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From: "Joy King" <>
Subject: Fw: James E. Birch
Date: Thu, 8 Apr 2004 11:56:11 -0400

Anyone looking for James?


----- Original Message -----
From: <>
Sent: Thursday, April 08, 2004 11:26 AM
Subject: The Swansea Stagecoach

The Swansea Stagecoach
Pub by Swansea Historical Society

A Remarkable Man by Mary E. Nottingham

James E. Birch was born Nov. 30, 1827 in South Carolina, and died 1857 -
just 30 years old but he had a wealth of experiences and adventure packed
into such a short life. Today we see the magnificent Birch- Stevens mansion
on Main Street in the Village and we think of this young man's career.

We don't know much about the early life of James E. Birch. It is thought
that he was poor and early went to New York before making his way to
Providence. There in 1847 he worked in a livery stable (where horses and
carriages were for rent) His employer was Otis Kelton, a Swansea man and
Birch met Kelton's half-sister, Julia Chace whose home was the small house
which still stands at 160 Elm Street, Swansea Village. It is just around the
corner from the mansion which later became Julia's residence.

About the same time, James Birch formed a friendship with Frank Shaw
Stevens, a young man who had come to Providence from his native Vermont. In
1848 gold was discovered in far-away California. By the spring of 1849
thousands of adventurous New Englanders were headed west on the dangerous
3000 miles overland journey or the far longer but easier voyage around Cape
Horn. Among these travellers to the California "diggings" were Jim Birch
and Frank Stevens. They went by way of thle Great Lakes and the roadless
desesrt-and-mountain land route to the Pacific Coast.

James Birch, now 21 years of age, made a great deal of money in California
but not by digging for gold. A shrewd business man, he commenced to supply
one of the big needs in a new country--transportation. He started "driving
stage" with one wagon, carrying miners and their equipment from Sacramento
to the diggings 30 miles up into the mountains. Eager newcomers paid high
rates to reach the goldfields.

So great was his success that only a little over four years after that
morning in September 1849 when James Birch started driving, The California
Stage Company was sending its passenger-packed coaches on routes totalling
more than 1500 miles. The first president of this company was J. Birch and
the first vice-president was F. S. Stevens. Mr. Birch had contributed about
$75,000 which he had earned in those four years. He had also put aside
enough money to establish himself and his bride in the mansion that had been
built in Swansea.

All this brings us to his marriage in 1852 to Miss Julia A.B. Chace of
"Swanzy". So we know that James Birch had made the return trip to the East
one or more times. We know, also, that a daughter was born in 1855 but she
died a week later. A son was born in 1856 and he was named Frank Stevens
Birch, honoring his father's friend. This son lived in Swansea until his
death in 1896 which ended the Birch line.

When he had cleared up his affairs in California, James Birch decided to
return to the East and devote his energy to the promotion of a
trans-continental stage-coach line to carry U.S. Mail. This time he chose
to travel home to Swansea by boat to the Isthmus of Panama and from there by
steamship toNew York. This was an expensive way but rather comfortable and
supposedly safe route.

All went well as far as Havana, Cuba after he had boarded the large new
steamer "Central America" at the Isthmus. The ship carried 626 persons and
more than a million dollars worth of gold. James E. Birch was listed as one
of the First Cabin passengers. Among his belongings was a silver cup, a
gift for his baby son Frank. When the Central America was one day out of
Havana, she ran into a tropical storm and sprang a leak. After those on
board attempted desperately to keep her afloat, the vessal sank. Some of
the passengers and crew were rescued by another craft but most drowned in
the raging seas. Among those lost was James Birch. Before he perished he
managed to place the silver cup in the care of a sailor who was rescued nine
days later. The seaman delivered the cup to Julia Chace Birch who had been
waiting for her husband's arrival on the Central America at New York. We
can imagine her grief. James Birch was not yet 30 years old.

Julia Birch, the widow, married Frank Stevens and they moved into the
ornate mansion on Main Street, now the Frank S. Stevens Home for Boys. From
the fortune built by the two men have indirectly come most of the public
buildings in Swansea Village; Town Hall, Public Library, Christ Church,
Frank S. Stevens School and the Joseph Case High School (now the Junior
High), the Eliza Gray Case Home and Rest Home. After Julia's death, Mr.
Stevens married Elizabeth Case,who lived in the great house until she died
in 1930.

Copied by Claire Dietz

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