Captain Charles E. Belknap
(Greenwood Cemetery, Walker Township)

Captain Belknap died Wednesday morning at 7:30 at his home, 516 Benjamin Avenue SE.

This simple announcement will bring reverent and sad pause to the minds and hearts of thousands who knew and loved the man. By the charm of his personality, his qualities of mellow friendship and his characteristic patriotism to country and community, Capt. Belknap endeared himself to man, woman and child near and far.

He began to lose his remarkable grip on health early last autumn, but he waged sturdy resistance to illness and took pleasure in voting in the election of November 6, using an absentee voter’s ballot. Death was due to the effects of an intestinal growth.

Funeral services will be held at Fountain Street Baptist Church Friday at 2 o’clock. Rev Alfred W. Wishart, pastor of that church, will officiate. Burial will be private in Greenwood Cemetery.

Years rested lightly upon Captain Belknap. Their advance did not slow his step, their cumulation did not bend him. He loved the great outdoors, he loved the flowers and the birds, he loved his fellow men and to the end of his years his heart retained its youth. He was Michigan’s youngest old man.

Captain Belknap’s life was one of service. For four years he was in the army of the north, fighting for the Union. Returning to civil life he was a member of the fire department for ten years. He served as alderman of the old seventh ward for a term and in 1884 was elected mayor of the city. He served two terms as a member of congress.

He was a member of the board for the state institute for the deaf for six years and of the state hospital at Kalamazoo for ten years. He was chairman of the commission appointed to locate sites and place monuments and markers on the battlefields of Chickamauga and Chattanooga and through all the years he ever was the good citizen, good neighbor, good friend, ready to make any sacrifice of personal comfort or interest if he could be of help.

Captain Belknap was born October 17, 1846 at Massena, St. Lawrence County, New York. His home was on the Raquette River near it confluence with the St. Lawrence. His earliest memories were of the water and its sports. In 1853 his grandfather, John Joshua Belknap, a veteran of the War of 1812, came to Michigan to locate 160 cares on war scrip. He found a tract that suited him, near Jamestown, Ottawa County, and a year later moved in. With him came his son James A. Belknap and family. The son decided to locate in town. He was a blacksmith and iron worker and opened a shop on the canal front near the site of the present Pantlind Hotel. He did shipyard forging as well as blacksmithing and became an important factor in the local shipbuilding industry.

Capt. Belknap was 8 years old when the family came to Michigan. He attended the old stone school on the hill and later the old school where Union High now is located. In those days money was scarce and boys had to hustle for their own.

When his father moved his shop to the west side river front, where the Star Mills now stand, the boy found his opportunities in boating for the lumbermen. When the old Bridge St. bridge burned he operated a canoe ferry across the river. He carried a route for the old Grand Rapids Time when E. A. Gordon was its editor and slept in the office to be ready when the paper had been printer in the morning. Often he worked with his father in the shop and learned the rudiments of the trade as blacksmith and wagonmaker.

Capt. Belknap’s father was one of the first to respond when the call to arms came in the Civil War. He enlisted in the 8th Michigan infantry and served four years. He was three times wounded at James Island, Knoxville and at St. Petersburg and returned home an invalid to retire to a farm near Sparta where he died in 1872.

When the war began, Captain Belknap, not yet 18 years old, was refused enlistment. He reopened the blacksmith shop which his father’s leaving had closed, and for nearly a year carried on as best he could. Then on September 12, 1862, he enlisted in Company H, 21st Michigan infantry, which rendezvoused at Ionia, and with his regiment moved into Kentucky by way of Detroit and Cincinnati. He became a Captain two years later.  He fought at the battle of Chickamauga, where today there stands a monument of him.  He was wounded four times.  In 1864 he was the Chief of Scouts, of the left wing of General Sherman's Army on the march to the sea.  The old 21st was one of Michigan’s famous regiments serving as part of the Army of the Cumberland. The regiment was in 32 battles and was under fire 118 times. Capt. Belknap was with the regiment to the end of the war. He went in as a private and won promotion. Near the end of the war he was brevetted major and when the war ended he was made brevet lieutenant colonel. He was mustered out June 8, 1865 in Washington, D. C.  He received his discharge June 23, 1865. He had ambitions to continue in the service and enrolled in the cavalry reserves but after a year and a half he let this lapse.  After the war he was appointed historian of the Army of the Cumberland and served for twelve years.

