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Asa Packer

Asa Packer (December 29, 1805 - May 17, 1879) was an American businessman who pioneered railroad construction, was active in Pennsylvania politics, and founded Lehigh University.

Early life[]

Packer was born in Mystic, Connecticut. In 1822, he became a carpenter's apprentice to his cousin, Edward Packer, at Brooklyn, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. He also worked as a carpenter in New York City and in Springville, Pennsylvania. In 1833, Packer settled at Mauch Chunk (present day Jim Thorpe), in the Lehigh Valley, where he became the owner of a canal boat (carrying coal to Philadelphia). Packer then established the firm of A. & R. W. Packer, which built canal-boats and locks for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, probably the first through shippers to New York.

Business Activities[]

He urged upon the Coal & Navigation Company the advantage of a steam railway as a coal carrier, but the project was not then considered feasible. In 1851 the majority of the stock of the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill & Susquehanna Railroad Company (incorporated in 1846), which became the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company in January 1853, came into his control, and between November 1852 and September 1855 a railway line was built for the Company, largely by Packer's personal credit, from Mauch Chunk to Easton. He built railways connecting the main line with coal-mines in Luzerne and Schuylkill counties; and he planned and built the extension (completed in 1868) of the line into the Susquehanna Valley and thence into New York state to connect at Waverly, New York with the Erie railway. Among his clerks and associates during this period was future businessman and soldier George Washington Helme.


Packer also took an active part in politics. In 1841 and 1842 he was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; in 1843-1848 was county judge of Carbon County under Governor David R. Porter; in 1853-1857 was a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives; a Democratic candidate (for the party's nomination) for the Presidency in 1868; and the Democratic candidate for the governorship of Pennsylvania in 1869. One might say Packer learned one very important lesson in his political career: never oppose a Civil War general. U.S. Grant defeated him for President in 1868, and Packer went on to lose the gubernatorial race to John W. Geary by 4,596 votes, one of the closest statewide races in Pennsylvania history.

Lehigh University[]

In 1865 he gave $500,000 and 60 acres (243,000 m²), later increased to 115 acres (465,000 m²) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for a technical school for the professions represented in the development of the Lehigh Valley; Lehigh University was chartered in 1866, and its main building, Packer Hall, was completed in 1869. For the first 26 years of Lehigh's existence, the university was tuition free.


Packer was married to Sarah Minerva Blakslee (1807-1882), daughter to Zophar and Clarinda Whitmer Blakslee. The Packers had seven children: Lucy Packer Linderman (1832-1873), Catherine Packer (1836-1837), Mary Packer Cummings (1839-1912), Malvina Fitzrandolph Packer (1841-1841), Robert Asa Packer (1842-1883), Gertrude Packer (1846-1848), and Harry Eldred Packer (1850-1884) The only living descendants of Asa Packer who are alive today are descended from the children of Lucy Packer Linderman.


Mr. Packer's residence, the Asa Packer Mansion became a museum, opened for tours in 1956, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1985. Asa Packer was a member of St. Mark's Episcopal Church and contributed large amounts of money to this beautiful Gothic Revival Church that is located in downtown Jim Thorpe. St. Mark's was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987.


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