William Collins Whitney, U.S Secretary of the Navy

Is your surname Whitney?

Research the Whitney family

William Collins Whitney, U.S Secretary of the Navy's Geni Profile

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!


William Collins Whitney

Birthplace: Conway, Franklin, Massachusetts, USA
Death: Died in New York, New York County, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of James Scollay Whitney and Laurinda Whitney
Husband of Edith Sybil May and Flora Whitney (Payne)
Father of Harry Payne Whitney; Pauline Payne Paget; Payne Whitney and Dorothy Payne Straight (Whitney)
Brother of Henry Melville Whitney; Susan Collins Whitney; Lucy Collins "Lily" Whitney and Mary A Whitney

Occupation: American political leader and financier and founder of the prominent Whitney family. A conservative reformer, he was considered a Bourbon Democrat.
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About William Collins Whitney, U.S Secretary of the Navy


William Collins Whitney (July 5, 1841 - February 2, 1904) was an American political leader and financier and founder of the prominent Whitney family. He served as Secretary of the Navy in the first Cleveland administration from 1885 through 1889. A conservative reformer, he was considered a Bourbon Democrat.

Early life

William Whitney was born at Conway, Massachusetts of Puritan stock. The family were descended from John Whitney of London, who settled at Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1635. William Whitney's father was Brigadier General James Scollay Whitney; his mother, Laurinda Collins, was a descendant of Plymouth governor William Bradford. William Whitney had a well known older brother, industrialist Henry Melville Whitney (1839–1923), president of the Metropolitan Steamship Company, founder of the West End Street Railway Company of Boston, and later founder of the Dominion Coal Company and Dominion Iron and Steel Company in Sydney, Nova Scotia on Cape Breton Island. His sister Lucy Collins "Lily" Whitney married Charles T. Barney, who became the president of the Knickerbocker Trust Company. Another sister, Susan Collins Whitney, married Henry F. Dimock.

Educated at Williston Seminary, East Hampton, Massachusetts, Whitney was graduated from Yale University in 1863, where he was a member of Skull and Bones, and then studied law at Harvard. He left in 1864 to study law with Abraham R. Lawrence in New York City, and in 1865 was admitted to the bar.

On October 13, 1869, he married Flora Payne, daughter of Senator Henry B. Payne of Ohio and a sister of Whitney's Yale classmate, Colonel Oliver Hazard Payne, later treasurer of the Standard Oil Company. The Whitneys had five children:

Harry Payne Whitney (1872–1930)

Pauline Payne Whitney (1874–1916) - married Almeric Hugh Paget, 1st Baron Queenborough

(William) Payne Whitney (1876–1927)

Oliver Whitney (1878–1883)

Dorothy Payne Whitney (1887–1968) - married (1) Willard Dickerman Straight; (2) Leonard Knight Elmhirst

Flora Payne Whitney died in 1894 at age fifty-two. Two years later, William Whitney remarried to Edith Randolph. In 1898, she suffered a horse riding accident and died at age forty-one on May 6, 1899.[5]

Political career

Whitney was active in organizing the Young Men's Democratic Club in 1871. He was an aggressive opponent of the Tweed Ring, and was actively allied with the anti-Tammany County Democracy of 1871-1890. In 1872 he was made inspector of schools, but the same year met defeat in the election for district attorney.

From 1875 to 1882 he was corporation counsel of New York, and as such brought about a codification of the laws relating to the city, and successfully contested a large part of certain claims, largely fraudulent, against the city, amounting to about $20 million, and a heritage from the Boss Tweed regime. In 1882 he resigned to attend to personal interests.

In 1883, through the Broadway Railroad Company, Whitney became involved in a struggle with Jacob Sharp and Thomas Fortune Ryan for the Broadway street-railway franchise. Sharp initially won the franchise by means of bribery, but in December 1884 Ryan formed an alliance with Whitney and Peter A.B. Widener. By arousing public opinion, instituting court action, and prompting legislative investigation, they defeated Sharp. The Ryan syndicate finally received the franchise in 1886.

