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. A conservative and religious man, he reflected the image of the typical Connecticut Yankee. His knowledge of construction and engineering was put to good use on behalf of his university. Packer also served two terms in the United States House of Representatives (1853–1857).
Packer was born in Mystic, Connecticut in 1805. There was a long history of persons from Connecticut immigrating westward to the many branch valleys of the Susquehanna River and in his turn he became a carpenter’s apprentice to his cousin, Edward Packer, at Brooklyn, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, a county on the Pennsylvania-New York border. He also worked seasonally as a carpenter in New York City and later in Springville, in the lower part of the county. It was in Springville where he met his wife, Sarah Minerva Blakslee. Dr. Yates writes of his early life: “Asa and Sarah settled on a farm, and in the winter he went to Tunkhannock on the Susquehanna and used his skill in carpentry to build and repair canal boats.” This continued for 11 years.In 1833, Packer settled at Mauch Chunk (present day Jim Thorpe), in Carbon County, 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.
He urged upon the Lehigh 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), later to become the known as the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company (January 1853), came into his control, and between November 1852 and September 1855 a railway line was built for the company, from Mauch Chunk to Easton. Construction commenced on the Mauch Chunk-Easton line just as Packer’s five year charter was to expire 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 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 1842–1843, he was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. In 1843–1844, he was county judge of Carbon County under Governor David R. Porter. He served two terms as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives beginning in 1853. Packer made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination in 1868. He got the party’s nod for the 1869 Pennsylvania Governor’s race, but lost the campaign to John W. Geary by 4,596 votes, one of the closest statewide races in Pennsylvania history.
As Packer was rather laconic and reticent, when word spread that Packer was to found a university, or aid one, there were various speculations. The final spot chosen, on South Mountain in Bethlehem, could not have been much happier: as it nestled in with a preexisting religious community, the Moravians, and additionally was the future home of benefactor, and collaborator, Bethlehem Steel Co. So then, in 1865, he gave $500,000 and 60 acres (243,000 m²), later increased to 115 acres (465,000 m²) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as a technical school for the engineering professions, designed to help the growth and development of the Lehigh Valley. Lehigh University was chartered, and instruction began, in 1866. The first main building, Packer Hall (now the University Center) was completed in 1869, and of stone, as Packer himself stipulated.And with Packer’s generosity, Lehigh was able to offer education tuition free for 20 years, 1871–1891, before the economic troubles of the 1890s unfortunately forced the University to reverse this policy.
Two other important buildings were either constructed, or construction had commenced, while Packer was still alive: the other two being The President’s House, to the West, and slightly downhill of Packer Hall, and Linderman Library (after daughter Lucy Packer Linderman), to the east, and again slightly downhill from the center building, Packer Hall. Both were relatively large prominent structures, and all of stone. The more utilitarian buildings were constructed immediately adjacent to Packer Ave. (south side), while the larger, and more important structures for the university as a whole, tended to be set back, and up the hill. As a general rule, this stands even until today. After the initial gift of one half million dollars, Packer was still able to consistently give to the young University. He was quite active in management, though his ideas were not always determinative.
Tuition free education was instituted in 1871, intended as a means to compete with other young technical schools, especially Lafayette and Cornell, boost the size of the student body, and increase popular interest and recognition generally. This was not due to the generosity of Packer’s initial gift, which had been by then near entirely spent on stone buildings and laboratory equipment, but rather his continual giving, and that of the estate upon his death
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).
Packer’s residence, the Asa Packer Mansion became a museum, opened for tours in 1956, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1985. 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. There is also an elementary school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, named after Packer. The university naturally continues to honor its founder: Lehigh has a large and quite attractive portrait by Boutelle of him, now in the Alumni Mem. Bld., a quaint statue, and there is Founder’s Day. The first meeting of the Board of Trustees, July 27, 1865, was held at the Sun Hotel, now the Sun Inn, still standing and serving guests