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

“Nothing con­tributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose – a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.”

A passage from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 clas­sic Frankenstein may be a most unlikely source, but these words characterize the equally unlikely life of Lancaster County native David McNeely Stauffer (1845-1913). Born in Richland (present-day Mount Joy), in the northwest part of the county, he demonstrated throughout his life a steady purpose through diligence­ – and success – in academic studies, mili­tary service, and engineering. He also left an unusual legacy to the citizens of Lancaster.

His Mennonite father, Jacob Stauffer (1808-1880), born in Manheim, Lancaster County, was the first printer to set up a shop in Richland. His shop boasted a “picture-taking department,” using the newly developed daguerreotype process. He would later become a patent solicitor, but he is best remembered for his avoca­tion as a naturalist. His botanical paint­ings are still prized, and his work is repre­sented not only by the collections of Franklin and Marshall College, in Lan­caster, but also at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Two of his trea­tises on regional reptiles and fish are con­tained in J. I. Mombert’s 1869 book, An Authentic History of Lancaster County. Stauffer’s interest in science and the illus­tration of plants and insects, mostly with watercolors, led him to frequently con­tribute to journals of agriculture and sci­ence, a legacy that benefited the education of his children, including his son David.

In his 1910 autobiography, now part of the collection of Franklin and Marshall College’s Shadek-Fackenthal Library, David McNeely Stauffer wrote that among his happiest memories were his recollections of Saturday nature walks with his father through the countryside searching for rare plants and insects. Few of Jacob Stauffer’s friends knew the extent of his botanical research, but in 1872 author and biographer Alexander Harris wrote, “Yet it is acknowledged by all who know him that he is well versed in almost every branch of science; and if a strange plant or insect is found and a name wanted for it, you are usually advised to ‘go to Stauffer, he can tell you.'”

Stauffer’s second wife, the mother of David, Mary Ann McNeely, of Scotch­Irish descent and a member of an early Presbyterian family of the Susquehanna region, died when David was just one year old. Jacob Stauffer married a third time, during which the child developed an intense devotion to his father. The elder Stauffer returned the affection and nurtured his son’s innate talents.

The Panic of 1857, the year in which David turned twelve, uprooted the Stauffer family. Jacob Stauffer had signed a promissory note for a friend who was caught in the economic crash, causing him to lose nearly everything. In 1858, at the age of fifty, he was forced to start over. Francis Stauffer, David’s older half-­brother, then editor of the Lancaster Daily News, persuaded his father to move to the city of Lancaster to begin anew as a patent lawyer.

What was unfortunate for Jacob Stauffer turned out to be fortunate for his son David. A friend, E. C. Reigart, had just opened a library and museum, the Lancaster Athenaeum, on the third floor of Old City Hall. Stauffer accepted Reigart’s proposal to serve as librarian and, in return, be allowed to operate a patent agency in the library facilities. His Librarian’s salary was mea­ger, but the positive impact on young David was immeasurable.

Old City Hall became David Stauffer’s playground. He organized a boys’ club, but he is known to have spent much of his time in the library, which was important to the development of his talents, many of which were self-taught. Old City Hall, on Penn Square, today houses a portion of the Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster County.

After the Stauffer family moved to North Duke Street in Lancaster, David entered the “first class, second division” of the Duke Street Sec­ondary School, but quickly realized he was more advanced than his classmates. He called on the superintendent of schools, Amos Row, to request an early entry into high school. Relying on rigid policies, Row would not make an excep­tion and allow Stauffer to skip a grade. He did, however, suggest that Stauffer take the high school entrance examination, as if he had just arrived in Lancaster, without disclosing that he had already spent a term at a local secondary school. The examina­tion results showed that Stauffer was pre­pared, not only for the fifth (or lowest) class in high school, but also for the fourth class, and so he skipped two grades instead of one.

In high school he came to the attention of J. P. McCaskey, a teacher who recog­nized his abilities and offered Stauffer extra lessons after school hours. McCaskey helped Stauffer complete high school in three years, instead of the cus­tomary five. He was sixteen years old when he graduated in 1861, a year that proved momentous both for Stauffer
and the country.

