WC History: The Shipwrecked Entrepreneur
May 15, 2015 | Mustafa Filemban
The year is 1822. William Everhart, a West Chester PA businessman, boards the packet ship Albion in New York preparing to set sail for Liverpool—a trip he has made many times before. Unknown to Everhart, however, this journey would be far different from those of the past. On April 1, 1822, the Albion, under the command of a certain Captain Williams, leaves New York blessed with a "sweet and pleasant gale." It was all smooth sailing for the vessel thus far; although Everhart would become ill during the voyage.
On Sunday, April 21, as the Albion reaches Cape Clear around 2pm, thick fog and strong southward winds begin to roll in, prompting the crew to shorten the sails. By 4pm, a strong and sudden squall carries away one of the main sails and tears another. As night approaches there is a lull in the wind and the deck is cleared so the crew can begin to repair and replace the damaged sails.
Assuming the worst of the storm was over, the passengers and crew take a deep breath—though their relief would be short-lived as the seas continued to churn. As the clock strikes 9pm, a giant wave burst through the darkness, knocking the massive ship and destroying the mainmast. The cabin fills with water and washes away six crew members and one passenger.
Now totally at the mercy of the sea, the ailing Everhart, passengers, and other non-essential crew members are instructed to head below deck as the remaining crew lash themselves to the deck to prevent from being knocked overboard.
Soon Everhart would be forced to emerge from below deck as the rising water level and floating furniture made conditions below more dangerous than the action above. Emerging from the hell of the lower deck around 1am, Everhart and the remaining crew and passengers see the light of the "Old Head at Kinsale" lighthouse, its bright beam presenting both hope for survival and the futility of the situation as they were powerless to control the vessel in any way.
As the sun begins to rise Everhart sees that they have been carried into a bay. But they are far from being out of harm’s way as they drift straight into the rocky cliffs of Ireland.
There’s a loud "CRACK" as the Albion strikes a reef and Everhart is knocked off his feet. Collecting himself, he offers a hand to the exhausted Captain Williams who is also laid out by the impact. After another thirty minutes of struggling to stay alive, the ship crashes into the cliffside and the impact knocks the tired Captain and a handful of passengers into the murky depths as the ship splits in half. As Everhart scans the remaining section of the ship, all hope of survival seemed futile. Climbing up the nearly vertical stern with a few remaining crew members, he is finally able to depart from the remaining chunk of the Albion and seek refuge on the rocky cliffs. He's still not safe. Already ill and physically drained, Everhart is forced to stand on one foot as waves crash over his head and the sea continues to claim the remaining survivors around him. Several hours pass until nearby residents locate the wreck and pull him and the last survivors to safety.
Of the fifty-four total members that set sail on the voyage, only nine lived to tell the tale: eight crew members and one passenger -- William Everhart.
Who was William Everhart?
Born May 17, 1785, to Revolutionary War veteran James Everhart and Rebecca Matlack in West Vincent Township PA, William Everhart would grow up to become quite the entrepreneur. Unlike much of the West Chester elite born into wealth, Everhart would have to create a name for himself. During the War of 1812, he constructed and sought to serve as captain of a company of eighty militia riflemen, which he offered for service, but was not accepted. Returning home, he would soon find success as a business man.
Opening his first shop in Pughtown, PA in the early 1800’s and selling general wares, Everhart soon gained a solid economic footing. On March 8, 1814, he married Rebecca Matlack of Goshen, granddaughter of one of the borough’s first farmers, taking away his status as an outsider. They then went on to have three sons and two daughters: Benjamin Matlack Everhart (1818-1904), James Bowen Everhart (1821-1888) and John Roskell Everhart(1828-1901). Daughters were Thomasine M. Everhart (1824-1892) and Mary F. Everhart (1826-1904).