During President Cleveland's first administration (1885–1889), Whitney was United States Secretary of the Navy and did much to develop the United States Navy. The contracts issued under the previous administration were investigated impartially by a committee appointed by Whitney and comprising Commodore Evans, Commodore Belknap and Herman Winter, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Steamship Company. Whitney promoted the adoption by industry of the technology needed for the construction of steel steamships and modern naval guns and the domestic manufacture of plate armor. He also reorganized the finances and logistics of the Navy Department and helped make the Naval War College a success.

When Whitney left office in 1889, steel vessels completed or under construction included the armored cruiser (later battleship) Maine; monitors Puritan, Amphitrite, Monadnock, Terror and Miantonomoh; protected cruisers Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Newark, Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and San Francisco; dynamite-gun cruiser Vesuvius; dispatch vessel Dolphin; gunboats Yorktown, Concord, Bennington and Petrel; and torpedo boat Cushing. These constituted the nucleus of the "New Navy"

During Whitney's four years in the cabinet, his home in Washington, D.C., was a social center of great attraction. In 1888 Yale conferred upon him the honorary degree of LL.D.

Whitney joined Charles T. Barney, Henry F. Dimock, W.E.D. Stokes, Francis W. Jenks, and others in forming the New York Loan and Improvement Company in 1890. This concern developed the Washington Heights section of New York City. Barney was president of the company when he died in 1907, three years after Whitney.

In opposition to Tammany, Whitney was instrumental in bringing about the third nomination of Cleveland in 1892, and took an influential part in the ensuing presidential campaign.

Whitney joined his brother Henry in organizing the Dominion Coal Company Ltd. in 1893 and the Dominion Iron and Steel Company Ltd. in 1899 to exploit the mineral resources of the Sydney district of Cape Breton Island. Other early investors included Henry F. Dimock, Almeric H. Paget and Charles T. Barney.

In the next general election, in 1896, disapproving of the "free-silver" agitation, Whitney refused to support his party's candidate, William Jennings Bryan.

Thoroughbred horse racing

William Whitney was also a major investor in thoroughbred horse racing, hiring the best trainers, buying the best horses, and engaging the services of the best jockey of the day. He established Westbury Stable with a string of Thoroughbred race horses, competing against the successful stable of business associate, James R. Keene. At his vast summer estate near Old Westbury on Long Island, Whitney built an 800-foot (240 m) stable with 84 box stalls and an adjoining mile-long training track. At the turn of the century, in the United States his horses were trained by future U.S. Racing Hall of Fame inductee John W. Rogers and in England by John Huggins.

He was the breeder of twenty-six American stakes winners, including the great filly Artful from his stallion Hamburg. On June 5, 1901, Whitney won England's Derby with Volodyovski, leased by him from Lady Valerie Meux. On October 24, 1903, the New York Times reported that W. C. Whitney had entered into a ten-year lease deal with A. J. Alexander for one thousand acres (4 km²) of the Wood Stud farm property at Spring Station, Kentucky.

Later life

Whitney was a member of Ward McAllister's Patriarch Society until its dissolution in April 1897.[16] After Flora's death on February 5, 1893, Whitney married a widow named married Edith Sibyl Randolph (née May). He commissioned McKim, Mead and White to build for her a residence in the Italian Renaissance style at Fifth Avenue and 68th Street. She died in a riding accident on May 6, 1899.

At his residence, 871 Fifth Avenue, Whitney gave a debutante ball for his niece, Helen Barney, on January 5, 1901.

He remained active in street-railway affairs until the reorganization of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company in 1902. At that time he retired from all personal identification with the company.

William Collins Whitney died on February 2, 1904, and was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.

The USS Whitney (AD-4) was named in his honor when launched on October 12, 1923 at the Boston Navy Yard. The William C. Whitney Wilderness Area of the Adirondack Park is also named in his honor.

view all

William Collins Whitney, U.S Secretary of the Navy's Timeline

July 5, 1841
Conway, Franklin, Massachusetts, USA
April 29, 1872
Age 30
New York City, New York, USA
March 21, 1874
Age 32
New York, United States
March 20, 1876
Age 34
New York, NY, USA
Age 45
February 2, 1904
Age 62
New York, New York County, New York, United States