After four years of strenuous battlefield and camp life Capt. Belknap could not settle down at once to peace vocations. He ‘played around’ for a year and then took odd jobs as paymaster of the lumber camps and for a time was with his father on the farm near Sparta. In 18y0 he went back to the trade which his father had taught him. Two years later he started a shop of his own at Front Avenue and First Street and there he continued for nearly 50 years.

The Belknap wagon became famous in western Michigan for honesty of construction and durability. The Belknap logging truck, with wheels eight to ten feet in diameter, came to be used wherever lumbering was done.  In later years the Belknap shop turned to wagon and truck bodies and then to motor truck bodies.  

The business was reorganized in 1914, and in the deflation period following the war it met with disaster through the cancellation of contracts and defaults of those for whom work had been done.

For 10 years Capt. Belknap was a member of the fire department.  He joined the department in 1870 soon after settling down to peace industry, became foreman of old No. 3 company which had its engine house on Scribner-av. just around the corner from his shop.  For three years he was assistant to Gen. Israel C. Smith, chief of the department.

Fire serivce in those days was strenuous.  The city was of wood construction, with frame store buildings lining the downtown streets and once started hard fighting was required to check the flames.

Between 1870 and 1875 in successive fires old Canal-st. was swept from Campau swuare north, and Bridge-st., N.W., was reduced to ashes.  While in the department Capt. Belknap rode a high-spirited Kentucky bred, iron gray mare, Fly, and when the alarm sounded she was as eager as her rider to reach the scene of danger.  When too old for further service the mare was sent to a peaceful pasture north of town and when she died two years later she was buried with her blankets in the woods.. The mare was stabled in the bard? Near the Belknap home at night and in the day-time, had a stall at the shops, always the immediate reach should the alarm sound.

From his wagon shop Capt. Belknap had a view of the river from the dam to Bridge-st. and his shop became a life-saving station. An accident on the river, an overturned boat or boys beyond their depth, was the signal for a call and no mater what the work he had on hand, Capt. Belknap dropped everything to go to the rescue. He had grappling equipment and always knew where boats were to be found. Finding the body often was his job.

Soon after ‘settling down’ to business Capt. Belknap took an interest in city affairs. He served as a member of the board of education 1874-1881. In 1882 he was elected alderman from the old Seventh ward. In 1884 he was nominated for mayor with Adolph Leitelt as his opponent.

In those days the political lineup was the Republicans against the fusion Greenbackers and Democrats. E. B. Dikeman had served one term as a Democrat, then Crawford Angell was elected as a recognition of the Greenback wing. Mr. Leitelt was a Democrat, but the issue was not so much political as it was municipal policies.

The city with 45, 000 population had 216 saloons besides innumerable speakeasies. Public sentiment was awakening to a demand for better enforcement of the liquor laws.

Capt. Belknap was elected and during the single year of his administration succeeded in reducing the number of saloons and putting a reasonable amount of fear into the hearts of violators. This was the first real step toward curbing the liquor traffic in Grand Rapids. During his administration also the early steps were taken for the building of the city hall.

The plan favored was to acquire the entire block from Lyon-st. to Crescent-st. between Ionia and Ottawa-avs., but the demands for economy led to cutting this down to the present site. Capt. Belknap refused a second term, as business interests would not permit him to spare the time. The fusion forces won the three next elections and then as a forlorn hope he was nominated again in 1888, with Isaac M. Weston as his opponent. This campaign was one of the bitterest in the political history of the city, not so much between the opposing parties, however, as within the ranks of the Democrats and Greenbackers, Weston was elected by a majority of nine and this was so near a victory for Capt. Belknap that it put him in line for the congressional nomination the following fall.

The political situation in Michigan in those days was decidedly uncertain. The Republicans were in control but the margin over the combined Democrats, Greenbackers, Labor party and other opposition elements was narrow and in some sections had been entirely submerged. Grand Rapids was a fusion stronghold; in Kent county the opposition held all the offices. In this congressional district the combination of parties had been three times successful, in order electing Julius Houseman, Charles C. Comstock and Melbourne H. Ford. Grover Cleveland then was president with his first term drawing to a close, and in the campaign of 1888 was candidate for re-election with Benjamin Harrison as his opponent.

Capt. Belknap was nominated for congress. The campaign was one of the hottest this district ever knew, with an unprecedented massing of famous speakers, and with workers making dorr to door canvasses of the voters. Delos A. Blodgett was manager of the Republican campaign and he put into it all his zeal for the party and all his resourcefulness as a politician. Capt. Belknap was elected by a plurality of 2,667. In the national election Harrison was elected.

