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

The saga begins and ends with two com­monplace scenes: a teenaged immigrant alighting a ship in colonial Philadelphia with but two letters of introduction and three guineas to his name, and a gravesite ringed by a half­-dozen black-clothed mourn­ers. But during the century and a half that encapsulates these vignettes, a Pennsylva­nia dynasty rose and fell- and rose and fell again. From Robert Coleman of Castle Finn, Ireland, to Robert Ha­bersham Coleman of Cor­nwall, Lebanon County, four generations of one family amassed several fortunes, monopolized Pennsylvania’s ironmaking industry, created entire self-sufficient communi­ties, befriended statesmen, entertained royalty and lived – ­and died – in an epic drama that still intrigues and fasci­nates.

The story of Pennsylvania’s flamboyant dynasty begins with the arrival of sixteen­-year-old Robert Coleman at the port of Philadelphia in 1764. He was an industrious young man, able to trade his pittance for a salary of more than a hundred pounds a year. In two years he climbed from his position as clerk in a pro­thonotary’s office to book­keeper for Curtis and Peter Grubb, a position that inevita­bly charted the course of his­ – and his family’s – life.

The Grubb brothers owned the Hopewell forge in Lancas­ter County, a charcoal furnace, and while young Robert bal­anced the books, he also learned a great deal about the ironmaking industry: the need for a close water supply, wood­land and, of course, rich ore deposits. Most importantly, however, he discovered that operating a furnace required little ready cash. Workers were paid with supplies from the company store; supplies were bartered for with shipments of iron.

Coleman soon moved on to the Quittapahilla Forge near what is now Annville, Lebanon County, where he lived in the home of the owner, James Old. He fell in love with his employer’s daughter, Ann, and they were married in 1773, the year he leased Salford Forge near Norristown.

His timing could not have been better, for a war with England was imminent and warfare demanded great quan­tities of iron and iron products. He soon leased Elizabeth Furnace near Manheim, partly owned by “Baron” Henry William Stiegel. who had overextended himself with his glass manufactory and landed in debtor’s prison. Coleman turned the entire attention of the furnace to making cannon­balls and grape shot for the Continental Army, avoiding labor shortages by agreeing to take on Hessian prisoners as workers. The soldiers cost him less in wages than native laborers.

Robert Coleman served briefly as a lieutenant in the Pennsylvania militia, but after marching to Long Island to aid in the doomed defense of New York, he quickly returned to what he knew best­ – ironmaking.

What might have happened had the colonies lost the war probably never occurred to Coleman. With the profits from the conflict, he never looked back on his way to owning or controlling all of the major furnaces and forges in eastern Pennsylvania by the turn of the century. The war also made him the Common­wealth’s first millionaire.

First, he bought two-thirds of the Elizabeth Furnace. Next, he purchased Speedwell Forge and obtained partial owner­ship of the Cornwall and Hopewell operations. In 1791, he built Colebrook Furnace and a mansion to overlook it.

Three years later, he pur­chased the remainder of Eliza­beth Furnace and a gristmill. That was rapidly followed by Curtis Grubb’s share of the Cornwall Ore Banks and Fur­nace, half of Henry Grubb’s share of Cornwall and Hope­well, and all of the new Mt. Hope Forges.

He now owned five-sixths of the Cornwall properties. The remaining sixth, retained by the Grubb family through a special proviso in the title transfer, would be a thorn in the Colemans’ side of many years.

Robert and Ann, now with a family of five daughters and five sons, lived at Elizabeth Mansion on four hundred acres of fertile property. The sons, including Thomas Burd, Edward, and James, entered the business at Speedwell Forge as they came of age, and then moved on to oversee one of the other operations.

Although never one to neglect his interests, Robert naturally carried great influ­ence, and he used it – for the most part – wisely and benevo­lently. In 1787, he took part in the Pennsylvania Convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Three years later he aided the reworking of the state’s char­ter. He served as an associate judge for twenty years and made an unsuccessful attempt for the United States Senate. His political leanings were staunchly federalist. He counted among his friends the great statesmen of the period: John Dickinson, Robert Morris and Edward Hand, Washing­ton’s adjutant general during the war.

