During the winter months, drivers along the Schuylkill Expressway may notice the broken shell of a house near the Girard Avenue Bridge. Its battered, honey-colored walls are marred by bright graffiti. Its roof is gone, windows vacant.
This forlorn ruin, once known as “The Cliffs,” was long ago the childhood home of one of America’s great industrialists, whose name is known throughout the world today.
Joseph Wharton was born in 1826, the scion of a wealthy Quaker family. Despite his privilege, his parents put a damper on extravagance. They were members of the progressive Hicksite Quaker sect, founded by itinerant preacher Elias Hicks. Along with a strict doctrine of simplicity, Hicks preached the abolition of slavery, and argued that the guidance from “Inner Light” was more important that strict adherence scripture. Hicks wrote that, “the Scriptures can only direct to the fountain from whence they originated – the spirit of truth: as saith the apostle, ‘The things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God;’ therefore when the Scriptures have directed and pointed us to this light within, or Spirit of Truth, there they must stop – it is their ultimatum – the top stone of what they can do. And no other external testimony of men or books can do any more.”
Hicks’s radical theology lead to a split between conservative “Orthodox” and progressive “Hicksite” Philadelphia Quakers in the 1820s. Among the leaders of the Philadelphia Hicksite community was Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), who worked closely with 19th century civil rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass.
As a child, Wharton was deeply shaped by the Quaker faith, especially its doctrines of simplicity and practicality. His boyhood summers were divided “The Cliffs,” his mother Deborah Fisher Wharton’s family country house on the Schuykill River, and “Bellevue,” the Wharton river estate to the west. Built by his great-grandfather Joshua Fisher in 1745, “The Cliffs” was a Georgian house in the classic “Quaker plain” vein, an informal retreat where the Fishers escaped the city’s miserable, disease-ridden summers. “Bellevue” was a somewhat more spacious and elaborate structure, compete with a ballroom that, according Wharton’s daughter Joanna Wharton Lippincott, “served the young Quakers as a delightful place for games of various kinds.”
Yet a life of leisure was not for Joseph Wharton. Choosing not to go to college, he apprenticed himself to an accountant to learn the basics of business. After marrying fellow Quaker Anna Corbit Lovering in 1854, he struggled in his early ventures. Then, working with master craftsmen, Wharton learned the new science of metallurgy, and prospered forging zinc, nickel, and iron.
Wharton didn’t stop there. He kept his eyes peeled for the next big thing, which was the metal of the future: steel: Under his management, Bethlehem Steel became one of America’s largest integrated steel and mining ventures. Wharton crisscrossed Europe looking for the newest and best technologies, and built personal relationships with his managers. Supplying steel for skyscrapers, ships, and bridges made Joseph Wharton a millionaire many times over, on par with Rockefeller and Carnegie.
Something of an amateur scientist, Wharton also published a number of well-received articles — including ones on the Doppler effect and another on the global spread of volcanic pumice from the eruption of Mount Krakatoa near Manila. He also tried his hand at verse. His daughter Joanna claimed that Ralph Waldo Emerson once praised his poem “Ichabod” (written in honor of Daniel Webster) at a dinner for Atlantic Monthly contributors:
So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn
Which once he wore;
The glory from his gray hairs gone,
Like many self-taught businessmen, he remained intensely interested in the day-to-day workings of his enterprises. As an old man, he led a canoe trip down the Colorado River to inspect one of his Nevada silver mines, and insisted on being lowered down the mineshaft in a bucket to inspect it.
A good Quaker to the end, Wharton believed that wealth was not just an end in itself, but should be used as a force for good in the world. In 1881, he set aside $100,000 to start a school that would be the first of its kind — a business school — and chose his native city’s University of Pennsylvania as the beneficiary. Wharton realized that America’s corporations needed trained professionals to guide them through the complex industrial economy that he had helped create. As Penn’s medical faculty trained future doctors, business scholars could train future business executives.
What wisdom did Wharton want to impart to his new school’s graduates? Business to him did not mean routine, but turbulence and change, and he hoped that his school would prepare them for, as he said, “immense swings upward or downward that await the competent or the incompetent soldier in this modern strife.” The best schools, he observed, “have endeavored to do more than keep up the respectable standard of a recent past; they have labored to supply the needs of an advancing and exacting world…”
Yet it appears that Wharton became disappointed with the business school he founded. As he grew older, Wharton became more involved with Swarthmore College, a Hicksite Quaker liberal arts school that he co-founded in 1869 Unlike the Wharton School, Swarthmore College was a coeducational institution and was not strictly vocational. It’s possible that Wharton, who did not receive a college education himself, lived vicariously through this school, frequently addressing the student body at commencement. “Not only, therefore, will you by obediently following your inward guide find for yourselves the right path,” he addressed one graduating Swarthmore class. “Each of you may thus be the grain of wheat or the dock seed, corn, or weed, to bless or ban future generations. Therefore, as George Fox said, ‘Friends, mind the light.’”
Wharton died in 1909. The two schools he founded continue to thrive, but the two country houses where Wharton spent his childhood summers did not fare as well. In the 1870s, the city of Philadelphia confiscated “Bellevue” and “The Cliffs” and integrated them into Fairmount Park as part of the plan to protect the Schuylkill River from pollution. “Bellevue” was demolished around 1900 and replaced by rowhouses. “The Cliffs” remained intact until the 1960s, and then suffered from neglect and vandalism. In 1986, fire gutted it.
Today, the stone ruins of “The Cliffs,”still poke above the trees on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, just north of Girard Avenue.
Joanna Wharton Lippincott, Biographical Memoranda Concerning Joseph Wharton, 1826-1909. (Philadelphia, PA: J.P. Lippincott Company, 1910). Collection of the Pennsylvania Historical Society.
Samuel M. Janney, “The Doctrines of Elias Hicks,” The History of the Religious Society of Friends, from Its Rise to the Year 1828. (Quaker Heron Press, 2008, originally published 1869. http://www.quaker.org/pamphlets/hicks.pdf
“Wharton School of Business: A Brief History.” http://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/schools/wharton.html