yard employes in the western territory. For the greater part of the time this work was under the personal direction of Mr. Lee as first vice president of the Brotherhood. The result was increased wages to the men in that section, and much was done toward securing uniformity of wages and service conditions. Mr. Lee in 1904 had personal direction of the first general wage movement in the New York Harbor District, as a result of which substantial increased wages were secured, also improved working rules, for all the men represented by him in that territory, including uniform rates for yard service. Mr. Lee was also in charge of the Pittsburgh yard wage movement in 1906, affecting all the lines entering that city, as a result of which better service conditions and increased wages were secured for yard men in that territory.

Since assuming the office of president of the Brotherhood Mr. Lee has been a principal in all the negotiation of wage increases in the Eastern, Western and Southern territories, and widespread improvement resulted in service and other conditions affecting the members of the Brotherhood. As the editorial above quoted indicates, no small measure of this handsome prosperity and situation is due to Mr. Lee, the grand chief and president. Mr. Lee has earned the confidence of the railway trainmen, and likewise that of the general public through his conservative yet fearless attitude. During the great strike of 1922 he held his organization strictly to their contract agreement and secured increased respect for the Brotherhood as well as for himself personally as its leader.

Upon the removal of the headquarters of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen to Cleveland in 1899, Mr. Lee as first vice president established his permanent home in this city. His residence is in Lakewood. In 1912 he brought his parents to Cleveland. For seventeen years he has generously cared for them in their Kansas home, and made their last years most pleasant. While a worker and official of the Union, a generous part of his pay check was mailed direct from the secretary treasurer of the Brotherhood each pay day to his parents. Whatever success in life he has achieved Mr. Lee credits to the early teachings of his mother.

Mr. Lee was one of the charter members of the Lake Shore Trust Company of Cleveland, and one of its original board of directors. He is a Knight Templar and Scottish Rite Mason and Shriner, and is a republican in politics. On October 15, 1901, he married Miss Mary R. Rice, daughter of the late John Rice, of Chicago.

A History of Cuyahoga County
and the City of Cleveland
By: William R. Coates
The American Historical Society
Chicago and New York, 1924

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