Gardner Frederick Williams was born in 1842 at the beginning of Saginaw’s lumber boom. His father, Alpheus, was the brother of Gardner and Ephraim Williams, two of the city’s first white settlers. With their cousin “Uncle Harvey” Williams, they built and operated the area’s first sawmill.
However, Alpheus gave up the green gold of Saginaw’s forests for the gold fields of California. Young Gardner learned first-hand, about the mysteries of finding and mining gold, but he made his fortune in an even more valuable substance—diamonds.
In Michigan, he had received “a fairly good schooling” and in California, he graduated in 1865, from the school that would become the University of California. Next, he travelled to Freiburg, Germany, to study at the famous Royal School of Mines.
There, he met Alfred Nobel and helped him to use his new invention, dynamite, in mining. Another Freiburg friend was E. G. De Crano, who would play a vital role in Williams’ career.
After three years in Germany, Williams returned to the United States and became an assayer at the San Francisco mint and mill superintendent of silver and gold mines in Nevada, Utah, and California.
Once again he met De Crano, who was now with the Exploration Company of London. De Crano was looking for an experienced mining engineer to take charge of a mine in Africa’s Transvaal. Later, Williams would also join the staff of the Exploration Company.
Travelling from Cape Town to London by ship, Williams met Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia and known as the father of the modern diamond industry. The two men found they had much in common and in 1887, Rhodes asked Williams to run the De Beers diamond mines in Kimberley.
Williams introduced more efficient and far safer methods of mining, set up effective training programs, reduced underground shifts from 12 to 8 hours and promoted the South African School of Mines.
He was vitally interested in the welfare of his employees and Kimberley became a showcase of modern mining operations and the nucleus of a huge consolidation by Rhodes that gave De Beers exclusive control of the worldwide diamond market.
Williams was described as “rugged and straight-forward in his dealings, strong-willed and insistent, tenacious of purpose and energetic in overcoming obstacles, good-natured, and an affectionate father and a sympathetic friend.”
In 1905 he retired and turned over the management of Kimberley to his son Alpheus.
Also, in 1905, Sweden’s Royal Academy of Science awarded him its silver medal. In 1910, the University of California made him an honorary doctor of laws and in 1917, the University of Michigan made him an honorary doctor of engineering.
His collection of African rocks, given to the Smithsonian in 1904, is an important part of the Museum’s Natural History collection. His two-volume book on the history and mining of diamonds is still the authoritative work on the subject.
He was married to the former Frances Martin Locke and they had three daughters in addition to son Alpheus. Gardner Frederick Williams died in 1922 but his influence, like a fine diamond, has lasted.
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