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FRONTLINE: Retrospect

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Change of Course
What inspires developers to pave over our world? For William Everhart, death itself.

Near-death experiences can change lives. In one recent story, a Massachusetts chiropractor had a stroke and woke up an artist whose edgy work is now in top New York galleries. In another story, a cynic “died” of cancer, then—having talked to God—woke cured and loving mankind.

Locally, one such episode gave us the southwest quadrant of West Chester, developed by a previously unremarkable storekeeper. In 1822, William Everhart came home from a European stock-buying trip with a new entrepreneurial spirit. When his ship, the Albion, wrecked on the Irish coast, Everhart was the sole surviving passenger—and that seemed to change things.

Plucked from a rock surrounded by floating corpses, Everhart returned to buy the 102-acre Wollerton farm at the southwest corner of High and Market streets for $16,000 —well over $100,000 in current money. A year later, he more than recovered his entire investment when he sold the first 50 lots. Later, he even got himself elected to Congress.

“The croakers were dumbfounded at the eagerness with which lots were purchased, and the prices realized,” reported the Village Record newspaper. “Mr. Everhart, by his boldness and enterprise, had secured a competency where they, in their short-sightedness, had been able to discern nothing but ruin and disaster.” Area farmers drove their buggies into town to gawk at the previously unimaginable scene of a dozen houses going up at once.

The wreck also had direct benefits. Everhart collaborated with artist Thomas Birch, whose oil painting, Loss of the Albion, was based on Everhart’s description. When the painting—which showed the retailer perched on his rock—debuted the following year, Everhart displayed it in his store. Prints were $2.50 each, $7 framed.

Born in East Vincent, Everhart studied civil engineering but abandoned that career as a young man to open a store at Pughtown. He later moved to locations in Tredyffrin Township and, in 1811, West Whiteland. During the War of 1812, Everhart served as captain of a company of riflemen. Then, in 1814, he married Hannah Matlack, granddaughter of one of three men who’d platted West Chester’s original four square blocks in 1784. That same year, Everhart opened a large store in a brick house that still stands at Boot and Ship Roads in West Goshen.

Everhart served a mostly rural audience, which meant he carried the usual assortment of staples and farm implements—sugar and nails and garden hoes. But that stuff was so commonplace that he stopped advertising it. How Everhart succeeded was by selling the fashionable items that allowed the wives of farmers in remote Willistown to feel that they weren’t camping out.

In 1824, for instance, Everhart triumphantly announced a long list of tempting goodies just unloaded from Julius Caesar out of Liverpool. Among them: silk and cotton stockings; vigonia (vicuna wool) shawls; Brighton boots (a knee-high woman’s boot with high heels); gros de Naples, a corded Italian silk looking much like Irish poplin; China tea ware; and Madeira, Lisbon, Tenerife, Malaga and port wine.

The fact that the goods were imported likely made them all the more enticing. Domestic producers could scarcely compete anyway. Tariffs were low, allowing English factories—and stateside partners such as Everhart—to flood the U.S. market with mass-produced consumer goods. Like the Chinese today, Europeans saw the demand from American consumers as a way to keep their factories busy—particularly when their home markets dried up in the recession that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars.

“Traders like Everhart retarded America’s manufacturing sector,” wrote Chester County historian Douglas Harper. “But the way he saw it, he was simply answering the consumers’ demands.”

But that era was ending, providing another possible explanation for Everhart’s gutsy real estate venture. In 1828, the year Everhart bought the Wollerton farm, Congress passed a new, higher tariff. The surcharge on imported goods—25 percent under the tariff of 1816, raised in 1824 to 37 percent—leaped to 62 percent while eliminating most exemptions. More than 90 percent of imports were subject to the tariff. Southerners, who resented paying more to benefit Northern factory owners, called it the “Tariff of Abominations.” But many Chester County farmers probably cursed it as well.

For a savvy fellow like Everhart, it was a good time to diversify. But he wasn’t the only storekeeper around and, in 1822, had been looking for a way to keep ahead of his rivals. One way was to offer unique merchandise.

But that wasn’t easy. Few merchants employed professional buyers to seek out new and unusual goods. Instead, they placed orders based on samples and, predictably, got back generic shipments that were pretty much the same from store to store. To avoid this, Everhart decided to go to Europe himself.

