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Iselin Family

Adrian Georg IselinJoy Loader

By Eileen Mountjoy

During 1981, the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company commemorated a century of coal production. The occasion also points to another anniversary the 100-year relationship between the company and the Iselin family of New York. From the beginning, the Iselin family, although they never lived in Pennsylvania, have left tangible marks on the landscapes of several counties and have added their names to maps and highway signs. Involvement of the Iselin family in the coalfields of Western Pennsylvania originated even before the organization of the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Company, the parent company of today's R&P.

In 1880, two geologists, Franklin and W.G. Platt, began a search for investors to help the rich seams of coal they had discovered in Jefferson County. As men of business, the brothers realized that significant capital was needed to provide both a railroad and a huge labor force if such an enterprise was to succeed. After many inquiries, the Platts enlisted the aid of Walston Brown, a New York financier, who, with his brothers Herbert and Frederick, maintained an investment company at 20 Nassau St. Walston Brown was a wise choice, for when the Platts first met him, the financier was aiready actively engaged in the construction of a Jefferson County railroad to haul coal for the Bill, Lewis and Yates Mining Co. which was incorporated in 1877. He also had strong financial associates; the Iselin family, which shared his intention of transporting coal from Jefferson County to Rochester and Buffalo.

As talks with the two geologists progressed, Brown decided that perhaps still more profits might be gained by joining  into the formation of a second mining company. Thus, as Brown continued with his plans to transport Bell, Lewis and  Yates coal, he also agreed to invest money in a proposed mining company; the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Co. Acting with amazing speed, the Brown brothers, probably advised by the Iselins, purchased several short line railroads already in existence in Jefferson County and combined them with the Rochester and State Line Railroad, which ran southward from New York. This reorganization resulted in one large railroad, the Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway.

The recently established railway, using a common business practice of the day, subscribed to all the stock of the second new company, the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Co. Coal company officers held their first meeting Nov. 5, 1881 at the New York office of Walston Brown. Brown, acting as chairman, stated that $4 million of capital stock had been subscribed to the new coal company.

On Nov. 28, 1881, Pennsylvania Governor Henry M. Hoyt directed that "letters patent... according to law" be issued for the R&P Coal and Iron Company. On Dec. 5. 1881, the directors of the company met and elected Walston Brown president. They chose his brother, Frederick A. Brown, as treasurer. Although not physically present at the first coal company meetings, another party carefully scrutinized the proceedings from his Wall Street office-fellow investor Adrian Georg Iselin (1818-1905).

Adrian Georg Iselin was the fifth of 11 children born to Isaac and Aimee Jeanne Susanne Emilie, nee Roulet. It is probable that Adrian Georg inherited his business acumen as well as his vigorous constitution from his father. In 1801, Isaac Iselin emigrated to New York from Basel, Switzerland. Early in his life, Isaac had already shown a  marked desire to travel, and to embark upon a career of his own in America.

At the age of 18 he left Basel and armed with letters of introduction, sailed from his homeland. In New York, he found employment with the shipping firm of Gouveneus and Kemble, whose counting house was located at 26 Front St. Next, he obtained a position in the firm of LeRoy, Bayard and McEvers, who entrusted to him the responsible duties of cargo supervisor aboard their trading ship, "The Maryland". The voyage lasted two-and-a-half years - from September, 1805, until April, 1808 - and took Isaac from New York to the Cape Verde islands, around Cape Horn to Canton, and back to New York by the Cape of Good Hope. Isaac kept a careful diary that he later had printed as a gift for his son, Adrian Georg. When Isaac returned to New York at the end of his ocean adventures, he became a partner in the firm of LeRoy, Bayard and McEvers. Subsequently, he joined with an enterprise named DeRham, Iselin and Moore, as a testimony to Isaac's valuable contributions to the business.

In 1810, Isaac Iselin married Aimee Jeanne Susanne Emilie Roulet of New York City. The couple built a country home called "Shade of Bliss," which was located in the vicinity of present-day Riverside Drive in New York. Isaac retired in 1835 and returned to Switzerland with his family and a number of his compatriots who had completed their business ventures in America. Two years later, he was recalled to New York when a great fire destroyed nearly the entire business district of the city; the consequent insolvency of the majority of New York insurance companies entailed heavy losses for the Iselins. Isaac remained in New York until 1838, when he returned to Basel. He spent the remainder of his life involved with public affairs. Isaac died, honored and respected by all who knew him, on Dec. 10, 1841.