In 1809, the millionaire ironmaker decided to delegate some of his operations to his sons. He moved the rest of the family to a home on King Street in Lancaster. There, as the wealthiest man in the city, he enjoyed public deference, and his family became a sub­ject of respect, admiration and curiosity. He served as a trustee for both Dickinson and Franklin colleges, and as a director for the Bank of Penn­sylvania. Although not extrav­agant, he contributed liberally to many charities. On Sunday mornings his family could be seen sitting with those of Hand and Jasper Yeates in St. James Episcopal Church.

Life for the Pennsylvania tycoon was not entirely gilded. A daughter Harriet died the year after the move to Lancas­ter, and a year later his son Robert died. Two daughters married and moved out on their own, leaving only Ann Caroline and Sarah at home. Ann had quickly become the most eligible woman in the region, although still unmar­ried at the age of twenty-two. Willowy with dark eyes and black hair, she was described as alternately tender and affec­tionate or proud and head­strong. Sensitive and emotional she certainly was, as became tragically evident.

Every morning Ann watched a young lawyer pass the house on his way to the offices of Molton Rogers. Coin­cidentally, Rogers had started courting Eliza Jacobs, Ann’s cousin. A simple introduction was made, and soon James Buchanan was spending days at Ann’s father’s properties, sleighing with Molton and Eliza during the winter of 1818-1819, visiting friends with Ann, and generally enjoying the wine, food, and gaiety which youth – and especially wealth – could offer.

Lancaster society deemed James Buchanan and Ann Coleman the ideal couple. When both they and Molton Rogers and Eliza Jacobs an­nounced their engagements during the summer of 1819, the townsfolk gossiped happily about a possible double wed­ding, sure to be the social event of the year – if not the decade.

Robert Coleman and his wife were not as pleased with their daughter’s choice. Bu­chanan’s reputation as a flirta­tious young man may have had something to do with it, but more disparaging was Buchanan’s dismissal from, and “curious” reinstatement to, Dickinson College. Twice he was put under faculty disci­pline at the college. In addi­tion to her parents’ disap­proval, other events soon spun the romance into turmoil.

James Buchanan’s career was rocketing and he soon found himself busily involved in legal and political work. Ann, upset with his lack of attention, sent him a note wondering if “it was not re­gard for her that was his ob­ject, but her riches.” The note hurt his pride, but a silent Buchanan offered no explana­tion nor did he suddenly lav­ish attention on his fiancee. The relationship remained strained, however, and another incident shortly thereafter exploded into a complete break. Buchanan, arriving home days later than expected from arguing a case before the Supreme Court in Philadel­phia, stopped first at a col­league’s house, where the man’s young sister-in-law entertained him for the after­noon. When Ann later learned of this dalliance, she angrily dashed off another letter, breaking the engagement in no uncertain terms. “I do not wish, nor, since you are a gentleman, do I expect, to meet you again,” she tersely wrote.

James Buchanan lavished attention on his blossoming career. Ann Caroline sank into depression. Her mother sent her to Philadelphia to visit her sister in hope she would forget the disastrous affair. Just after midnight on December 9, 1819, she was found dead in her bedroom. The cause was listed as “hysterics,” although the doctor had never heard of such before. All of Lancaster de­clared it suicide, pointing first at her broken heart and then at young Buchanan.

Ann was buried in St. James’ graveyard three days later. Robert Coleman refused Buchanan’s request to walk as a mourner. In a letter to Cole­man Buchanan wrote, “I feel that happiness has fled from me forever.” The man who later became the fifteenth president of the United States never married, and a portrait of Ann Caroline hangs in Wheatland, his Lancaster residence, to this day.

