Captain Wilbur Kelly

Portrait of a white male with black hair wearing a black suite with white shirt
Captain Wilbur Kelly

We know very little about Wilbur Kelly’s origins. Born around 1782 in Massachusetts, Kelly spent the first half of his life working on the high seas. After managing men on ships, Kelly set his sights on land, overseeing the operation of multiple mills and an early mill village in Rhode Island.

Sometime in his youth, Kelly went to sea to work in the booming U.S. domestic and international shipping industry. By 1810, Kelly rose to the rank of captain, managing ships for the Brown and Ives Company based out of Providence, RI. That year, he also married Abby Eliza Whipple, the only daughter of Christopher Whipple, a Revolutionary War veteran.

Throughout the War of 1812, Kelly worked as a ship’s captain, most likely transporting goods domestically. In 1815, Kelly set sail for China with over 50,000 tons of cargo on the Ann and Hope. Captain Kelly made multiple, speedy trips to Canton, buying, and selling goods in port, and enriching himself as well as Brown & Ives.

After traveling to faraway ports in Amsterdam and India, Kelly decided to make a living on land. Enriched from his most recent voyage, Kelly invested in the Wenscutt Mill (located in North Providence, RI) in 1816. Kelly lost that investment within a year. After spending more years at sea, Kelly tried investing in manufacturing again in 1823. This time, he purchased land, water rights, and a large interest in a mill. The Smithfield Cotton and Woolen Factory was located at a crossing point of the Blackstone River in modern Lincoln, Rhode Island.

In addition to cotton manufacturing, Kelly was also an investor in the Blackstone Canal Company. The canal company purchased the right to dig the canal through his property. This decreased the costs and time to transport raw materials in from Providence and finished products back to the Providence markets and port.

Two-story stone structure with bell tower on far end
Kelly Mil

On May 18, 1826, Kelly turned over control of the mill and village to his former employers the Brown and Ives Company. Now also working in the textile industry, Brown and Ives named their textile company the Lonsdale Company. Kelly was in turn hired by the Lonsdale Company as their head agent. He earned $500 a year for his services. Kelly began to purchase land and water rights along the Blackstone River. In all, he purchased about 435 acres from Scott’s Pond on the south to the Kelly dam on the north.

Kelly established a part-time residence near the mill and continued focusing on building a legacy for his family on land. Abby and Wilbur raised four children. Daughter Abby married a merchant and lived in Providence. Their son Robert followed in his father’s footsteps by serving in the United States Navy. He was a casualty of the Civil War. Sons George and Christopher stayed close to home, managing aspects of the mill business. Around 1835, Kelly set up a home for his son, Christopher, near the Blackstone Canal. That property is now the Kelly House Museum of Transportation.

In his older years, Kelly's primary residence was on Benefit Street in Providence. From his elevated position in society, Kelly advocated for his business interests, which included the support of the slave cloth industry. In 1835, Kelly was among the Providence area businessmen who labeled abolitionists as "reckless fanatics." He argued that anti-slavery leaders were “dangerous to the existing relations of friendship and of business between different sections of our country…” By the eve of the Civil War, nearly 4 out of 5 textile business in Rhode Island were involved in the manufacture of slave cloth.

Kelly was active in the Union Insurance Company of Providence. His role as head agent propelled the Lonsdale Company to even greater heights in New England’s textile industry. By his death in 1846, the Lonsdale Company was one of New England’s largest textile manufacturing companies. 


Doug Reynolds, “Ship’s Captain, Shop’s Cotton: Wilber Kelly and Early American Industrialization,” Rhode Island History 49, No. 2. (May 1991): 37-50.

“Rapid Sailing,” Rhode-Island American, and General Advertiser (Providence, RI): June 10, 1823, p.3.


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Last updated: December 13, 2023

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