Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

Rapid Expansion of the Lehigh Valley Railroad

Onward from its first inaugural year, the Lehigh Valley Railroad continued rapidly expanding its influence in an ever-growing industrialized America. Asa Packer continued to be at the head of the prosperous Lehigh Valley Railroad Company for the next twenty-four years. Under the supervision of Packer, the Lehigh Valley Railroad continued to build more and more tracks, along with acquiring smaller railroads and making connections with other railroads. The Lehigh Valley Railroad had expanded from its original main line from Mauch Chunk to Easton, to also include the Wyoming Division, the Pennsylvania and New York Canal and Railroad, the Beaver Meadow Branch, the Hazleton Branch, and the Mahanoy Branch. Such progress and growth must have been instrumental to the industrialization of the Lehigh Valley and beyond.  

Asa Packer remained an influential figure in the operation of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, but it remains uncertain how actively he was involved in the everyday operations of the company. Asa usually spent three days a week in Philadelphia, at the headquarters of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, but what did he do the other four days of the week? He did make reconnaissance trips to Alabama, France, and England to find out more about the steel making process, perhaps to inquire about making stronger rails or maybe he had a desire to get into the steel industry, along with his coal and railroad industries. Asa personally purchased, on the behalf of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, the North Branch Canal in 1866, which would eventually add over 100 miles of track to the Lehigh Valley Railroad with the construction of the Pennsylvania and New York Canal and Railroad. In addition, Asa helped to found St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, in part so his workers had a hospital to go to if they were injured on the job. On top of that, Packer personally paid the medical expenses of his workers that were injured on the job, a virtually unprecedented benefit at the time. Packer was also elected as the president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad in 1862, but later resigned in 1864, only to be re-elected in 1868 and serve as the company’s president until his death in 1879. When not serving as president, he still served on the Board of Directors. Despite his executive position, his level of involvement in the company’s everyday affairs remains unanswered. However, it is probably safe to say that his presence was always felt within the company.

From 1855 to 1879 the Lehigh Valley Railroad had grown from its original road between Mauch Chunk and Easton, to include 658 miles of track as far away as Buffalo and New York City. Coal, steel, passengers, and various other freight could be carried via the Lehigh Valley Railroad to either the Great Lakes or to the Atlantic Ocean. And by 1879, the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company’s capital was $53 million dollars and carried 4.36 million tons of coal per year. Even for Asa Packer, the accomplishment of the Lehigh Valley Railroad must have been remarkable to him, given the fact that not even forty-years prior, people were still skeptical about the efficacy of railroads.    

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