Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

Building the Lehigh Valley Railroad

On January 7, 1853 the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company changed its name to the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company. Meanwhile, Asa Packer was leading the construction process for what would be the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Builders encountered difficulties along the way with the loss of workforce from sickness and dissatisfaction amongst the workers and they were forced to cut through portions of solid rock, which took a tremendous amount of effort and time. Funds were also a problem for the project. Asa had personally provided most of the funding for the construction of the railroad, thus both the welfare of his family and himself was contingent upon the successful completion of the road.

Much of Packer’s funds came from his investments in a business partnership with Joseph Noble and Barnabas Hammett. Noble and Hammett did not want to invest in Packer's railroad project and Packer eventually sued his two partners to free up his share of capital. Later on, when the Lehigh Valley Railroad was successful, Packer’s old business partners insisted that they were Packer’s partners in the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company. The court case went on for decades, continued after all three had died, and eventually resulted in a victory for the Packer estate.

Nonetheless, both laborers and managers persevered and the railroad was finally completed in a little less than three years than when the project was started. On June 11, 1855 the railroad between Allentown to Easton opened. The original line of the Lehigh Valley Railroad from Mauch Chunk to Easton and totaled 45.72 miles.

The best account of the details involving the construction of the Lehigh Valley Railroad come from Robert Sayre’s first annual report, addressed to the President and Directors of the Lehigh Valley Railroad on December 31, 1855. Robert Sayre, as the Superintendent and Chief Engineer of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, says the following about the construction process:

On the eleventh of May, 1852, I commenced the survey and preliminary location of the line from Mauch Chunk to Easton, and completed it in the latter part of June, after which nothing was done in the field until the work was let to Asa Packer, contractor. About the first of October I again engaged a corps and started upon the permanent location of the road which I completed during the fall and winter… About the first of May, 1853, the residue of the line was sublet, and soon after the contractors generally commenced operations...After proceeding with the work upon Section No. 46 until the latter part of February, I was directed to change the original plan so as to form a connection with the Belvidere Delaware Railroad, as well as with the Central Railroad of New Jersey…Entire new plans had to be arranged and drawn...Much difficulty was experienced in the erection of the bridge across the river on account of frequent and continued high water. To obviate this difficulty it was suggested to try the experiment of raising the structure upon wire cables stretched from pier to pier…which proved eminently successful …The road was opened for the transportation of passengers from South Easton to Allentown on the eleventh of June, 1855, and two trains run daily to the latter place until the 12th of September, when the road was opened for travel to Mauch Chunk, one train a day being run until the 1st of October. Up to this time the road was operated by Mr. Packer, with rolling stock hired from the Central Railroad Company of New Jersey.

The above excerpt from Robert Sayre’s report gives one a fairly comprehensive overview of the procedure and challenges that the builders went through, in order to construct the original line of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.        
For the first three months that the Lehigh Valley Railroad was in operation, from October to December 1855, the receipts from transporting coal, passengers, and freight totaled $26,517.95. In contrast, the expenses of the railroad from October to December 1855 amounted to $23,736.33. Thus, in the first three months of operation, the Lehigh Valley Railroad made a profit of $2,781.62. The Lehigh Valley Railroad would continue to expand and become more profitable in subsequent years. Asa Packer would become an extremely wealthy industrialist as a result.    

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