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Robert H. Sayre; An Industrial Pioneer

By Frank Whelan | Historian
Published On: Jun 30 2011 11:53:06 AM CDT
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Ask just about anyone who the father of Bethlehem Steel was and most would name those two 20th century titans of industry, Charles Schwab and Eugene Grace. Ask who the father of Lehigh University was and the reply will surely be Asa Packer.

But it would be the rare person who will know that without Robert H. Sayre, none of these institutions, one gone, the other flourishing, would have survived at all. Perhaps it is about time Sayre be given his chance to take a discreet historical bow.

Sayre was not always so obscure. At his death roughly 100 years ago, he was hailed in the press as a pioneer of development. His life and the rise of Lehigh Valley's industry happen to fit neatly together.

Born on October 13, 1824 in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, Robert Sayre might not have had the life he had if it were not for the War of 1812, which ended 9 years before his birth. This conflict between Britain and the U.S. was largely a naval one. And one of its victims was the venerable merchant shipping line that had been in Sayre's family almost as far back as their arrival in America in 1647. Bankrupted by the war, Robert Sayre's father, William Sayre, took his wife, Elizabeth, and children to a small farming property in Columbia County where young Robert first saw the light of day. He was one of 11 children, only five of which survived to adulthood.

That Sayre's father was not cut out to be a farmer quickly became clear to his friends. So they arranged a job for him at Mauch Chunk, now Jim Thorpe, working as a toll taker and record keeper on the Lehigh Canal. It was in this community that Robert Sayre got his first insight into life.

A quick study, Sayre did well in the local public schools and in civil engineering. But it was Sayre's link to a canal boat builder named Asa Packer that really changed his life. Packer met Sayre's father at Mauch Chunk's Episcopal Church. The elder Sayre had graciously accepted Packer as an Episcopalian when he was turned down by other churches for refusing to sign a temperance pledge.

Under Packer's guidance, Sayre's rise was swift. On May 25, 1855 Robert Sayre mounted the cab of the locomotive, General Wall, at South Easton and drove it four miles up the line on the new Lehigh Valley Railroad, which he himself had surveyed. And on September 15, 1855 the first train load of anthracite coal rolled down from Mauch Chunk to Easton.
It was Sayre who established South Bethlehem as the operational headquarters of the railroad. And while Packer ran the financial end of things from his Chestnut Street mansion in Philadelphia, Sayre oversaw the railroad.

His next venture for Packer had Sayre shepherd what was the Bethlehem Iron Company. It was Sayre who in 1861 persuaded a young Pennsylvania German machinist named John Fritz to come east from Johnstown and take a position with Bethlehem Iron to oversee rail-making operations. By the late 1860s Bethlehem's rails were being shipped around Cape Horn to California to supply the Central Pacific Railroad in its meeting with the Union Pacific for North America's first transcontinental railroad.

Sayre and Fritz did not stop there. Seeing in the early 1870s that the steel rails being developed in Europe were the wave of the future, Sayre sent Fritz to Europe to tour the best steel facilities in England and France and bring the ideas home. In 1873 they had created at Bethlehem a process for making steel rails that was to power the company through the economic panic that wiped out many another Lehigh Valley iron business. Later the pair would lead the company into armaments and the creation of the modern American navy. In 1899 it was renamed Bethlehem Steel.

But Sayre's talents were not confined to business. After Packer announced plans to fund Lehigh University, it was Sayre who oversaw its growth and development. He selected the architect and often the professors who taught there. As many of the students were the sons of business associates, he cast a watchful eye over their personal and moral lives as well, and, as a devout Episcopal layman, Sayre insisted that the college remain under the control of that church.

Despite Sayre's devotion to Packer, after his mentor's death in 1879 he found himself at odds with his heirs. "The boys have come to scalp me and have brought the hatchet," he noted in his diary on a day in 1882 when Robert and Harry Packer informed him that after serving the family faithfully for 30 years, his services were no longer required. "So I have arrived at the conclusion that honesty and faithfulness do not count for much in this world."
But when Packer's sons died young, the family interests were taken over by his nephew Elijah Packer Wilber. And Wilber wanted his uncle's right-hand man at his side. So Sayre once more went to work for the Packer family.

Sayre's last task for the Packer family was perhaps his hardest. The Panic of 1893 hit the Lehigh Valley Railroad hard. Lehigh University, largely endowed with railroad stock, was on the edge of closing its doors.

Only state aid could save the school, but that would never happen as long as the university was tied with the Episcopal Church. So working with the board Sayre agreed to "disestablish" the college from the church. The state gave Lehigh $150,000. By 1900 the railroad was back in the black, although no longer under the control of the Packer family and the state aid ceased.

Robert Sayre died in 1907. Today the steel mills and railroads he toiled to create are no more, but by keeping faith with his mentor he had saved Lehigh University as his legacy.