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Mary Williamson Averell

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Mary Williamson Averell Harriman

Mary Williamson Averell (22 July 1851 - 7 November 1932) was born in New York City into a prominent New York family, 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.

In her late twenties she met and married (August 10, 1879) 31 year old E. H. Harriman a rising stockbroker and businessman. Mary’s father subsequently offered him a seat on his railroad’s board, leading 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 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 turn of the 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 August, 1909, E.H. Harriman passed away, but the offer was ultimately accepted, and Mary and her son Averell completed the gift.

After her husband’s death, Mary continued to manage her considerable empire, valued between $70 and $100 million dollars. 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 the Boys’ Club 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.

In her married years Mary was a strong, silent, and supportive wife. After her husband’s death, she was to become 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. She had five children: Mary in 1881; Henry Neilson in 1883; Cornelia in 1884; Averell in 1891 and Edward Roland Noel 1895.

Sources:

Kennan, G. (1922). E.H. Harriman: A Biography. Boston, MA: The Riverside Press.

Klein, M. (2000). The Life and Legend of E.H. Harriman. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

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.

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