Among the most prominent players in the American Industrial Revolution were the Sayre family of Mauch Chunk, and in particular William Heysham Sayre and his son, Robert Heysham Sayre. William ran the postal service for Lehigh Coal & Navigation manager and Mauch Chunk postmaster, Josiah White; while his son, Robert, ran the Lehigh Valley Railroad for Asa Packer and helped found Bethlehem Iron Company – later renamed the Bethlehem Steel Company – and Lehigh University.
A descendent of the Sayres, Norman Scarpulla of Andover, Mass., visited Jim Thorpe, formerly known as Mauch Chunk, in search of the Sayre ancestral home along the Lehigh Canal. He had some clues as to where the house, or at least the remaining foundations for the house, would be located. One clue was discovered on a sheet of paper, handwritten by Robert Sayre, and found in the family bible.
It began, "On the night of the 6th June 1862, occurred a terrible freshet in the Lehigh River. I then lived in the Stone house on the Canal near the Weigh Lock."
He went on to describe how the flood washed into the basement of his home where his books were stored. He managed to bring some books to the main floor, placing them on a parlor table before evacuating.
When he returned, only this prayer book survived. This became an incentive to move to Bethlehem where his work had been taking him. In Bethlehem, he built a mansion that remains one of the city's finest historic buildings.
In a second document, taken from a 1914 History of the Sayre family, Scarpulla noticed the following words: "Soon after Mr. (William) Sayre went to Mauch Chunk, he was made Deputy Postmaster. In 1837, his office was moved to the weigh lock, on the canal below the town, and in June 1838, he removed with his family to the stone house midway between the town and the weigh lock."
With this information, he arranged to meet with Jack Sterling of the Mauch Chunk Historical Society, John Drury of the Mauch Chunk Museum, and photographer Jerry Hoare, to hike along the Lehigh Canal toward the Weigh Lock in search of the Sayre home.
The Lehigh Canal was built in 1827 from Mauch Chunk to Easton where it connected with the Delaware Canal to take coal to Philadelphia. Alongside the third lock was a special lock – the Weigh Lock – which contained a balance mechanism designed to establish the weight of the coal cargo.
Sterling had researched the house, looking at old maps and period photographs. Between the description in the writings, the maps and the photographs, there were remains of a house precisely where the Sayre house was described. There was one addition – a trail marker "3 mi." had recently been installed as a way sign along the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Trail.
The partial stone walls of the basement and main floors remain. Although now overgrown, it once held a commanding view of the Lehigh River and easy access to the Lehigh Canal. It was for that reason that the home was so vulnerable to the rising waters that exceeded 30-feet above normal. The 1862 flood destroyed the upper Division of the Lehigh Canal and inundated downtown Mauch Chunk in several feet of water.
William Sayre ran a profitable shipping business until the British blockaded the port of Philadelphia during the War of 1812. He moved to his wife's family farm in Columbia County, where Robert was born in 1824. Of the 10 Sayre children, only four would grow into adulthood.
In 1828, the Sayre family moved to Mauch Chunk where William worked for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company running the weigh lock and serving as deputy postmaster.
Robert helped his father on projects for the LC&N and showed an interest in civil engineering. At 16 years old, he was assigned to help upgrade the Morris Canal.
Two years later, Robert returned to LC&N to help construct the Switchback Gravity Railroad Back Track and soon was promoted in charge of LC&N's railroad operations.
William Sayre and Asa Packer helped found St. Marks Church. When Asa Packer built the Lehigh Valley Railroad, he appointed William Sayre's son, Robert, as chief engineer. Robert would become Packer's most trusted aide, running the LVRR, building Bethlehem Iron Works, and founding Lehigh University and St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem.
On a side note, Robert H. Sayre was married four times. His second wife, Mary Bradford, was the niece of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Her first husband was U.S. Congressman Richard Brodhead.
Jessie Woodrow Wilson, daughter of President Woodrow Wilson, married Francis Bowes Sayre at a White House ceremony. Francis was the third child from the marriage to his fourth wife, Martha Finley Neven of Mercersburg, Pa. The wedding was officiated by Sayre's brother, the Rev. John Neven Sayre.