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In search of heritage

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Standing on a bridge along the D&L Trail overlooking the remains of the Lehigh Canal Weigh Lock are, l-r, Steve Hlavka of the Mauch Chunk Historical Society, John Drury of the Mauch Chunk Museum, Robert Heysham…
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Standing on a bridge along the D&L Trail overlooking the remains of the Lehigh Canal Weigh Lock are, l-r, Steve Hlavka of the Mauch Chunk Historical Society, John Drury of the Mauch Chunk Museum, Robert Heysham Sayre V, whose great-great-great grandfather operated the lock, and Jack Sterling of the Mauch Chunk Historical Society.
Published September 28. 2013 09:00AM

Robert Heysham Sayre IV, 87, a retired beef farmer and his son, Robert Heysham Sayre V, a retired veterinarian came to Jim Thorpe the week of Sept. 23 in search of the heritage of their patriarch, Robert Heysham Sayre.

Robert Heysham Sayre (1824-1907) was a major engineer and industrialist during the blossoming of America's Industrial Revolution. His achievements include: the Backtrack for the Switchback Gravity Railroad, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and the Bethlehem Iron Works-forerunner of Bethlehem Steel.

The father and son knew little about their family heritage until this information became readily available on the Internet. "I found an article online in the Carbon County Magazine while researching our history," explained Sayre V. "It was about a relative, Norman Scarpulla, who was able to locate the stone house that William Sayre, Robert Sayre's father, lived in."

In 1829, William Heysham Sayre, frustrated with farming, moved from Columbia County, Pennsylvania to Mauch Chunk to work for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company as the locktender at the Weigh Lock-Canal Lock 3 on the Lower Division of the Lehigh Navigation System. He and his wife, Elizabeth Kent Sayre, and their children later moved to the stone locktender's house near the lock.

Robert Heysham Sayre was about five years old at the time, and as a boy helped take care of the mules that towed the canal boats. He attended the public schools at Mauch Chunk, and then entered the engineering corps of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company.

In 1841, he helped repair the canal, which had been partially destroyed by a freshet in the Lehigh River. Under the direction of LC&N chief engineer Edwin A. Douglas, he was assigned to oversee the engineering of the canals and railroads.

In 1852, he was appointed chief engineer of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and in 1855, he was appointed general superintendent. In 1882, he was elected president and chief engineer of the South Pennsylvania Railroad. He returned to the LVRR as second vice president charged with the care of its transportation lines and engineering. He was elected vice-president and general manager of the Bethlehem Iron Company.

He was named in the will of Asa Packer as one of the five trustees to manage his estate, and he and his brother, William, were appointed trustees of Lehigh University and St. Luke's Hospital.

Robert Heysham Sayre had four wives and eleven children. His first wife, Mary Evelina Smith, gave him eight children, the fourth child being Robert Heysham Sayre, Jr., who became the grandfather of Robert Heysham Sayre IV, and the great-grandfather of Robert Heysham Sayre V. Robert Heysham Sayre V is unmarried and may be the last of the Robert Heysham Sayre dynasty.

After reading the article and speaking with their relative, Norman Scarpulla, they decided to retrace his steps and go on a history tour of Robert Heysham Sayre's heritage with stops at the Sayre Mansion in Bethlehem; in Sayre, Pennsylvania where Robert Heysham Sayre build a Lehigh Valley rail yard, and Jim Thorpe-then Mauch Chunk-where he grew up and cut his teeth on engineering projects.

While breakfasting at the Inn at Jim Thorpe, the Sayres met John Drury of the Mauch Chunk Museum. He arranged for a tour of the remains of the lock house and the Weigh Lock, to which he also invited Jack Sterling and Steve Hlavka of the Mauch Chunk Historical Society.

They visited the remains of the lock house and the Weigh Lock at the northern end of the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, just below the Jim Thorpe Treatment Plant. The lock house had been identified by documentation from Scarpulla in the form of a note in a family bible written and signed by Robert Heysham Sayre that read as follows:

"On the night of the 6 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."

Sterling had researched the house, looking at old maps and period photographs. Between the description in the writings, maps and photographs, there he found the remains of a house precisely where the Sayre house was said to have been located.

Parts of the stone walls of the basement and main floors remain. Although now overgrown, the house once held a commanding view of the Lehigh River and afforded easy access to the Lehigh Canal. It was for that reason that the home was so vulnerable to the waters that rose to 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.

On a side note, Robert H. Sayre was married four times. His second wife, Mary Bradford, was the niece of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis. 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, Pennsylvania. Sayre's brother, the Reverend John Neven Sayre officiated at the wedding.

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