In 1853, the City of Lancaster had collected money to provide a campus for the merger of Franklin College and Marshall Col­lege. In return, the new entity, Franklin and Marshall College, agreed to provide free tuition for one local student in per­petuity, and established a tradition that this scholarship should be given to the student who led his class through high school. Stauffer, at first without realizing it, had won the scholarship. The award was discontinued in 1891, but a Stauffer Memorial Endowment Fund, established in 1937 by a bequest of Florence Stauffer Rogers, helps perpetuate a legacy and honors the memory of her “first hus­band, David McNeely Stauffer, and his father, Jacob Stauffer, of Lancaster.” The fund continues to benefit the college.

The young scholar might have had a normal college education had it not been for the outbreak of the Civil War. Stauffer was not yet eighteen when, in September 1862, the news that Confederate troops had invaded Maryland terrified the resi­dents of Lancaster. Stauffer enlisted twice in the 2nd Pennsylvania Emergency Regi­ment, affectionately called “The Skedad­dlers” by the Lancaster Examiner, serving under Lancaster leaders General John F. Reynolds in the first hitch, and then Robert Nevin, son of the president of Franklin and Marshall College, John Nevin. Stauffer kept a diary, illustrated with sketches and containing interesting commentary on recruits, troops, com­manders, and battles. (The diary is also part of the collections of Shadek-Facken­thal Library.) At Antietam, Maryland, Stauffer lugged his college textbooks in a knapsack, hoping to keep up with his studies, but the books proved to be a heavy burden for a soldier in the field and he discarded them in the corner of a snake fence.

Stauffer saw action at Antietam and Gettysburg and, although he was not in the front line of battle, he was “within hearing range of the guns” with shells flying overhead. Worse yet, he nearly died of typhoid fever in 1863. By the time he was mustered out in January of the following year, only seven of his classmates remained in college. A veter­an at the age of nineteen, he decided he was too old to return to school and, instead, found a job with the engineer corps of the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad. The company planned to con­nect railroads and the canal at Columbia, Lancaster County, with a commerce cen­ter at Port Deposit in Cecil County, Maryland, but the company did not own any engines or equipment and was not to begin construction until September 1866. Before Stauffer had worked two months, he accepted an appointment as a master’s mate in the Union Navy. Assigned to the U.S.S. Alexandria, he served for a year and a half on the Mis­sissippi and Red Rivers. In June 1865, he was commissioned ensign, and in November he was honorably released from service.

Stauffer returned to work for the rail­road, determined to learn engineering. He moved steadily upward with various jobs and railroad companies to acquire experience . In 1870, at the age of twenty-­five, he was named engineer in charge of construction of the South Street Bridge in Philadelphia. He had learned of a process developed in. France about 1841 (and still used today) that made it easier to sink piers and, therefore, would be useful in his bridge construction project. The only known book devoted to this process was written in French, so Stauf­fer undertook the study of the language. When the bridge was successfully com­pleted in 1872, the first project in the United States to use the French “plenum pneumatic” process, Stauffer wrote an article on his adapted method which was published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute and attracted the attention of a prestigious engineering journal pub­lished in London. Before the age of thirty, Stauffer had become an international authority in engineering.

In the mid-1870s, Stauffer entered into the greatest engineering work of his career. A Lancaster contractor, Richard A. Malone, was interested in bidding on a tunnel pro­posed for Dorchester Bay in Mass­achusetts designed to take away Boston’s sewage. The contract involved driving a tunnel below the bay floor two miles long and about two hundred feet below the water surface of the bay. Boston’s city officials provided information on a series of test borings on which the bidding was to be based. Stauffer was astute in recognizing an unusual provision in the contract stating that, while the borings were “assumed to be correct,” the City of Boston would not be held responsible for any losses incurred if condi­tions turned out to be different from those specified. Recogniz­ing the risk he and his partner were taking, Stauffer bid high to take into account the possibility of error. Malone, however, ready to accept the risk to win the contract and the pres­tige it presumably would bring, slashed one hundred thousand dollars from the bid. The partners landed the contract.

Not long after Stauffer and Malone began their work in autumn 1879, Stauf­fer’s worst fears were realized. The data they had been given from the test bor­ings were wrong in nearly every instance. Where they had expected to find clay, they found quicksand. Where the test borings showed solid rock, they found water-bearing strata.

