Descendants of William and George Phelps
William Walter Phelps, the son of a successful New York City merchant and financier, was born in Dundaff, Pa. on Aug. 24, 1839. Several decades later, at the height of a successful banking career in Manhattan, he made the decision to "go West" and settled in the thriving hamlet of Teaneck, New Jersey.
From The Phelps Family of America and Their English Ancestors, (Save $201 by ordering through us.) Two volumes. By Judge Oliver Seymour Phelps and Andrew T. Servin. (Eagle Publishing Company of Pittsfield, Mass., 1899)p. 956 f
Young Phelps' first school experience was at Mount Washington Institute in New York. He was described by contemporaries as a round-faced, rosy-cheeked boy, with sparkling dark eyes; active though not physically strong. Phelps then attended private school at Golden Hill near Bridgeport, Conn., where his academic advancement was so rapid that he was fully prepared for college at the age of 15.
He graduated from Yale University in 1860 with high honors and toured Europe extensively before receiving his degree from Columbia College Law School, where he was awarded the valedictory appointment of his class. Phelps married Ellen Maria Sheffield of New Haven, Conn. in 1861.
Following his family career in banking and industry, Phelps served as a director for the National City Bank, the Second National Bank of New York, the United States Trust Co., the Farmer's Loan & Trust Co. and nine railroad firms.
After the birth of his two sons, he bought a summer home in Bergen County an old-fashioned Dutch farmhouse on the "Teaneck Ridge," an area of Teaneck now adjacent to Route 4. that had been the Garret-Brinkerhoff House in Revolutionary days.
Starting in 1869 from a farmhouse, "with the aid of architects he made additions and alterations until in 1886 the building was 350 feet long, varying from 25 to 50 feet in width.(2)"
Phelps extensively renovated the old homestead, converting it into one of the most beautiful and celebrated mansions of its time. The Phelps family made this their permanent residence and the youngest child, Marion, was born in the house.
Combining eloquence with an interest in politics, Phelps, a Republican, sought and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives at the age of 34. A renowned journalist of the day described William Walter Phelps upon his first day in Congress thusly:
"Mr. Phelps is just five feet nine-and-a-half inches tall and weighs about 170 pounds. He is lithe of limb and very active. He walks with a live, springy step. His face is refined and handsome, with a wide grasping, intellectual forehead and we think he has the finest eyes of any man in Congress. Mr. Phelps' manner is simple, gracious and winning and in pleasing harmony with his thoughts, and he never utters a platitude. Patient, industrious and resigned, he is a model of the highest type of culture."
During his first term in Congress. Phelps was considered by his colleagues to be a serious, well-versed and mature public servant-a successful young lawyer, ambitious, with money and energy who was expected to make his mark on politics and statesmanship.
After his term, Phelps returned in 1875 to his Teaneck home, where he spent hour upon hour planning the improvements to the homestead and looking for additional land investments nearby. In the next year, he embarked upon a European tour, partly to regain his health which had suffered from a bout of typhoid fever. While abroad, Phelps investigated institutions of learning and art in England, France and Germany, and enjoyed the society of scholars, authors and scientists.
Returning to the United, states, Phelps spent most of his time resting and working on his most important hobby-his estate. His great passion was trees and the woods; he was a devotee of arboriculture. Between 1875 and 1880 Phelps was responsible for planting and seeing to maturitv approximately 600,000 trees of numerous varieties.
In 1880 Phelps was tapped to manage the Republican Presidential campaign but he was unable to complete the assignment because of feeble health. Special honors awaited him, however, and in 1881 President John A. Garfield named Phelps Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Austria-Hungary, but he held this post for only a few months, resigning after Garfield was assassinated. [It was apparently while serving in Austria-Hungary that William W. Phelps traveled to Vevery, Switzerland, where he and the Hon. Charles A. Phelps, M.D. of Massachusetts commisioned a memorial to their ancestor John Phelps, clerk of the court that condemned Charles I.]
Still active in politics, Phelps was re-elected to Congress in 1883 and again in 1885.
