Notable Ridgefielder: Irad Hawley, a retail, railroad and coal magnate whose name and face live on

Irad Hawley

Irad Hawley

Contributed / Hearst Connecticut Media

Irad Hawley made a fortune in food, coal and railroads, but he left his mark on the world in two rather different ways: The home of one of America’s leading art centers, and the name of a small Pennsylvania town.

Born in Ridgefield in 1793, Hawley was a great-grandson of the Rev. Thomas Hauley, the first minister and teacher in the town. Hauley’s home on Main Street at Branchville Road, the oldest house in Ridgefield, is where Irad was born.

In 1807 at age 14, Irad moved to New York to begin a career in retailing. After a break to serve in the War of 1812, he established a grocery firm called Holmes, Hawley & Company, which grew into “a prosperous house in the West India trade for more than 25 years,” said the New York Observer. He married his partner’s daughter, Sarah Holmes, in 1819.

His interests — and income — soon expanded. He helped organize the Pennsylvania Coal Company, serving as its first president. Many of that company’s operations were in the Poconos. There, Irad established the town of Hawley in 1827 at the junction of a coal-carrying “gravity railroad” and the Delaware & Hudson Canal, which transported the anthracite from there to the Hudson and on to New York City.

Hawley became a director of the canal company, but also invested heavily in the “new technology” of railroads, becoming a director of the Boston & Providence and the Chicago & Rock Island Railroads. By 1841, he could retire from Holmes & Hawley with what one historian called “an ample fortune.”

In 1852 he built an “imposing brownstone-fronted house at No. 47 Fifth Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets,” reports Manhattan historian Tom Miller. “The house was an aristocratic expression of the Italianate style. Inside, the mansion was the epitome of current domestic fashion. Elegant carved mantels adorned the main rooms, and the dining room was decorated in the Gothic Revival style.”

The building today is a New York City Landmark, on the National Register of Historic Places, and, since 1917, the home of the Salmagundi Club, which describes itself as “a center for American art since 1871.” Its members have included William Merritt Chase, Charles Dana Gibson, William Hart, Childe Hassam, Howard Pyle, Norman Rockwell, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Louis Comfort Tiffany, J. Alden Weir, Stanford White, and N.C. Wyeth.

Today, portraits of both Ira and Mary are displayed in those hallowed chambers. Duplicates hang in the Ruggles Fine Arts Reading Room of the Ridgefield Library.

Hawley died of typhoid fever in 1865 while staying in Rome, which he was visiting to improve his health.—Jack Sanders