SOURCE: The Suburbanite, Oct 14, 1981, pp. 1, 10.
William W. Phelps: Man of Distinction
Phelps Park, which honors William Walter Phelps, is located on River Road opposite the Fairleigh Dickinson University campus. The 9.45-acre open space has facilities for picnics, barbecues, tennis, swimming, basketball, and volleyball.
By Tricia Duffy
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.
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.
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 maturity 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 minister to Austria-Hungary, But he held this post for only a few months, resigning after Garfield was assassinated.
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 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 diary 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 of typhoid fever in 1917, 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.