William R. Smith was a medical doctor, banker, real estate investor, industrialist, and a collector of customs for the port of Galveston, Texas. He was born in Orange County, Virginia, on January 21, 1807, according to genealogy records. (His headstone is engraved with the birth date of 1806). His parents were Reuben Smith and Mildred (Glassell) Smith.
Smith attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated with distinction in 1828 (according to his obituary). He practiced medicine in Charleston, South Carolina, where he married a Mrs. Middleton, the widow of the Reverend John Middleton. After her death in 1835 he moved to Mobile, Alabama, where he married Mary Margaret Mayrant. The couple had two children, John Mayrant and Mildred. With partner Judge William J. Jones, Smith became a part owner and editor of the Mobile Morning Chronicle, but they sold out in early 1837 and both moved to Texas. Smith and his family eventually settled in Galveston.
During the Mexican War, Col. Albert Sidney Johnston selected Smith as the chief surgeon of his regiment in 1847. Later, Gen. Zachary Taylor transferred Smith to his staff and appointed him surgeon-in-chief of the U. S. Army. After the war Smith became a much sought-after doctor by well-to-do Galvestonians, but during Galveston’s frequent outbreaks of yellow fever, he treated patients without regard to their ability to pay. During the 1840s and 1850s Smith purchased many city lots in Galveston with his business partner (and former newspaper partner) William J. Jones.
Smith was appointed to the position of collector of customs at Galveston in 1849 by his longtime friend and relative President Zachary Taylor. In 1852 President Millard Fillmore replaced Smith with John Baptista Ashe, but after a political dispute with Ashe, Fillmore returned Smith to the collectorship in early 1853. Smith served until August 1853 when he was replaced by Hamilton Stuart.
As collector of customs, Smith served concurrently as the superintendent of lights for the port of Galveston. In 1849 he supervised the arrival of the first United States navigation light, which was aboard the Galveston Lightship, on the Texas coast. This manned lightship was permanently anchored about a mile outside the entrance to Galveston Bay and continued to serve the port until just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Collector Smith was also responsible for overseeing the establishment and operation of the Bolivar Lighthouse which was completed in late 1852.
Smith was an early incorporator of the Galveston and Houston Junction Railroad Company, which was chartered on April 8, 1861, to connect the Galveston, Houston and Henderson and the Houston and Texas Central railroads at Houston. Other investors in this venture included John Sealy, Robert Mills, David G. Mills, and J. H. Hutchins. Smith served as president of the First National Bank of Galveston which in 1865 was the first nationally-chartered bank in Texas. He was a well-known philanthropist who acquired a large fortune but spent much of his time and money on improving the city of Galveston and life for her residents. An Episcopalian, Smith was a vestryman of Trinity Church (Protestant Episcopal) for more than thirty years.
William R. Smith died at the age of sixty-seven in Galveston on June 9, 1873, and he was buried in the Old City Cemetery there. His obituary in the January 10, 1873, edition of the Galveston Daily News eulogized him as follows:
If the good works that men do on earth follow the disembodied soul to Paradise, what a glorious escort must have been that which accompanied the good doctor to the gates of his heavenly home. His whole life through was devoted to good works. His purse, his learning, his professional skill, were always at the call of his friends and at the service of the poor. In time of pestilence, his noble form was the last to leave the poor man's bed. In time of financial disaster, his check book was an ever ready resort for distressed friends.