In the 1880s, the introduction of the railroads into northeast Florida led to an explosion in the winter tourist trade. The various railroad lines poured crowds of tourists into the cities along the St. Johns River, filling hotels to capacity for months. Other seasonal visitors opted to purchase or erect winter residences rather than be confined to a hotel room. This 19th-century Eastlake-style retreat in Palatka, Florida was once the beloved summer home of Pennsylvania banking mogul James Ross Mellon.
By the early 1800s, the Mellon family was regarded as one of the richest dynasties in the United States. Born on January 14, 1846, James Ross Mellon was the son of Mellon patriarch Judge Thomas Mellon, who founded the Mellon Bank in 1869. Mellon spent his childhood in the East Liberty neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s East End. He attended Jefferson College and received an undergraduate degree in 1863. From an early age, Thomas Mellon entrusted his sons with business ventures. After graduating, he lived briefly in Wisconsin, before moving to Kansas where he met his future bride. By the age of 21, James and his brother Thomas Jr. had raised over $100,000 operating a nursery, lumber yard, and construction supply business in East Liberty. James was eager to establish himself before getting married, he returned home to lease the Osceola Coal Works from his father. In 1867, he sold the coal works. Shortly after, James and Rachel were married.
Mellon’s wife, heiress Rachel Larimer Mellon, could not bear the bitterly cold Pennsylvania winters, so together with their three children, the family began traveling to the bustling resort town of Palatka, Florida in 1883. Mellon built a charming 6,000-square-foot home on a corner lot to serve as his family’s winter escape. The couple welcomed many famous guests into their home, including Billy Sunday, a former National League baseball player turned evangelist. Sunday was an incredibly popular supporter of Prohibition, and his preaching likely played a significant role in the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. During their years in Florida, the Mellon family were very involved in the community and supported the local education system. James Mellon donated land for the Mellon School, which later became Putnam High School.
In 1899, the Union Trust Company of Pittsburgh was organized by the Mellon family, to be followed by the Union Savings Bank. These two banks, along with the Mellon Bank, became the three greatest banks in America under single management. The Mellon family ranked among the wealthiest and most prominent industrialists in the United States by the time of Judge Mellon’s death in 1908. Five years later, the Mellon brothers founded the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research as a memorial to their father. James Mellon founded the City Deposit Bank, becoming its president in 1898. By the end of the century, the Mellon Bank was the largest banking institution in the country outside of New York. The institution helped finance the construction of the Ligonier Valley Railroad. The rail ties and lumber used to build the railroad were furnished by the lumber company the Mellon brothers owned.
Sadly, on May 7th, 1919, at the age of 73, Rachel Mellon passed away upon arriving home to Pittsburgh. To honor her memory, her husband built the Larimer Memorial Library (now Larimer Arts Center) and donated it to the City of Palatka. Today, the building is home to the Art Council of Greater Palatka and houses local art galleries. For decades, James Mellon continued to visit Palatka until his passing in 1934. It remained in the Mellon family until the late 1930s.
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