In 1886 the Phelps mansion was completed. At Christmas time the family held a glorious celebration with people from all over the country viewing the mansion for the first time. Phelps' favorite room was a gallery which he had designed himself to hold his priceless collection of art treasures from the ends of the earth.
It was nearly midnight on the first day of April 1888 when Phelps, returning to his apartments in Washington after an evening with friends, found on the table in his bedroom two telegrams which told him that his mansion in Teaneck, where his family then was, had been totally destroyed by fire, with a loss of nearly all its valuable contents. He disturbed no one upon receiving this startling news, but very early in the morning awakened his secretary, told him what had happened, and said that he was going to take an immediate train for New York. He left on the train without once alluding to the great calamity.
The mansion, once the most beautiful in the area, became known as "Phelps' Ruin" and local residents picnicked near the destroyed home - marveling at what it once had been. Phelps immediately began renovation of the house.
On Oct. 11, 1889 William Phelps was presented to the German Empress at a gala performance at the Royal Opera House, given in honor of the Czar of Russia. Phelps was appointed Minister to Germany, remaining in the post for one year until a case of homesickness prompted his request for a short leave of absence. He sailed for America in September of 1890.
In his diary Phelps wrote, "I have come home to rest and enjoy myself. I intend to spend my vacation upon my Teaneck farm. I feel as if I were already a Jersey farmer again. See, there is one of my farm wagons on the pier. ready to take off my luggage and those lusty-looking fellows have come down fresh from Teaneck to give me an early welcome. I expect to live among the trees until I get rested, and then hunt up my friends to see that they have not forgotten me. No Politics this time, only that I shall vote the Republican ticket in Bergen County at the coming election, and soon after return to my official duties at Berlin."
Phelps returned to Germany a year later, remaining until January 1893 when his health began to suffer from the climate and he traveled south through Spain, Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Italy.
While Phelps was vacationing, Governor Werts of New Jersey appointed him judge of the state Court of Errors and Appeals. Turning over the affairs of the legislation to his success, Phelps again returned to the United States to be sworn into his judicial role on June 20, 1893.
In February of 1894, Phelps' throat began to trouble him seriously, and the illness confined him to his home for days. [He was diagnosed with tuberculosis.] He continued to try to keep up with his work and in fact was present until the adjournment of the term. A few days later he traveled to the Hygeia Hotel at Old Point Comfort in Virginia, a resort that in the past had been a place of rest for him.
Here Phelps became withdrawn and quiet, an attitude brought on by his physical inability to converse. The last entry in his dairy is dated April 10, 1894. Phelps moved himself to Hot Springs, W. Va., where he enjoyed a temporary return of strength. Finding no lasting improvement in his health in Hot Springs, Phelps returned to his home in Teaneck on May 18.
By May 31 he was bedridden, and in June he lapsed into a coma. He died June 17, 1894.
Hundreds of people lined the streets of Teaneck and Englewood to honor his funeral procession. The trees he had planted himself lined the path of this final journey.
Upon his burial the New York Tribune wrote: "He possessed a rich store of affection and sympathy on which all who knew him drew at will, with full assurance that their drafts would never be dishonored. Not on friends alone, but wherever he detected the need of assistance or of consolation, he bestowed the best gift in his keeping. He won in life the only reward he wanted, but the tribute of tears which would have grieved him must follow him to the grave."
At the time of his death William Walter Phelps owned half of what is presently Teaneck. His estate was left equally to his widow and three children. His youngest son, Sheffield, died on December 9, 1902 in Aiken, SC. Mrs. Phelps died in 1920 and Marion Phelps in 1923. John Jay, William's eldest son, lived until 1948, when he died at the age of 87. (1)
A postcard of the Phelps mansion in Teaneck, New Jersey. "Phelps' Mansion, Teaneck, N. J. Pub. by 709 M. Fast, Hackensack, N. J., Printed in Germany."
Click for larger image [17kb].
