Thomas Mellon – from modest Tyrone roots to founder of American dynasty

Thomas Alexander Mellon was an outstanding entrepreneur and enjoyed a brilliant career
Thomas Alexander Mellon was an outstanding entrepreneur and enjoyed a brilliant career

Two hundred years after his arrival in America, historian GORDON LUCY looks at the life of the Ulster-Scots lawyer and bank founder Thomas Mellon

Thomas Mellon emigrated as a five-year-old child from Camp Hill, Lower Castletown, near Omagh, Co Tyrone, in 1818.

In doing so, his parents, Andrew and Rebecca Mellon, were following in the footsteps of Archibald Mellon, Thomas Mellon’s grandfather who had emigrated to the United States in 1816.

The modest Mellon family homestead, which is still there, formed the nucleus of the Ulster-American Folk Park. From Mellon’s memoir, we know that the family sailed from Londonderry to St John’s, New Brunswick.

This stage of the journey took 12 weeks and was “such a horror he did not want to describe it”.

From St John’s, New Brunswick, they sailed to Baltimore, Maryland. This stage of the journey took a fortnight, arriving “on or about the 1st of October 1818”.

From Baltimore to western Pennsylvania took a further three weeks – “a long, tedious trip” – by Conestoga wagon

The family put down roots at Poverty Point in Westmoreland County, near Pittsburgh, where Archibald Mellon had settled. Life there was happy but frugal.

A visit to Pittsburgh left a profound impression on the mind of nine-year-old Thomas. He was particularly impressed by “wealth and magnificence I had before no conception of” on seeing the mansion of prominent landowners Jacob and Barbara Ann Negley.

At the age of 14, Mellon read and was greatly inspired by the ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’, Franklin’s rags-to-riches tale. When he was 17, he rejected his father’s plans to set him up as a farmer and instead he attended the Western University in Pittsburgh, read law with a prominent Pittsburgh attorney, and became a member of the bar in 1838.

After a long and protracted courtship, in August 1843 he married Sarah Jane Negley, daughter of the family whose affluence had so impressed the young Mellon. They became the parents of eight children.

In due course Mellon became an outstanding entrepreneur (largely through making shrewd and intelligent use of his wife’s money), lawyer and judge and the patriarch of the Mellon family, enjoying a brilliant career which in material terms easily surpassed that of Benjamin Franklin.

His most enduring achievement was the founding of T Mellon & Sons Bank in 1870. By the end of the 19th century the Mellon Bank was the largest bank in the United States outside New York. The bank was largely responsible for the transformation of south-west Pennsylvania into one of the great industrial powerhouses of the world in the 40 years before the Great War.

Highly literate and an excellent writer, in 1885 Mellon published ‘Thomas Mellon and His Times’, a classic of American autobiography.

Although Mellon lived through the massive territorial and economic expansion of the United States, as well as the Civil War, these great events and developments do not figure as prominently in his memoir as we might expect because it was primarily written for the benefit of his offspring rather than for the general public.

As a memoir of one man’s personal journey from the Old World to the New and from an agrarian to an industrial society, it is of immense value.

We learn of the importance of marrying for discretion rather than love (about which more presently), of the onerous responsibilities of a judge, of ‘the Great Panic of 1873’ (when he came pretty close to losing everything and half of Pittsburgh’s 90 organized banks and 12 private banks failed but he survived and was well placed to prosper when the economy recovered), his perception of a declining work ethic and of an increase in criminality (which Mellon believed was a feature of the newly industrialised America), and about the (not always beneficial) transformative effects of new technology and invention.

In 1882, Mellon retired from day-to-day management of the bank, transferring its management to his sons. He took the opportunity to travel and visited Ulster and Scotland.

‘A warm admirer of Robert Burns’, an enthusiasm inherited from his mother, he visited Burns’ cottage at Alloway.

Mellon was a Presbyterian but was not conspicuously devout.

He was a member of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, the site of which had been provided by the Negleys.

Mellon died on February 3 1908, his 95th birthday. He and Sarah Mellon are buried in Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh.

Thomas’ son Andrew William Mellon was born in Pittsburgh in 1855, trained as a lawyer and assumed responsibility, along with his brother Richard Beatty Mellon (born 1858), for the family bank in 1882.

He was ‘a chip off the old block’ and became a major figure in both banking and industry in his own right.

As a father Thomas left a lot to be desired. Although Thomas’ worldview helped Andrew succeed in business, Thomas’ personality and outlook did not serve Andrew well in his personal life. According to Paul Mellon, in his memoir ‘Reflections in a Silver Spoon’ (1992), his father Andrew entered adulthood as a “thin-voiced, thin-bodied, shy and uncommunicative man”.

According to one contemporary, he was “so closed” that, had he got religion, he would not have “told it to God”.

He broke off an engagement, on his father’s orders, after discovering that his fiancée was dying of consumption. When he did marry, it was in his mid-40s to a wholly unsuitable 20-year-old English girl, “his one open rebellion against his father”.

The marriage ended in divorce – perhaps predictably as Mellon treated his young bride “like a client at the bank, seeking a loan to finance an ill-conceived venture”.

His relations with his children were also blighted.

In addition to becoming a major figure in banking and industry, Andrew became secretary of the Treasury to three successive American presidents: Harding, Coolidge and Hoover.

During his long tenure of office, Andrew cut taxes, enforced Prohibition, and presided over a booming economy (‘the Roaring Twenties’). He was spoken of as the greatest Treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton, George Washington’s holder of the post.

He was briefly ambassador to the United Kingdom between 1932 and 1933. A great patron of the arts, he endowed the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.