William Backhouse Astor Jr.

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William Backhouse Astor Jr.
File:William Backhouse Astor Jr.jpg
Born (1829-07-12)July 12, 1829
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died April 25, 1892(1892-04-25) (aged 62)
Paris, France
Cause of death aneurysm
Resting place Trinity Church Cemetery, New York City, New York, U.S.
Education Columbia College
Net worth Increase US $72 million (equivalent to approximately $1,896,266,667 in 2022 dollars)
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Caroline Webster Schermerhorn
(m. 1853—1892; his death)
Children Emily, Helen, Charlotte, Caroline, and John
Parent(s) William Backhouse Astor Sr. and Margaret Rebecca Armstrong
Relatives See Astor family

William Backhouse Astor Jr. (July 12, 1829 – April 25, 1892) was a businessman, racehorse breeder/owner, and yachtsman. He was also a prominent member of the Astor family. While his elder brother financier/philanthropist John Jacob Astor III (1822–1890) was head of the English line of Astors, William Jr. was the patriarch of the male line of American Astors.

Early life

William Backhouse Astor Jr. was born on July 12, 1829, in Manhattan, New York. He was the middle son of real estate businessman William Backhouse Astor Sr. (1792–1875) and Margaret Rebecca Armstrong (1800–1872). William Sr. was a son of fur-trader John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) and Sarah Cox Todd (1761–1834) while Margaret's parents were Senator John Armstrong Jr. (1758–1843) and Alida Livingston (1761–1822) of the Livingston family. In addition to John Jacob III, William Jr.'s siblings were Emily (1819–1841), Laura (1824–1902), Mary (1826–1881), Henry (1830–1918), and Sarah (1832–1832). William Sr.'s elder brother was occasional poet John Jacob Astor Jr. (1791–1869).

Marriage and family life

A well-liked man, Astor graduated from Columbia College in 1849. On September 23, 1853 at Trinity Church he married the socially ambitious Caroline Webster "Lina" Schermerhorn (1830–1908), who reigned over New York and Newport society as simply "the Mrs. Astor." Her parents were Abraham Schermerhorn and Helen White. William Jr. and Lina had 5 children:

  1. Emily Astor (1854–1881), who married sportsman/politician James John Van Alen and had three children
  2. Helen Schermerhorn Astor (1855–1893), who married diplomat James Roosevelt "Rosey" Roosevelt (half-brother of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and had two children
  3. Charlotte Augusta Astor (1858–1920), who married James Coleman Drayton and had four children, later married George Ogilvy Haig
  4. Caroline Schermerhorn "Carrie" Astor (1861–1948), who married Marshall Orme Wilson (brother of banker Richard Thornton Wilson Jr. and socialite Grace Graham Wilson) and had two sons
  5. John Jacob "Jack" Astor IV (1864–1912), who married socialite Ava Lowle Willing and had two children, later married socialite Madeleine Talmage Force (sister of real estate businesswoman/socialite Katherine Emmons Force) and had one son

William Jr. had little interest in society parties, and Lina would try to keep him at his club late to prevent him coming home and sending the orchestra out and his children to bed.

Public life

He supported the abolition of slavery before the American Civil War, and during the war, he personally bore the cost to equip an entire Union Army regiment.

Unlike his business oriented father, William Jr. did not aggressively pursue an expansion of his inherited fortune, preferring life aboard the Ambassadress, at the time the largest private yacht in the world, or horseback riding at Ferncliff, the large estate he had built on the Hudson River. Astor's horse "Vagrant" won the 1876 running of the Kentucky Derby.

William Jr. often spent winters in Jacksonville, Florida aboard his yacht and was responsible for the construction of a number of prominent buildings in the city. He and sixteen other businessmen founded the Florida Yacht Club in Jacksonville in 1877, though he was the only person in Florida to actually own a yacht. The club is now the oldest social club in Jacksonville and one of the oldest yacht clubs in the United States. Liking the area, in 1874, he purchased a land tract of around 80,000 acres (320 km²) along the St. Johns River north of Orlando, Florida in an area now called Lake County, Florida. There he and two partners used 12,000 acres (49 km²) to build an entire town that he named Manhattan but was later changed to Astor in his honor.

His project, which would come to include several hotels, began with the construction of wharves on the river to accommodate steamboats. These steamboats attracted a steamship agency that could bring in the necessary materials and supplies. William Astor enjoyed his development and purchased a railroad that connected the town to the "Great Lakes Region" of Florida. He donated the town's first church and the land for the local non-denominational cemetery, and he also helped build a schoolhouse, both of which are still standing today. In 1875, one of the many nearby lakes was named Lake Schermerhorn after William Jr.'s wife, Lina Schermerhorn.

The town of Manhattan, Florida boomed, and William Jr., with an eye on the large New York market, expanded his interests to a grapefruit grove, a fruit that at the time was only available on a very limited basis in other parts of the United States. But William Jr. did not live long enough to see the orchard grow to production. Following his death on April 25, 1892, the property fell to his son Jack. By then though, rapid changes were taking place throughout Florida. New railroads had been built in 1885 through the central and western part of the state, and in the late 1890s, Henry Flagler built a railroad line running down Florida's east coast from Daytona Beach. All this expansion left the town of Astor isolated and it was all but abandoned after train service to Astor was discontinued.

Death and legacy

William Backhouse Astor Jr. died of an aneurysm in Paris, France. He was buried in Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City, New York. He is one of several responsible for opening up the tourist trade in Florida.

Further reading