The Democrats had been in possession of the federal offices under Cleveland for four years. The Republicans were eager to get back. With his election Capt. Belknap’s troubles began. Nearly every post office in the district developed a contest and the contests often became bitter. Two years gave Capt. Belknap all he wanted. He declined renomination in 1890, and Melbourne H. Ford was re-elected over Charles W. Watkins. Mr. Ford died soon after his term began and at a special election in the fall Capt. Belknap was prevailed upon to be a candidate and was elected over John S. Lawrence. In the campaign of 1892 the congressional opponents were Capt. Belknap and George F. Richardson, the latter backed by the fusion forces. On the face of the returns Capt. Belknap had 20, 139 and Richardson 20,130. Capt Belknap was given the certificate of election but Richardson contested and after a year a partisan congressional committee awarded him the seat.

In congress Capt. Belknap served on the military affairs and pension committees and was active in looking after the interests of his old comrades in the war. The tariff was the chief national issue and he voted with his party.

One incident in his congressional career not connected with statesmanship may be recalled. He joined the congressional party going to New York by special train for the launching of the New York. The train was sideswiped near Philadelphia, with cars derailed and many of the distinguished passengers injured. His old training as a fireman taught him what to do and he was foremost in the work of rescue. For this he was given a life pass on the Pennsylvania railroad division from Washington to New York and it was one of his treasured mementoes.

Retiring from congress Capt. Belknap returned to his wagon shop, but he did not lose his interest in public affairs.  He was appointed a member of the board of the state hospital at Kalamazoo by Gov. Rich and served 10 years.  Before that for six years he had been a member of the board of the state school for the deaf by appointment of Gov. Alger.  In 1893 he was appointed chairman of the commission to locate sites held by Michigan troops and erect monuments on the battlefields of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and this occupied his time for several years.  The commissioner erected 11 monuments and 13 stone and many cannon ball markers.  The report which the chairman compiled is regarded as high historical authority in all matters pertaining to this famous battle, the forces engaged and what they did.

In the Spanish was Capt. Belknap was recalled to service and at Chattanooga, under Gen. Brook, was assigned to service find wood for fuel and water for the camp.  In the World was he was chairman of the selective draft board and gave unsparingly of his time and energies in patriotic services.  He arranged parades and other public demonstrations, and if it were boys going away or boys coming home from the was it was Capt. Belknap who was called upon.  In the Liberty loan, Red Cross, Y.M.C.A. and other drives he was tireless.

Capt. Belknap was a charter member of Custer post, G. A. R., a former member of the advisory board of the national G. A. R., a member of the Loyal Legion, member of the Army and Navy club, the Elks, the Lions and the Goodfellowship clubs, commissioner of the Boy Scouts, chairman of the commission to erect a memorial to John Ball in John Ball park and president of the Old Settlers Association.

With an education limited to such as may be gained in a small town school, Capt. Belknap was not equipped for literary work, but all his life he was a student and comparatively late in life he won recognition as a writer. This recognition was not because of grace in the use of words but because he had the message to deliver. Familiar from childhood with the ways of wild life, familiar through association with the Indians of western and northern Michigan, and with retentive memory for the pioneers and their strivings, he had the substance for authorship and style took care of itself.

Capt. Belknap began writing when he was in congress, chiefly special articles for the Detroit, Washington and Boston newspapers. He wrote a series of articles on the Indians for the bureau of ethnolog and recalled a series of Indian myths for the National Folk Lore Society.

One of his folk lore contributions was the legend of the Arbutus and it became famous wherever arbutus grows. He was appointed historian of the Army of the Cumberland and served 12 years, compiling the annual publication. He was chairman and historian of the Chattanooga-Chickamauga battlefields commission. He was a frequent contributor to the local and other newspapers and his series of reminiscences of incidents and men published in The Press under the heading "Yesterdays of Grand Rapids", were published in book form as a valuable contribution to local literature.

He was collector of information relating to pioneer days, the Indians and the war and often lamented he lacked the time to put this into permanent form. Following his retirement from business he devoted his time largely to writing, to speaking at patriotic and other gatherings and to public service.

Capt. Belknap was married on Christmas day, 1866, a few months after returning from the war, to Miss Cleo Maybell Caswell, daughter of David Caswell, the first chief of the fire department. She died in 1902.

Transcriber: Evelyn Sawyer
Created: 18 August 2003