Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Nineteenth-century literature abounds with stories of men who rose from humble circumstances to great wealth by virtue of their own diligence, perseverance, and courage. Several of the most famous such works, novels written by Horatio Alger Jr. (1832-1899), became best-sellers because the American public relished his stories about plucky boys achieving their goals against all odds.

In his first novel, Ragged Dick, published in 1867, Alger included one character who lectured another, “Remember that your future position depends mainly on your­self, and that it will be as high or low as you choose to make it.” The true-to-life epitome of the self-made image was, for a long time, seen in railroad magnate Asa Packer who, at his death in 1879, was Pennsylva­nia’s richest man. By comparing biographical accounts of him written in his own time and the years that followed, it’s fascinating to examine how Packer’s reputation and that of the self-made man have fared during the past century.

The earliest biographical state­ment describing Asa Packer appeared in Mathew S. Henry’s 1860 History of the Lehigh Valley. The book, published in Easton by Bixler and Corwin, was essentially a travel guide written because Packer’s brain child, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, had begun to bring thousands of visitors to an area where the scenery was as attractive as the employment opportunities that the new railroad created. This sketch was brief and appeared at the very end of the book, with the author’s comment, “I mention these circumstances as an encouragement to our young men, to teach them what may be accomplished by a life of integrity, energy, and devotion to business.” Perhaps the first people to read about Asa Packer were ambitious, aspiring, youthful Americans who did so while riding on his trains.

In a thin, anonymous volume published in 1867, The Rich Men of the World and How they Gained their Wealth, the Packer sketch repeatedly emphasized that he was a self-made man. The subtitle, Valuable Examples for Every Young Man, reveals the book’s purpose. Written shortly after Lehigh University in Bethlehem was chartered, while the stimulation of Packer’s business successes was also conspicuously enhancing the econo­my of the Lehigh Valley, the biographer concluded that, “The wealth which he has gathered is but a tithe of that which he has been the means of creating in the Lehigh Valley.” Included were so many details about Packer’s life that the account seems likely to have been based on an interview with Packer himself or someone very close to him. Rich Men of the World was published by the American News Company of New York, a magazine distributor which also marketed books at newsstands and in railway stations, and sometimes employed youthful hawkers to peddle the publications to rail passengers.

Asa Packer had come from his native Connecticut to Susquehanna County in Pennsylvania’s northern tier, probably in 1822, and labored as a carpenter’s apprentice. He later worked on a farm, but better prospects lured him to Mauch Chunk (renamed Jim Thorpe in 1953), where he became a canal boatman and boat builder, progressing from laborer to contractor and merchant. He began acquiring the capital to finance the greatest business venture of his career – the Lehigh Valley Railroad. After amassing an immense fortune, Packer turned to philanthropy. He donated money to schools and churches, financed St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, and founded Lehigh University, modestly blocking a move to name the institution in his honor.

During the 1870s and 1880s, both amateur and professional writers included biographies of Asa Packer in their works, probably because he was very much a source of local pride in the communities in which he had lived. Emily C. Blackman recounted Packer’s story in her 1873 History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Blackman was a teacher and a physician’s daughter renowned for fearlessly driving her horse and carriage over Susquehanna County’s dirt roads ever in search of historical data. She apparently used Rich Men of the World as her chief source of information, but she added interesting details of Packer’s Life in Susquehanna County.

Alfred Mathews and Austin N. Hungerford included a sketch of Packer in their History of the Counties of Lehigh and Carbon, published in 1884 by a Philadelphia company that issued more than two hundred local histories. Although incorporating less information than Rich Men of the World, this account is an engaging, storybook type tale that is distinctively flowery enough to make it possible to identify those authors who later plagiarized it.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, local history and genealogy continued prominently as a major publishing field. Publishers realized that a commu­nity’s affluent would subsidize expensive gilt-edged tomes if they included flattering sketches of these individuals, their families, and their forebears. These were informally referred to as “mug books” because they included many full-page likenesses of the biographical subjects. Even with their many faults, these books have preserved aspects of local experience not found in government and institutional records.

