The Wideners: An American Family

A Biographical Sketch


Part 1

Most of the early immigrants who came to the thirteen original colonies and who, through hard work and responsible citizenship, helped found the United States of America were either English or German. One such German immigrant was Johann Cristoph Widener who arrived at the Port of Philadelphia on November 2, 1752 aboard the ship Phoenix from Portsmouth, via Rotterdam, a common route at the time. He took up residence in Philadelphia and married Anna Kinneman.

He later married Anna Margaretha Engelhardt although records do not indicate the disposition of the first marriage. Johann and his second wife Anna had two daughters and four sons between 1763 and 1798. Their first son Michael was born February 20, 1765.

Michael Widener, who died sometime prior to 1798, married Susannah Huhn in September 1789 at the First Reformed Church, Philadelphia. They had a daughter Susan and a son Johannes who was born June 14, 1790. Johannes shipped freight between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and later became a brickmaker with a residence on Vine Street and later on Fairmount Avenue both in Philadelphia. In March 1811 he married Sarah Fulmer at St Johns Church and they had three children, Margaret, George who ran a butchers stall in the Girard Avenue Market, and Peter Arrell Brown Widener.

PAB WidenerPeter Arrell Brown Widener
Peter Arrell Brown Widener was born in Philadelphia on November 13, 1834, attended public school, and became an apprentice butcher's boy, learning the trade and saving his money until he was able to open his own butcher's shop in the Spring Garden Market. He opened several other shops around town while his original stall became a hang out for locals who liked to discuss politics. PAB soon became leader of the Twentieth Ward. During the Civil War, through his political connections, he was awarded a government contract to supply mutton to all Union troops within a 10 mile radius of Philadelphia which earned him $50,000 in revenue. He took the profit and invested in horse cars with his friend and store clerk William Elkins.

In 1858 PAB Widener married Hannah Josephine Dunton who was born 1836 in Philadelphia. They had 3 sons Harry who died about age 11 from typhoid fever, George Dunton Widener, and Joseph Early Widener. Hannah Widener died aboard the family yacht in Maine on July 31, 1896.

PAB pursued politics and from 1867-1870 was a member of the Philadelphia Board of Education. When the city Treasurer was jailed in 1873 for conspiracy, the Republican Party appointed PAB to fill the remainder of the term. He was then elected to that position the following year. During this time he continued to run his chain of butcher shops and in 1875 he, William Elkins, and political boss William Kemble, pooled their money to purchase street railway franchises and make other investments. They founded the Philadelphia Traction Company in 1883 and through their connections expanded their streetcar holdings to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore over the next several years until they operated over 500 miles of track. PAB was also an organizer of the U.S. Steel Company, the American Tobacco Company, and invested in International Mercantile Marine, owner of the White Star Line and Titanic with J.P. Morgan.

PAB had built a home for his family on North Broad Street in Philadelphia, but around the turn of the century decided he needed a larger home for both his family and his art collection. His wealth enabled him to commission local architect Horace Trumbauer to design and build the Georgian-style 110 room Lynnewood Hall on 300 acres of land at Elkins Park, in Montgomery County just north of Philadelphia. The grounds and elaborate gardens of the estate were designed by Jacques Greber who had redesigned the outskirts of Paris. The estate included stables, greenhouses, a polo field and a reservoir.


The main house itself was set in a 36 acre, impeccably landscaped area and the Wideners employed up to 100 servants to wait on them and maintain the property. In old photos the interior design, done by a French decorating firm, appears rather gauche and overdone by today's standards, though it was chic at the time. In 1925 the stables were converted into a home for PAB II and his family. In the years after the death of Joseph Widener in 1943 the southern part of the estate was sold off and eventually apartments were built on the site. Lynnewood Hall and the surrounding 36 acres were then sold to a buyer who planned to turn it into a Protestant university. However, the buyer defaulted and the Wideners repossessed the property. The mortgage debt was about $99,000. Lynnewood Hall was later sold to the Faith Theological Seminary which never maintained the property well and sold off some of the interior marble and other fixtures, damaging the house in the process. The house and grounds fell into total disrepair over the years and the once magnificent property now sits in a state of decay, still surrounded by its original decorative wrought iron fence. It changed ownership again and the future of Lynnewood Hall has been a hot topic of conversation in Cheltenham Township for the past several years.

Horace Trumbauer and the Widener Family maintained a long relationship and the work he did for them propelled him into prominence. He designed Miramar in Newport, R.I., the Widener Library at Harvard, Ronaele Manor in Elkins Park, and did work on George D. Widener Jr.'s Erdenheim Farm Estate north of Philadelphia. George D. Widener Jr. and Joseph Widener were honorary pallbearers at Trumbauer's funeral in 1938.

George D. Widener Jr., Horace Trumbauer & Eleanor Elkins Widener at Harvard 1915.
Courtesy Philadelphia Free Library

Grief stricken over the loss of his son and grandson in 1912, PAB spent time completing the late Harry's book collection and planning to build a library at Harvard in his memory. However Eleanor Widener persuaded PAB to let her complete that task. PAB spent the next few summers aboard his yacht which made stops in Newport, RI on weekends where he would visit family members.

