Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

Interpretations of Asa Packer, as an American Industrialist, From His Contemporaries

Nineteenth century American history, is undoubtedly defined as a time period of rapid industrialization. All of the different American industries that emerged in the nineteenth century were all led by pioneering industrialists. Most have heard of the names of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. All three of these men were great industrialists in their own right. However, less known industrialists of the nineteenth century, like Asa Packer, should not be overshadowed because their contributions to the industrialization of America were no less important than those of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt. Asa Packer in particular, was a driving force of American industry in the nineteenth century. He was reported to be the richest man in Pennsylvania and the third richest man in the United States, with his estate having an estimated worth of $54.5 million dollars, at the time of his death in 1879. Unfortunately, Asa remains overshadowed because he left very little personal accounts of his own life. But that is the lesson to be learned from Asa Packer’s life: he let his actions speak louder than his words. So, let this exhibit speak the words of Asa Packer’s actions, to take his actions out of the shadows and into the light of recognition. To conclude the section on “Asa Packer: A Man in the Age of American Industrialization”, it is fitting to leave you with words spoken by people who personally knew Asa Packer and can attest to his actions, as an American industrialist.

Alexander Kelly McClure, a Pennsylvania politician and an acquaintance of Asa Packer in Philadelphia, said this about Packer as an industrialist in 1905:

I heard him [Asa Packer] even in the darkest days of his financial troubles predict that the Lehigh Valley Railroad, when completed, and its resources under fair development, would be the most successful railroad enterprise in the State, and he lived to see the fulfillment of even his wildest dreams. For fully a quarter of a century the Lehigh Valley Railroad stood first among all the railroads of this State in point of credit. It was regarded as the one railroad enterprise that must ever maintain a high measure of prosperity.

Henry Coppee, the first president of Lehigh University, said this about Asa Packer, the industrialist, in a University Day address in 1879:

Asa Packer was a great man. If the general who conceives a grand campaign, with splendid forecast, and with eagle eye fixed upon a prophetic and complete victory, to be the result of vast combinations of varied data, demanding genius and valor, coolness and perseverance, be entitled to the highest fame in history, what shall be said of him who, with a brilliant imagination, guided by a sound and calm judgment, lays out a colossal life-plan; works at it day by day, with unremitting labor and unfaltering confidence in himself and his chosen associates, and more than realizes his vast conception in a splendid success? Such is the story of his railroad enterprise, with its ramifications, and its development of the mineral products, the agriculture and the social and educational life of this entire region.

At a meeting of the Board of Directors for the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company on June 10, 1879, they remembered their former president Asa Packer, who had just died a few weeks earlier and included the following statement in the meeting’s minutes:

The Directors of The Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, have heard with profound sorrow of the death of their President, the Honorable Asa Packer; by which each one of the Directors has lost a true and valued friend, the Company has lost its founder and its sagacious leader, the laboring man has lost a sympathizing benefactor, and our country has lost a useful and patriotic citizen.

The Directors gratefully recognize the honor and good faith towards his fellow stockholders, always apparent in his lifetime, and still apparent in the provisions of his will, by which his great estate is to be managed so largely in the interests of the Company. The stockholders honored him with their confidence, and that confidence was not misplaced.

Our present point of view being from this council board it would not be suitable for us to dwell on his personal qualities, his purity of life, the uprightness of his dealings, the simplicity, dignity and integrity of his character, his freedom from all assumption and ostentation, his large and enlightened liberality, his firmness, his self-acquired  and skillfully applied knowledge, and the perseverance and sagacity by which he honorably acquired distinction and wealth, not by taking that wealth away from somebody else, but by creating it. It is not for us to intrude into the sanctity of his tender domestic relations, or his reverent worship of his God.

The best monument to his memory which this Company can raise, and the only one he would accept if he could be consulted, is ever to follow the same cautious and conservative policy which has been pursued under his guidance, which he took so much pains to perpetuate after his death, and which has rendered this Company always safe, and even in this period of stagnation, comparatively prosperous.

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