By Henry M. Holden
The Gilded Age of Morristown (1880-1929) kicked into high gear in 1887 with the death of Cornelius (Commodore) Vanderbilt in New York City. To his heirs he bequeathed $105 million, a sum said to be equal to that in the United States Treasury the day he died. In today’s money we are talking about over two trillion dollars.
More than 215 men and women of wealth lived in and around Morristown during the years of the Gilded Age. The aggregate of their wealth is staggering, more than two billion dollars.
In 1892 the New York Herald put the number of millionaires living east of the Mississippi at 257, twelve of whom lived in Morristown. Four years later, the initial issue of the Morristown Social Directory contained the names of 76 millionaires with a total wealth in excess of $289 million. By 1914, this figure had grown to half a billion dollars with 92 millionaires, and the end was not in sight.
Who were these men and women of unheard-of wealth? Heading the list was Charles W. Harkness, the third largest holder of Standard Oil Stock in the world. He died on May 1, 1916, before the federal estate tax went into effect. His wife, who died seven months later, left an estate appraised in excess of ten million dollars.
Many chose to settle in Morristown, a community of 8,300 persons, in 1890 because it was located on the tracks of the then fledgling Morris and Essex division of the Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad.
Marcellus Hartley Dodge added to his wealth when he purchased the Giralda Farms (west of Madison) in 1906, to protect his privacy. He died on Christmas Day, in 1963, leaving behind a fortune appraised at $60 million. His wife, the oldest living member of the Rockefeller family was worth $50 million. At her death on April 13, 1973, she left behind her net worth of $101,000,000.
Back in the 1870s, Morristown was described as “a village of good plain people.” But that changed. A few New York families discovered the area and made it their summer vacation destination.
By early 1900s, more millionaires lived within a 3-mile radius around Morristown than anywhere else in the US. Vanderbilt’s estate funded the beginnings of the age of the palaces. A few of these sumptuous Gilded-Age mansions have survived to this day.
A new era of splendor had set in. Witnessing the evolving social scene, the quiet farming community they had known evolved into a town of crowds and carnival. There was a reckless extravagance of some constantly bent on pleasure.
It was an age of licensed piracy, a great evasion of taxation, exploitation of the poor, and profiteering. One resident described the area as an age of guilt. “It was an era of artificiality. Of the people who came here, too many leaned heavily on money and superimposed snobbery. They aped everything British, carriages, harnesses, even the horses were imported from Ireland.”
Hamilton McKeon Twombly erected $5 million replicas of English palaces along with a 500-acre model farm, 400-cow herd, a 100-horse stable and $75,000 greenhouse.
The stock market crash in 1929 was the beginning of the end for the Gilded Age. For a time, it lingered in the gloom of the Depression, and then it was Gone with the Wind. It struggled through the 1930s and 1940s as its heartbeat muffled from the sound of bulldozers razing many of the mansions.
Former president Ulysses S Grant, famous authors like Mark Twain, Brett Harte, Frank Stockton, and Thomas Nast, and boxing champ John L. Sullivan lived in or frequently visited Morristown.
Overnight this new breed lined the main thoroughfare of Madison Avenue and South Street (dubbed the Great White Way) with fabulous mansions and suburban estates. They built polo fields, racetracks, golf courses, and elaborate clubs. These men and women belong to “the richest at least known colony of wealthy people in the world,” said the New York Herald.
But some of these multi-millionaires left behind legacies of social improvements.
They aided the public welfare groups, built libraries, hospitals, and donated vast tracts of property for public use.
Mrs. George Jenkins endowed a chair of medicine at New York University for $100,000. Marcellus Hartley Dodge gave $500,000 to Columbia University, his alma mater, for the erection of a dormitory.
The Gilded Age of Morristown was a way of life, a life which could never again be duplicated, even by a person with hundreds of millions of dollars.