William Backhouse Astor, Jr

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William Backhouse Astor, Jr

William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (July 12, 1830 – April 25, 1892) was a businessman and a member of the prominent Astor family.

The younger son of William Backhouse Astor, Sr., he was joint heir to the Astor real estate empire, though he left its active management to his elder brother John Jacob Astor III (1822–1890).

Astor graduated from Columbia College in 1849. In 1853 he married the socially ambitious Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, who reigned over New York and Newport society as simply "the Mrs. Astor." William, however, had little interest in society parties, and his wife would try to have him kept late at his club to prevent him coming home and throwing the orchestra out and sending his children to bed. Although most of the time during the social season, William would decamp to "Ferncliff" or his yacht.

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. He also supported the Republican Party and like his father was said to have given very generously to its cause. William was also very philanthropic , although only his closets friends knew, and was said to have given away some $20 million in his lifetime.

While his wife spent the summers in Newport, William much more preferred his estate "Ferncliff" on the Hudson. William's Hudson estate had started when in 1850 he purchased some 1,200 acres along the Hudson as a country estate. Over the years that followed, he developed the property, which he named "Ferncliff", adding an enormous agricultural complex. This included expansive gardens and fields, greenhouses, an immense dairy, barns, stables, a smithy, a poultry barn, ice house, a garage, and a covered racetrack. At the center of the estate was a large mansion perched above the Hudson. It was designed in the Italianate style and ringed by a wide piazza, it was a sprawling building of two principal storeys, with an attic roof tucked beneath the cornice. A stone porte cochere opened to a long hall that gave access to the succession of drawing rooms, reception rooms, the library, billiard room and dining room, all decorated with dark woods, bearskin rugs, mounted hunting trophies and portraits of William's favorite horses. Here William could relax in comfort away from the constraints of his wife's social calendar.

Unlike his business oriented father, William Backhouse Astor, 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 Astor often spent winters in Jacksonville, Florida aboard his yacht and was responsible for the construction of a number of prominent buildings in the city. 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 in an area now called Lake County, Florida. There, on what had once been a 16th century Huguenot settlement destroyed by the Spanish, 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 Astor's wife, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.

The town of Manhattan, Florida boomed, and William Astor, 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 Astor did not live long enough to see the orchard grow to production. Following his death in 1892, the property fell to his son, John Jacob Astor IV. 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.

William Backhouse Astor, Jr. died of a heart attack in 1892 in Paris, France. In his will he left a fortune of $50 million to his son, John, while some $10 million was left to Caroline and $1 million to his two surviving daughters. William's total estate was said to be worth $90 million.



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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Originally Created by: Charles Haig
  • Added: 6 Dec 2008
  • Find A Grave Memorial 32002391
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for William Backhouse Astor, Jr (12 Jul 1829–25 Apr 1892), Find A Grave Memorial no. 32002391, citing Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, Manhattan, New York County (Manhattan), New York, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave (contributor 8) .