Walter Smith was born in Wethersfield, Connecticut, On March 21, 1800. At 15, he moved to Cazenovia, N.Y. and worked as a clerk and met with such success that he was sent to Fredonia, N.Y. to expand business there under the partnership with his Cazenovia employer, who provided the capital to begin the new business.
Smith’s business in Fredonia was a great success, as he earned over $17,000 the first year. His major trade was with pot and pearl ash–used as fertilizer in agriculture to supply potassium to the soil. He soon 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 “founders of Dunkirk.” That historian believed Smith’s “life was a masterly and persistent struggle . . . often under adverse fortunes, to build up a commercial town at Dunkirk.” He and financier (and later governor) DeWitt Clinton formed the Dunkirk Land Company to convince others to invest in the area. He starts 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. Ade returned two Dunkirk in 1852 to join in helping Dunkirk continue to grow with the arrival of the Erie railroad. He died on September 21, 1874.