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History's Headlines: The Emperor pays a call: Dom Pedro II, ruler of Brazil, dazzled Lehigh Valley with a visit

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 24 2013 01:42:13 AM CST
Updated On: Aug 12 2013 09:40:47 PM CDT

History's Headlines 8/12

“As hot as the hinges of Hades,” was how the Bethlehem Globe newspaper described the weather in the Lehigh Valley on June 26, 1876.

But perhaps it was not just the temperature that had the region overheated. Because that day was the first and only time that a real-life, throne-sitting emperor with royal bloodlines that went back centuries stopped here, albeit briefly.

It was on that scorching afternoon that the 50ish-year-old red-headed royal, clad in the black formal wear of the day, had decided he wanted to tour the Bethlehem Iron (later Steel) Company. Trailing behind him was a group of company executives that included Asa Packer, John Fritz and Robert Sayre.

Some might quibble that Dom Pedro II, the emperor of Brazil, was not quite in the same league as Queen Victoria, the head of a British Empire on which the sun never set. Few in the Lehigh Valley, or for that matter, America, would have put that fine a point on it. His father had fled Portugal to Brazil, a colony of that European land for centuries when Napoleon invaded in the early 1800s. Although he became Dom Pedro I, in the 1830s he returned to Portugal, leaving his son- then a child- in the care of a guardian or regent.

Dom Pedro II grew up to be a thoughtful man who spoke at least 9 languages and an excellent ruler, a constitutional monarch who eventually ended slavery in his country. Military glory did not interest him at all. When Brazil’s parliament voted to give Dom Pedro an equestrian statue, he asked that the money be used to build a school.

With his interest in science, education and just about everything else that would help his people fit into the modern world of his day, Dom Pedro II seemed a vast contrast to dictatorial and corrupt Latin American rulers. His down-to-earth style led newspaper headline writers in America to call him, “Our Yankee Emperor.”

It was Dom Pedro’s interest in other lands that led to his coming to the Lehigh Valley. In 1871 he was on a tour of Egypt and its newly opened Suez Canal. On this trip he traveled incognito using an alias.

It was while climbing the Great Pyramid that he came across a group of American tourists. They were members of Catasauqua’s Thomas family who had launched the nation’s anthracite coal powered iron industry. Among them was Gertrude Thomas, whose grandfather David Thomas had founded the business in 1840.

Dom Pedro, who had two young daughters, was a strong supporter of equal educational opportunities for women. Gertrude, who, at 18-years-old, was roughly the same age as Pedro's daughters, seems to have impressed him by her conversation. But apparently she had no idea who he really was.

Five years later, as the United States got ready to throw itself a 100th birthday celebration in Philadelphia, it must have seemed only natural for President Ulysses Grant to invite the “Yankee Emperor” to help kickoff the centennial fair. That kickoff date was on May 10, 1876 when Grant and the emperor were to start the giant Corliss Steam Engine, a mechanical wonder that was to power all of the machinery at the fair. As the crowds watched, the two black-suited figures sent the giant machine clanking into motion. Told that the machine was capable of doing up to one hundred revolutions per minute the emperor quipped, “That even beats our Latin American republics.”

Following the event the emperor took in the fair and began to inspect a number of sites in the region. Somewhere along the way Asa Packer approached with an invitation to Bethlehem. And thus, this is how the imperial party found itself sweltering in formal wear while its ruler discussed the fine points of steelmaking with John Fritz.

Of course no visit of royalty could be held without a formal reception for local notables. And the Thomas family was at the top of the list.

Bowing and curtseying crowds was something the emperor took in stride. But, so the story goes, Dom Pedro was suddenly thrown off-guard when he found himself looking into the face of a young woman that seemed familiar. And a startled Gertrude Thomas was apparently equally surprised to be facing the talkative bearded stranger from the top of the pyramid.

Once the shock of recognition had passed, the two engaged in an animated conversation. The details of what followed are unknown. But the royal will was clear. The reception planned for Easton was cancelled. They must go to Hokendauqua and the Thomas Iron Works.

The royal advance men who were already at the Northampton County seat were left with the unpleasant task of explaining all this to the disappointed crowds. Allentown got word of the change and the train station was jammed with curious onlookers, hoping for an imperial stopover. All they saw was a speeding blur of steam engine and railroad cars.

The visit to Hokendauqua was not a long one. Its high point came when Gertrude Thomas introduced the emperor to two mechanics in grease-stained overalls. These were her brothers, she explained. Her father wanted them to know all about the business and thought that the best way for them to do so was to have them learn it from the ground up.

Soon the emperor and his party returned to their train that quickly sped them back to Philadelphia. There is no apparent record that Gertrude or Dom Pedro remained in contact.

A few years later Thomas married a Philadelphia doctor and raised a family. But it is hard to imagine that a few tears didn't come to her eyes when she read the newspapers in 1889 about Dom Pedro’s overthrow and his death (nearly penniless in Paris in 1891).