William D. Howland witnessed the decline of whaling and the rise of textiles in New Bedford, and he embodied the risks inherent in both enterprises. His grandfather, George Howland, made a fortune investing in whaling, and his father, Matthew, continued to profit from whaling until devastating losses during the Arctic disasters of 1871 and 1876 forced his children to seek their fortunes elsewhere. William chose New Bedford’s burgeoning textile industry, serving as a clerk at Wamsutta Mills, assisting with machinery and finances, and then at the Potomska Mills, helping to plan the company’s 1880 expansion.
In 1882, at the age of 29, Howland raised capital to organize the New Bedford Manufacturing Company and became its treasurer. The corporation built its textile mill just north of New Bedford’s business district, in the heart of the city’s fading whaling district and adjacent to the wharf named after his grandfather. “Willie is working away at the mill,” Matthew Howland wrote. “He is confident he can make it realize 15 to 25% profit per year.” With business booming, New Bedford Manufacturing added a second mill at the same location in 1886.
Despite his success, the majority of the stock—and the profits—went to Howland’s investors. So, in 1886, Howland and Morgan Rotch (whose grandfather was the whaling investor, Charles W. Morgan) organized the Howland Mills Corporation, and purchased a large tract of land in the South End near Clarke’s Point, a mostly rural area extending into the Atlantic Ocean. Built in 1888 and expanded a year later, Howland Mills was one of the first in the city equipped with “Edison wires”—electricity.
In 1893, the textile industry suffered a serious downturn as a result of the national economic panic. Overstretched by the rapid expansion of his businesses, and distraught by the state of his finances, Howland committed suicide in 1894. In 1899, Howland Mills and its assets were acquired by the New England Cotton Yarn company, and three years later passed to the newly-formed Gosnold Mills. Today, the former mill building is home to Howland Place, which provides space for offices and small business incubation.