Adrian Georg Iselin, financier of the R&P Coal and Iron Company, was born in New York on Sept. 18, 1818. Family letters reveal that his parents devoted a great deal of love and care to the education of all their 11 children, and it is probable that young Adrian Georg was instructed by tutors. When his father retired from the world of business and returned to Switzerland with most of his family, Adrian Georg, 17, and his older brother John remained in America.

Adrian Georg began his climb up the ladder of success by joining the New York dry goods company of Messers, Cattenet, Barbey and Co. Soon, Adrian Georg became independent of his first employers and founded the company of Moran and Iselin, which at first imported dry goods and later became involved in banking. This company existed from 1840-1854, when Moran retired. Under the name A. Iselin and Co., Adrian Georg continued the banking firm in his own office at 36 Wall St. This firm of investors and brokers was in existence until 1936, when it was liquidated by transfer to Dominick and Dominick, Broadway, New York.

In 1845, Adrian Georg married Eleanora O'Donnell of Baltimore, the daughter of General Columbus O'Donnell and his Eleanora. The couple enjoyed a long and happy married life, and on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary, Adrian Georg donated a statue of his father, Isaac, to the "Schmiedenhof" in Basel. Adrian Georg and Eleanora had seven children. Their oldest son, Adrian Georg Iselin Jr., born in 1846, followed his father into the banking business and eventually became head of A. Iselin and Co.

From the incorporation of the R&P Coal and Iron Company, in 1881, Adrian Georg and Adrian Jr. kept a careful watch on the progress of both coal company and railroad. Although he retired in 1878, the senior Iselin quickly grew bored with his civic duties, which included the founding of the Metropolitan Opera House, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During his retirement, he spent a great deal of time at his summer home at New Rochelle, where citizens were indebted to him for the establishment of its waterworks and numerous other public improvements.

Therefore, it may have come as a distinct challenge to the senior Iselin when, in the late fall of 1884, the Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway went into receivership. Its property, including all the stock of the R&P Coal and Iron Co., was purchased at a foreclosure sale on Oct. 16, 1885. The buyer was Adrian Georg Iselin.

Obviously relieved to be back in the world of high finance, Adrian Georg threw himself into his second career with great enthusiasm. He began by taking the management of the railway firmly in hand. On Oct. 24, 1885, the R&P Railway was reorganized under his direction and acquired new properties in New York. Iselin then formed the Pittsburgh and State Line Railroad Co. and under that name, acquired necessary properties in Pennsylvania. The two railroads came together in a final consolidation on March 11, 1887, under the name Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway. At that time, and until 1906, the railway company continued to hold all stock of the Coal and Iron Company.

In November, 1906, in anticipation of the effective date of the amendment of the Interstate Commerce Act, which prohibited railways from transporting commodities in which they had an interest, the railway transferred its stock in the coal company to the Mahoning Investment Co., formed for that propose. Eventually, in 1929, the BR&P Railway was sold to the B&O Railroad and became the Buffalo division of the railway.

During his reorganization of the railroad, Adrian Georg did not forget his mining company. In the fall of 1884, Walston Brown resigned his office and was replaced by A.H. Stevens. Due to the financial collapse of both railway and coal company, Stevens also resigned, on Nov. 18, 1885. Upon assuming control of both companies, Adrian Georg appointed another of his sons, Columbus O'Donnell, as president of the R&PC&I. Columbus O'Donnell held the office for seven months. In addition, he served for many years as a senior partner with the banking firm of A. Iselin and Co.

Almost immediately, effects of Iselin's management were noticeable in increased profits for the company. In September, 1886, a new mine and town joined the company's first sites at Walston and Beechtree when a new drift was opened in Young Township, two miles from Punxsutawney. Both the mine and the town planned for the location were appropiately named "Adrian," possibly in honor of Adrian Iselin II, a grandson of Adrian Sr., born in March of 1885.

Although still a resident of flew York, Adrian Georg and Adrian Jr. were no "absentee landlords," and took active interest in the lives of R&P C&I Co. miners. As the population grew, it soon became apparent that a hospital was required to supplement the services of the company doctors. Therefore, in response to that need, Adrian Georg incorporated and built the Adrian Hospital in 1888. It existed as an institution until 1977, when it was replaced by Punxsutawney Area Hospital.