Peter Arrell Brown Widener died at his Lynnewood Hall estate on November 6, 1915 and he was placed on a bier in the Van Dyck Gallery below his portrait where hundreds of friends and employees filed by to pay their last respects. His casket was then moved to a church for funeral services and he was interred in the family mausoleum at Laurel Hill Cemetery on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia where he lies at rest beside his wife, father, and mother. Laurel Hill, also the burial site of William Elkins and other prominent Philadelphians, became run down over the years and, as of the 1990's, a preservation project was underway to restore the cemetery.

George Dunton Widener
GD WidenerGeorge Dunton Widener was born in Philadelphia on June 10, 1861. He first worked in a grocery store and then joined his father's business, quickly taking on the management of most of PAB's traction and streetcar business. He was president or director of a dozen streetcar companies and local railways in the Philadelphia area. He also served as Director of the Land Title Bank and Trust Company, Electric Storage Battery Company, a brick company, the Portland Cement Company, and a company which built the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia. George Widener took an active interest in charity, was Director of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, and a member of many social clubs including the Philadelphia Country Club. On November 1, 1883, he married Eleanor Elkins, daughter of his father's business partner, William Elkins. They had three children, Harry Elkins Widener, George Dunton Widener Jr. and Eleanor Widener.

When PAB moved into his magnificent Lynnewood Hall Estate in Elkins Park, George, Eleanor, and their children moved with him. George was senior warden at St Paul's Episcopal Church, Elkins Park, and chair of the Board of Commissioners, Cheltenham Township. For the next nine or more years he, Eleanor and their children lived at Lynnewood Hall, attended by dozens of servants. In 1912 they traveled to Europe with their son Harry, booking return passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. George, his valet, and Harry died in the sinking. Eleanor and her maid boarded a lifeboat with other First Class women and were rescued by the Carpathia. Funeral services for George and Harry were held at St Paul's where stained glass windows were dedicated in their memory by Eleanor.

On Commencement Day 1915, Eleanor Widener shared the dais with Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice, Professor of Geographical Exploration at Harvard. After a brief courtship they wed the same year. Over the next 22 years they maintained a high social profile and traveled extensively to South America, India, and Europe.

Dr. Rice, grandson of Massachusetts governor Alexander Hamilton Rice and a direct descendant of Mayflower passengers, was a renowned geographer and explorer who specialized in rivers. An article in Harvard Magazine in June 2000 said that Dr. Rice "... knew headwaters the way other society folk know headwaiters." The article said that during seven expeditions to Brazil he had explored 500,000 square miles of the Amazon Basin and was among the first to use aerial photography and short-wave radio for such exploration.

Dr. Rice's lengthy resume included many academic and other accomplishments. He was curator, trustee and officer of more than a dozen geographical societies and organized and directed many expeditions to South America. Also a surgeon, he was member of the Surgical Staff Ambulance Americaine in Paris in 1914-1915. Dr. Rice was commissioned Lt. U.S.N.R.F. in 1917 and served as Director of the 2nd Naval District Training School for Reserve Officers in Newport from 1917-1921.

Dr. and Mrs. Rice took up residence in a New York townhouse and at Miramar, Eleanor's Newport estate, a 65-room ocean-front mansion that was originally commissioned by the late George D. Widener Sr. In 1915 the Rices hosted a ball attended by 500 members of society to officially open Miramar.

During World War I, Mrs. Rice was an active supporter of and largest contributor to the Newport Chapter of the American Red Cross. In 1916 Mrs. Rice accompanied her husband on one of his expeditions when they set sail aboard the steam yacht Alberta from Newport bound for the Amazon River. According to her obituary in the New York Times, on Eleanor's second trip to South America in 1920, she went further up the Amazon than any white woman before and the party warded off an attack by natives, killing two cannibals in the skirmish. As a result that trip was abandoned on the advice of Indian guides, but the Rices ventured several more times into the jungle on later trips. During a lecture several years later Dr. Rice praised his wife's bravery.

In 1917, the Imperial Japanese Mission, headed by Viscount Ishii, visited Newport to lay a wreath at the grave of Commodore Matthew Perry as part of a goodwill tour of the United States. Dr. and Mrs. Rice hosted a reception at Miramar for the entourage and a large group of other dignitaries.

Eleanor Elkins Widener Rice died of a heart attack in a Paris department store at 5 p.m., July 13th, 1937. She was buried in Philadelphia. In her will she granted life interest in Miramar to Dr. Rice. He remarried in 1949 and remained active in the Newport social scene. In 1955 his birthday party attended by 500 guests was held at Miramar which was pretty much the last social hurrah for the grand old estate. Dr. Rice died at Miramar on July 3, 1956 at age 80 after an illness of several months and was buried at the Berkeley Chapel Churchyard, Middletown, R.I. Ownership of Miramar then reverted to Eleanor's children, George Widener Jr. and Eleanor Widener Dixon. They did not want the property so it was sold to a private school. Miramar was later purchased by real estate developer Andrew Panteleakis of the American Capital Corporation in 1971 for about $118,000. He commendably maintained the property in museum like condition until 2006 when he sold it for $17.5 million. This was the highest price ever paid for a home on Aquidneck Island in Newport.

Related Biographies:

George Dunton Widener
Eleanor Widener
Harry Elkins Widener


David Whitmire

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