THE ALBION WAS A 500-ton packet ship, so-called because it was employed to carry mail “packets.” Though of various designs, most packets were three-masted, wooden sailing ships with enough room to also carry private cargo and passengers. The ship on which Everhart sailed was also carrying cotton, turpentine and rice. Other passengers included a French count, seven women—one particularly beautiful—and a Yale professor, Alexander Fisher, who was going to Europe to buy books and instruments for the college.

(Fisher was engaged to Catherine Beecher of Litchfield, Conn., whose sister, Harriet, would publish Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. A year after Fisher drowned in the wreck, Catherine opened a school for girls, the Hartford Female Seminary, to “find happiness in living to do good.” She never married. Harriet was briefly her assistant.)

Sailing from New York on April 1, the Albion’s passengers enjoyed an uneventful voyage until Saturday, April 20, when a gale blew up as they approached the Irish coast.

They rode it out and, at 8 p.m. Sunday, the captain announced they should reach Liverpool the next day. Relieved, many of the passengers—who had spent a night and most of two days clinging to anything solid—went to bed. Not long after, the ship met a violent squall, which carried away its masts.

In the dark, all the crew could do was to work the pumps. But as the hours passed, they sighted the lighthouse at the rocky point known as Old Head of Kinsale (pictured above). Knowing the ship would drift onto the rocks, the captain told passenger and crew at 3 a.m. that all was lost.

“Soon after, she struck,” reported the New York Advertiser. “From thence forward, all was distress and confusion. The vessel soon went to pieces.”

The captain and many sailors were washed overboard. Most of those remaining clung to the bow. They may have been briefly relieved when, after the first impact, the bow swung away from the rocks. Everhart, however, used this moment to clamber toward the stern, which was nearer the cliff. Another wave lifted the ship over a rock, breaking its back. Those on the bow were swept away. Everhart jumped to a tiny rock ledge —wide enough for only one foot—where he stood for five hours until Irish peasants discovered him and lowered a rope.

“When I was in the greatest danger, my mind was completely composed, though I was sick [the whole trip] and the weakest and most feeble passenger on board,” he wrote to Hannah. “Yet I trusted in our Saviour, and I became strong—and continued strong until I got safe on shore, when my strength left me.”

Also saved were eight sailors, then among the few people who could swim.

Bodies washed ashore for three months. Cotton from the cargo hung on the rocks, said one observer, “like wool upon the briars where a flock of sheep has passed through.”

Everhart had been carrying $10,000 in gold. But, when salvagers produced that amount, he refused it on the grounds that he couldn’t be positive that it was his. Still, he wasn’t broke: Everhart had been carrying checks that could be replaced, and some English clients owed him money that could be collected. He continued on his buying mission and returned home in August.

Thereafter, April 22 was a sacred day for Everhart, one that his children continued to observe many years after his death.

Farmer Wollerton couldn’t get a nibble when he first tried to sell in 1818. Business conditions were poor and, at the time, all West Chester consisted of was the courthouse, the Friends meetinghouse, a couple of taverns and no more houses than could be counted on one hand. Probably, his land didn’t seem very valuable.

A decade later, things were different. A new state road was planned that would pass directly through Everhart’s development at about the location of Union Street today. (When subsequent legislation threatened to cancel the road, Everhart pleaded with legislators to protect it.) Other new houses had gone up.

“The newspaper editors encouraged him,” wrote Harper. “New homes meant new subscribers, the reason newspaper publishers have generally favored developers.”

By 1835, Everhart was the richest man in West Chester. On the 1850 census, he was worth $70,000 in real estate alone. Temporarily bored, perhaps, by money-making, Everhart represented Chester County in the 33rd Congress. Declining to run for re-election in 1854, he returned to his business.

After selling his first 50 lots, Everhart settled into a pattern of auctioning off land every few years, never flooding the market. As late as 1844, he advertised a sale of 100 additional lots.

Today, the Everhart lots—bordered roughly by Market, South High and Union streets and, on the west, by Everhart Park—is the most historic part of West Chester. And but for a fortuitously shaped rock, it might have remained the empty hay field it was on the day Everhart boarded the Albion.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at dixon_mark@verizon.net.

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