More than a few unscrupulous publishers of these biographical compilations economized by spending less money on research than production. Many volumes contained errors and “borrowed” prose. Strikingly similar biographies of Packer appeared in Manufactories and Manufacturers of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century (1875); The Portrait and Biographical Record of Lehigh, Northampton, and Carbon Counties, Pennsylvania (1894); the Biographical Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century (1874), which copied wholesale from Rich Men of the World; and Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs of the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania (1905), which pirated Mathews and Hungerford’s 1884 account. The Mathews and Hungerford sketch later reappeared virtually verbatim in the Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania Biography in 1916 and in the History of Northampton County four years later.

Asa Packer served as a state legislator, a county judge, and a congressman; he ran for governor of Pennsylvania and was seriously considered for a presidential nomina­tion by the Democratic Party. A slim pamphlet, An Outline of the Career of the Honorable Asa Packer, appeared in 1867, the year before he became Pennsylvania’s favorite son at the Democratic presidential convention. Telltale signs identifying this as a political tract include language describing Packer’s wife, Sarah Minerva Blakslee Packer, as a woman fit to be “first lady of America” and the suggestion that more businessmen should go into government.

The pamphlet is long on fancy and heavy on rhetoric. It explains that in Packer’s youth, “His knapsack contained his sole outfit: with that on his back and few coins in his purse, he bravely journeyed on foot [from Connecticut] to the township of Brooklyn, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.” Another tract entitled Words of Truth for the Consideration of the Voters of Pennsylvania, published when Packer accepted the Democ­rats’ nomination for governor in 1869, depicts Packer as a “barefoot boy” with a bundle on his back. Packer’s knapsack was featured in other biographies until well into the twentieth century, but this compelling visual image emphasizing Packer’s humble roots first appeared in his campaign literature.

In the 1869 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election the voters had the self-made millionaire’s candidacy before them. Packer lost to the incumbent, General John White Geary, a Civil War hero, but only by the small margin of eight-tenths of one percent of all ballots cast. Furthermore, Alexander K. McClure, author of a 1905 memoir of Pennsylvania politics and an acquaintance of Asa Packer, alleged that the election had been stolen from Packer by vote fraud in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, Packer’s showing suggested that many Pennsylvanians admired the self-made man.

The best account of Packer’s political career appeared in Asa Packer – A Perspective, a 1983 booklet produced for major donors to Lehigh University, written by W. Ross Yates, a dean and professor of history and government. Instead of merely repeating published material, Yates conducted new research among government documents and was the first to look critically at this aspect of Packer’s life and ask why. He noted that Packer’s two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives lasted from 1853 until 1857, precisely the years when Packer should have been busiest with the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Packer’s motivation for venturing into politics eluded Yates. “Why he wished to do so, and what he gained from the experience, are puzzles yet to be solved,” he wrote.

In nineteenth-century America, there was a firm belief that a man’s inner qualities were what made a millionaire out of a barefoot boy. Authors who were Packer’s contemporaries and who might have known him sometimes added observations on his character to the standard outline of his business career. Mathew S. Henry admired Packer’s “energy and devotion to business” and Emily Blackman his “well-directed energy.” Packer did involve himself with an extraordinary number of interdependent ventures prior to building the Lehigh Valley Railroad, all endeavors aimed at moving coal from Pennsylvania’s southern anthracite field to urban markets. The energetic Asa Packer was also purportedly the first to navigate a specially constructed canal boat from the Lehigh Valley on rivers and bays connected directly to New York, without traveling through Philadelphia.

The moderate fortune to which these endeavors contributed during the 1830s and 1840s was risked and nearly lost by Packer in the 1850s. During the construction of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, costs spiraled, subcontractors failed, and workmen died of cholera. McClure, who definitely knew Packer, credited Packer’s qualities of persever­ance and optimism for the success of the railroad. McClure wrote that even in the darkest days of his financial troubles” Packer predicted that the Lehigh Valley Railroad would be “the most successful railroad enterprise in the State.” Once proven correct, Packer continued to apply himself and made the railroad a major regional line. Memorials delivered at Lehigh University offer insights to Asa Packer’s character. Shortly after Packer’s death, university president John McDowell Leavitt gave a sermon in which he praised Packer for possessing the one quality that modern entrepreneurs would no doubt agree is most necessary for the creation of wealth. In speaking of the man who was able to predict that a railroad could move more coal cheaper and faster than the most successful canal, Leavitt observed, “to him belongs the gift of foresight, the power to look beyond the ordinary vision.”

