Pennsylvania Railroad came of age under legendary leader Alexander Johnston Cassatt helped elevate the line to a new level of prominence. LOCAL HISTORY

Posted: January 12, 2003

Alexander Johnston Cassatt is best remembered as the seventh president of the Pennsylvania Railroad (1899-1906) whose aggressive leadership established that line as "the standard railroad of the world."

Cassatt spent most of his adult life on the Main Line, where he was a noted sportsman and civic leader.

He arrived in Haverford in 1872 shortly after he had been named general superintendent of Pennsylvania Railroad. The "Pennsy" in the years after the Civil War had done much of the real estate development of "Main Line communities." Thus Cassatt followed many of his fellow railroad managers in establishing residency in a Lower Merion Township community.

Cassatt, the son of a Pittsburgh banker, was born in 1839, and his family shortly thereafter moved to Philadelphia. Born into a distinguished family, he and his younger sister, the celebrated Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, both went to Paris for large parts of their education. In 1859, he received a degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic.

He joined the engineering department of Pennsylvania Railroad in 1861. Because of his technical knowledge and management skills, he advanced rapidly within the company.

By 1867, he was appointed superintendent of machinery and motive power for the entire Pennsylvania line, according to historian Timothy Jacobs' book, The History of the Pennsylvania Railroad (1988).

In 1868, Cassatt married Lois Buchanan, the niece of former President James Buchanan.

The architectural firm of Furness & Evans was employed to design and build a new home for the Cassatts in Haverford. The house, called Cheswold, was a Queen Anne styled villa set on a 54-acre property just off Montgomery Avenue. Inside, the home's elegant decor included walnut paneled halls, stained-glass windows, bathrooms and numerous bedrooms.

Although Cassatt also retained a residence on Rittenhouse Square to be near the railroad's headquarters, Cheswold remained the favored residence of the Cassatt family. (It was torn down after after his death.)

While a resident of Cheswold, Cassatt served for 19 years as supervisor of roads of Lower Merion Township. In that role, he promoted a system of paved roads with granite curbstones throughout the township. And he personally took advantage of these improved roadways to race his carriages, pulled by his prize horses, at high speeds, according to an article in The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion (2000).

During the same period, he began a notable collection of Impressionist paintings to adorn the walls of Cheswold. Undoubtedly, he was influenced in this collection by his sister Mary, one of the foremost painters of her time and perhaps the best painter ever of children.

Despite his earlier promotions, Cassatt felt that when the board of directors voted in George Roberts as president in 1880 that he had been passed over. As a result, he resigned as the Pennsy first vice president in 1882. But he was not without influence in the company and was elected in 1883 to the railroad's board of directors.

During his so-called period of retirement, Cassatt bought a farm in Chesterbrook and devoted himself to raising prize racing horses and other livestock. In addition, he became a member of the Radnor Hunt Club where he joined in fox hunts, according to local historian Lorett Treese in her forthcoming book, Railroads of Pennsylvania.

At the same time, he was busy organizing a new railroad, the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk, that connected southern markets with the north. The line, built in 1885, ran down the Delmarva Peninsula and was linked by barges over the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk, Va.

When the presidency of the Pennsy opened up in 1899, the board of directors elected Cassatt to fill that position, and his old railroad merged into the Pennsylvania system.

Within the seven years of his tenure, Cassatt was able to stop the practice of giving large shippers the secret rebate that they demanded by increasing the Pennsy's holdings in other railroads and backing federal laws that regulated freight rates.

Additionally, he set about a capital-improvement program that modernized the line's operation. Outstanding examples of this program were the construction of the railroad tunnels to New York City and Pennsylvania Station, according to author Timothy Jacobs.

Today, Amtrak riders between Philadelphia and New York use the tunnels under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and the island of Manhattan that were developed under Cassatt.

