We know very little about Wilbur Kelly’s early life other than he was born in 1782 probably in North Providence. His parents were of the poor working class. As a young teen he went to sea in the late 1790s. He worked in the booming U.S. domestic and international shipping industry.
By 1810, Kelly rose to the rank of captain. He was only 28 years old. That year, he also married Abby Eliza Whipple, the only daughter of a prominent Rhode Island family. Throughout the War of 1812, Kelly worked as a ship’s captain for the Brown and Ives Company, most likely transporting goods domestically.
By 1815, Brown and Ives gave the captaincy of a new ship, the Ann and Hope, to Kelly. He was to voyage for Canton, China. Kelly’s voyage lasted 84 days. They traveled roughly 12,400 miles. He returned with 900 tons of tea.
Captain Kelly’s foray into cotton manufacturing began when he invested in the Wenscutt Mill in North Providence in 1816. Difficult economic times in the years following the War of 1812 led to Kelly losing his investment. However, in 1825 Kelly invested in the small Smithfield Cotton and Woolen Factory at a crossing point of the Blackstone River in modern Lincoln, Rhode Island.
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.
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 lived in his home on Benefit Street for the rest of his life. His work as head agent propelled the Lonsdale Company to a leadership role in New England’s textile industry. By his death in 1846, the Lonsdale Company was one of New England’s largest textile manufacturing companies. He rose from a poor child living in North Providence to a successful and prosperous man.
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Last updated: July 17, 2021