After becoming a successful businessman in Pughtown, William Everhart opened a shop in Tredyffrin, PA. Selling items such as fine cloths, silks, clothing, eye glasses, medicines, paints/oils, and liquor, he would sail back and forth between New York and Liverpool assuring his customers that he had the best wares for sale. Everhart continued his success as a well-known merchant, setting up shops in West Goshen and then on to West Whiteland and finally West Chester in 1824.
Contributions to West Chester
Constantly looking for new and better economic opportunities, an ad for the sale of the Wollerton Farm in West Chester caught Everhart’s attention. In 1828, he acquired 102 acres of farmland southwest of what is now the corner of Market Street and Wilmont Mews that reached to the Borough boundary at Bradford Avenue. Everhart soon began dividing it into individual lots, developing them, and selling them for a profit. It was around this time that he personally chose the names for the streets he was developing—Miner, Barnard, and Darlington (named such after West Chester notables).
In 1830 he built his family’s mansion on Miner Street where it remains today, much the same as it appeared nearly 200 years ago. In 1833, he constructed West Chester’s first true office building. Designed by William Strickland, it is known today as the Lincoln Building at 28 West Market Street.
By 1835 William Everhart was by far the richest man in town, worth nearly twice as much as his nearest rival. In real estate alone, Everhart was worth approximately $70,000 (nearly $2,000,000 in modern dollars). On April 29, 1835, Everhart opened the Chester County Hotel on the southeast corner of Market and Church streets, which he later sold to Fredrick and Samuel Hollman on January 1, 1836. Under their management, the hotel’s name would be changed to The Mansion House—only to be changed back to the Chester County Hotel in 1838. This title remained until 1846 when it was changed back to the Mansion House for the final time until its demolition the 1970s.
With an surge in available developed housing, a close proximity to Philadelphia, and the first and second railroads completed in 1832 and 1858, West Chester became an extremely important market center as people came from all around to buy and sell their wares. The market town’s population rose to 1,244 in the summer of 1830—a 125% increase from 1820. Everhart’s wealth rose along with the population as he profited from nearly every aspect of amplified traffic flow through the continued sales of lots, providing a hotel to house guests, and stores to sell his wares.
As William Everhart became progressively more established and wealthy, he became more involved in politics. In both 1836 and 1837, Everhart served as West Chester’s Chief Burgess. Through his political involvement in West Chester government, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes, he was able to accomplish a lot more than he found previously possible. Everhart, along with other Cestrian political notables, lobbied to move the railroad closer to town (and his businesses), relocate the post office to his hotel (conveniently drawing people by his adjacent store). In 1852, he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and served one term, returning home in 1854.
With business and politics as two of his largest interests, religion also played a major role in Everhart’s world. Though he was an average Christian in his early life, after surviving the traumatic shipwreck of the Albion, William Everhart gained a newfound appreciation for religion.
Upon meeting Reverend William A. Stevens, a Presbyterian preacher who held sermons in the West Chester Courthouse in the early 1830s, Everhart became deeply moved by his emotional services and became not only a convert to the Presbyterian faith, but also an avid supporter. Both men agreed that Presbyterians in West Chester needed a new church, as a larger structure would allow the congregation to continue to grow.
William Everhart offered his church a suitable lot in his development, right across the street from his mansion on Miner. On July 3, 1832 the cornerstone for the new Presbyterian Church was laid. The church, which was the first commission of Greek revival architect Thomas U. Walter, opened its doors in January 1834. Walter later went on to design other notable structures such as: The Bank of Chester County in 1837 at 15 N. High Street, the historic Courthouse of Chester County in 1846 on the corner of High and Market, Horticultural Hall (his final West Chester commission) in 1848 at 217 N. High Street, where the first PA woman’s rights convention was held in 1852 (only the second in the country), and even the iconic dome of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC in 1855.