By the following spring, the partner­ship was one hundred fifty thousand dollars in debt – and the terms of the contract offered no hope of relief. One day Stauffer, while in the office of Boston’s city engineer researching infor­mation, happened upon a chart of bor­ings radically different from the data on which he and Malone had bid. This set of borings showed conditions as Stauffer had found them. The clear implication was that the city authorities had know­ingly provided false information in order to elicit a low bid on the job. He sought out the engineer who had made the borings, persuaded him to agree to serve as witness, and then instructed the partnership’s lawyer to sue the city for damages. Con­fronted with the threat of public exposure, Boston’s authorities satis­fied the debts Stauffer and Mal­one had incurred and issued a new contract based on the correct informa­tion. The partners completed the tunnel with a small profit.

In March 1880, while Stauffer’s trou­bles in Boston were most severe, his father died in Lancaster. “In losing him,” Stauffer wrote later, “I lost my most beloved in the world, one whose pride in me was the chief incentive of my life struggle.” After completing the Boston project, Stauffer returned to Pennsylva­nia and worked for one year with the
Philadelphia Bridge Company. In 1882, he opened his own office in New York as a consulting engineer, and from the start he was in demand for engineering pro­jects throughout the United States and in many foreign countries.

He had purchased a one-third interest in Engineering News, a publication he edited until 1905. His ownership in Engi­neering News led to his being invited as a guest aboard the steamship Aguan travel­ing in 1891 to Nicaragua, where a party was to inspect the site of a proposed inter-oceanic canal. Among the passen­gers were publisher G. Hilton Scribner and his daughter Florence. While sailing from Jamaica to Nicaragua, the ship ran aground on the perilous Roncador Reef.

Fearing that the Aguan would be ripped to pieces on the dangerous reef by the pounding surf, passengers aban­doned ship and made their way to Ron­cador Island, an uninhabited strip of coral and sand about four miles wide and nine miles long. With a leaking lifeboat and women growing hysterical after seeing sharks in the area, Stauffer frantically bailed. He took notice of Flo­rence Scribner as she gathered frightened children around her, calming them with nursery stories. Supplies were recovered from the Aguan, but a horrified crew dis­covered the vessel’s supply of fresh water had become contaminated with seawater. Stauffer quietly put his engineering expe­rience to good use. To avoid raising false hopes among the survivors, he worked discreetly at night, digging a well by hand with a coal shov­el. He was rewarded with the discovery of fresh water.

Despite the privations they endured, the few days they spent on the island before being rescued proved to be a for­tuitous experience for David Stauffer and Florence Scribner, who found themselves falling in love. They married a year later, in April 1892, when Stauffer was forty­-seven years old. The couple eventually purchased a house in Yonkers, New York, which they romantically christened “El Roncador” in memory of their island adventure. The Stauffers lived at “El Roncador” until David Stauffer’s death in 1913.

Stauffer exercised his seemingly inex­haustible curiosity through a wide range of interests. By nature he was an indefati­gable collector. Among documents he collected was the original proposal, sent in March of 1789 by Jasper Yeates to the Federal Congress in Philadelphia, that Lancaster be named the capital of the United States. The ensuing discussion in September led to serious consideration of nearby Columbia, on the Susquehan­na River, before the Congress decided to locate the new capital on the Potomac River. One account of Stauffer’s life men­tions his collection of autographs, includ­ing a complete set of signatures of the signers of the Declaration of Indepen­dence, although any trace of this set has since disappeared. Stauffer became an authority on engravings, and in 1907 he completed a landmark two-volume work entitled American Engravers on Copper and Steel, which he dedicated to his wife. His biographical compilation of seven hun­dred individual entries is extremely important because knowledge of many of these practitioners might otherwise have been lost. In his preface, Stauffer wrote that “here attempts at least a beginning in the historical preservation of the names of many men who worked in a humble but earnest manner in estab­lishing in this country the art of engrav­ing upon metal.”

Stauffer assembled a noteworthy col­lection of bookplates. He also designed bookplates for institutions such as Franklin and Marshall College and the Lancaster County Historical Society, and for friends, including Frank Ried Diffend­erffer, Lancaster author and journalist, and a founder of the historical society.

