Historical Markers
Lehigh University Historical Marker
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Lehigh University

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Off Pa. 412 in Bethlehem, W. Packer Ave. at Broadhead Ave.

Behind the Marker

Asa Packer in 1860.
Lehigh University founder and benefactor Asa Packer, circa 1861.
Conceived as a college for the industrial age, Lehigh University was founded in 1865 to offer young men an advanced education in the practical affairs of the emerging corporate economy. More than a mere technical institute, Lehigh's chief patron, industrialistmarker Asa Packer,encouraged a curriculum that combined science, industrial engineering, and the liberal arts. The object was to produce well-rounded corporate leaders able to command the emerging industrial markets.

Asa Packer was born in Groton, Connecticut, in 1806 and after completing an apprenticeship as a tanner received a general public (common school) education. Through a succession of manual labor jobs, Packer worked his way into the canal and coal businesses and settled in Mauch Chunk (Jim Thorpe), Pennsylvania. Packer's ornate Italianate mansion is today a featured site on the National Register of Historic Places.

Elected to the state legislature, Packer used his position of influence to establish the Lehigh Valley Railroad, key to his own personal fortunate. Elected to the United States Congress after a five-year term as a judge, Packer became a towering figure in northeast Pennsylvania politics, an unsuccessful candidate for Governor who combined the corporate and political skills essential to success in nineteenth-century America.

Lehigh University's Packer Hall, South Bethlehem, PA, circa 1876.
In 1865, Judge Packer donated $500,000 and 115 acres of land in Bethlehem to the creation of a new college named Lehigh University, in honor of the region and the railroad. Like Drexel University in Philadelphia and Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Lehigh's educational philosophy was well suited to the needs of the industrial age. Unlike the more limited course of study at Drexel and Carnegie Tech, Lehigh integrated technical expertise in engineering with the broader liberal arts subjects.

University officials placed extensive but not exclusive importance on industrial engineering and the related sciences. A man of the industrial age, Packer knew first-hand the value of concrete technical expertise and the larger frame of mind required to supervise the complex features of railroading, mining, and industrial management. Therefore, students prepared in civil and mechanical engineering, metallurgy and the sciences, as well as foreign language, history, and politics.

Corporate philanthropy was a critical ingredient to success at many colleges, including University of Scranton, Carnegie Tech, and the University of Pennsylvania. But by any standard of comparison, Packer's generosity toward Lehigh was extraordinary. All across Pennsylvania, institutions of higher education benefited for the new wealth produced from railroads, steel, mining, and other industries. Here was a subtle but significant shift from church to corporate patronage in the development of higher education in Pennsylvania and across the nation, and in many respects Packer and Lehigh led the way.
Exterior and grounds
Carnegie Technical Institute, Pittsburgh, PA, 1912.

Though Packer's daughter donated a beautiful chapel that still stands in the middle of campus, Lehigh was always nonsectarian in its official outlook. Asa Packer's 1879 will supplemented his initial endowment with a bequest of an additional $1,500,000; another $500,000 was granted to the library. Such generosity helped Lehigh University survive the difficult financial crisis brought on by the Panic of 1893. Today, Packer's investment remains the seedbed of Lehigh University's $1 billion endowment.
This image is an aerial view in the center of the drawing and in each corner is a circular image of the following: Auditorium, Pardee Hall, Reading Room, and South College
Lafayette College, Easton, PA, circa 1879.

Lehigh added a College of Business in 1910 to complement the advanced engineering curriculum, funded in part by steel pioneer markerJohn Fritz. This reorganization gave added emphasis to Packer's own stress on economics education as a bulwark to American competitiveness worldwide. Throughout the twentieth century, university trustees approved additional curricula in education, and in the fine arts and applied arts. Engineering remains the core discipline, long after the university began to admit women as regular students. The largest single academic division is the College of Arts and Sciences, home to 40 percent of the 7,000-member student body. A review of Lehigh's fourteen presidents reinforces the importance placed on expertise in some aspect of industrial engineering or the sciences.

Lehigh University's sprawling campus dominates "The Hill" overlooking urban Bethlehem and the valley below. The main Packer campus, and two nearby branch campus, together total more than 1,600 acres. A strong rivalry in academics and athletics continues with Lafayette College, founded in 1826 by citizens in nearby Easton. Lehigh and Lafayette College had played each other in football more than 142 times by 2007, the "the rivalry" (as students on both campus call it) the longest running competition of its kind in the United States. Until the 1970s, Lehigh freshmen wore brown caps called "dinks" from the start of the fall term until the Lafayette game. During the week leading up to the game, they also went to nearby Moravian College in their pajamas and serenaded the female students outside their dormitories.
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