Founder Asa Packer
Lehigh University was taking shape as an institution just as Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley were undergoing a period of enormous growth. The region’s new rail system brought increased commerce and the people necessary to sustain economic expansion. As president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, Asa Packer was directly responsible for the prosperity that came to the Lehigh Valley during the mid-1800s.
Though he is best remembered for his wealth and generous philanthropy, Judge Packer came from humble beginnings. Born in Mystic, Connecticut, on December 29, 1805, he made his early living as a carpenter and farmer to support his small New England family. He married a girl from Vermont named Sarah Blakslee, and the couple went on to have four children: Lucy, Mary Hannah, Robert Asa and Harry Eldred. They adopted their fifth child, Marian.
Packer’s gritty nature and ceaseless energy was evidenced by his known habit of walking for hundreds of miles at a time. In 1833 he found his way to Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, and quickly began spreading his influence over the surrounding community. He made his money operating, leasing, and building canal boats along the Lehigh Canal and later bought coal and merchandising businesses. He became increasingly popular among residents and businessmen and in 1841 was voted into the state legislature. A decade later he began financing construction of the new Lehigh Valley Railroad following several years of delays. The line would carry coal straight from mines in Northeastern Pennsylvania to New York and Philadelphia. Soon service for commuters was being provided between Easton and Mauch Chunk.
In 1853, Judge Packer began his four-year membership in the House of Representatives from the 13th District, Pennsylvania. His wealth continued to accumulate through his numerous business ventures.
In 1865, Packer presented a $500,000 gift to build the university that would contribute to the “intellectual and moral improvement” of men in the Lehigh Valley. It was the largest donation of its kind to any educational institution in America at that time.
Packer and his associates designed the school to chiefly focus on mathematics and science education, but provide pupils with a sufficient knowledge of classics. He knew, as did many others, that a strong national economy depended on more than technical skills. It needed above all people broadly educated in the liberal arts and sciences – people who could combine practical skills with informed judgments and strong moral self-discipline.
Packer remained president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad until his death on May 17, 1879. His philanthropy extended beyond his initial donation to the university into the founding of St. Luke’s Hospital in South Bethlehem, support for several churches in Bethlehem and Mauch Chunk, and, of course, continuing support for the university throughout its early history.
– Taken in part from Lehigh University: A History of Education in Engineering, Business and the Human Condition, by W. Ross Yates