Forging America: The History of Bethlehem Steel - Chapter 2
Bethlehem Steel Graphic Banner: Chapter 2
Always in the forefront at Bethlehem Iron was Robert Sayre. He might have grown up to be an Episcopal clergyman or a prosperous Philadelphia merchant, except that the depression after the War of 1812 knocked his father down a few notches.
William Sayre made handsome profits in the shipping trade as a member of the Quaker city's mercantile elite. But then the war with Britain sank his firm and drained away almost all of his money. He and his wife retreated to the only holding they had left, a small farm she owned in Columbia County near the Susquehanna River. Robert Heysham Sayre was born there in 1824. He and four siblings would grow into adults; six other Sayre children did not.
When Robert was 4, the family moved east to Mauch Chunk, a Carbon County mining settlement that got its name from the Indian term for Bear Mountain, which faced the town from across the Lehigh River. It had about 1,300 people and was the home of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. The elder Sayre got a good job running the Mauch Chunk weigh lock, where he determined tolls by a boat's weight and collected them.
A devout Episcopalian, William became friends with a young carpenter and canal-boat captain from Mystic, Conn. Asa Packer, who had helped build an Episcopal church and was married by an Episcopal minister in Susquehanna County, was 27 when he came to Mauch Chunk in 1833. He and William Sayre became friends, their families socialized together, and Sayre was instrumental in founding St. Mark's Church, where Packer had a leadership role.
For a couple of years, Packer built and piloted boats that hauled coal to Philadelphia. He opened a boatyard with his younger brother and bought a general store on the riverbank. The brothers got major contracts to build dams and locks on the Upper Division of the Lehigh Canal, finishing in 1836, and to build coal boats in Pottsville the following year.
Returning to Mauch Chunk, Packer leased and mined anthracite fields, shipping the coal on his own boats. He made real estate deals in the newly bustling coal towns of Carbon and Schuylkill counties.
As he grew richer, he took note of the bright schoolboy Robert Sayre, who was showing an interest in civil engineering. Sayre joined his father at Lehigh Coal & Navigation, which lent the 16-year-old to the Morris Canal & Banking Co. in New Jersey to help upgrade its canal, the conduit for iron ore coming into Pennsylvania. That same year, 1840, David Thomas was in Catasauqua helping to ignite America's Industrial Revolution with anthracite iron.
Two years later, Sayre returned to Mauch Chunk and Lehigh Coal & Navigation, the company whose owners brought Thomas to America. He spent a winter in Bradford County, 85 miles to the north, tending to mules that towed the boats on the canal. The mules were idle in winter because ice always shut down the waterway. After that, Sayre focused on the company's rail lines, in which cars rode downhill by gravity and were pulled up the tracks by mules and later by steam-driven inclined planes. He showed so much skill as a surveyor and builder, he became supervisor of all of the company's rail operations.
Meanwhile, Packer began striding the halls of power. He became a state assemblyman, a Carbon County judge and a two-term Democratic congressman. A contemporary described him as ''a man of excellent presence, with a finely chiseled face that was almost a stranger to visible emotion, and he was severely quiet and unassuming in conversation.''
While a lawmaker in Washington, Packer spoke little for the record, making no speeches from the House floor in all four years. But oddly for a man who would later distinguish himself as a humanitarian, he supported a pro-slavery measure. He was among four of the state's 25 House members to back a bill that would let Kansas and Nebraska residents decide whether they could own slaves. Pennsylvania's Democrats liked him anyway. He was their ''favorite son'' candidate for president in 1868 and almost won a race for governor the following year.
Public service didn't keep him from dreaming about ways to add to his private wealth. At midcentury, while his mining operations were expanding, he wanted to ship more coal, and faster, than the Lehigh Canal allowed. He wanted a carrier that would run regardless of ice and not depend on mules for power. He wanted a steam-locomotive-powered railroad. But railroads were costly to build and maintain.
Though Packer was among investors in a proposed Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill & Susquehanna Railroad, squabbles among them prevented any work from being done on it for five years. He got fed up with waiting. In the fall of 1851, he bought control of the carrier. The following year, he tapped 27-year-old Robert Sayre to be its chief engineer and made a deal with the stockholders to build the line himself in exchange for stocks and bonds. On Jan. 7, 1853, he changed the name to the Lehigh Valley Railroad.
He had what he wanted, including Sayre.
Part of Packer's confidence in his new right-hand man had to do with attitude. Like other professionals of the era, Sayre saw himself as an agent of progress whose purpose was to serve civilization by spreading the wonders of technology.
He was handsome and powerfully built, but had lost the sight in his left eye when, at the age of 8, he poked himself with a knife while whittling a stick. Like his father, he was religious. The faith he practiced extended to his work, which he approached with missionary fervor, as if God had called on him to excel as a civil engineer.