William Bucknell was born in Marcus Hook in 1811, the son of English immigrants, and had very intermittent schooling. Trained as a woodcarver, he married Margaret Crozer, daughter of John P. Crozer, owner of the Mattson Paper Mills and a generous donor to the Upland Baptist Church. Leveraging his connections, Bucknell invested his savings in laying gas lines in the city of Chester, founding the Chester Gas Company in 1856.
Natural gas was one of the byproducts from coal mining, and by the mid-nineteenth century its flickering light illuminated private homes and streets all over Europe and America. Along with kerosene, a byproduct of oil, “coal-gas” was a cheaper and more efficient lighting fuel than labor-intensive whale oil.
Bucknell was one of many entrepreneurs who got rich from Pennsylvania’s so-called Iron Triangle, a robust economic engine built on iron ore, coal, and railroads.* During the mid-nineteenth century, men like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Frick, and Bucknell exploited central Pennsylvania’s rich treasure trove of natural resources. Coal of course had been used to heat homes and power engines for generations. In 1859, the first commercially successful oil “gusher” shot into the air in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Railroad companies such as the Pennsylvania rushed into the area to build freight lines. Trains transported the crude oil to refineries in Cleveland and Philadelphia, as well as iron ore to the steel mills of Pittsburgh. Ports like Philadelphia and Chester became the funnels through which the riches of central Pennsylvania flowed to the rest of the country and the world. Many families who had made fortunes in coal and oil settled around Philadelphia’s genteel Rittenhouse Square. Their employees toiled in tough mining towns such as Hazleton and Johnstown, which were frequently rocked by labor riots organized by the famed “Molly Maguires.”
After conquering Chester, Bucknell moved on to Philadelphia, competing with the likes of fellow robber barons Peter Widener and William Warren Gibbs, both directors of the immensely successful and notoriously corrupt United Gas Improvement Company. Like his Cleveland counterpart John D. Rockefeller Sr., Bucknell was a devout Baptist who gave liberally to his church and to charities. One of his greatest beneficiaries was the First Baptist Church, which in the 1890s lofted an enormous sandstone building at 17th and Sansom, directly behind Bucknell’s Italianate mansion on Walnut Street.
Yet like Rockefeller, a founder of the University of Chicago, Bucknell was interested in forwarding higher education, and served on the Board of Trustees of the Baptist-affiliated University at Lewisburg, located near the source of his coal and gas wealth. In 1881, Bucknell saved the school from financial ruin by donating $50,000 to the University.
In gratitude, the trustees renamed the school Bucknell University.
*Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 187.