Walter Smith was born in Wethersfield, Connecticut, On March 21, 1800. At 15, he moved to Cazenovia, N.Y. and worked as a clerk. He had such success that he was sent to Fredonia, N.Y., to expand business there under the partnership with his Cazenovia employer, Mr. Ten Eyck, who provided the capital to begin the new business. Smith's business in Fredonia was another great success, as he earned over $17,000 in his first year of operation. His major trade was with pot and pearl ash, material used as fertilizer in agriculture to supply potassium to the soil. In his sixth year his earnings increased to $75,000. In these earlier years of his business he furnished supplies for all the forts and garrisons of the United States on the Great Lakes under a contract with the government. All the produce he furnished was raised in Chautauqua County except white beans which were bought in Ohio.
In 1826 he decided to move his business Dunkirk, as he saw there greater room for success and expansion due to Dunkirk having a harbor. His role in Dunkirk's early years was so important that early historians termed Smith the true "founder of Dunkirk." In The Centennial History of Chautauqua County, Obed Edson states that Smith "transferred to this theater of action [Dunkirk] his capital, his prestige, his remarkable talent for business and adventure. Daily stages for passengers and a wagon line for transportation were soon established between Dunkirk and Warren, Pennsylvania. Communication with Buffalo was opened by means of the [steamship] Pioneer. The few steamboats that then made infrequent voyages to western points, where great cities have since grown up like exhalations, were induced to call at Dunkirk for the convenience of those who were westward bound and a new impulse was given to the general trade, travel and improvement of the country. Mr. Smith's life was a masterly and persistent struggle, always against natural obstacles, often under adverse fortunes, to build up a commercial town at Dunkirk which would vie in importance with neighboring cities on the lake." (p.432)
Smith and financier (and later governor) DeWitt Clinton formed the Dunkirk Land Company to convince others to invest in the area. He started a freight service to assist shipping, convinced Buffalo ship owners to sail to Dunkirk, built the village's first gristmill, and shipped farmer's grain in his own three ships. He lobbied for Dunkirk to be the terminus of the New York and Erie Railroad, which did occur. He financed construction of the Loder House, a four story brick hotel named for the New York and Erie Railroad's president. It symbolized the city's hope to be the railroad's terminus. His building up of the area caused its population to increase to 628 by 1835, resulting in its incorporation as a village in 1837, governed by a board of trustees and president. Smith himself served as Dunkirk's first president. The depression of 1836 severely diminished his finances, but he moved to Vermillion, Ohio, in 1843 and turned an iron business into a success. He returned to Dunkirk in 1852 to join in helping the village continue to grow with the arrival of the Erie railroad. He died on September 21, 1874.