|The grandees of Fountain Hill regarded
Lehigh as ''their'' school. Robert Sayre, William Sayre Jr. and Garrett
B. Linderman were all members of the first board of trustees. They gave of
both their time and bank accounts to the new school. And although it
may be true that their aim was little more than self-interest (Lehigh was,
after all, preparing their sons to follow in their footsteps) their generosity
was obvious. And there was not a single tax benefit to be gained from
The social life of Lehigh University soon took on great significance in the little community. On Oct. 9, 1891, the Bethlehem Daily Times recorded in an account of a student dance the presence of the wives of Fountain Hill high society. Among them were Mrs. Charles M. Dodson, ''who wore gray crape with embroidered chiffon,'' Mrs. Benjamin W. Frazier, ''in lace and gold passementerie,'' and Mrs. Robert P. Linderman, ''in light green gauze over silk.'' It was at soirees like these that the ''right'' boys met the ''right'' girls under the watchful eyes of respectable matrons. It added to the environment that made the little world of Fountain Hill a family affair.
Perhaps the greatest contribution that the elite made to the community was the founding of St. Luke's Hospital. By the early 1870s, industrial accidents had become commonplace. This alarmed the Church of the Nativity's rector Cortland Whitehead. And in 1871 he decided to do something about it. He went to his congregation and proposed the establishment of a small church-related hospital. The congregation responded well and by June 1873, St. Luke's Hospital was opened in a South Bethlehem house. The need for a hospital was so great that it quickly expanded far beyond the original plans of its founders. Thanks to a $350,000 bequest from Asa Packer's will, it grew dramatically. In 1884, Dr. William L. Estes was brought in to become director of St. Luke's and, over a period of 40 years, made it one of the leading hospitals on the East Coast.
It was not just in the area of medicine that the Episcopal elite tried to live the concept of noblesse oblige. In 1882, after a terrible smallpox epidemic killed more than 100 mostly working-class residents of South Bethlehem, Fountain Hill industrialist William Thurston built and supported out of his own resources an orphanage to aid the children of epidemic victims. When Thurston became ill in 1886, the leading families of the community took over and made it a permanent institution. The same impulse led to attempts to establish clubs for the working class and to provide Episcopal church services to them.
Of course, life for the elegant people of Fountain Hill was more than just one round of good works after another. This was an era when the rich felt that part of having money was to show by example how good the good life could be. And in this, the Fountain Hill gentry were without rival in the Lehigh Valley. Perhaps the high point of the little community's social life came on the night of Feb. 14, 1876.
It was opening night for the Bethlehem Opera House, and all society came to see and be seen. Special trains brought in guests from Easton, Allentown and Catasauqua. Rauch's Jewelry store did a brisk business in opera glasses. Rumors that the Opera House was unsafe had been dispelled when Bethlehem Iron Co. engineer John Fritz told the Daily Times that he would be ''willing to risk a locomotive on any or all of the iron pillars supporting the galleries.''
Under the glow of gas jets, a 60-piece orchestra conducted by Theodore Thomas performed a concert that ran the gamut from Beethoven to Wagner. But it was the Opera House itself that was really on display. Colors of the boxes ranged from sky blue to vermillion. ''The ceiling frescoing,'' said the Bethlehem Daily Times, ''is in the oriental style, in three panels, extending the whole length of the building.'' In the center of the ceiling, the goddess Aurora drove her chariot to herald a glorious dawn. It must have seemed like a dream.
Unfortunately for the Opera House's future, this dream night was never really repeated. The building was vacant for months, and in 1884 it burned to the ground. It was replaced by the Fountain Hill Opera House, which, at its opening in 1888, did enjoy a long and successful reign as one of the Lehigh Valley's leading playhouses.
But most of Fountain Hill's elite preferred something quieter than a night at the opera. Robert Sayre had a 10,000-volume library to which he devoted many a quiet evening. When it came time for a party, it was usually a small affair held in the home. But an account of a winter outing in 1876 that appeared in Allentown's Daily Chronicle shows that the elite knew how to play.
''The rich Bethlehemites,'' it began, ''residing on Fountain Hill enjoy their wealth and make the most of it during their journey through this vale of tears.'' The article described their visit to Allentown's Hotel Allen for a late supper. It went on to note that the Fountain Hill folks ''sport the finest teams in the whole valley, their horses being fleet, sleek and high tempered.''
Arriving by sleigh, the ''nabobs'' drew a good deal of attention. ''(E.P.) Wilbur's four-in-hand,'' the paper noted, ''was the attraction and quite a crowd stopped at the Allen to see the party alight.'' It was a merry time. ''After supper they started for home over the new pike and with the moon shining as bright as day.'' Describing their way of life, historian W. Ross Yates says, ''Who could want anything more?''
But as time passed, the younger generation of Fountain Hill did want more. Their wealth gave them access to a new world outside the borders of the little community. They were growing up in a different country than the one their fathers knew. New York, London and Paris were the locus of their lives. Their interests could not be confined to good works at the Episcopal Church and suppers in country hotels. Involvement in church affairs was not what it had been. According to historian Vadasz, by 1917 the rector at the Church of the Nativity ''was asked to prepare a schedule of vestrymen to usher on Sundays to insure their attendance at services.''
When Charles M. Schwab took over Bethlehem Steel in 1903, it was the end of an era. A Roman Catholic and self-made man, Schwab was totally alien from the Fountain Hill elite. Although he bought Garrett Linderman's Fountain Hill home, Schwab never spent much time there. He could never be a part of the old world, and he didn't really try. In 1907, Robert Sayre died and in a real sense, a way of life went with him. Four years later, Schwab called in the state police to break Bethlehem Steel's first major strike. It split the community in two and led to the creation of the split between management and labor. The staff Schwab brought in were loyal to him and the international giant that Bethlehem Steel had become. They created their own community that revolved around board meetings and the country club golf course. And the golden days of Fountain Hill became a memory.
This article originally appeared in the Morning Call .
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