The last biographical account written by an individual who had actually known Packer appeared in the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin in 1929. Henry Sturgis Drinker, another Lehigh University president, attempted to address Packer’s character, describing him as a good friend of his uncle and the man who had found him a job when he graduated from Lehigh. Yet Drinker clearly relied on published sources for the bulk of his material; in Drinker’s youth, Packer would have been an old man with whom he could have had little in common.

The most famous historian to write about Packer was Lawrence Henry Gipson (1880-1971), head of Lehigh University’s history department, research professor, scholar, and later professor emeritus, who is remembered primarily for his fifteen-volume series, The British Empire Before the American Revolution, an interpretation of colonial America as part of the larger British Empire. On Gipson’s behalf, a university librarian corresponded with Packer descendants for material Gipson could use for his essay in the Dictionary of American Biography, long the standard biographical compilation of famous Americans. However Gipson’s well crafted essay, published in 1934, added little to the pool of Packer information, perhaps because the subject did not lie within Gipson’s eighteenth-century specialization.

By that time there had been a change in the way some Americans perceived the nineteenth-century’s self-made men. The growth of the great trusts and the closing of the American frontier at the turn of the century made many believe that the opportunity to accumulate a great fortune with little more than inner qualities such as foresight and energy was quickly becoming an impossible dream. Populists and socialists contended that businessmen became wealthy by exploiting resources and laborers. The year 1934 also saw the publication of Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons, which created a popular epithet that would often be applied to the enormously successful businessmen of America’s past.

In response, those opposed to socialism tried to rehabilitate the self-made man in defense of capitalism and free enterprise, suggesting that Americans could recover from the Great Depression not by over­turning their society but by recapturing the optimism and ideals of an earlier period. In 1938, Milton C. Stuart, a Lehigh University professor of mechanical engineer­ing, gave a talk about Packer’s achievements to the Newcomen Society, an elite group that celebrated the history of business and technology in order to promote and protect the American free enterprise system. When the society printed Stuart’s speech, the small publication included an introduction by Clarence Clement Williams, president of Lehigh University, proclaiming that Packer’s life “shows that in the final count individual personality – ability, will, faith, and character­ – transcends collectivistic abstractions among the forces of Civilization.”

Stuart made much of the fact that shortly after Packer died, the English language version of the humor magazine Puck, which was known for its cartoons and satire, printed an obituary that was highly unusual because it straightforwardly praised Packer the philanthropist without adding the slightest suggestion of condescension or ridicule. Packer’s cartoon image appeared on the cover as a farmer sowing coins, while spring­ing from the ground were plants labeled with the names of institutions that had benefited from his charitable acts. Since Puck’s style demanded humor, the cartoonist surrounded Packer with statues of other famous rich men selfishly clutch­ing their bags of money. The text of the obituary praised Packer’s noble life and added some humor by advising other millionaires to “Make a will that can’t be broken.” By append­ing the entire Puck obituary and cover in the Newcomen Society publication, Stuart seemed intent on illustrating to the twentieth-century reader that the creation of a fortune might work to the benefit of society rather than just conferring luxuries upon those who possessed vast wealth.

In the 1940s and 1950s, several historians published statisti­cal analyses suggesting that most successful businessmen of the nineteenth century had actually started their careers from economically advantaged backgrounds. These studies implied that the phenomenon of the barefoot-boy-turned-millionaire had never been more than a figment of nineteenth-century imagination.

