William Walter Phelps
(August 24, 1839 – June 17, 1894), the son of John Jay Phelps, a successful New York City merchant and financier, was born in Dundaff,
Pennsylvania. During his successful banking career in
Manhattan, he settled in Teaneck, New
Jersey, across the Hudson
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,
Connecticut, where his academic advancement was so rapid that
he was fully prepared for college at the age of 15.
graduated from Yale
University in 1860,
valedictorian of his class and a member of Skull &
Bones. In the same year he married Ellen Maria
Sheffield of New Haven, Connecticut.
They traveled in Europe, where, in Paris,
in 1861, their first child, John Jay II, was born. Phelps attended
Columbia Law School
in 1863. Following this, he practiced corporate law in New York
City. In 1864, their second child, Sheffield, was born.
Phelps followed the family career in banking and industry, serving
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 railroads.
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 War days.
Phelps extensively renovated the old homestead, converting it into
one of the most beautiful and celebrated mansions of its time. In
1868, the last child, Marian, was born. In 1869, following the
death of his father, John Jay, Phelps retired from his law practice
and moved the family full-time to Teaneck.
eloquence with an interest in politics, Phelps, a Republican, sought and won
a seat in the United States House of
Representatives in 1872 at the age of 34, representing New Jersey in the 43rd
William Walter Phelps
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
Phelps failed in his first bid for reelection, in 1874. After his
term ended, Phelps returned in 1875 to his Teaneck home, where he
planned improvements to the homestead and looked 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 approximately 600,000 trees of numerous varieties.
In 1880 Phelps was selected to manage the Republican Presidential
campaign but he was unable to complete the assignment because of
feeble health. In 1881, President James A. Garfield
named Phelps as Envoy
Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary 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, 1885 and again in 1887.
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
nearly midnight on April 1, 1888 when Phelps, returning to his
apartments in Washington,
D.C. 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.
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
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.
William Phelps was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison as Envoy Extraordinary and
Minister Plenipotentiary to Germany. On October 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 remained 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 1890.
In his diary Phelps wrote,
returned to Germany a year later, remaining in this post until January
1893, when his health began to suffer due to the climate.
traveled south, vacationing in Spain, Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Italy, hoping the
climate would improve his health.
State Judge and Final Days
While Phelps was vacationing, Governor of New Jersey George T. Werts
appointed him Judge of the New Jersey Court of
Errors and Appeals
, then the state's highest court. Turning
over the affairs of the legation to his successor, Phelps again
returned to the United States to be sworn into his judicial role on
June 20, 1893.
In February 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
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,
Virginia, 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.
of people lined the streets of Teaneck and Englewood to honor his funeral procession.
he had planted himself lined the path of this final journey. At the
time of his death, Phelps owned half of what is presently