About William Thaw

About William Thaw

A native and lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, Pa., William Thaw made a name for himself – and a fortune – in transportation. He and his brother-in-law formed the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal Line, which made moving freight westward more efficient than horse-drawn wagons. When President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, which began the first transcontinental railroad, Thaw saw the need to divest the canal business and put his money and efforts into rail. During the 1860s and 1870s, he oversaw the Star Union Line, a system that enhanced transporting people and freight along the railroads and significantly impacted America’s expansion westward.

Thaw’s devotion to the transportation industry was matched by his devotion to the Christian faith. He recognized that to whom much is given, much is expected. The drive, leadership and innovation characteristic in his business dealings were evident also in his efforts to improve people’s lives, especially the poor and oppressed. A generous philanthropist, he was known to spend his mornings in meetings with representatives from various charities and causes to listen to their requests.

At the same time that Thaw’s business was thriving, Maryville College was experiencing deterioration and financial strain due to the Civil War. The College closed in 1861 and likely never would have reopened if not for Thomas Jefferson Lamar, an alumnus and teacher who was fervent in his plans and prayers that the College would rise from its post-war ruins. In 1865, Lamar travelled to Pittsburgh, a Presbyterian center as well as a transportation hub, and was introduced to Thaw through a church connection.

From this relationship, Thaw learned that “Maryville College was founded upon a broad Christian basis excluding none from its benefits by reason of their race or color.” William Thaw was so devoted to this same principle that he gave Maryville College its first-ever $1,000 contribution to purchase the land on which the campus is located.

Thaw’s financial and personal investment was a primary reason the College survived. He contributed for endowment, scholarships and buildings. The major gift to build the Lamar Memorial Library (now the Samuel Tyndale Wilson Center for Campus Ministry) came from Thaw. When he died in 1889, wife Mary Copely Thaw continued her support for Maryville College. Thaw Hall, a memorial to her husband, was completed in 1922.

Samuel Tyndale Wilson, Maryville College’s fifth president and author of several college histories, wrote this: “The history of the institution is by far the richer for having had worked into its post-bellum years the gold and silver threads of the generosity of Thaw. He did not limit his help to giving money. He took a personal interest in the welfare and work of the College, and hesitated not to write long and earnest and able letters to those in charge, sometimes giving as much time to the solution of its problems as would have been expected of a director.”


*This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of FOCUS magazine

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2017 semester is 1,181.