Identified as “Uncle Charlie,” even on his gravestone below, Charles Edward Coon traced an amazing career trajectory that included service in the Nation's Capital as Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department to Port Townsend, Washington, storekeeper selling liquor. Coon’s story was unlocked by the miniature whiskey jug shown here, one with which he gifted the drinking public of the town.
Coon’s life also encompassed facing hot combat as an enlisted man in the Civil War, fostering baseball in Washington, D.C., effectively negotiating U.S. Civil War debts in Europe, and winning elective offices in Washington State. A lifelong bachelor, Coon, shown left, became widely known as “Uncle Charlie” because of his devotion, well reciprocated, to his sister’s fatherless family.
Charlie was born in 1842 in Friendship, Allegany County, New York, the son of Arthur A. and Emile Evarts Coon. Although his mother was descended from the commander of the “Green Mountain Boys” in the Revolutionary War, the family was of modest means and the youth was educated in local public schools. Almost immediately after the outbreak of the Civil War, at the age of 18 he enlisted in the 23rd New York Volunteer Infantry. As shown here, the 23rd dressed in Zouave uniforms.
Corporal Coon saw considerable hot fighting with the regiment as part of the First Corps, Army of the Potomac. Among battles, the 23rd New York fought at the second Battle of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Antietam, shown below, where his regiment suffered 42 killed, wounded or missing. Coon’s devotion to duty and intelligence caught the eye of his superior officers and he was removed from combat and was promoted to deputy Army provost marshal for an area encompassing the southern portion of New York State.
Discharged from the Army in 1864, Coon obtained employment in the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. Again catching the eye of his superiors for the quality of his work, he was tapped in 1871 to serve on and subsequently to lead an American mission dealing with British and other European authorities on resolving American Civil War bonded debt. It required ten trips across the Atlantic by ship in ten years as Coon negotiated the overseas transfer of resources. During that decade the money and securities passing through his hands has been estimated at a billion dollars, worth many times that amount in today’s dollar.
Coon’s success in that important mission led to another notable achievement during the Garfield Administration when a crisis in the balance of trade was threatened because a large number of U.S. bonds were about to fall due simultaneously. Coon convinced the Treasury Secretary that he could exchange those bonds in Europe for others with lower interest rates. Given approval, largely at his own expense he crossed the Atlantic one more time. His biographer explained: “…Through his acquaintance with financiers over there, both in England and on the Continent, succeeded in [refinancing] seventy-five million dollars of these bond-holdings into four percent bonds. The savings were enormous, and Congress reimbursed him for all expenses.”
Throughout his life Charlie was a fanatic about baseball. Before enlisting in the Civil War, he had been a member of one of the earliest premier teams, the Eckford Club of Brooklyn. Moving to the District of Columbia after the war, he became an enthusiastic booster, and even for a time manager, of the Washington Nationals. The team was among America’s elite baseball organizations, traveling — and winning — throughout the Northeast, Central Atlantic and Midwest. For his efforts at promoting the sport Coon merited mention in the 2014 book, “Baseball Pioneers: 1850-1870.”
In April 1884, President Chester A. Arthur, shown right, recognized Coon’s ability and lengthy effective service by naming him Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, and he was quickly confirmed by the U.S. Senate. When the secretary died, he was named “ad interim” Secretary of the Treasury, serving until a new secretary was appointed. He continued to serve as assistant secretary for another year and then retired at only 46 years old and returned to New York City.
Even out of government Coon continued to be widely known and consulted as an authority on the fiscal operations of government: “The newspapers in those days made constant use of him as a source of information and as an authority on government finance,” according to a biographer. In 1888 he was nominated by the Republican Party to run for Congress in the 10th District, chiefly Brooklyn, but defeated by Democrat Gen. Daniel Sickles, well known Civll War commander.
Coon never married but as a surrogate for his own family after 1880 took in and looked after the family of his widowed sister, Camilla Coon Merrick. Her husband, a railroad conductor, had been killed in a train accident, leaving her with small children to raise: three girls, Isabella, Helen and Adelaide, and a boy, Frederick. Coon took over the responsibility for housing and educating the four youngsters. As a result he became known by them and a wider group of family and friends as “Uncle Charlie.”
As an adult his niece Helen had married and moved to Tacoma, Washington, and in 1895, Charlie entrained westward to visit her. At the time The Pacific Northwest was experiencing considerable economic growth. Coon’s trip likely coincided with the Northwest Interstate Fair held in Tacoma to show off regional progress. Coon was impressed and decided to move to Washington State “because of opportunities for development.” He chose Port Townsend, a town on the Olympic Peninsula looking out over Puget Sound.
Port Townsend’s harbor was large and frequented by oceangoing vessels. Shipping of goods and timber from the area was a major part of the economy. A number of ornate Victorian homes and public buildings were erected on the speculation that Port Townsend would become a booming shipping port and major city, rivaling even San Francisco. In 1897 Coon became a permanent resident and purchased the Port Townsend Mercantile Company, a ships’ supply house and wholesale and retail grocery. A major profit center was selling liquor to the town’s many saloons and to the public.
Initially occupying a building at Washington and Taylor Streets, by 1907 Coon had moved to larger quarters at 311-313 Water Street, and by 1915 to 831 Water, shown above as the building looks today. Coon lived in one of the Victorian mansions that graced the town, known as the John Quincy Adams house. Located at 1028 Tyler Street it now on the National Register of Historical Places. Shown below is the living room, looking much as it might have in Coon’s day. Living with him were his sister Camilla, niece Helen, her husband Charles Pragge, and their daughter Helen, Uncle Charlie’s grand-niece. Both Pragges were involved with helping Coon manage the mercantile company.
The transplanted Easterner lost no time in making himself known in town. An early member of the Grand Army of the Republic, the principal Union Civil War veterans’ organization, Coon took a leadership role in the Port Townsend Chapter. He also was a member of the Union Soldier’s Alliance and the Masonic Veterans Association. Around town he became known as “Colonel Coon,”
The residents of Port Townsend soon recognized the capabilities the former Treasury Department official brought to Port Townsend. He was elected president of the Chamber of Commerce and re-elected for three further terms. Six years after arriving he was elected the town’s mayor and the following year, 1902, elected again, this time receiving all the votes cast. Given his popularity and his standing in the Republican party, Uncle Charlie in 1905 ran statewide for Washington State Lieutenant Governor and won, serving in that office for four years. His primary responsibility was presiding over the state legislature, shown right.
The 1920 census found Coon still living with his niece and her family. By this time Port Townsend, without good railroad connections, had failed to meet expectations and its economy faltered. Moreover, sales of alcohol had been banned in Washington in 1916 cutting off liquor profits. Port Townsend Mercantile survived by continuing to selling groceries, hay, grain, flour, feed, crockery and glassware. Coon continued as president of the company despite his 77 years. “Uncle Charlie” would die in August of 1920, much mourned by family and townspeople alike. He was buried in the Port Townsend Laurel Grove Cemetery. His gravestone is shown below.
Note: This story of “Uncle Charlie” Coon and his amazing career would have been untold except for the two miniature whiskey jugs shown here that came to light on an Internet auction site. Having visited Port Townsend not long ago, I was intrigued and followed up. Among biographical writings on Coon, the most important in crafting this vignette was “A History of the Puget Sound Country: Its Resources, Its Commerce and Its People,” by Col. William F. Prosser, Lewis Publishing Co., New York, 1923. Quoted material above is from that source.