Phelps Mansion in Teaneck, New Jersey
"The largest estate built in Teaneck belonged to William Walter Phelps, the son of a wealthy railroad magnate and New York City mercantilist. In1865, Phelps arrived in Teaneck and enlarged an old farmhouse into a spectacular Victorian mansion on the site of the present municipal government complex. Phelps' Englewood Farm eventually encompassed nearly 2,000 acres of landscaped property within the central part of Teaneck. Hence, subsequent development and house construction was along the perimeters of the township, the central part being a lovely park-like tract crisscrossed by picturesque roads and trails. ... Residential development began in earnest after the opening of the Phelps Estate in 1927. The completion of the George Washington Bridge in 1931 and its connection to Teaneck via State Highway Route 4 brought hundreds of curious and eager new-home buyers. The population increased 300 percent between 1920 and 1930, from 4,192 to 16,513."(5)
A Notable AmericanPHELPS, William Walter, diplomatist, was born in New York city, Aug. 24,1839; son of John Jay and Rachel B. (Phinney) Phelps, and a descendant of William Phelps, Windsor, Conn., 1635. His father removed from Simsbury, Conn., to New York City and became prominent as an importing merchant and as the organizer and first president of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western railroad company. William was graduated at Yale, A. B., 1860,A.M., 1863, and was married, July 26, 1860, to Ellen, daughter of Joseph E. Sheffield of New Haven, Conn. He was graduated at Columbia, LL.B., 1863; settled in practice in New York City, and became counsel for various banks, trust companies and railroad corporations.
Upon the death of his father in 1869, he devoted himself entirely to the management of the family estates and other private trusts. He declined the judgeship of the 6th judicial district of New York in 1869, removed to Englewood, N.J., and was a Republican representative from the fifth district in the43d, 48th, 49th, and 50th congresses, 1873-75 and 1883-89. He was a delegate to the Republican National Conventions of 1880 and 1884; U.S. minister to Austria, 1881-82; U.S. minister to Germany, 1889-93, and lay judge of the court of errors and appeals of New Jersey.
He served on the committee on foreign affairs for three successive congresses, and represented American interests at the International conference on the Samoan question in Berlin in 1889. He was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution; was influential in securing for the graduates of Yale a share in the government of the university; was a fellow of Yale, 1872-92,and received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Rutgers in 1889, and from Yale in 1890.
He made gifts to Yale University aggregating $150,000. He was a prominent member of the leading clubs in New York City. His published speeches include: Franking Privileges (1874): Sound Currency (1874); Civil Rights Bill (1875); Fitz-John Porter's Case (1884); Laskar Resolutions (1884); oration before General Grant and his cabinet at a Grand Army reunion on The Dangers of War at Paterson, N.J.; The Dangers of Peace, Decoration Day, Mount Holly, N.J. (1886); Tariff, address before the Agricultural Society of New Jersey (1884), and one on Congress before the New England society (1886). He died at Teaneck, near Englewood, N.J., June 17, 1894. (3)
Phelps, William Walter, 1839-1894
PHELPS, William Walter, a Representative from New Jersey; born in New York City August 24, 1839; attended private schools near Bridgeport, Conn., and Mount Washington Institute, New York; was graduated from Yale College in 1860 and from the law department of Columbia College, New York City, in 1863; was admitted to the bar and commenced practice in New York City; retired from the practice of law in 1868; engaged in banking in New York City, with residence in Englewood, N.J.; also served as a director of numerous railroads; elected to the Forty-third Congress (March 4, 1873-March 3, 1875); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1874 to the Forty-fourth Congress; delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 1880 and 1884; Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Austria in 1881; relinquished the position in 1882; elected as a Republican to the Forty-eighth, Forty-ninth, and Fiftieth Congresses (March 4, 1883-March 3, 1889); declined to be a candidate for renomination in 1888; appointed by President Harrison one of the commissioners to represent the United States at the International Congress on the Samoan Question, which met in Berlin in 1889; appointed Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Germany in 1889 and served until 1893; appointed a special judge of the court of errors and appeals of the State of New Jersey in 1893; died in Englewood, Bergen County, N.J., June 17, 1894; interment in the City Cemetery, Simsbury, Connecticut.(4)
Prominent Men and Women of the Day
"For some years the face of William Walter Phelps has been gradually becoming more and more familiar to the readers of the illustrated weekly press. In no way has he made so much noise in the world as by his bangs which the caricaturists have made their own. The gradual growth of a public man into the favor of the caricaturists and his consequent presentation to the great reading public is one of the most interesting things in pictorial journalism."