The reign of tragedy did not end for Robert Coleman. His daughter Sarah’s death can more truly be called his re­sponsibility. Also noted for her beauty, but more even­-tempered than her sister, Sarah Coleman met William Augustus Muhlenberg, co­-rector of Lancaster’s St. James Episcopal Church, through their work in the Sunday School Society. Their burgeon­ing romance was interrupted by an argument over evening services proposed by Muhlen­berg. Robert Coleman op­posed the idea of evening services, and Sarah, inno­cently caught between the stubborn forces, found herself forbidden to invite the minis­ter to her home.

Muhlenberg, although tom with the longing for “the dear object of my heart,” would not sacrifice what he believed best for his church. The dispute raged for a year. When the matter came before the church council again, Coleman was too ill to resist, and the eve­ning services were approved. Muhlenberg had won.

But in the victory he lost his love. Robert Coleman died in August 1825, and Sarah se­cretly hoped that she and William could be married at last. But the ironmaster’s influ­ence was unyielding, even in death. Amidst the division of property and wealth, Cole­man’s will gave his sons ap­proval of his daughter’s future husband and placed her inheritance out of the reach of any such man. And Edward, her eldest brother, had no great liking for Muhlenberg. Dis­traught like Ann, Sarah fled to Philadelphia. There, without doubt, she took her own life.

The Coleman dynasty, which had risen so high with the achievements of its patri­arch, had encountered its first tragedies, but with the third generation its star would rise again – this time with George Dawson Coleman.

George was the son of James Coleman, Sarah and Ann Caroline’s brother. James inherited nearly one-third of the Cornwall Ore Banks, and upon his death his share was divided between George and his brother Robert. George studied at Princeton, graduat­ing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1843. In the style of many affluent college graduates of the time, he toured Europe before taking an active role in the business at age twenty-one.

The furnaces were still very profitable, but entrepreneurial George welcomed innovation, especially if risks were in­volved. He built two furnaces northwest of Lebanon and fired them with anthracite, the first in the county to do so. It began a period of expansion for the town that the Union Canal had failed to bring.

Coleman experimented with making pig iron with anthracite. He built a pipe foundry to process the iron ore through to the finished prod­uct. He served as commis­sioner for the building of a plank road from the canal south to Cornwall. In 1850, he and his cousins incorporated the North Lebanon Railroad Company, which by 1855 was hauling ore from Cornwall to the Lebanon furnaces.

He married Deborah Brown of Philadelphia on his twenty­-seventh birthday and that year purchased his brother’s share of the growing Coleman opera­tions. Although some experi­ments failed (a third furnace smelting ore using a hot or cold blast and anthracite was eventually torn down), his industry kept hundreds of men working and literally created handsome communi­ties. His furnaces brought mills, steam engines, looms and factories and warehouses to Lebanon. He built houses, a school and Christ Presbyterian Church for his employees, and then established the first gasworks in the county to light them.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Coleman threw himself into the Union cause, outfit­ting several regiments. He visited and delivered supplies to the Ninety-third Regiment on the battlefield after donat­ing an area in the city, now known as Monument Park, as its training ground. He was christened “Father of the Regi­ment.”

George Coleman’s benefi­cence knew no bounds. Each Independence Day, he hosted a picnic for more than a hun­dred on his estate (in what is now Coleman Park), conclud­ing the day with a spectacular fireworks display. He spon­sored several fire companies in their purchase of equipment. He built a library. Somehow, he also found time to raise the finest herds of thoroughbred cattle in the state.

The only dark cloud was his family. Several of his children – including his eldest son James, in a fall from his horse – died young, and George built a memorial chapel in his honor near Brick­erville.

George followed in his grandfather’s footsteps in using his influence wisely, serving as trustee of Lafayette College, president of the State Board of Charities, and chair­man of the Committee on Reception at the 1876 Centen­nial Exhibition in Philadelphia. He was elected to several terms in the state legislature, but refused a nomination for governor and an appointment to Pres. Ulysses S. Grant’s cabinet, although he enter­tained the president a number of times. He and his wife trav­eled often, but never stayed away from Lebanon for long, always returning to a great welcome. Visitors to their estate included Secretary of State William Seward, Secre­tary of War Simon Cameron and French and British ambas­sadors. The entire state legisla­ture came to dinner one eve­ning and a Scottish countess and her family spent a few days.

