Browne was the son of Revolutionary War veteran and Vermont congressman Phineas Browne and a descendent, through his mother, the former Elizabeth Backus, of Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford. Browne's father died when he was 14, forcing him to seek employment. He kept books for the New York City firm of Wood and Cock by 1822, then went to Lebanon, Pennsylvania to keep books for his cousin John Ives' Union Canal work. By 1825 he had returned to Vermont to read law. He passed the bar in 1829 and practiced in Vermont for two years before rejoining his cousin's business.
He emigrated to Alabama in 1831 to assist Ives in a contract for work on the Tennessee Canal at Muscle Shoals. The two cousins sold their shares in that contract and moved to New Orleans to work on a more lucrative project to dig a canal from the newly-opened American Quarter of New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain. In 1834 Browne sold out his shares to his cousin and invested with Edwin Porter in a daily steamship service operating between New Orleans and Mobile. With the money he made from the sale of the steamship company in 1835 he began investing in real estate in Mobile.
Browne partnered with prominent Mobile judge Henry Hitchcock in his Mobile ventures and moved to that city. His growing business empire was all-but ruined in the Panic of 1837, followed closely by the contested estate of Hitchcock, who died in 1839. He began rebuilding his business interests with the development of corn mills and by resuming his law practice. He was elected to the Mobile Board of Alderment in 1841 and represented the city in the Alabama House of Representatives in Tuscaloosa in 1845. While there he met Margaret Elizabeth Stevens, daughter of Judge Henry Stevens, whom he married on August 9, 1846. They had seven children: Claudia, Elizabeth, Margaret, William Bradford, Cecil, Nina and Arthur.
From his marriage, Browne acquired property in Shelby County, including outcroppings of the Cahaba coal field. During his survey of the property he documented three significant seams and used his political influence to lobby for the development of railroads to serve Montevallo so that the resource could be brought to market. He began mining the coal in 1851 with two slaves and hauled it by wagon to the Cahaba River, where it could be transported by flatboat to Selma. He secured an order from the George O. Baker Company there for two car loads of coal at $4.50 per ton.
The Tennessee and Alabama River Railroad finally reached Montevallo in 1853 and by 1856, with slaves leased from nearby plantations, Browne's mines were producing about five tons a day. He delivered 1,000 tons to the Montgomery Gas and Light Company in 1858.
Browne was a delegate to the "rump" 1860 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, which produced a nomination for John C. Breckinridge to oppose the main Democratic nominee Stephen Douglas and Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln. As soon as Lincoln assumed office, Alabama and the other Deep South states seceded from the United States and prepared for war. In preparing for the increased war-time demand for coal, Browne brought English mining engineer Joseph Squire to Shelby County to oversee the digging of a 100-foot slope mine with steam-powered hoists. When groundwater filled the shaft, he purchased a steam engine in Mobile to pump it out.
In 1862, Browne contracted to supply 4,000 tons to the Confederate Arsenal and Naval Works in Selma. He sold the mines to George Baker in 1863, but continued to operate them as a leaseholder. He used the capital to construct "Brighthope", an iron furnace at the Little Cahaba Iron Works on the Little Cahaba River, which was one of several small bloomeries in the state producing iron bound for Selma. Like the other furnaces, Brighthope was destroyed by Wilson's Raiders in April 1865. He estimated his losses from the war at a quarter of a million dollars. Suffering from failing health and mired in a dispute with Baker, Browne was unable to restore his business. He died at his son Cecil's home in Talladega in 1869.
Browne's papers are deposited at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.
- Armes, Ethel (1910) The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama. Birmingham: Birmingham Chamber of Commerce
- Knapp, Virginia Estella (April 1950) “William Phineas Browne, Business Man and Pioneer Mine Operator of Alabama.” Alabama Review
- Lewis, Herbert J. (October 21, 2010) "William Phineas Browne" Encyclopedia of Alabama - accessed December 11, 2010