Because of his many indispensable services to the city, Charleston might properly claim William Ashmead Courtenay as one of its most useful figures,
though the later years of his life were spent in a village and town which he founded, Newry in Oconee County, where some of his children and where many of his interests still remain.
Mr. Courtenay was born in Charleston, February 4, 1831. He died while temporarily residing at Columbia March 23, 1908. He was descended from Edward Courtenay, Sr., who married Jane, a daughter of James Carlile of Newry, a prominent town in the north of Ireland. Edward Courtenay, Jr., grandfather of William A. Courtenay, was born at Newry September 9, 1770. In 1791 he and his brother John left Ireland for Charleston, South Carolina, but John subsequently settled at Savannah, Georgia. Edward Courtenay possessed exceptional scholarship and for many years conducted a widely known school of the higher grade at Charleston. William A. Courtenay whose father was Edward Smith Courtenay, passed his boyhood at a time when the circumstances of his family were greatly reduced. Up to his twelfth year he depended upon a member of the household for his education and afterward acknowledged a lasting debt to the three years he spent in the classical and English Academy of Dr. J.C. Faber. In his fifteenth year he had to leave school and earn his own living. From 1850 to 1860 he was in the publishing and book selling business at Charleston, in association with his older brother, S. Gilman Courtenay. He had a great natural fondness for books, and he has served in many important ways the cause of culture in his native state. As a book seller he had the opportunity which he improved of regular intercourse with such literary leaders as William Gilmore Simms, Henry Timrod, William J. Grayson, and others. In the fall of 1860 he accepted a position as business manager of the Charleston Mercury, then the leading political journal of the cotton states. He surrendered that important post at the outbreak of the war, responding to the first call to arms. He was with the Confederate armies in many of the greatest campaigns in his native state and Virginia and became a captain. The close of the war found him without means and with limited opportunities of starting life anew. For many years he was active in the shipping and commission business, and for a man whose tastes ran so strongly in the direction of literature he showed remarkable ability in practical business. For twenty-two years he handled his shipping and commission business at Charleston and was also identified with the management of steamship lines to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. During this time he served three years as president of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce. There is probably no more distinctive epoch in the history of Charleston than the period of eight years beginning in 1879 when William A. Courtenay was mayor. Toward the close of his administration occurred the earthquake of August 31, 1886, when the city was all but destroyed. So disastrous a calamity had never occurred up to that time in the United States. The present generation has few reminders of that disaster. Charleston was rebuilt anew and on a sounder foundation that ever. The wisdom of its reconstruction was largely supplied by Mayor Courtenay, whose plans were not carried out without considerable opposition, but eventually were approved by all. He substituted granite blocks and Bagging for plank and cobblestone roadways and brick pavements; caused heavy flagging to be placed on the high battery to resist the force of cyclones and storm tides; converted the undesirable and neglected location at the west end of Broad and Beaufain streets into the "Colonial Lake" ; caused the public station to be removed to a better location; criminals to be more humanely cared for ; renovated the City Hall Building and improved City Hall Park ; effected a 2 per cent reduction in the interest on the antebellum 6 per cent bonds ; changed the fire department from a political to a non-partisan force; and he also established the William Euston Home, an institution designed in accordance with the will of William Euston "to make old age comfortable" and laid out the attractive village which became the home of many men and women who in earlier life had lived in homes of their own. These were some of the larger features in the constructive work which Mr. Courtenay performed while mayor of Charleston and brief as it is the list is a striking testimonial to his vigor as an executive and his broad-minded vision and public spirit. It was at the suggestion of Mr. Courtenay that the Legislature founded the "Historical Commission of South Carolina," of which he was chairman for years. In spite of the heavy demand made upon him by his business affairs he was imtiring in his devotion to Southern literature and history and he prepared and published many historical documents. He was primarily responsible for publishing the definitive edition of the poems of his friend, Henry Timrod; also the Life of William Lowndes, the Poems of Carlyl McKinley, Lederer's Travels, and a number of biographies. He published in a deluxe edition Early Voyages to Carolina. In 1906 he presented to the Charleston Library 400 volumes, relating chiefly to South Carolina history. South Carolina education had no more devoted friend than the late Mr. Courtenay. He represented the state on the Peabody education trust, and while mayor of Charleston studied the needs of the city schools as carefully as the larger problems of public administration and construction. He was school commissioner and in later years one of the city school buildings was named for him. It was in recognition of his many constructive efforts in behalf of education that the University of Tennessee awarded him the honorary degree LL. D. After 1893 Mr. Courtenay's business interests were in Oconee County. In that year he established the Courtenay Manufacturing Company, purchasing a water power on the Little River and building the company s plant and naming the town Newry in honor of the original family seat in Ireland. This mill was notable for many reasons. It was the first projected in the South for the manufacture of prints cloth. It was also the first to install a complete sewage and water system in every house in the mill village. Mr. Courtenay acquired 3,000 acres of land which he and his sons have developed to a high degree for building sites and as farms. On a prominent hill near the village stands the handsome Courtenay residence, where Mr. Courtenay lived from 1893 until 1907. In the latter year he moved to Columbia. Mrs. Courtenay survived him until January 1, 1918. At present there are six living children. Campbell Courtenay is president and treasurer of the Courtenay Manufacturing Company and lives at Newry. Carlile Courtenay is traveling solicitor for the Rescue Orphanage at Columbia. Ashmead Courtenay is retired and resides at Charleston. St. John Courtenay is vice president and general manager of the Courtenay Manufacturing Company. Edith is the wife of John M. Bateman of Columbia, while Julia is the widow of Henry B. Richardson of Columbia. Some of the personal characteristics of the late Mr. Courtenay have been described in a previous publication and may properly be quoted here : "Of a nervous temperament, his was an impetuous and in some respects aggressive nature, involving constant effort to restrain impulses and check too hasty action. He possessed quick perceptive power, tireless energy, strong facility for organization, wonderful capacity for work and marked executive ability. In what he did he looked rather to the best permanent results than mere transient success, and ever aimed for the highest and best achievements. His thoughts and actions in public life were marked throughout by force of expression and vigor of action. Impatient of unnecessary delays, this with some, left the impression of needless austerity and impulsiveness, but under all this seeming brusqueness there was a genial disposition, as well in social life as in all intercourse for the dispatch of business. He was thoroughly patriotic, a constant friend, a devoted husband and kind father."