The reviewer, in attempting to write a comprehensive and truthful biography of an individual, must take into consideration the related facts as to birth and subsequent career, the success attained, the underlying principles which have combined to assist him in achieving his desires and ambitions, and to lay particular stress upon the special talent which has been developed in the life of the subject under review. In reviewing the life career of James W. Orr, a leading member of the Atchison County bar, the fact is determined that he is truly an able and distinguished lawyer, whose reputation for success at the bar, for having a profound knowledge of the law and his ability to successfully practice in the courts of the land, arrayed against the brightest minds of the legal profession of the country, is recognized, not only by the people of the Stare of Kansas and his profession generally, but by the United States Government, in whose employ he now is as special assistant to the attorney general of the United States.

James W. Orr was born September 14, 1855, in the town of Reading, Hillsdale County, Michigan. In his boyhood days, and during the struggle to educate himself for the practice of his chosen profession, he knew what adversity meant and has the satisfaction of knowing that his education was obtained through his own unaided efforts. He is a son of James and Mary Elizabeth (UNDERHILL) Orr, both of whom were natives of New York City. His father was of Scotch-Irish descent, his forebears emigrating from Scotland to the north of Ireland in the days of old to escape religious persecution. His paternal grandfather left Ireland in an early day and made his home in New York. The Underhill family is of English origin and a very old one in America, several generations of whom have been born and reared in this country. His maternal grandfather was Daniel Underhill, a goldsmith in New York City. James Orr, the father, was a merchant in New York till about 1848, when he left his native city and engaged in merchandising in Rome, Syracuse and Utica, N. Y., (three stores), following which he engaged in wholesale business in Toledo, Ohio. While a resident of Toledo he became identified with some of the enterprises of that day and was a stockholder, director and one of the builders of the Erie & Dunkirk Railroad. In 1861 he removed to Coldwater, Mich., and conducted a merchandise business there until 1868, when, in broken health, he settled in Niles, Mich., where he died.

When James W. Orr was fourteen years of age he began earning his own living and educating himself. He and his brother, Louis C. Orr, the present postmaster of Atchison, worked together for several years, sharing their work with each other and pooling their earnings. The boys were fortunate in having a wise and ambitious mother who was well educated and who taught them at home, thus giving them the education they were financially unable to obtain at school. At the age of seventeen years while employed in a drug store he was reading law at nights and at odd times when his work was not pressing. By persistent endeavor he managed to secure two years of study at Michigan University at Ann Arbor. He then took his examination for admission to the bar in open court, and was admitted to practice when but twenty years of age. His first employment in his new profession was with the McCormick Harvester Company, settling claims, etc., in behalf of that company. He remained in this position until 1880 and in January, 1881, came to Atchison where he has since continuously resided. It was necessary for him to begin the upward climb of the ladder to fame and success without assistance from any individual or friend. How well Mr. Orr has succeeded during the past thirty-four years is attested by his present high position in the ranks of the legal profession and the competence he has accumulated. He was first employed in Atchison by the New England Loan & Trust Company as attorney to examine abstracts of titles, etc., at a salary of forty dollars per month. It was not long until he was receiving a salary of $150 per month and a share of the profits in the employ of the same concern. When the concern moved to Kansas City and became known as the Equitable Loan & Trust Company, Mr. Orr remained in Atchison. In 1883 he was married to Miss Jennie GLICK, the only daughter of Governor George W. Glick, of Atchison. He took up the practice of law, purchasing the interest of Judge W. D. WEBB in the firm of Webb & Martin, and entered into partnership with A. F. MARTIN, which partnership existed from 1882 until April 1887. During the five years he had been in Atchison he had been extending his acquaintance over the county and in November, 1866 was a successful candidate for county attorney on the Democratic ticket, being elected over W. D. GILBERT by a substantial majority, despite the fact that the county was then normally Republican by over 800 majority. In Aril, 1887 he formed a law partnership with B. P. WAGGENER and Judge David MARTIN, the firm having previously been known as Everest & Waggener, Judge Martin resigning the position of judge of the Atchison district court to join the firm, which was known as Waggener, Martin & Orr. In the year 1895 Judge Martin retired from the firm and Judge A.H. Horton, then chief justice of the supreme court of Kansas, resigned his office of chief justice a position he had held continuously for nineteen years, to become a member of the firm. Judge David Martin was appointed to the vacancy o made on the supreme bench. Judge Horton remained a member of the firm until his death, when ex-Chief Justice Frank DOSTER became a member of the firm known as Waggener, Doster & Orr. During Mr. Orr's association with B. P. Waggener in the practice of law they had charge of the legal business for the Gould system of railroads in Kansas and Nebraska; the Western Union Telegraph Company; express companies and the Pullman Palace Car Company. They were associated in partnership with three ex-chief justices of the supreme court of Kansas during this period. In June, 1910, Mr. Orr resigned his position as attorney for the Missouri Pacific Railway Company and his connection with B.P. Waggener, which had then continued for twenty-three years, was also terminated. The position of special assistant to the attorney general of the United States was proffered him by Attorney General McREYNOLDS in October 1913, while Mr. Orr was engaged in the trial of a case in St. Louis. He accepted and was given charge of the suite of the Government against the Southern Pacific Company and others, including the Central Pacific Railway, to dissolve the relations between those companies. Mr. Orr conducts his cases for the Government in addition to his private practice. His rise has been steady and consistent during the years he has been practicing his profession in Atchison, and it is true that the youth who began his career in the city of Atchison for the modest salary of forty dollars per month now enjoys a lucrative private law practice, in addition to his income from the Government and not supplemented by corporation salaries. Mr. Orr has accumulated a comfortable fortune during the years of his practice and has what is considered the most beautiful home in Atchison. In his home he has his private library of several hundred volumes, including the standard works of literature. His law library lines the walls of his downtown offices and exceeds 2,000 volumes in number.

