Old Main Street fountain’s history explained
The Eliza Richardson Fountain on Main Street has long been a mystery. Who was she and why does the fountain bear her name? Answers were hard to come by, but as various records were unearthed, they began to piece together a picture of a fascinating woman deserving to be remembered.
Born Eliza Ann Carey on Aug. 18, 1809, in Worcester County, Maryland, she was married in Baltimore at age 18 to Frederick William Oppelt, a turner and chair maker. Oppelt was born in Canada, the son of Moravian missionaries among the Indians. The couple moved from Maryland to Bethlehem, which was a closed Moravian community at the time.
The year 1836 saw the first in a sequence of tragedies in Eliza’s life, when her brother, William R. Carey, Captain of the Artillery, Volunteer Army of Texas, died defending the Alamo at 25 years of age.
Eliza was then widowed in 1842, with the passing of her husband Frederick. He was laid to rest in God’s Acre. Since she was only 33 years old at the time, sources indicate that Eliza remarried, taking the name Hohlfeld, but no further information can be found regarding this marriage.
One can assume she was widowed again, as records next show her living in Philadelphia with her third husband, William Richardson, who had been in business there. The couple moved to Bethlehem in 1851, and by the next year Eliza was a widow once more.
Joseph L. Yoder, a watchmaker/jeweler, moved to Bethlehem in 1855 and rented property from Eliza for his store. They married July 4, 1861.
With this framework in place, we can now look at more personal details of her life. Eliza was a well-known resident here. Upon her first marriage and settlement in Bethlehem, she became a member of the Moravian Church. After a lapse of some years, she joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, but eventually returned to the Moravians.
Eliza owned valuable real estate on Main Street and was a woman of prudent management and considerable business ability. She had significant wealth which she donated generously, assisting many good causes. Parallels can be drawn between Eliza and modern day philanthropists such as Priscilla Payne Hurd and Linny Fowler.
She’s referenced in a history of the Methodist Church on Center Street. In 1875 the main audience room of the new church building was completed, “principally through the liberality of one of the members, Mrs. Eliza A. Yoder.”
Eliza passed away Dec. 10, 1882, at the age of 73. Her funeral took place in her late residence at 69 Main St. and was largely attended. Bishop Edmund de Schweinitz conducted the service at the place of interment, Nisky Hill Cemetery.
Even in death, Eliza’s generosity continued. Her will was printed in the Bethlehem Times on Dec. 15, 1882. In it she gave Joseph L. Yoder a life interest in certain real estate and personal property, besides all household and furniture trinkets. Bequests were made to relatives, ranging from $200 to $3,000, amounting in all to $28,000.
Charitable donations were given as follows: $1,000 to the trustees of Wesley M.E. Church, Bethlehem; the sum of $500 each to the American Tract Society and the Methodist Tract Society, both located in New York City; to the Northern diocese of the Church of the United Brethren, $500 was given for home missions and $500 for foreign missions.
She gave $1,000 to the German Methodist (Evangelical) Church on North Street, Bethlehem as well as to the Penn Widows’ Asylum, located in Philadelphia. To the Philadelphia conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the sum of $1,000 was given. She left $500 to both the Home Missionary Society and to the Foreign Missionary Society of the M.E. Church, Bethlehem.
And now we find the answer to our fountain mystery: “To the burgess and town council of the borough of Bethlehem the sum of $1,500, to be expended by them in erecting a drinking trough and fountain of stone on Main Street, in said borough, between Broad and Market streets, for the use of the public to be called and marked the ‘Eliza Richardson’ fountain, the design and location of said fountain to be, however, first approved by the executors.”
The remainder, $27,600, was bequeathed unto the Moravian College and Theological Seminary of Bethlehem, to be expended in the education of Moravian ministers.
In all, the purchasing power in today’s U.S. dollars that Eliza left behind is over $1.5 million.
If it weren’t for the fountain on Main Street, however, Eliza and her great acts of generosity would be all but forgotten. Let’s take a closer look at the fountain.
John M. Gessler of West Philadelphia was the designer and maker of the Eliza Richardson Fountain. The fountain is of Quincy Granite, and consists of three pieces – base, dye, and cap.
The base contains drinking places and on each end of the dye are these words in sunken letters, “Give us water that we may drink,” taken from the book of Exodus. On the front and back of the fountain are alcoves, bearing the inscription, “The Eliza Richardson Fountain.” The cap was handsomely carved, and overall the Bethlehem Times congratulated Gessler on his neat job.
The 10,000-pound fountain arrived in Bethlehem on April 21, 1884, and was hauled to its position in front of the First National Bank on Main Street by teams loaned by the Bethlehem Iron Company. “Uncle Sam,” Bethlehem Iron’s large crane, was used to unload the heavy blocks of granite.
Three years later the fountain was moved in front of the Sun Inn Hotel and became a landmark, providing much needed refreshment to both man and beast on hot summer days.
In 1935, the Broad and Main Streets’ Business Men’s Association, along with the Chamber of Commerce, deemed the fountain to be an eyesore and a detriment to the business section. Since the fountain had outlived its usefulness, it was removed and later found a home in Elmwood Park.
By the 1970s there was a new wave of thought. People realized the city’s historic past is what makes Bethlehem unique. The neglected fountain was repaired and moved back to Main Street as part of Mayor Gordy Mowrer’s downtown improvement program.
It remains there today, a piece of art and monument to a generous woman of long ago.
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