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Can Railroads Replace Canals as the Primary Means for Transporting Coal?
This was certainly a question that Asa Packer must have contemplated. In the 1840’s, most industrialists thought that canals sufficiently served the needs of the coal transportation industry. Railroads were mostly thought of as “feeders” that would ship the coal from the mines only a short distance to the canals, where a system of canals and rivers would get the coal to where it needed to go. Most industrialists thought that railroads were too expensive, impractical, and simply unproven to be a reliable source of transporting coal.
However, a minority of industrialists had the foresight to see the potential benefits that railroads possessed, although it was a major risk. Asa Packer saw the potential of railroads, since he apparently petitioned the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to construct a railroad along the path of the Lehigh River and Canal. But, like most companies in the 1840’s, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company still thought that canals were superior to railroads for transporting coal and they rejected Packer’s request.
A few capitalists eventually garnered enough support for a railroad and the incorporation of the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company took place on April 21, 1846. This was Asa Packer’s opportunity to get involved in railroads. On October 31, 1851, he bought nearly all of the stock in the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company. There was just one problem: in the five years since the incorporation of the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company, no actual railroad existed. In fact, the only actual work that was done in those five years was started on April 4, 1851, only because the charter was set to expire in seventeen days, on April 21, 1851. To keep the charter alive, the company began to grade one mile of railroad near Allentown on April 4, 1851, which just so happened to be the same day that Asa Packer first became a member of the Board of Managers.
With the charter for the railroad barely saved and Packer becoming the main stock holder for the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company, Packer decided that he needed to push to project forward; but he also realized that he needed help. In 1852, Packer asked an engineer by the name of Robert Heysham Sayre to become the Chief Engineer for the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company. Sayre agreed and proceeded to survey the land to procure a location for the railroad. Then, on November 27, 1852, Packer submitted a proposal to the President and Directors of the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company to announce his intentions of constructing a railroad that would extend from Mauch Chunk to Easton. Now all that was left was to actually build the railroad.
The Importance of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company to Asa Packer and His "Railroad Family"
The prosperity of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and its continued prosperity were of deep importance to Asa Packer. The Lehigh Valley Railroad was the crowning achievement in his life of industry. Not only did he contribute to the industrialization of America, but he also amassed great wealth and a prominent status in the railroad business. The success that Asa had in his industrial career then allowed him to give back to the Lehigh Valley in his many philanthropic efforts, such as the founding of Lehigh University and his various donations to an array of other good causes. The Lehigh Valley Railroad’s success allowed him to donate to various institutions and its continued prosperity would ensure that all of the good things he had done would remain intact. Packer biographer W. Ross Yates said of Packer and the Lehigh Valley Railroad, “In 1875 Packer wrote a last will and testament that stands as a monument to his sense of responsibility for the welfare of all who depended on him. The Lehigh Valley Railroad was the key. Everything that mattered to him hinged on its continued prosperity”. Indeed, even Packer himself reiterated the importance of the Lehigh Valley Railroad in his will, “I have spent a large part of my life in projecting and building up the Lehigh Valley Railroad… I have a deep interest in its future welfare and prosperity and in the welfare of those who have invested in it and have been associated with me in the enterprise. I wish my estate to be identified with it… for as long a period as it can be done consistently with the best interests of the company and of my estate”. The Lehigh Valley Railroad held a special place in Asa’s heart, for it had allowed him to become the successful entrepreneur that he had always envisioned. Thus, it became paramount that Asa would entrust the Lehigh Valley Railroad into the hands of his most trusted companions, so that its business could continue with success. Just as he had done throughout his whole life, he had tremendous trust in the people around him to carry out his plans.
The individuals that Packer entrusted to continue to run the Lehigh Valley Railroad, were called by W. Ross Yates, “The Railroad Family”. Packer had an amazing ability to surround himself with the best people that could get the job done, thus allowing himself to stay in the background as he preferred it. “The Railroad Family” consisted of the trustees that Packer mentions in his will: Robert Heysham Sayre, Elisha Packer Wilbur, Harry Eldred Packer, and Robert Asa Packer.
Sayre had been associated with Packer ever since the days of the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company. He was instrumental in designing the original road of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and was considered to be a very talented engineer. He was Packer’s Chief Engineer and Superintendent and right hand man of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Sayre would also become the President of the Pennsylvania and New York Canal and Railroad, which was a major extension from the main line of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.
Elisha Packer Wilbur was Asa’s nephew, the son of Asa’s sister Eveline. Wilbur had traveled from Mystic, Connecticut to Mauch Chunk, just like uncle Asa had done before. Wilbur was employed by uncle Asa at some of Asa’s mercantile stores in Mauch Chunk. Eventually, Wilbur would become uncle Asa’s personal secretary, handling all of the financial records for the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Wilbur would also go on to be the president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.
Harry Packer, Asa’s youngest son, was born on June 4, 1850. He was a graduate of the school that his father had founded, Lehigh University. He held various positions in the Lehigh Valley Railroad, including becoming the president of the company. Also, like his father, Harry became an associate judge for Mauch Chunk and a vestryman for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Mauch Chunk. However, Harry died on February 1, 1884, when he was the president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company.
Robert Packer, Asa’s oldest son, was born on November 19, 1842. He also held various positions within the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Like his father, Robert did not wish to hold public office, even though he was asked to accept nominations for public office, which he declined. Robert died on February 20, 1883.
These four men were all part of Asa’s inner circle and Asa named all of them as his trustees in his will. This “Railroad Family” helped Asa to build the Lehigh Valley Railroad and they were there to make sure that it not only operated correctly on a daily basis, but also that it would operate correctly in the future.