Everhart’s religious devotion led him to play a very active role in regard to the abolition of slavery. He spoke openly against slavery on the floor of the House of Representatives. On May 19, 1854, he delivered his only speech as a house member on the proposal of the Nebraska and Kansas Bill—a bill which called for popular sovereignty (the right to vote for slavery) in territory that was previously barred slavery. In his speech, Everhart ties abolition to religion. He said, "It does not merely produce a present special evil, but it aims to establish a system of slavery propagandism, which requires the revival of an atrocious traffic that all Christendom considers worse than murder."
In 1833, Henry Cooper, a runaway slave from the south living in Pennsbury Township, was captured in West Chester. Under the existing Fugitive Slave law, a case involving an accused runaway slave found living in a free state would be heard before a judge to decide if the person in question was, in fact, a slave—if found guilty, they would be returned to slavery. Cooper was brought before Judge Darlington where he was found guilty of escape and ordered to be sent back to his owner. His freedom was purchased for $300, however, by a group of West Chester residents including William Everhart, Thomas Williamson, Oliver Allison, Thomas Ogden, Nathan H. Sharpless, Francis James, and numerous other notable abolitionists, each pitching in anywhere from $3-10. In addition to purchasing Henry Cooper’s freedom, many historians believe that Everhart helped to facilitate West Chester’s Underground Railroad stations, though his active business and political role meant he could not be very open about it, and it is therefore hard to support with physical evidence.
William Everhart was largely the first and most prevalent Cestrian to buy and parcel off a large sum of land for means of development. His purchase of the Wollerton Farm and the subsequent development of the land allowed West Chester to grow into what it is today. In 1830 when Everhart began developing the area, West Chester’s population stood at 1,244 and by 1853 the population approached had approached 4,000. Today, West Chester's population stands at 18,968. Without the development Everhart facilitated and the economic growth he sparked it’s more than a fair bet to assume that West Chester would not have become the bustling town it is today.
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About the author
Mustafa M. Filemban attends West Chester University and is currently a senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history set to graduate in the spring of 2016. Primarily focusing on early American history, his expertise lies in colonial and revolutionary America. Outside of the classroom, he serves as the WCU Men’s Water Polo teams President of External Affairs, is an active musician in touring band, and is trained in emergency response as a professional beach lifeguard. Currently, he is completing his certification in Secondary Education and plans to begin his professional history career teaching high school history as well as actively researching and writing articles. His other hobbies and interests include philosophy, nature, swimming, and art.
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Bingley, Thomas. "Chapter 10: UNCLE THOMAS TELLS ABOUT THE WRECK OF THE ALBION NEW YORK PACKET." In Tales of Shipwrecks and Other Disasters at Sea, 188-189. London: Forgotten Books, 2013. http://www.forgottenbooks.com/readbook_text/Tales_of_Shipwrecks_and_Other_Disasters_at_Sea_1000835232/187.
Everhart, William. "Speech of Hon. Wm. Everhart, On the Nebraska and Kansas Bill." Speech, House of Representatives, Washington, DC, May 19, 1854.
First Presbyterian Church of West Chester. "History: Serving the Heart of West Chester for 180 Years." First Presbyterian Church of West Chester. Accessed May 10, 2015. http://www.firstpreswc.com/first-time-visitors/history/.
Harper, Douglas R. West Chester to 1865: That Elegant & Notorious Place. West Chester, Pa: Chester County History Society, 1999. Lecture.
Jones, Jim. "Articles on the History of the Everhart Tract (West Chester PA)." West Chester University On-line Web Courses. Accessed May 10, 2015. http://courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his480/reports/evertrak.htm.
Kilpatrick, Alison. "News Extracts: April 22, 1822: Loss of the Albion at Garretstown-bay." RootsWeb Archives. Last modified April 22, 2012. http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/GENBRIT/2012-04/1335119356.
1. West Chester book
4. Speech of Hon. Wm. Everhart, On the Nebraska and Kansas Bill
5. Historic Milestones of West Chester, Chester County
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contact: Malcolm Johnstone