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Packer Mansion Historical Marker
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Name:
Packer Mansion

Region:
Poconos / Endless Mountains

County:
Carbon

Marker Location:
US 209 at park near railroad station, Jim Thorpe

Dedication Date:
May 14, 1971

Behind the Marker

Full length, formal, oil on canvas portrait of Asa Packer, by DeWitt Clinton Boutelle, 1873.
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Asa Packer, 1873, by DeWitt Clinton Boutelle.
For close to a century American railroads were one of the nation's largest, wealthiest, and most powerful industries. Railroads created the fortunes of some of America's most famous, and infamous captains of industry, including markerJ. Edgar Thomson, who helped build the Pennsylvania Railroad into what would become the nation's largest corporation, railroad director markerJay Gould, America's best known robber baron, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the authoritarian master of the New York Central. Less famous were the many men who acquire wealth and power through smaller lines, including Asa Packer, one of the Keystone state's earliest railroad magnates.

Born in Groton, Connecticut in 1806, Packer was a sterling example of the American myth of the "self-made man." Unable to find satisfactory work in his hometown, the seventeen year-old Packer walked to Brooklyn, in Susquehanna County, PA, where his cousin Edward Packer took him on as apprentice carpenter. There he met and married Sarah Blakeslee, and tried his hand at farming on a small section adjacent to her father's farm. But after four hard years of agricultural labor, the couple was poorer than when they started. In 1832, Packer heard that the markerLehigh Canal was looking for men to captain their coal boats, so he traveled to Mauch Chunk, obtained employment on the canal, and soon moved his family there.
Bird's Eye View of Mauch Chunk
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Bird's Eye View of Mauch Chunk

The town of Mauch Chunk - whose unusual sounding name comes from the Lenape Indian phrase for "Sleeping Bear" (the shape of a nearby mountain) - had first come to prominence as the site of the markerSwitchback Railroad, a gravity fed line built to haul coal from nearby Summit Hill to the canal. This tiny railroad, dwarfed by its successors, nevertheless can lay claim to being the very first railroad in the state.

Packer quickly recognized the money to be made in the canal business by moving coal to distant markets. After modest success in the canal barge business he became a contractor, building locks on the canals, and in 1838 formed a company to build boats in Pottsville and to transport coal to New York. His vessels plied the Schuylkill Canal and carried coal into New York via the Delaware and Raritan Canal, competing with the Reading Railroad, prior to the railroads' eclipsing of canal traffic. His boats also carried the very first English-built locomotives to Getz's Wharf in Reading for delivery to the Reading Railroad 1838. Packer then became involved in the mining of coal, purchasing mines in nearby Hazleton.

After his election to the Pennsylvania legislature in 1844, Packer introduced legislation for the creation of Carbon County, and designation of Mauch Chunk as the county seat. After leaving the legislature he served as a county judge for five years. Already a wealthy man, Packer in 1855 became president of the newly charted Lehigh Valley Railroad. The first line, from Mauch Chunk to Easton, he soon extended to Hazleton and Mahoney. After a connection with the Erie Railroad opened up the coal region to a far broader market, Packer, for a brief time, was believed to be the richest man in Pennsylvania.

Packer's railroad brought renewed prosperity to Mauch Chunk and brought visitors to the mountains. The stunning beauty of the Lehigh River gorge, and the meticulously tended narrow streets and terraced gardens of the town soon won for the Mauch Chunk the nickname of "The Switzerland of America." The elegant homes along Broadway Street became known as "Millionaire's Row."
Asa Packer Mansion. Pink and white mansion with cupola and two porches with columns and arches stretched across the length.
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Asa Packer Mansion, Jim Thorpe, PA, circa 2000.

In 1860, Packer built himself a three-story, Victorian Italianate mansion on a hillside overlooking the town. Featuring Gothic window arches and elaborate gingerbread trim, it took two years and $14,000 to build. Packer brought in European artisans to carve the dramatic woodwork in the main hall, and installed stained glass windows and bracketed ceilings in the dining room to further enhance his home's elegance. Interestingly, but not so obvious to visitors, Packer insisted that the entire frame of the house be constructed from cast iron. The Packer family lived in the mansion from 1861 until 1912.

A successful businessman of great wealth and vision, Packer was the Pennsylvania delegation's choice for president of the National Democratic convention in 1868. The following year he made an unsuccessful bid for governor. Hoping to provide young men of the Lehigh Valley an opportunity for free advanced technical educations, Packer gave $500,000 and 150 acres of land near Bethlehem for the founding of markerLehigh University, which was to offer courses in civil, mining, and mechanical engineering, physics, chemistry, and metallurgy. When Packer passed away in 1879, he left an estate valued at $54 million, and willed an endowment of $2,000,000 to the university. His daughter Mary Packer Cummings continued his philanthropic work, funding a magnificent church for the university, and donating, upon her death, the elegantly furnished Packer mansion to the town of Mauch Chunk.

In the 1920s, the industrial market for anthracite coal weakened, and Mauch Chunk entered a period of economic decline. The town's fortunes revived somewhat in 1954, when the widow of markerJim Thorpe, the great, though disgraced, American Indian Olympic athlete offered the combined boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk her husband's name in return for a proper burial and lasting memorial. As Jim Thorpe, PA, the town entered a period of revival and increased tourism. The Asa Packer mansion, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985, represents an important part of that revival, and stands as testament to the fortune accumulated by this great Pennsylvania railroad pioneer and philanthropist.
 
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