Today, Asa Packer is more likely to interest historians in the newly popular specialized fields of business history and the history of technology. Robert F. Archer’s The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, originally published in 1977, includes a Packer sketch, as does a 1981 regional study by Burton W. Folsom Jr. entitled Urban Capitalists, a sophisticated combina­tion of business and social history that examines the connection between the presence of entrepreneurs and the development of two Pennsylvania anthracite mining regions. These most recent Packer treatments are brief and present no new biographical material, but they differ significantly from earlier accounts­ – they treat Packer not as a self-made man but as the leader of an enterprise network. Archer identifies Packer’s son-in-law Robert H. Sayre (1824-1907) as the engineering genius who brought Packer’s visions to life. Folsom writes of a “Packer group” of kinsmen and fellow New England migrants to Pennsylvania who played a role in the economic growth of the Lehigh Valley.

Asa Packer’s name was a household word to his contempo­raries, but his biographers cannot agree where or where he was born. Most accounts give the date of his birth as December 29, 1805, but about half a dozen contend it was December 29 of the following year. The discrepancy may have arisen when one political pamphlet reported that Packer was born “near the beginning of the year 1806.” The author of Rich Men of the World copied material from this account, but he made a glaring mistake; he wrote that Packer had been born “in the beginning of 1806.” Other authors who clearly pulled other material from Rich Men of the World used the year 1806. Vital records in Connecticut do not record his birth, but a family Bible at the Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe records the date as 1805. Although this Bible was published in 1855, it suggests that Packer himself and his family believed he had been born in 1805.

About half the biographies place Packer’s birth in Mystic, the others in Groton. The inconsistency probably arose because Mystic, Connecticut, is a town spanning a river, with its east side in Stonington Township and its west side – where Packer’s parents resided – in Groton Township.

Although their sources are not noted and their authors are unknown, Packer’s campaign literature and Rich Men of the World remain the documents containing the most information about the life of Asa Packer. Except for W. Ross Yates, later biographers essentially repeated this material over and over. Since it is extremely difficult to confirm some of the most basic facts about Packer, it’s tempting to wonder how much of this vintage 1860s information might have been self-made, perhaps by the ardent promoters of Asa Packer the politician.

There is one other observation that can be made from the various accounts of Packer’s life and career. In 1881, a speaker at Lehigh University paid him homage with the words, “I doubt whether there is a single person in this presence who does not recall instantly all the well known incidents of his history.” Yet a 1981 article about the Asa Packer Mansion had to begin with a biographical summary because Packer’s “name may be unfamiliar to twentieth-century readers.” In the course of a century, Asa Packer had vanished from public memory and became known not for his accomplishments but for his mansion in the Carbon County seat of Jim Thorpe, which had remarkably survived intact with most of its original furnishings and opulent decorations.

Authors who knew Asa Packer consistently mentioned his modest nature; he might well have been content with relative historical oblivion. But whatever really happened during the life of this man who left behind no personal papers, diaries, or memoirs, as a creature of his own time, Packer would have believed in the self-made man. He very well might have wished Americans of the current century to agree with the author of Rich Men of the World who concluded his biography with the words, “Mr. Packer’s whole career exemplifies the truth that in the United States there is no distinction to which any young man may not aspire, and with energy, diligence, intelligence, and virtue, obtain.”


For Further Reading

Archer, Robert F. The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Berkeley, Cal.: Howell-North Books, 1977.

Folsom, Burton W. Urban Capitalists: Entrepreneurs and City Growth in Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna and Lehigh Regions, 1800-1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Gipson, Lawrence Henry. “Asa Packer.” Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.

Henry, Mathew S. History of the Lehigh Valley. Easton, Pa.: Bixler and Corwin, 1860.

Mathews, Alfred, and Austin N. Hungerford. History of the Coun­ties of Lehigh and Carbon in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Everts and Richards, 1884.

McClure, A.K. Old Time Notes of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1905.

Yates, W. Ross. Asa Packer – A Perspective. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University, 1983.


Lorett Treese is college archivist for Bryn Mawr College and the author of The Storm Gathering: The Penn Family and the Ameri­can Revolution and Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol. In addition to articles for Pennsylvania Her­itage, her work has appeared in Early American Life, Pennsylva­nia Folklife, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a 1996-1997 member of the Commonwealth Speakers Program of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and is currently at work on a book on the creation of wealth in nineteenth­-century Pennsylvania.