The original building, a frame structure, was in the town of Adrian. Equipment for the hospital, as well as beds, sheets, and surgical instruments, was provided by members of the board of Trustees of the R&P Coal and Iron Company and their friends. Adrian Hospital received its first patients Feb. 11, 1889. At that time, the average cost of a week's stay at the facilities was $50. By 1898, the hospital proved too small as residents from the entire Punxsutawney area came to its doors for medical aid, and a larger structure was built on Jenks Street. This facility served the Punxsutawney area until the dedication of the present hospital on July 16, 1977.

In addition to the much-needed hospital, Adrian Iselin and his family felt concern for the spiritual and social needs of the community as well and, in 1889, a fine church was built for the town of Adrian. Although property for the structure was donated by the coal company, the church was the project of Eleanor O'Donnell Iselin, wife of Adrian Georg. Mrs. Iselin, a Roman Catholic, named the church St. Adrian's in honor of both her husband and several saints of the church.

The actual dedication of St. Adrian's provided local residents with a most festive occasion. To encourage participation of all who wished to attend, BR&P officials provided an excursion train, free of charge, which ran from Walston to Adrian. The total cost of the church, with its ornamental brick front, was $15,000, quite a sum for that day. Newspaper reporters present remarked of its beauty, but neglected to mention whether or not the Iselin family attended.

Not to be outdone by his wife, Adrian Georg donated $2,000 to a fund begun by Adrian protestants so that they, too, might build a church of their own. Later, in 1889, showing a rather naive understanding of everyday economics, Adrian Georg opened a branch savings bank in Adrian "to encourage the miners to lay up something against the many disasterous chances of life," and paid all patrons suitable interest on their deposits.

In 1888, the second Iselin-named mining town came into existence with the founding of Eleanora. The total price of coal lands and rights averaged $350,000. In 1890, the Pennsylvania Inspector of Mines noted that both the mines and miners' houses at the site were in "first-class condition." Today, few houses remain at the location, and the association of the mining village with the daughter of Columbus O'Donnell, a Maryland general, has been forgotten.

In 1892, another new name was carefully lettered onto both R&P Coal & Iron Company and onto Clearfield County maps: "Helvetia," near Sykesville. The word "Helvetia," the Swiss name for Switzerland, reflects the ties between the Iselin family and their homeland. Nevertheless, the unusual name has engendered at least one folk legend, repeated by a retired miner from near Stanley:

"One day," the teller related, "old Mr. Iselin came down from New York and tried to buy a certain piece of property for his new mine, but the owner didn't want to sell. Mr. Iselin kept on, until the landowner, completely out of patience, slammed the door in his face, shouting, 'Mr. Iselin, da Hell ve cha!!' Later on,when the landowner finally gave in, Mr. Iselin called his new mine 'Hell-ve-cha."

Once named and duly christened, the mines and property at Helvetia and the accompanying the Mahoning Valley Railroad, which were established by Adrian Georg Iselin, were sold to the R&PC&I by the banking firm for the then astronomical sum of $3 million. The transaction, which took place in 1896, demonstrates the close nature of business relations between banking firms and coal companies.

At the time of the gigantic Helvetia purchase, the coal company also bought a fueling scow docked at the Buffalo harbor from A. Iselin and Company. The fueling scow, named by Adrian Georg in honor of his wife, Eleanora, went on to enjoy many years of active service on northern waters. Mrs. Iselin's reaction to the christening of such an ungainly vessel with her name is not recorded.

As the R&PC&I Company began the series of steps that would change its base of operations from Jefferson to Indiana County, the guiding hand of Adrian Georg Iselin was still very much apparent. Beginning in 1899, additional corporations were formed to develop the newly-leased and purchased coal fields. This organization of numerous subsidiary companies by major corporations was a common business practice of the day.

Following the accumulation of sufficient acreage for a mining plant, the titles, taken in the name of Adrian Georg Iselin, were sold to the R&PC&I for exactly the same sum the banking firm had paid for them, and a new company organized. The company acquired no stock interest in the companies, but its officers and managers were also the officers and managers of the new corporation, and the Iselin family continued to hold a controlling interest in each. Following this procedure, in 1899 the officers of the R&PC&I Company organized and incorporated the Cowanshannock Coal & Coke Co. This company held all of the R&PC&I Armstrong County holdings. The Cowanshannock Coal & Coke Co. also held all the stock of a second and smaller company, the Plum Creek Coal Company.

