Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1835, the son of a weaver. The family emigrated to the United States in 1848 and Andrew worked as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory, a steam engine operator, a messenger boy for a telegraph company and then as a telegrapher. By the time he was 24, he was superintendent of a company that built sleeping cars for the railroads. He helped advise President Lincoln on railroad transport for the troops during the Civil War.After that conflict, he invested in oil wells and then founded a company that manufactured steel rails using the new Bessemer process. His Carnegie Steel Company grew into a giant. In 1901, when Carnegie and his wife and daughter moved to East 91st Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, he sold the company to U.S. Steel for $400,000,000 (worth many times that in today's money).Carnegie believed that personal wealth beyond what was needed by his family should be regarded as a trust fund to be used for the benefit of the community. By the time he died in 1919, he had given away more than $360,000,000. The Carnegie Foundation of New York, which he created in 1911, has assets of more than $1,400,000,000 and distributes more than $60,000,000 a year.Because Carnegie believed education is the key to success in life, he began endowing libraries in the 1880s, first in his native Scotland. In 1901, he made an offer to build 61 branch libraries in New York City.A free circulating library had opened in Richmond Hill with 1,000 donated books in 1899, in Arcanum Hall at Jamaica Avenue and 116th Street. One of the first trustees of the library was Jacob Riis, the journalist/photographer, reformer and great friend of Theodore Roosevelt, whose home was on 120th Street (then Beech Street). Although placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, it was demolished in 1980.With Carnegie's offer in hand, the Man family, developers of Richmond Hill and Kew Gardens, sold the irregular site for $12,000. The cost of the building was $49,659.20. A fountain, no longer in existence, was donated in 1907 by the Twentieth Century Club, for the use of horses. A Children's Room was added in 1929. In 1936, the artist Philip Evergood completed a large WPA-sponsored mural, "The Story of Richmond Hill," which was prominently featured in The New York Times in an April 29 story this year about art in libraries. A flagpole was dedicated in 2003 to replace the one originally funded by Riis but lost. The landscaping around the building has won several awards.Today, the Richmond Hill Branch is a vital and vibrant place. A visit to it shows the diversity of the community it serves and the importance of the library to so many people. It is sad, however, that in these times of heightened security, the Children's Room entrance on Lefferts Boulevard is closed; the room is reached through the main entrance. But the Evergood mural is in very good shape and worth a visit, even if you are not going to read a book or take one with you.Thank you, Andrew Carnegie, for this great gift to all of us.(Next time I will write about the Elmhurst Branch, which was the library of my youth, and in the column after that I will comment about the wonderful Queens Library and about libraries in general.)
©2005 Community News Group
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