As president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, Asa Packer was directly responsible for the region's expansion and prosperity during the mid-1800s. Bethlehem and surrounding communities profited from increased residency and commerce, thanks to the new rail system Packer financed.
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.
Packer's gritty nature and ceaseless energy was evidenced by his known habit to walk 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.
The Lehigh Valley Railroad
A decade following the start of his political career, Packer began financing construction of the new Lehigh Valley Railroad. It took several years to get his plans off the ground. The first line carried coal straight from mines in Northeastern Pennsylvania to New York and Philadelphia. Soon service for commuters was being provided between Easton and Mauch Chunk.
Founding Lehigh University
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, he presented his $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. Lehigh began its strong engineering education tradition out of the vision of its generous founder.
Asa Packer, Philanthropist
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.