"There is no more interesting figure in the house of congress than the millionaire representative from New Jersey, William Walter Phelps, who, like many other men of wealth, finds in the discussion of public questions of a diversion more agreeable than is furnished by their private affairs. Phelps, who inherited wealth, has in his time been lawyer, railway promoter, diplomat, politician and congressman. He likes a stirring occupation such as the game of politics affords, and he once refused a judgeship tendered by Governor Fenton, of New Jersey, because he did not want to confine his sphere to the business of untangling legal intricacies. In 1881 he was appointed minister to Austria and accepted.
"Like all public men, Phelps is better known by certain peculiarities than anything else. The wits and paragraphers have had so much to say abou this "bangs" that they have become as famous as Ben Butler's drooping eyelid, Luke Poland's silver-buttoned coat, or Tom Ochiltree's cross-eyes. This mild affectation, together with a certain softness in speech, invariably impresses a stranger with the idea that Phelps is "putting it on." The idea is an incorrect one. Phelps combs his hair over his forehead to conceal the scantiness of his locks, though this device does not serve to hide the enlarging bald spot on the crown of his head. What is regarded as affectation in his speech is really natural, and his addresses are polished, shrewd and sound. He can see as far into a mill-stone as anybody, and he enjoys the lively skirmishes which congressional discussions afford. When "Jim" Belford, who gloried in the title, "red-headed rooster of the Rockies," was representing Colorado in congress, he had a pick at Phelps and made the famous declaration that" no man who banged his hair could run the republican party." However, Belford is now in obscurity while Phelps is in the president-making business.
"Phelps dislikes the routine work of politics, and has a man employed by the year to keep him posted on all political changes. He uses this man's information as a sort of animated reference book, and does not bother his own memory for anything of this nature. In the political maneuvering on the floor of the house, Phelp's attitude is significant, owing to the fact that he is regarded as the close personal friend of James G. Blaine. Phelps is supposed to look after Blaines's interests in the house, while Frank Hiscock does the same in the senate. It is not a violent presumption to assume that Mr. Phelps would receive distinguished honors should Mr. Blaine have the opportunity to confer them.
"Phelps makes his home in Englewood, New Jersey, and his wealth is reported as fabulous." (6)
William Walter Phelps' Diplomatic Credentials
Chiefs of Mission - Austria
State of Residency: New Jersey
Title: Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary
Appointment: May 5, 1881
Presentation of Credentials: Jun 20, 1881
Termination of Mission: Superseded Jun 30, 1882
Note: Commissioned to Austria-Hungary. (7)
Phelps Park, which honors William Walter Phelps, is located on River Road opposite the Fairleigh Dickenson Univesity campus. The 9.45-acre open space has facilities for picnics, barbecues, tennis, swimming, basketball, and volleyball.
(1) William W. Phelps: man of distinction by Tricia Duffy. Originally published in The Suburbanite, Oct 14, 1981, pp. 1, 10.
(3) From The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Volume IIV. Rossiter Johnson, ed. The Biographical Society, 1904. 10 vols. [Republished by Gale Research Company, Book Tower, Detroit. A corrected edition of The Cyclopedia of American Biography (1897-1903) and Lamb's Biographical Dictionary of the United States (1900-1903).]
(5) Excerpted from A History of Teaneck -- 1895 - 1995. By Robert D. Griffin, Township Historian, June 1, 1994. Re-published in The Record, Friday, October 20, 1995
(7) Chief Envoys to Austria, United States State Department (February 2004)