“We Are All Descended From Grandfathers!”


Into this powerful and successful family of coal kings and railroad presidents, William Walker Scranton, grandfather of the present governor of Pennsylvania, was born on April 4, 1844. Growing tall and robust, he was sent to Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts, and then to Yale, where he became a famous oarsman and graduated in 1865. In two years he was superintendent of one of the family’s mills, and after his father’s death (in 1872) he operated the whole complex of Scranton interests: collieries, ironworks, a bank, the gas and water works. When American railroads began to turn from domestic iron rails to the superior steel ones imported from Europe, Scranton went abroad and took lowly employment in the guise of a “puddler” in the mills of Britain and Germany. He came back an exact master of the new Bessemer process; after a struggle with his more conservative business associates, Lackawanna Iron & Coal became Lackawanna Iron & Steel.

He was as tough as his product; in his late thirties he could heft 2,000 pounds dead weight, before witnesses. And he was a hard steel master in other ways; consider his reaction, for example, to union demands, as recounted with carefree syntax in Frederick L. Hitchcock’s History of Scranton and Its People:

During labor troubles … in 1871 [he] led to and from the mines daily a party of non-striking miners; he leading an escort of a body of miners from the mines homeward, was attacked by a mob, and in self-defense two of the rioters were killed. During the railroad riots of 1877, when the works of the Lackawanna Iron and Coal Company and the shops of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Company were attacked by three thousand rioters, with an armed party he met the mob, who were dispersed in a few minutes, but not before three of their leaders were killed. The leaders of the striking element caused the arrest and trial of Mr. Scranton and his party on the charge of manslaughter, but they were acquitted, with the thanks of the court for their action in quelling the riot.… He is a strong level headed man of affairs, but the finer side of his nature responds to every [charitable or civic] appeal or demand made upon it.

There speaks the nineteenth century, albeit his biographer was writing in 1914. Two years later, honest, successful, and richer than ever, the first citizen of Scranton died. It turned out that he only slightly predeceased most of the things he stood for. Even the anthracite veins ran thin just about the time that America, tired of stoking coal furnaces, turned to the product of another of our seven grandfathers.


He fills the bookshelves, until there is almost nothing new left to say about him. He gave away dimes, wore funny golf hats, looked (in his later years) like a mummy, and lived from the age of Horatio Alger to the almost diametrically opposed one of Franklin Roosevelt. He was the richest man the world had ever seen, but he taught in Sunday schools and rode to work on the El. From his great oil fortune there came, in his ninety-eight years of life, over half a billion in splendidly planned and executed philanthropies, and from the father and the son together there had proceeded by 1955, according to one guess, the staggering sum of two and one-half billion dollars.

A few of his offers were turned down as “tainted money,” and to many reformers and muckrakers he was the most heartless, grasping villain in history, but he outlived those controversies. The passage of time lends respectability to large sums, however acquired, and so does the fact that John Davison Rockefeller performed a vital service in the economic history of the United States, for he showed the way to industrial organization and mass marketing.

The man whose name became a household word was born on a farm at Richford, New York, on July 8, 1839. In Cleveland, to which the family moved, young John entered a commission merchants’ firm at $3.50 a week. In a few years he was in business for himself. When the oil fields opened in Pennsylvania, Rockefeller and some partners built a little refinery in 1863. Oil-producing was a chaotic industry, all dog-eat-dog competition, quick profits, and waves of bankruptcies. Young Rockefeller, the newcomer, hated waste and disorder—and the rest is history. By 1877—when he was thirty-eight—by dint of infinite patience and skill in organizing, buying, maneuvering, and joining forces with other able men, he had come to dominate the shipping, refining, and selling of oil in the United States; before long his kerosene cans also spread through Africa, Asia, and South America. The famous, or infamous, Standard Oil “trust” was devised in 1881–82.