Mary Williamson Averell

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Mary Williamson Averell (July 22, 1851 – November 7, 1932) was an American philanthropist and the wife of railroad executive E. H. Harriman. Born in New York to a successful family, Averell married Harriman in 1879. Averell's father introduced Harriman to the railroad business. After Harriman's death, his wife was left with between $70 and $100 million. She became dedicated to philanthropy, donating the land that became Harriman State Park and largely funding the development of the controversial Eugenics Record Office. Averell had several children; her son, W. Averell Harriman became governor of New York and her daughter Mary Harriman Rumsey founded the Junior League.

Early life[edit]

Mary Williamson Averell was born on July 22, 1851 in New York City. She was tutored at home and completed her education at a finishing school with the "expectation that one day she would become a fine wife and mother for some young man of equal or greater social standing than the Averells." Mary’s father, William J. Averell was a successful New York banker and president of the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad.

Marriage and adulthood[edit]

When she was in her late twenties she met 31-year-old E. H. Harriman, a rising stockbroker and businessman. She married him on August 10, 1879. Mary's father subsequently offered Harriman a seat on his railroad's board, which lead to a career in railroads and an extraordinary fortune. In 1886, that fortune allowed E.H. to purchase 7,863 acres (32 km²) of heavily forested land on the western shore of the Hudson River at Highland Falls in New York; this was expanded to 20,000 acres (81 km²) within two years by the purchase of 40 additional properties. The estate, named Arden, came to include dairying, horse breeding and mining. As one of his neighbors put it, “He collects mountains as other men collect china.”

By the start of the 20th century, lumbering and quarries were beginning to encroach on the tranquility of the region. When, in 1909, the state of New York acquired a parcel of land at Bear Mountain to build a new prison, Harriman approached New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes with a proposal to extend the Palisades Interstate Park with a donation of thousands of acres and one million dollars as an endowment for its management if the governor would agree to locate the prison somewhere else. In September 1909, E.H. Harriman died, but the offer was ultimately accepted, and Mary and her son Averell completed the gift.

Later life and philanthropy[edit]

After her husband's death, Mary continued to manage her considerable empire, valued between $70 and $100 million. As one commentator noted, Mary's "lifelong interest in philanthropy was about to become a profession." One of her first undertakings was to fulfill E.H.’s vision of an immense state park. In 1910, Mary donated 10,000 acres (40 km²) of the Arden estate to the State of New York, leading to the creation of Harriman State Park as an extension of the Palisades Interstate Park, along with the one million dollar endowment for its management. She made it conditional upon others contributing $1.5 million and the State of New York matching these funds with an added $2.5 million. She received the Pugsley Gold Medal in 1929 "...for her services in the establishment of the Palisades Interstate Park."

This was to be the start of a life dedicated to philanthropy. Monies were contributed to The Boys' Club of New York that E.H. loved and supported, to the American Red Cross, to John Muir to help save the Yosemite Valley and to Yale University for an endowed chair of Forestry. She also supported a number of artists, including especially sculptor Malvina Hoffman, whose bust of Harriman is still on display in Arden House.

In her married years Mary was a strong, silent, and supportive wife. After her husband's death, she became a leader in American philanthropy, donating her personal and private resources to improve the world around her. But many today would regard it as a serious blot on her reputation that she heavily funded the Eugenics Record Office. In 1913, she created the E. H. Harriman Award in her late husband's honor to recognize outstanding achievements in railway safety; the award is still presented on an annual basis today.

She had six children: Mary in 1881; Henry Neilson in 1883; Cornelia in 1884; Carol in 1889; W. Averell in 1891 and Edward Roland Noel in 1895. In 1901, her daughter Mary, as a 19-year-old New York City debutante, formed the Junior League. In 1955, son W. Averell became governor of New York.

Sources[edit]

  • Marquis, A.N. (1917). Who’s Who in America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Men and Women in the United States, Vol. IX. Chicago, ILL: The A.N. Marquis Co.
  • Myles, W.J. (1991). Harriman Trails: A Guide and History. New York, N.Y.: The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.
  • Kennan, G (1922). E. H. Harriman: Railroad Czar, Vol I. Frederick, Maryland: Beard Books