Mr. And Mrs. Orr had but one child, a son, George Glick Orr, who was drowned while bathing in the Pacific Ocean, near San Diego, Cal., on July 21, 1909, at the age of twenty-five years. At the age when most young men are just beginning to gain a higher education, George Glick Orr could read, write and speak six different languages. For seventeen years of his life he was a student, graduated at the University of Kansas and had been admitted to the bar, showing great promise in his chosen profession and being frequently entrusted with important legal matters.

Mr. Orr has received all the Masonic degrees except the thirty-third, and is a member of several fraternal societies. He attends and contributes to the support of the Christian Science Church, of which Mrs. Orr is a member.

In politics and as a public official and lawmaker, Mr. Orr has a record of which any man may well be proud. He became a member of the Kansas Democratic State Central Committee in 1884 and remained such continuously until 1908, and in point of service was its oldest member. He has attended, as a delegate, six National Democratic Conventions, and on three occasions was a member of the notification committee appointed to officially notify the presidential candidate of his nomination by the convention, including Cleveland in 1892; Parker in 1904 and Woodrow Wilson in 1912. His exceptional career in politics began as early as 1880, when he served as assistant secretary of the committee chosen to notify General Hancock at Governor's Island, N.Y., of his nomination for the Presidency. Mr. Orr was an original Wilson man and one of the committee of five having the floor management of the Wilson forces at the Baltimore convention in 1912 which nominated Mr. Wilson for the Presidency. From 1901 to 1907 Mr. Orr served three terms successively as mayor of the city of Atchison and gave the city one of the best administrations in its history. He served two terms in the State legislature as representative from the Atchison city district, the sessions of 1911 and 1913. During the 1911 session he was one of the three legislators selected by the house to draft and did prepare the present public utilities low, under which all railroads and public utilities in this state are now managed and controlled; he was the author of the present comprehensive drainage laws; the law requiring the attorney general to pay into the state treasury all fees received by him in the prosecution of state cases; the so-called "Orr viaduct law," which requires railroad to construct and maintain at their expense all necessary viaducts over or tunnels under their tracks in cities, and under which the Fourteenth Street viaduct in this city and viaducts in many others cities have been built and the maintained by the railroads, also many other laws of public interest and importance. In the session of 1913 he was chairman of the Judiciary committee and was elected majority leader of the house. At the close of the legislative session of 1913 Mr. Orr was presented with a resolution, unanimously adopted by the members of the house, beautifully engraved in India ink, artistically framed and containing a reproduction of the great seal of Kansas. This resolution thanks Mr. Orr for the assistance he had given individual members of the house and for his service to the State, both as chairman of the judiciary committee and as majority house leader, and is signed by every member. It follows:

"House Resolution, No. 51 - By Mr. Riddle,

"Resolved, That the members of the house extend to the Hon. James W. Orr their sincere thanks for the splendid service he has given to them and to the State during the present session. In addition to his work as floor leader of the majority party, and his work as chairman of the judiciary committee, he has been tireless, patient, and industrious in giving to individual members the benefit of his learning and ability by helping them in their work. His help has been extended alike to members of all political parties, and has been especially beneficial to members who have had little experience in legislative work. He has the confidence, esteem and love of all the members.

"Done in the city of Topeka, this eighth day of March, 1913."

Taken From:

History of Atchison County, Kansas

by Sheffield Ingalls - 1916

Submitted by:

Clemi Higley Blackburn, September 2003