Pennsylvania Station in New York, completed in 1910, remains Cassatt's great architectural monument. Penn Station's walls were made of pink granite, and it.s main waiting room was designed after the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

Jacobs, in his history of Pennsylvania Railroad, emphasizes that Cassatt was baronial in his concern for his railroad, an attitude embraced by many captains of 19th century American industry. Its effect, however, meant that railway workers had no say in the conditions of their work. Cassatt made those decisions himself.

Not surprisingly, Cassatt's approach failed during the 1877 Pittsburgh strike. After taking two pay cuts, the workers seized the Pennsy's works. Cassatt refused to talk to the strikers, and the company called out the National Guard. As a result, the workers and soldiers clashed, and a riot ensued. As many as 25 people were killed, and many more were injured. The company suffered $5 million in property damage.

A product of the nineteenth century who left his mark on the American landscape, Alexander Cassatt died in 1906 at the age of 67.

Contact Joseph S. Kennedy at 610-313-8212 or

Historic Homes & Museums

Barns-Brinton House Rte 1, 1 mile N of Rte 52, Chadds Ford; 610-388-7376. Restored 18th-century tavern, with Colonial guide demonstrations. $5 (includes admission to John Chads House); $2 ages 6-12. By appt only.

Brandywine Battlefield Park Rte 1, 1 mile W of Rte 202, Chadds Ford; 610-459-3342. 52 acres of woodlands, meadows; Washington's headquarters, Lafayette's quarters, artifacts, weapons, uniforms. Lafayette & Washington bldgs: $3.50; $2.50 seniors; $1.50 ages 6-12; free ages under 6. Park free. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues-Sats, noon-5 p.m. Suns.

Historic Fallsington 4 Yardley Ave, Fallsington; 215-295-6567. 300 yr-old village with Burges Lippincott House, Moon Williamson Log House, others. $5; $4 seniors; $2 ages 6-18; free ages under 6. By appt only.

Fonthill Museum E Court St, off Rte 313, Doylestown; 215-348-9461. Early 20th-century castle & home of manufacturer Henry Chapman Mercer, with Mercer's tile collection. $7; $6.50 seniors; $2.50 ages 6-17; free ages under 6. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mons-Sats, noon-5 p.m. Suns.

Graeme Park 859 County Line Rd, Horsham; 215-343-0965. 18th-century Georgian-style homestead of Colonial Pa governor Sir William Keith. $4; $3.50 seniors; $2 ages 6-17. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Weds-Sats, noon-4 p.m. Suns.

Grange Estate Myrtle Ave & Warwick Rd, Havertown; 610-446-4958. 18th-century home, gardens, woodlands of John Ross, American Revolution financier. $2; $1 ages 12 & under. 1-4 p.m. Sats-Suns.

Highlands Mansion 7001 Sheaff Ln, Fort Washington; 215-641-2687. "Winter Wednesdays": Guided tours followed by refreshments. $5, $4 seniors, $3 students. 1:30 p.m. Weds. 44-acre estate with 18th-century Georgian mansion, barn, springhouse, 2-acre formal garden; home of Highlands Historical Society. Tours $4; $3 seniors; $2 students; under age 6 free. Free admission to grounds. Tours 1:30 & 3 p.m. Mons-Fris.

Historic Harriton House 500 Harriton Rd, Bryn Mawr; 610-525-0201. Built 1704, furnished with 18th & 19th century antiques, traveling desk used by Charles Thomson, Sec to Continental & Confederation Congresses. $2.50; free under age 18. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Weds-Sats.

Hope Lodge 553 S Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington; 215-646-1595. Georgian-style manor house built by Quaker mill-owner Samuel Morris (1743-1748).

