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History's Headlines: The mansion a railroad built

Anyone who has crossed the Hill-to-Hill Bridge has undoubtedly seen a large castle-like structure as they enter or leave South Bethlehem. Part of the building is the old Bethlehem Masonic Temple, built in 1925 and now considered beyond repair. It was recently scheduled to be replaced with modern office space by developers John Noble and Robert Ashford. But the mansion next to it, much older but apparently in much better shape, is planned to be saved and restored as Class A office space, that, says Noble, will “knock your socks off.” What makes the High Victorian mansion interesting is not just its lovingly preserved ornate woodwork and Tiffany designed stain glass windows, but also its history.

Built between 1864/65 it was the mansion of Elisha Packer Wilbur (1833-1910), nephew of and successor to Asa Packer, founder of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, Bethlehem Iron- later Steel - Company and Lehigh University. Wilbur worked closely with his uncle overseeing his industrial empire.  According to one story, Packer was once asked how much he was worth. “Why don’t you ask my nephew Elisha,” Packer is said to have replied. “He knows better than I do.”

Perhaps few people know more about Elisha Packer Wilbur than Ken Raniere of Coopersburg. An artist and local historian, he has spent several years in researching the man, his family and his businesses life.  “Like his uncle, E.P. Wilbur came from Scots-Irish roots and was a frugal Connecticut Yankee,” says Raniere. “He managed to acquire a fortune by being shrewd and fortunately making mostly wise business decisions.”

Born in Connecticut, Elisha was the son of Henry Wilbur (1798-1863), a retired sea captain, and Asa Packer’s sister, Eveline Packer Wilbur (1802-1868).  His uncle Asa had left as a young man and walked to Pennsylvania where he got a job as a carpenter. It was several years later that Asa Packer took to working on the Lehigh Canal and his own fleet of canal boats. Eventually he set up a dry goods store in Mauch Chunk and asked his brother- in- law Henry Wilbur to come to Pennsylvania to run it. With him came his wife and three children, Warren Washington Wilbur (1826-1888), Annie Packer Wilbur (1829-1871) and young Elisha.

Elisha seemed to have a business bent and “a head for figures.”  Packer kept an eye on the boy and with the creation in the 1850s of the Lehigh Valley Railroad brought him on board. In 1858 Elisha married Stella Mercer Abbott from a prominent local family. They were to have 8 children survive to adulthood: Harry, Rollin, Isabel, Elisha Jr., Ray, Warren, Kenneth and Eldredge.  A 17 year old son, Merritt, died in a train wreck in 1888, others as infants.

As Robert Sayre (1824-1907) , a close associate of Packer, ran the day- to- day details of the railroad from South Bethlehem, Elisha was down in Philadelphia working in the finance end of the business and sporting a fine set of the then-fashionable bushy sideburns. He associated with the city’s leading bankers including Jay Cooke, whose speculations in railroad stocks had made him one of the richest men in the country. “As rich as Jay Cooke” was a common expression of the day.

By 1864 Elisha, now better known as E.P., decided it was time to build a mansion in South Bethlehem’s Fountain Hill neighborhood. He chose a lot that belonged to one of his in-laws. Completed in 1865, its style was a mixture of High Victorian, then coming into fashion, with touches of Italianate, which took its name from what Americans thought a villa in Italy should look like. The mansion’s most distinctive feature was an octagonal cupola with a fanciful roof. These towers were sometimes known as a belvedere. It was later replaced by castle like battlements.

Although the furniture is long gone from the 28 rooms, several significant features survive, including much fine woodwork, the dining room sideboard and the dining room fireplace that are examples of the era’s love of ornate dark woods.

It was lit by gas and by 1880 had one of the few telephones in Bethlehem.  A billiard room designed by Bethlehem architect A. W. Leh features a handsome fireplace and a stained glass window by Benjamin Sellers, an apprentice in the design studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Later greenhouses were added where E.P. Wilbur grew his prize-winning chrysanthemums. In the 1871 he acquired 33 acres of nearby farmland that provided meat, milk, fruits and vegetables for his family table. A special rail car brought catered gourmet meals up from Philadelphia for events. The mansion was staffed by servants, as were the stables and grounds.

The 1860s and early 70s were very good years for Wilbur. They included the creation of a bank known as the E.P. Wilbur Trust Co. This was later relocated to 4th Street and Broadway after Wilbur’s death.

Early in 1873, Cooke approached Wilbur about investing in a new railroad venture. But uncle Asa, perhaps thinking the banker had bitten off more than he could chew, warned his nephew against it and E.P. turned him down.

By doing so Wilbur probably saved the L.V. railroad.  That fall the speculative venture fell apart bankrupting Cooke, bringing on the Panic of 1873 and a world-wide depression that was to last 12 years, sparking huge labor unrest and unemployment.

With Asa’s death in 1879 Wilbur took over the railroad with Packer’s sons Robert and Harry. Both brothers died young and E.P. emerged as president in 1885.

With Sayre, he ran the company until overtaken by the Panic of 1893. This deeply wounded the Lehigh Valley Railroad, forcing Wilbur to turn it over to mega investment banker J.P Morgan. His price for the rescue was the departure of E.P. Wilbur and Sayre.

Wilbur lived out his remaining years with Stella touring the Grand Canal of Venice and Egypt. He died on June 14, 1910 at Sport Island, the family’s summer retreat in the St. Lawrence River on the Thousand Islands. His wife lived in the house until her death in 1920. Today his railroad and fortune are long gone but E.P.’s mansion lives on.           

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