The Yatesboro mines were named for members of the Yates family of Rochester, New York, principal investors of the Bell, Lewis and Yates Coal Company which was purchased by the R&PC&I in 1896. From the very first, the Armstrong County mining town was frequently visited by the Iselin family on their official inspection tours.

As the new century dawned, Adrian Iselin Jr. began to take an increasingly active role in his family's banking firm. As the eldest of Adrian Georg's children, Adrian naturally followed his father and grandfather into the family business. Eventually, he became the head of A. Iselin and Company. From his boyhood, Adrian had accompanied his father on his travels throughout the various mining towns, and later made such journeys alone or joined by his wife and children.

R.J. ("Jim") Craig, an R&P management retiree, often observed Adrian Jr. during the banker's tours of inspection. Craig describes the younger Iselin as " a very likeable fellow." Often, Craig recalls, Adrian Jr. would stop outside workmen at their tasks around the mines and ask for an explanation of the job at hand. When answered, Iselin listened attentively and thanked each man politely at the end of the conversation.

On at least one occasion, Craig remembers, Adrian Jr.'s interest in Yatesboro miners extended beyond words. With a quick eye for detail, Iselin noticed that the band uniforms worn by the town band were tattered and shabby. Iselin inquired of Jim's father, then Superintendent of the mines, whether or not the men bought their own uniforms. Upon learning that they did, and that such uniforms were quite expensive, Iselin made no reply. Some weeks later, totally unannounced, a complete set of elegant new uniforms arrived in Yatesboro by train, sent from New York and paid for by Adrian Iselin, Jr.

The financial success of the Yatesboro properties ensured the R&PC&I's entry into the virtually untapped coal fields of Indiana County. The opening of the first mine in the new territory also marked what was very likely the last official inspection tour by Adrian Georg Iselin. Late in May, 1903, when the last spike was driven into the rails of the BR&P Railway on its journey southward from Jefferson County, members of the Iselin family arrived via special coach.

 The visit, although the mines and towns were uncompleted, evidently pleased Adrian Georg. Before he left that day, he changed the name of the new site from McKees Mills to Ernest, in honor of his son, who was born in 1876. Ernest, in his turn, also took more than a passing interest in the town christened with his name; many residents of the town recall seeing him striding through the streets and mining plant. Ernest also had a son, Ernest Jr. born in 1905. Both father and son served on the Board of Directors of R&P.

In August, 1903, just several months after the opening of the town of Ernest, a second Indiana County mining town bore a family name: Iselin, which operated under the auspices of "Pittsburgh Gas Coal Company." The naming of the new town was both appropriate and timely. Two years later, Adrian Georg Iselin died at the age of 87, still active in his various business enterprises until the very end. Although few local residents had formally met Adrian Georg and the banker had spent relatively little time in Pennsylvania, his obituary was carried on the front pages of newspapers throughout Jefferson, Indiana, Clearfield and Armstrong Counties. When the news of his death reached the darkest recesses of the mines, each man knew, somehow, that he had sustained a loss.

With Adrian Jr. at the helm of the family banking business, the R&P Coal & Iron Company continued its steady progress as it had under the guidance of Adrian Georg. In 1907, the Indiana Evening Gazette carried the news that still another coal town would soon be on the map "near Homer City… a huge plant, called Lucerne after a beautiful city." Although Lucerne , by 1910 was considered a "model mining plant," its appearance, quite naturally, bore little resemblance to its namesake.

Seventy years later, during the presidency of Gilbert Remey, the Iselin family's whimsy in naming their latest coal town Lucerne led to some confusion. One spring day in 1977, a letter arrived at 655 Church Street from the Swiss National Tourist Board excitedly announcing that a group of Swiss were on their way to visit their sister city near Indiana, PA. Hurried letters dispatched across the ocean failed to halt the visitors' imminent arrival. Finally, a trans-Atlantic phone call dispelled the would-be tourists' vision of tiny chalets perched on the shores of a tranquil lake.

As a result of his personal interest in the area, Adrian Jr. and his family became minor celebrities in early Indiana County mining towns. Residents were more than a little awed when the elegant Iselin railroad coach pulled into their communities, and local newspapers eagerly published stories of the family's activities. On several occasions, it was noted, women and girls from the Iselin party enjoyed shopping expeditions into the various company stores.