Hopewell Furnace 2 Mark Bird Ln, Rte 345, Elverson; 610-582-8773; 610-582-2093 (TDD). Restored 1830s ironmaking community. $5; free ages under 17. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

Pennsbury Manor 400 Pennsbury Memorial Rd, off Bordentown Rd, Morrisville; 215-946-0400. Wm Penn's 43-acre, restored 17th-century plantation on Delaware River: manor house, craft houses, formal garden, vineyard, stables, more. $5; $4.50 seniors. $3 ages 6-17; free ages under 6. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues-Sats, noon-5 p.m. Suns. Call for tour times.

*FREE* Pottsgrove Manor W King St & Rte 100, Pottstown; 610-326-4014. Home of John Potts, colonial ironmaster & Pottstown founder. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues-Sats, 1-4 p.m. Suns.

Richard Wall House Museum 1 Wall Park Dr, off Church Rd, Elkins Park; 215-887-1000 ext 114. 1682 house with clothes, tools, artifacts, more, from different American history periods. Donation. 1-4 p.m. Suns & by appt.

Thomas Massey House Lawrence & Springhouse Rds, Broomall; 610-353-3644. Home of indentured servant turned landowner, with walk-in fireplace, beehive oven, late 17th- & 18th-century furniture. $2; $1 seniors, students. By appt only.

Valley Forge Nat'l Historical Park Rte 23, Valley Forge; 610-783-1077. Historical programs. 1 or 2 p.m. Sats-Suns. Film, "Valley Forge: A Winter Encampment." Every half hr, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Revolutionary War artifacts exhibit. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Muhlenberg Brigade Hut: living history program on soldiers' lives. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sats-Suns weather permitting. Musket programs. 2:30 p.m. Sats-Suns. $3 ; free for ages 16 & under with adult. Free off season.

Washington Crossing Historic Park Memorial Bldg, N of Rtes 532 & 32, Washington Crossing; 215-493-4076. Site of Washington crossing Delaware prior to Battle of Trenton; with 18th cent McConkey Ferry Inn & Thompson-Neely House, 19th cent Taylorsville village, Bowman's Hill observation tower, 500 acres of woods. $4; $3.50 seniors; $2 ages 6-12. Visitors Center: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues-Sats, noon-5 p.m. Suns.

Historic Waynesborough 2049 Waynesborough Rd, Paoli; 610-647-1779. Home of Gen Anthony Wayne, built 1714, with documents, artifacts, clothing, guided tours. $5; $4 seniors; $3 students; free ages under 6; $12 family. 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Sats, 1-4 p.m. Suns, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Weds-Thus.

Historical Societies

Chester Co Historical Society 225 N High St, West Chester; 610-692-4800. Chester Co & the Underground Railroad: interactive displays, historic documents, artifacts. Closes 4/12. $5; $4 seniors, students; free ages 5 & under. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mons-Sats.

The Millbrook Society Hatboro Baptist Church, 32 N York Rd, Hatboro; 215-957-1877. Amy B. Yerkes Museum contains objects of local interest dealing with progress of area since colonial settlement. Free admission. 7:30-9 p.m. Weds.

*FREE* Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society Museum 6 N York Rd, Hatboro; 215-323-9901. "A's" (1901-1954 American League team, city's most successful pro sports franchise) & Connie Mack memorabilia; Phillies, other teams' artifacts. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tues-Sats, Suns by appt only.

Union Library Civil War Round Table The Union Library, 243 S York Rd, Hatboro; 215-443-7632. Meeting & lecture. 7:30 p.m. 3d Wed of month.

Upper Moreland Historical Association 215-659-3100. Sponsors lectures, workshops, tours, more. Meeting & lecture. 7:30 p.m. 4th Tue of month. Upper Moreland Twp Building, Council Room, 117 Park Ave, Willow Grove Walking tours: "Mineral Springs Hotel & War Memorial Park"; "Downtown Willow Grove & Frazier's Hill"; "Masons Mill Park & The Pennypack Creek." Bus tours: "Willow Grove & Southern Portion of the Manor of Moreland"; "Northern Section of the Manor of Moreland." Call for schedule.

comments powered by Disqus