When George Dawson Coleman died on September 9, 1878, the entire county mourned. He had achieved a beloved stature and he left behind a legacy of generosity and kindness. His employees drafted a resolution immedi­ately following his death, in which they declared:

We have lost a kind and con­siderate friend … Many of us look back over a long period of years of service and feel that during that time our best interest was always the earnest consideration of our late employer.

The dynasty was rising again. With the fourth genera­tion, the saga continues With Thomas Burd Coleman’s grandson, Robert Habersham Coleman, a man of many dreams.

While George was outfit­ting Civil War units, Robert Coleman and his sister Anne were growing up fatherless but by no means penniless. Their share of the Coleman fortune only in­creased with the war as the Cornwall Furnaces ran steadily at full blast. Robert’s guardian, Samuel Small, capably nursed the estate through several economic crises by conserva­tively investing in farmland and building prize herds of livestock. He oversaw the purchase of Donaghmore Furnace in Lebanon and the construction of the Burd Cole­man Furnaces in North Corn­wall. In the meantime, Robert was being educated by his mother, a native of Savannah, Georgia, where they jour­neyed every year, accompanied by Edith Johnstone, an orphan his parents had taken in dur­ing the Civil War.

Only at fifteen did Robert leave home to attend school in Connecticut. His mother and “Uncle” Small had deemed some semi-military discipline necessary. He then moved on to three years at Trinity Col­lege in Hartford, perhaps the happiest years of his life, al­though he was far from a stel­lar student. He developed a keen interest in things me­chanical, especially trains, in the new sport of baseball and in entertaining in the proper style for a man of his wealth. He joined Delta Psi, cherishing the friendship of its members so much, he later built a chap­ter house for the fraternity. Robert emerged from college sporting a mustache and a girlfriend, the fragile Lillie Clark, and a definite view of his responsibilities as a future titan of industry.

Eager to expand the family fortune, he fell under the influence of Artemus Wilhelm, the new manager of the Corn­wall ironworks and a man who liked to take risks. Robert assumed his tasks as president of the Cornwall Ore Bank Company in 1879 after marry­ing Lillie. Immediately he purchased land in western Lebanon County and built two new Colebrook Furnaces. He and his bride left for Europe to search for furnishings for their palatial Cornwall mansion then under construction. There Lillie fell ill and, despite detouring first to Italy for the climate and then to France for the doctors, she died in May. Shattered, Robert ordered work on the half-completed mansion stopped.

Turning his back on every­thing but business, the twenty-three year old began a meteoric rise that dazzled Pennsylvania. He bought more land and more cattle, im­proved his furnaces, bought out his sister and started a railroad in direct competition with his late cousin’s. His Cornwall and Lebanon Rail­road, however, connected to the busy Pennsylvania line at Colebrook, making it more profitable. Locomotives were sometimes seen racing each other down the two lines, often with Robert Habersham Coleman at the helm of the Cornwall and Lebanon engine.

In 1883, the young dreamer invested three hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars in the capital stock of a Florida manufacturer of railroad parts, and followed that with a heavy investment in a Florida rail­way. By the time he had pur­chased the Lebanon Dime and Savings Bank, Coleman em­ployed five thousand people and owned twenty-five thou­sand acres in Lebanon, Lan­caster and York counties. Sharing his fortune, the mu­nificent iron magnate built homes and schools for his workers, paid their hospital bills and organized regular outings. Each family at Corn­wall received a Christmas turkey and toys for the chil­dren, plus a bonus check for the employee.

Partly accounting for the extremely cheerful mood sur­rounding the community was the second mistress of Corn­wall, none other than Edith Johnstone, the orphaned girl Robert had known most of his life. The two quickly filled their home with five children.

