Historical Markers
Packer Mansion [Politics] Historical Marker
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Packer Mansion [Politics]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
U.S. 209 at park near railroad station, Jim Thorpe

Dedication Date:
May 14, 1971

Behind the Marker

Head and shoulders
Asa Packer, circa 1861.
Immediately after the Civil War, the Democratic Party in both Pennsylvania and the nation was hard-pressed to find political candidates who could overcome their image of disloyalty and challenge Republican war heroes. The best they could do was stand for honest government and dedicated public service as an alternative to Republican greed. Asa Packer (1805-1879), a self-made businessman, philanthropist, and pro-war Democrat, fit the bill better than anyone in Pennsylvania. Much like Abraham Lincoln, he was a poor boy who made good.

Born in Mystic, Connecticut, Packer was unable to earn a living as either a tanner or a farmer, so he walked 200 miles to Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, where his cousin taught him to be a carpenter. Once again, he encountered economic hardship, briefly moved to New York City, and then came to Mauch Chunk in 1833. There, he operated one of the canal boats that were hauling anthracite coal down the recently completed markerLehigh Canal. After purchasing a general store with his earnings, he then began a contracting business that constructed the canal locks that soon dotted the region.

By the late 1830s, Packer was investing in coal mining and shipping. In 1841 he was elected as a Democrat to the state legislature, and after two terms served five years as a county judge. In 1853, Packer became the upper Lehigh Valley's congressman. Having purchased one of the anthracite-coal region's railroad lines in 1851, he constructed a forty-six-mile track from Mauch Chunk to Easton, part of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which quickly replaced the canal system as the primary route for sending coal south to Philadelphia.

Through the railroad and his other holdings Packer was able to amass a fortune of more than $50 million. By the 1870s, the Lehigh Valley Railroad dominated the shipment of coal from the anthracite region and also handled much of the freight in northern New Jersey and New York. At the same time, Packer invested heavily in the iron industry in Bethlehem which produced the iron he needed for his railroads.

Mauch Chunk Circa 1880
Mauch Chunk, PA, circa 1880.
In the 1860s, Packer removed his headquarters from Mauch Chunk to the more easily accessible Bethlehem, although the mansions he built for himself and his son in Mauch Chunk are still striking examples of Victorian architecture. In 1865, he gave $500,000, what was then the largest endowment to an American college, to Lehigh University, which opened the following year. He also donated $300,000 to construct St. Luke's Hospital in the city.

In the 1860s, Asa Packer was one of Pennsylvania's most prominent citizens. A self-made man, a philanthropist, and a Democrat, he was also reputed to be the wealthiest man in the Commonwealth. In 1868, Pennsylvania had the second most electoral votes of any state, and Packer was the Pennsylvania delegation's choice for president at the national Democratic convention.
Oil on canvas of a man in uniform, three quarter length portrait.
Winfield Scott Hancock, by James Reid Lambdin, 1880.

He lost out, however, to Horatio Seymour of New York - the Democrats were banking on New York (which had 47 electoral votes to Pennsylvania's 36) and Seymour's reputation as a reformer and a friend of Catholics to carry the election. Packer received little support from outside Pennsylvania. The next year, Packer ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Pennsylvania, losing to Republican marker John White Geary, the first of four Civil War generals who would serve as the Commonwealth's chief executive.

In the presidential election of 1876, Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but lost the electoral majority when a congressional commission voted strictly along party lines to award the disputed electoral votes from South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. Optimistic about their chances for victory in the presidential election of 1880, the Democrats again turned to a Pennsylvanian as their candidate: Civil War generalmarker Winfield Scott Hancock, who lost to the winner James Garfield by less than 7,000 popular votes out of more than four million cast.

The Democrats would finally break through on the state level in 1883, when Philadelphia City Controller Robert Pattison was elected governor, and on the federal level, in 1884, when New York Governor Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat elected president since Pennsylvanian James Buchanan won in 1856.

Wanting to replace unqualified political appointees with non-partisan people who were qualified for the jobs, Cleveland, Packer, and Pattison all mademarker Civil Service reform a keystone of their campaigns. Both men - Pattison was only thirty-three when elected and Cleveland forty seven - represented a new generation of Democratic leaders. Asa Packer, who had come of political age before the Civil War, had died in 1879.

To learn more about Packer's business career and his Mauch Chunk mansion, markerclick here.
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