The Dictionary of American Biography wrote of Stauffer, “He will be remem­bered for his avocations almost as much as for his professional success.” The truth is that he is remembered more for his avo­cations than for his professional work.

Beginning in his boyhood, Stauffer had enjoyed sketching. Although self­-taught, he demonstrated an unusual artistic talent that was encouraged by his father. As an adult, he continued sketching with pencil, pen, and watercolor. The result of his work is one of the greatest legacies ever bequeathed to Lancaster­ a priceless collection of at least seventy drawings of old and historic buildings in the Lancaster area, many of which no longer survive. This collection is now owned by the Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster, located in the very building that housed the library so important to the young Stauffer.

Several of the buildings Stauffer sketched still stand, including the Swan Hotel. Some, like the Old Court House on Penn Square, have long since disappeared. Some of his works depict struc­tures that Stauffer himself never saw because they had disappeared before he arrived in Lancaster. He visited the sites of these buildings, such as the Indian Queen Hotel or the “old powder house,” sought out residents still able to describe them, and then rendered them from these recollections. As he sketched, the old-timers – much to their amazement­ – saw the long-gone edifices take shape before their eyes.

Without Stauffer’s prolific interest in illustrating Lancaster’s architectural her­itage, researchers might never have known how the massive stone structure of the German Reformed Church appeared on Orange and Christian Streets, the congregation’s second build­ing, from 1753 to 1852, before it was torn down and replaced by a newer church building. Gone also are the Plough Tav­ern, which stood from 1745 until 1924 at the corner of King and Charlotte Streets, where the Marquis de Lafayette and dig­nitaries were entertained during their stay in Lancaster; the home of George Ross, patriot, Revolutionary War soldier, and signer of the Declaration of Independence; and the old Lancaster High School at the southeast corner of Prince and Chestnut Streets, site of today’s U.S. Post Office. Stauffer’s work also offers a rare glimpse at the interior of the mansion of a wealthy citizen of the early United States, Jasper Yeates, a Lancaster patriot whom Stauffer greatly admired. His depictions of homes, hotels, taverns, government buildings, streets, even trees and cemeteries, provide almost a complete community setting for eighteenth and nineteenth century life.

David McNeely Stauffer can certainly be thought of as a renaissance man. His interest in the world around him brought high regard for himself, advancement for various sciences and technologies, atten­tion to his father’s botanical records, and an invaluable visual glimpse at the history of Lancaster as illustrated by his own hand. Through the drawings of David McNeely Stauf­fer, one can gain an insight into the culture of the nine­teenth century and an appreci­ation for the valuable, one­-of-a-kind lega­cy he left not only to Lancas­terians, but also to Penn­sylvanians.

 

For Further Reading

Klein, Frederic Shriver, and Charles X. Carl­son. Old Lancaster: Historic Pennsylva­nia Community. Lancaster: Early America Series, Inc., 1964.

Loose, John Ward Willson. The Heritage of Lancaster. Lancaster: Lancaster County His­torical Society, 1978.

Mombert, Jacob Isador. An Authentic History of Lancaster County. Laughlin­town, Southwest Pennsylvania Genealogical Services, 1988.

Stauffer, David McNeely. American Engravers Upon Copper and Steel. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Books, 1994.

 

The editor gratefully acknowledges the assis­tance of Peter Swift Seibert, director of the Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster, for providing illustrations to accompany this article.

 

C. Eugene Moore is the immediate past pres­ident of the Heritage Center of Lancaster County and is the author of three books, Forty Years Worth of Jobs: The Story of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County (2000), Interior Solu­tions from Armstrong – the 1960s (1999), and Inspiring Interiors from Arm­strong – the 1950s (1997). He is retired as director of public relations for Armstrong World Industries, Inc., a former member of the board of directors of the Lancaster Cham­ber of Commerce and Industry, and is cur­rently a member of the board of directors of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, as well as the board of directors of the Lancaster Community Con­cert Association. As president and past pres­ident, respectively, of the lecture groups Sphinx and the Cliosophic Society, he often presents slide lectures on David McNeely Stauffer and various historic topics.