During winter breaks from farming, Asa Packer built and repaired canal boats and saw the growth that canals brought to the region. By 1833, a rising citizen of Mauch Chunk, Pa., (now Jim Thorpe), Packer was active in civic and community affairs, obtaining the charter for the water company and creating the town cemetery. He was a founder, vestryman, warden and financial supporter of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.
A state legislator from 1841 to 1843, he engineered the creation of Carbon County. For five years, he was associate judge of the county. His served in Congress from 1853 to 1857. During these years, he was involved with building of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. He risked his wealth to build a line from Mauch Chunk to Easton, Pa. The railroad made its first run in 1855 with borrowed equipment and made Packer a nationally known businessman and one of the wealthiest men in the country.
Recognizing that America’s industries would need educated managers with training in technology, he approached the Right Reverend William Bacon Stevens of the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia in 1865 with an offer of $500,000, the largest sum ever given to that date, to endow a university. The university was located in the growing industrial town of South Bethlehem, home of the operating headquarters of the railroad and one of Packer’s newest enterprises, the Bethlehem Iron Company, later Bethlehem Steel Corporation. When the first 39 students began classes at Lehigh in September of 1866, Packer attended opening ceremonies. In 1871, he began subsidizing the operating costs of the university, abolishing tuition until1891. Dying in 1879, Packer left bequests to Lehigh, Bethlehem’s St. Luke’s Hospital, Muhlenberg College, Jefferson Medical College, Washington College in Virginia, and others. The Asa Packer Fund remains Lehigh's largest endowment fund in market value.