About this time, Robert discovered a bucolic tract along the Conewago Creek in south­ern Lebanon County and proceeded to build a rustic, Adirondacks-styled recreational community, complete with lake, hotel, skating rink, pavilions, carousel and narrow gauge railroad. In 1889, he invited his entire college to this “Mount Gretna,” as it had been named, for a weekend of baseball between the college nine and his own team.

That year he was riding high. According to New York statistics, he was worth thirty million dollars, placing him ahead of J.P. Morgan, Marshall Field, A.J. Drexel and F.W. Vanderbilt. It seems he could do no wrong in what had been dubbed The Gilded Age.

But the first crack in the Coleman dynasty suddenly appeared. The family lost a suit against the Grubbs, who continued to take more and more ore away from the Cole­mans without compensation. In 1891, he lost a suit to the Pennsylvania Trust Company, for which he paid one and a half million dollars. Nonethe­less, he brazenly plowed ahead, buying an unprofitable steamboat line in Florida and investing more money in the railway there. Two years later, the gold reserve fell below danger level and panicked the stock market. More than one major railroad was sunk, and Robert Coleman’s Cornwall and Lebanon and Florida railways never had a chance.

Soon the entire Coleman realm began tumbling down around him. What once was a Midas touch now appeared to be the Coleman curse. The Lebanon Dime Bank teetered and the town citizens watched uneasily as Robert tried to satisfy creditors with his own funds. There was hope that the situation was not as bad as it first seemed, and he would emerge bruised but not beaten. But in August he lost a two million dollar suit, again to the Pennsylvania Trust Company. By the end of the month the Dime Bank col­lapsed, taking all of the depos­itors’ savings with it. In September, the last Coleman furnace shut down.

The seven million dollar inheritance Robert Habersham Coleman had wagered into a thirty million dollar fortune in little more than a decade van­ished in even less time. For a man who had seen a close friend and a wife die, the dis­integration of his fortune was overwhelming. He packed up his family, drove away from the Cornwall mansion and never looked back. He was thirty-seven years old.

He lived as a recluse in Saranac Lake, New York, until his death from tuberculosis in 1930. His mines and furnaces were sold to the Lackawanna Iron Company of Scranton, and eventually all his property went on the auction block. Edith died in 1903, and Ro­bert’s sister cared for him as he grew more frail. The final blow struck with the death of Ro­bert’s twenty-two-year-old son, sending him into total seclusion.

Robert Habersham Cole­man returned to Pennsylvania only to be buried. Friends, business associates and now historians believe he never became bitter over his fate. Perhaps he, too, saw the rise and fall as the inevitable con­clusion to what seems a cycle of triumph and tragedy that was the Coleman legacy.


For Further Reading

Carmean, Edna J., ed. Leba­non County, Pennsylvania – A History. Lebanon: Lebanon County Historical Society, 1976.

Ellis, Franklin. History of Lan­caster County. Philadelphia: Everts and Parks, 1883.

Klein, Frederic S. “Robert Cole­man, Millionaire Ironmaster.” Lancaster County Historical Society Journal, Vol. LXIV, 1960, 17-33.

Klein, Philip S. President James Buchanan: A Biography. Uni­versity Park: Penn State Univer­sity Press, 1962.

Margut, Jan. L. “An Ironmaking Dynasty, Parts I-IV,” Community Magazine, July-October 1984.

Miller, Frederick S. “The Rise Of An Iron Community.” Lebanon County Historical Society Journal, Vol. 12, 3A.

Noble, Richard E. “The Touch Of Time: Robert Habersham Cole­man, 1B56-1930.” Graduate thesis for Master’s Degree in History, Trinity College, Hartford, Con­necticut, 1982.


Jan Margut Habecker received her bachelor of arts degree in social science from Lebanon Valley Col­lege. She is the former managing editor of Lebanon’s Community Magazine, in which capacity she wrote local history features, in­cluding a four-part series on the Coleman family. A native of Leba­non County and long-time history enthusiast, the author continues to write on a freelance basis. She is currently associated with the accounting firm of Ernst and Whinney, Harrisburg, and has recently completed a juvenile biography of American Revolu­tionary War general Henry Knox.