Swenson, William Gray (1879–1969)

By: Katharyn Duff

Type: Biography

Published: July 1, 1995

William Gray Swenson, businessman and land developer in Abilene, the son of Swante Johan and Kizzie Chapman (Browne) Swenson, was born on December 8, 1879, probably on the family sugar plantation in Saint Mary's Parish, Louisiana. His father was a Swedish immigrant. The family moved in 1880 to Austin, Texas, where Swante Swenson redeemed railroad scrip for 500 sections of ranchland in Jones, Throckmorton, and adjoining counties. Swenson grew up in Jones County and Abilene, where the family moved in 1883. He attended private and public schools in Abilene. At Southwestern University he earned the highest grade average on record, studied engineering and Greek, and collaborated with professor Robert Stewart Hyer in building a wireless telegraph two years before the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi announced his discovery. Swenson married Shirley A. McCollum, a college classmate, in February 1902, and returned to Abilene, where their four children were born.

In 1902 Swenson became a founding director and the first cashier of Citizens National Bank of Abilene. With local associates, he purchased ranches to divide into farms for settlers. When a bank failure jeopardized Abilene's electric service in early 1905, a group of local businessmen including Swenson reorganized the utility companies. Swenson became chief of operations for the two newly formed companies, the Abilene Light and Water Company (later West Texas Utilities Company) and the Abilene Ice Company. Under Swenson the electric company began providing power continuously rather than only in the evenings. Swenson also served from 1913 to 1917 as president of Childress Ice and Light and Memphis Ice and Electric, and from 1916 to 1922 as president of Haskell Ice and Light Company. When, after several changes of ownership, the former Abilene Ice and Light Company became West Texas Utilities Company, Swenson was one of its first directors. He was an organizer and president of the Abilene Street Railway Company, a streetcar service that made its first run in 1908. He was a director of the Roscoe, Snyder and Pacific Railway and the Dallas, Abilene and Northern Railway. He was one of early Abilene's most important land developers; notable among the real estate projects on which he collaborated were the eight-story Mims Building (ca. 1926), which housed a dry-goods store, and the Hilton Hotel (1927), first ever to bear the name of Conrad Hilton. He was a member of the Abilene Hotel Company from 1927 to 1947. His civic contributions included eight years of service on the Abilene school board and a year (1923) as president of the chamber of commerce. He also served for a time as president of the Abilene Improvement Company. He was a charter member and major financial contributor to St. Paul Methodist Church. He died in Abilene on August 29, 1969, and is buried in Elmwood Memorial Park, Abilene.

Abilene Reporter-News, August 29, 1969. Hugh E. Cosby, The History of Abilene (Abilene, Texas, 1955). Katharyn Duff, Abilene . . . On Catclaw Creek: A Profile of a West Texas Town (Abilene, Texas: Reporter Publishing, 1969). Katharyn Duff and Betty Kay Seibt, Catclaw Country: An Informal History of Abilene in West Texas (Burnet, Texas: Eakin Press, 1980). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Who's Who in the South and Southwest, Vol. 2.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Katharyn Duff, “Swenson, William Gray,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 08, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/swenson-william-gray.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995