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History's Headlines: The mystery of Stephen Gould

There is no doubt that from the early 1860s to the mid-1870s Stephen Gould was the richest man in Allentown, and perhaps the richest in the Lehigh Valley. There were wealthy iron makers, of course, the Thomas family of Catasauqua the leader among them. And Asa Packer’s Lehigh Valley Railroad and Bethlehem Iron Company surely had raised him to a higher level than most, but he spent most of his time in Philadelphia. But Gould, who, like Packer, had Connecticut Yankee roots and was almost an exact contemporary in age, was rich before him. Born at a time when a fast horse was among the fastest land animals on earth, Gould lived to see railroads carrying passengers cross the country in a week.

Gould’s home, a faux Tudor mansion constructed by merchant and land speculator Jonathan Grubb in the late 1850s before he left town for Philadelphia, was the largest in the city. It dominated the corner of Fourth and Chew streets where Sacred Heart Hospital is today. Its spacious lawns, orchards and greenhouses gave it the air of a country estate. Unlike the Thomas family and Packer, Gould made money not from railroads and iron but from wood. Forest gold was mined by Stephen Gould and his older brother Isaac into vast fortunes built on the virgin timber that dominated Penn’s Woods.

But suddenly in the 1850s when both men were in their late 40s, they began to withdraw from the business. Isaac was first, taking his family to live in a mansion in Trenton, New Jersey. Stephen, who had 9 children (his wife, Temperance died in 1852), turned the lumber business over to his sons, Alexander and R. Franklin. According to one source he then “with wisdom lived a retired life in Allentown.”

What could have caused both men to abandon their active business lives at the height of their careers? Well, in Isaac’s case it was clearly a natural disaster known as the flood of 1849 that led to the death of two of his children and the destruction of Hickory Run. And for Stephen who witnessed it, the horror, if not quite as personal, was just as real.

Stephen Gould (1807-1876) and Isaac Gould (1805-1875) were born in what is now Plains Township, Luzerne County outside Wilkes Barre. Their father was Samuel Gould and like many of the local inhabitants their ancestors came from Connecticut. Biographical information for their early years is difficult to come by but all sources agree that by the late 1830s the Gould brothers had managed to acquire acres of virgin forest in Carbon, Monroe, Luzerne and Lycoming counties. At that time there was no interest in doing anything other than clear-cutting the forests. The Goulds lived and had their sawmills at Hickory Run. A boom town, it had everything from a post office to stagecoach connections with Saylorsville and Allentown. Stephen Gould lived in a small but handsome white pillared dwelling called the Manor, which is still visible at Hickory Run State park today.

In 1849 Isaac was living in a one and a half story dwelling with his wife Susan and seven children. It was one of those children, Joanna Gould, who later recorded the events of the Great Flood. As she recounts it, the tragedy began when a member of a wealthy Philadelphia family purchased a property for a sawmill. Without the slightest concern, he built the dam for the mill on quicksand. The Gould’s home was located midway between the dam and the Lehigh River. Several others including that of a blacksmith with a large family were also nearby. Joanna’s father tried to warn the Philadelphian of the danger, but the man laughed in his face. Isaac Gould then served legal notice against him. But the dam was built.

That October Isaac Gould embarked on a long journey into the forest to mark off the trees that were his property. He was often gone for months at a time. The last week of that month it began to rain without letup. The rains filled the sawmill dams to capacity until by weeks end they were over flowing. “I remember that on the last day of the month,” recalled Joanna Gould, “when the rain was coming down in torrents, one of the mill hands visited the house and urged mother to move at once to higher ground, saying the dams above would almost certainly be carried away by morning.”

But Susan Gould was perplexed. Acting without her husband’s advice was something she was loathe to do.  “She was so accustomed to leaning on his strong arm that she could not be induced to move until he should return and advise it,” records her daughter. But two mill hands did agree to spend the night. Just before dusk, 11-year old daughter Lizzie arrived after an errand and warned of the possible flood. That night the children slept but Susan Gould kept vigil. Finally, at 4:00 am she heard a rumble and a roar. “Throwing open a window she called ‘Heaven save us, the waters are coming,.’” Joanna Gould recalled.

With that the water lifted the house from its foundations “as though it had been an egg shell” and carried it 500 feet. “Incredible as it may seem,” recalled Joanna Gould, “the house was submerged the entire distance, and thousands of feet of lumber shot over it, we escaped drowning because of the air that remained when the flood engulfed it.” Luckily the house was wedged on some tree stumps and a barn foundation. Once the wave had passed, the house with its half-submerged roof smashed-in rose above the water. The roof was half over the bed, but Susan Gould found the strength to remove the boards and lift her sons and Joanna to safety and then handed her infant boy child to Joanna.

But Lizzie was nowhere to be found. In terror and agony Susan Gould began to scream she could hear the child calling to her to be saved. Finally, the mill hands emerged with the limp, lifeless body of little Lizzie in their arms. The family was then moved to an uncle’s house- most likely Stephen’s home, The Manor. A messenger was sent into the woods and returned that afternoon with Isaac Gould. “He looked eagerly into the face of mother and the little ones,” recalled Joanna Gould, “clasping each in turn in his arms; and he wept over the cold form of Lizzie, who could not respond to his caresses.” A few weeks later Joanna’s infant brother died from exposure. Isaac sued the Philadelphia dam owner but lost his case. A few years later Isaac Gould moved his family to a large home in Trenton, New Jersey. He died in 1875.

Little is known of Stephen Gould’s life in Allentown. Apparently, he kept contact with his sons who were still running the lumber business but was otherwise reclusive. He may have known Edwin and Jonas Trexler, the father and uncle of Harry Trexler, who were also on the lumber business.

Tragedy was not through with the Gould family. In the middle of May, 1875 fires began to sweep Mud Run, Carbon County. According to one newspaper account Stephen Gould lost three million feet of lumber. With the country deep in the depression that followed the Panic of 1873, it dealt Gould a blow.

But apparently not a fatal one financially. Yet how much Gould knew of this is unknown. According to the Carbon Advocate newspaper of Lehighton, at the time of his death in his Allentown mansion on May 16, 1876 at age 68, Gould had been in failing health for several years and had suffered a severe stroke the previous fall.

On June 22, 1876 the Register of Wills of Lehigh County estimated the value of Gould’s investments in stocks, bonds, and mortgages at $65,000, the value of his home and real estate was placed at $85,000.

According to the Jeffersonian, a Stroudsburg newspaper, the total value “of the property of the deceased amounts at the least to $150,000,” a huge sum at the time.  Why the Allentown newspapers recorded none of this, including his death, is unknown.

Gould’s body was taken to Wildwood cemetery in Williamsport, where his unmarried daughter Emma Gould lived. He was buried there beside his wife.

In 1878 Gould’s sons sold the lumber business and retired.  In 1877 Gould’s Allentown home was purchased by a prominent jurist Judge Edward Harvey. Following his death in 1913 it became Sacred Heart Hospital. Eventually the Hickory Run property was purchased by Allentown’s General Harry C. Trexler (whose early fortune was also based on lumber) and became a state park.

On the grounds of the park is a cemetery with the grave of Lizzie Gould, whose voice some say can still be heard with that of her mother’s, giving a ghostly cry for help.


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