In 1913 the opening of the Brush Creek and Tide groups of mines added still another stimulus to the economic life of Indiana County, and Adrian Iselin Jr. from the first showed a deep interest in the communities where the mines were situated. The family is still gratefully remembered today for their gift of Indiana County's General Hospital. The facility, dedicated on October 29, 1914, was presented to the people of Indiana in memory of his first wife, Louise Caylus Iselin, whom he married in 1872.

Hyde-Murphy Company, of Ridgway, R&P's trusted firm of contractors, built the hospital under the direction of the Iselin family, who were very active in its design. Miss Georgine Iselin, sister of Adrian Iselin, donated all the furnishings, including beds, linens, and the latest in surgical equipment. The hospital, which accomodated 45 beds, cost $125,000. Miss Iselin's personal contributions totalled $16,000. In addition, Indiana County residents gave another $16,000 for the purchase of the 56-acre hospital site. The newly appointed board of directors dedicated $9,000 more for grading and installing water lines. F.M. Fritchman, then general manager of R&P C&I, was a member of the original hospital board.

The official dedication of the new hospital generated considerable excitement in the community, as Indiana Countians always enjoyed a glimpse of the celebrated Iselin family. The October 29, 1914 edition of the Indiana Evening Gazette carried the details:

"A special railroad car arrived at the Indiana Station of the BR&P last evening at 5:00. Aboard the train were W.T. Noonan, L.W. Robinson, Adrian Iselin, and the wives of the Iselin gentlemen. Miss Georgine Iselin, who was responsible for the elegant equipment of the hospital, the Misses Iselin, and Mr. And Mrs. Kane. Members of the Board of Directors and their wives, several subscribers to the Hospital Fund, and representatives of local newspapers all boarded the train and were introduced to the distinguished guests. While the train moved to the Y, to allow the evening passenger trains to Punxsutawney to discharge its passengers, the ladies of the party served tea and wafers to the lady guests of this place, while the gentlemen were guests at a little informal smoker. This morning, the Iselins and their party made an inspection trip to Lucerne, returning to Indiana at 12:00 and shortly afterwards in automobiles were conveyed to the hospital for the dedication. The visitors left later in the evening for Rochester, New York. Adrian Georg Iselin Jr. held an executive office in the family businesses until his death in 1935. Today, R&P continues the support of the Indiana Hospital begun in 1914 by the Iselin family.

While many of the sons and grandsons of Adrian Georg Iselin created successful careers in several fields, special mention must be make of O'Donnell Iselin, who was the son of Columbus O'Donnell Iselin and a grandson of Adrian Georg. O'Donnell served as chairman of the board and as a director o R&P for many years. During more than 60 years with both the banking firm and coal company, O'Donnell never placed himself in the position of "armchair executive," and on several occasions actually went up to the rank of senior member of the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club. He also belonged to the Northeast Harbor Fleet of Northeast Harbor, Maine.

Many of the R&P's present office staff remember O'Donnell with affection, for, as "Goog" Parsons, the company's unofficial biographer, has observed, "O'Donnell Iselin was a man of dignified appearance and a manner and came from a distinguished family, well-known in financial and social circles. Despite this, he was as easy to talk to, and more interesting, than your favorite corner bartender." O'Donnell Iselin was 87 at the time of his death in 1971, and, in the tradition of his father and grandfather, remained active and involved in the family businesses until the close of his life.

Presently, two members of the Iselin family, Peter Iselin of New York, and Columbus O'Donnell IV of New York and London, serve on the board of directors of R&P. Family practice has remained unchanged since the 19th century and Peter Iselin in particular visits Indiana County several times each year and has proved an able student of the mining industry donning hard hat and coveralls to keep abreast of the latest in mining technology.

Another family tradition, the naming of mining properties after sons and daughter, has also continued. R&P's West Virginia site, mined during the 1960's, for example, bore the name "O'Donnell," in honor of O'Donnell Iselin II, son of Mr. And Mrs. Peter Iselin and the grandson of O'Donnell Iselin. Similarly, Indiana county's Urling mines are named for Peter Iselin's daughter. Another local mining land, the Emilie mines, were named for Peter Iselin's sister.

In 1981, residents of the tri-county area joined in congratulating R&P on 100 years of coal production. At the time, many will remember the Iselin family, and wish them many years of health and prosperity.

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