The Life and Time of Thomas Mellon: Lawyer, Judge, Banker

On February 3 in the year 1813, one of the richest Americans during the Gilded Age was born in County Tyrone, Ireland. His name was Thomas Alexander Mellon, the founder of T. Mellon and Sons, the bank that has since metamorphosed into The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation today.

Thomas Mellon
Thomas Mellon (Credit: wiki commons)

Thomas Mellon was the son of farmers in Ireland who moved to the United States when Thomas was five years old. The family settled in western Pennsylvania in an area named Poverty Point. Later, his parents bought a 160-acre farm and expected Thomas to be its future farmer-manager. After reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the young Thomas decided to become rich like Franklin and forgot about farming. He enrolled at the Western University of Pennsylvania (now University of Pittsburgh) and graduated with a law degree in 1837.

Thomas was admitted to the bar in 1838 and immediately opened his law firm. In 1859, he was appointed a judge. While working, he invested his savings in real estate around Pittsburg which was then undergoing fast industrialization. When he retired in 1869, he established a bank which he named T. Mellon and Sons. The bank almost failed in the ensuing Panic of 1873 but survived by his enormous landholdings.

When the economy recovered, T. Mellon and Sons was one of the few that prospered with the rising popularity of Pittsburgh as the site of many big factories like steel and its allied industries, coal, oil and locomotives. He hobnobbed with industry giants such as Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller. By the end of the 19th century, his bank became the largest outside New York City.

Thomas Mellon died in 1908 at the age of 95. He had eight children with his wife Sarah. His eldest son Andrew proved to be a more astute empire builder than his father.


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