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Saturday, October 18, 2003

The three Josiah Wings: shipping merchant, pioneer, mayor

Nancy Dingler


Flags were lowered to half-staff on all public buildings and many private businesses in Solano County, to note the sad and sudden death of Josiah Wing on June 14, 1915.  He was so well-liked that the painful news of his death brought a countywide outpouring of sympathy for the family. Businesses closed the day of the funeral.

Wing had expressed that he wished no fancy send-off. He just wanted a plain and simple funeral, devoid of ostentation, which did not preclude the large crowd that followed the flower-draped coffin from the Wing residence in Fairfield to its final resting place at the Fairfield Cemetery.

Wing came from a long line of Massachusetts shipping merchants. His grandfather, Josiah Wing Sr., built quite a reputation as a fine sea captain, and a lucky one, for going to sea was a hazardous and risky business, in which many lost their ships and lives. He had three sons, George, John and Josiah Jr. John died in quarantine in 1822. George and Josiah went on to brilliant careers at sea.

The son, Josiah, began to gradually leave the shipping business and go into farming near Fairport, N.Y., to be near his ailing wife, Phoebe Lincoln.

After her death, he went back to Brewster, Mass., where he married a widow, Mercy Hurd. He sold the farm in New York and moved to Michigan.

The gold discovery in California drew him away from farming to try his hand at the more lucrative business of transporting passengers and cargo to the gold fields. He moved the family to Cape Cod, Mass.

Once in California, he went into the business of supplying building materials, goods and food for the miners. He established a very profitable business when he began sailing out of San Francisco to Sacramento. Josiah also converted the ship that he sailed around the horn, The Diantha, into a store ship and then built the Pine Street Hotel in San Francisco from the timber that he had brought with him.

Evidently The Diantha never sailed again and was broken up or allowed to sink in the bay, the fate of hundreds of ships whose crews jumped ship to pursue the lure of gold.

In 1852, Josiah Wing Jr. came to Suisun. He purchased Suisun “Island” and a tract of adjoining marshland, about 600 acres in all, for $500. He established a permanent wharf at Suisun and built a warehouse with sleeping quarters, then moved the San Francisco house to Suisun.

He also discovered, that at low tide, Suisun was not an island. Using willow logs, he raised the low-tide connection between the island and the Suisun Valley shoreline. Later this connection would be called Union Street.

Next, he sent for his family back in Massachusetts. His wife, Mercy, and children reached San Francisco in August of 1852. Their oldest child, Josiah III, was 14. This may be getting a little confusing, for there are three Josiah Wings.

Grandfather, Josiah, never left Massachusetts, Josiah (the second) came West and his son (the third) came to California with his mother and siblings. The elder Wing (the second), along with John W. Owens, drew up plans for the town of Suisun with street grids and lot subdivisions.

In the meantime, he kept sailing his new ship, The Ann Sophia, on the Sacramento River, and was especially busy at harvest time. He found the land holdings to be a distraction from his first love of shipmaster, so he began selling off the Suisun property in the late 1850s.

However, in 1857 he purchased a 23-acre farm a few miles west of town, put it in Mercy’s name and connected it to Rockville Road by a plank lane built by Chinese workers. The new farmhouse would remain the Wing home until after Josiah’s death in October of 1874, when Mercy went to live with her son.

His death also brought an outpouring of deep sorrow and a large crowd of mourners.

Before his death, Josiah Sr. embarked on a new venture in April 1866. By now, he was in his 60s, but not ready to quit or retire. He mastered the brig Pride of the West to catch fish in the North Pacific. His voyage was “crowned with success,” according to news reports.

The next year he took command of the Dominga and for the next five years he sailed to Petropoulski, on the Okhotsk Sea, returning each autumn with 70,000 to 100,000 codfish.

In 1871, he planned on arriving back in Suisun to give the bride away, when his daughter Laura married, but he was delayed for 18 days by calm winds. This marked the end of his sailing days and he decided to open a fish market.

When his father died, Josiah III came into his own. He became an active merchant and farmer and was universally recognized as a progressive, practical and public-spirited citizen. His grocery store in Suisun enjoyed a large patronage, as well as the branch store in Woodland, in which his son Leland S. Wing was the manager.

Wing married Grace McDonald in 1878. She was from Marlboro, Mass. They had three sons, Bertram B., Jasper A., and Leland S. There was a daughter, but she died in childhood.

Wing joined the Fairfield Improvement Club. In 1903, the club proposed that Fairfield needed to be an incorporated city so that more civic improvements could be made, without the restraints of the county governing body.

When the voters, in December of that year, decided to vote for incorporation, Josiah was the first elected mayor. He held that position for three consecutive terms. He also served 15 years as the superintendent of the Suisun water works.

Josiah was acclaimed as modest, unassuming and frank. He was beloved by his community and as summed up by the obituary in the Fairfield Enterprise: “The people of this community were genuinely attached to Josiah Wing and the universal regret experienced at his death was emphatically and eloquently expressed. . . . He will be greatly missed in Solano County.”