While William Everhart was born in West Vincent Township, the Chester County native devoted much of his time, finances and creative energy into making West Chester the town we know and love today. After his marriage to Rebecca Matlack introduced him to the area, Everhart etched his name into our town’s history through economic, architectural and political achievements. Everhart’s successful business ventures allowed him to contribute to the borough’s prosperity and earned him the title of West Chester’s richest man in 1835.
The son of a Revolutionary War veteran, Everhart was not born into a position of power and wealth. Instead, he made a name for himself by opening General Ware stores across Chester County. His first store opened in Pughtown, Pa. in the early 1800s. He opened three more in Tredyffrin Township, West Goshen and West Whiteland before establishing a location in West Chester in 1824. Ten years prior, he got his first taste of the area after marrying Rebecca Matlack. Matlack was the granddaughter of one of the borough’s first farmers and their marriage in 1814 opened the door to West Chester life. Across Chester County, Everhart sold European imports including fine cloths and silks, clothing, eyeglasses, medicines, paints and oils and liquors. However, it was not until 1828 that he purchased a large sum of land and made the bulk of his wealth through development.
In 1828, Everhart purchased the 102-acre Wollerton Farm, but if you thought his intention was to settle down and commit to a life of manual labor and barn chores, you are mistaken. Foregoing pitchforks and plows, Everhart sought financial gain through the distribution of land for development. He is considered one of the first and most prevalent Chester County citizens to do so.
His success in land development allowed him to build a family mansion in 1830 that still stands today. In 1833, he built the Lincoln Building and showcased his wealth in the process. While the building may not look technically impressive from today’s standards, Everhart’s wealth allowed him to accomplish several architectural feats that were difficult at the time.
First, the structure showcases a style of brick called Flemish-bonded brick. The pattern is made up of alternating headers and stretchers, or whole bricks and half bricks. While aesthetically pleasing, the task of cutting bricks was painstaking, and this design choice reveals his inclination towards excellency.
Additionally, the first floor of the building exhibits a curved wall. Lincoln Building employee and The Quad Features Editor Max James gave me some insight into this bold decision: “Curved walls served no architectural purpose and were very difficult to create in the 1800s. Essentially, he did it just because he could.” In total, the entrepreneur commissioned more than 100 buildings in West Chester including a fashionable hotel, a dry goods store and its first permanent farmers market. With all of these feats considered, one starts to understand the magnitude of Everhart’s contributions.
However, one of Everhart’s most fascinating tales has nothing to do with architecture and everything to do with what was deemed divine intervention. When Everhart boarded the package ship Albion for Liverpool, England on April 1, 1822, he had no knowledge of the horrors soon to come. Several weeks after his departure from New York, the Albion’s crew and passengers encountered a gale off of the coast of Ireland that would reduce their numbers from 54 to nine.
Around 8:30 in the evening on April 21, heavy waves struck the ship, sweeping six passengers overboard and carrying away everything on deck. The hatches were driven in and every wave that followed flooded the hold. At about 2:50 a.m. the next day, Captain Williams summoned the ship’s passengers to deck and delivered an alarming message; the ship would soon strike the rocks. Everhart, weak from his continual bouts with sickness, was reportedly the last one to leave the cabin, crawling on his hands and knees.
At around 3 a.m., the ship struck a line of jagged rocks and lost its underside to a coral reef below. Some were thrown overboard immediately and some sought refuge, clinging to the rocks. Though weak from his illness, Everhart stood for several hours on one foot, clinging to a crag as cold waves battered him. After the sun rose and the tide ebbed, locals threw Everhart a rope and pulled him to safety. As you can imagine, his time on death’s doorstep left him a changed man. After the wreck of the Albion, Everhart renewed his faith, leading him to preach abolitionism and pursue a brief career as a representative.
William Everhart’s religiosity fueled his avid abolitionist beliefs. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1852 and served in the 33rd Congress from 1853 to 1855. Apparently not one for speeches, he delivered only one during his time as a representative. On May 18, 1854, he delivered his only speech, calling on his fellow House members to support abolitionism and reject the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would allow popular sovereignty to determine the existence of slavery within the territory.
Additionally, in 1833, a slave named Henry Cooper was arrested in West Chester under Fugitive Slave laws. Cooper was found guilty of escaping his former masters and was ordered to return to slavery, but Everhart and other abolitionist West Chester residents raised enough money to purchase his freedom for $300. Many historians also believe Everhart helped assist West Chester’s Underground Railroad stations, though his role as a business man and a political figure leaves us with little physical proof as he could not openly disclose this information.
Everhart was instrumental in breathing life into West Chester. Developing the land and establishing businesses, Everhart helped make West Chester the flourishing town that we know and love today. Though West Chester boasted a starkly different landscape several centuries ago, Everhart and today’s West Chester residents share one similarity; the fondness that is inspired by this place called home.
Celine Butler is a second-year student majoring in psychology with a minor in French. ✉ CB869017@wcupa.edu.