Past Treasure of the Month – June 2012
The Rosenberg Library displayed an ornate silver pitcher and goblet which belonged to its benefactor, Henry Rosenberg, as the June Treasure of the Month. The beautifully engraved presentation silver was awarded to Rosenberg in 1872 for his service as President of the Galveston City Railroad Company. It was made by George B. Sharp, a premiere silversmith and jewelry maker who operated one of Philadelphia’s largest and most successful shops in the 1870s. The silver made its way into a private collection in Palm Beach, Florida and was acquired by an antiques dealer through an estate sale. Eager to see the silver returned to Galveston, the Rosenberg Library purchased these artifacts in 1991.
The son of a shoemaker, Henry Rosenberg was born of modest means in the village of Bilten, Switzerland in 1824. Forced to quit school at an early age to earn additional income for the family, Rosenberg worked as a fabric painter in his teens. At age 19, he was given the opportunity to immigrate to America to work for John Hessly, the son of his Swiss employer, at a newly opened dry-goods store in Galveston, Texas.
After landing on the island in 1843, Rosenberg — who spoke no English — went to work as a clerk at Hessly Dry Goods, a small wood-frame building on the south side of Market Street between 21st and 22nd. Earning a salary of $2 per week, he saved and invested his money wisely. Within three years, Rosenberg was able to buy both the business and the building from his employer.
Next door to Rosenberg’s dry goods store was a ladies’ hat shop operated by Letitia Cooper of Virginia. Mr. Rosenberg and Ms. Cooper fell in love and married in 1851. By 1859, Rosenberg had built his business into the leading dry-goods store in the state of Texas. His growing wealth led to opportunities in banking, real estate, and transportation. Rosenberg became a director of the First National Bank of Galveston in 1868 and then president of the Galveston City Railroad Company in 1871. He was appointed city alderman and served two terms.
In 1874, Rosenberg organized the Galveston Bank and Trust Company. After buying out its stockholders, he continued to operate the bank under his own name. Rosenberg was president of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railway Company when it laid its first fifty miles of track in the late 1870s. He was also vice-president of the Galveston Wharf Company and served as Consul to Switzerland.
An active member of Trinity Episcopal Church, Henry Rosenberg provided generous funds toward the construction of Eaton Memorial Chapel in 1882. However, he later withdrew his membership to join the congregation at Grace Episcopal Church. In 1888, Rosenberg donated $40,000 to establish a public school in the city’s East End. The Rosenberg Free School was named in his honor.
After suffering a long illness, Letitia Rosenberg died later that same year. Rosenberg mourned the loss of his wife of 37 years but found comfort in her long-time companion and caregiver, Mollie Ragan Macgill. The two married in 1889.
Henry Rosenberg died in his home on May 12, 1893 at the age of 69. Galveston residents were greatly saddened by the loss of one their community’s greatest benefactors. Local schools closed for the day, and flags were flown at half-mast throughout the city. Various memorial services and tributes took place for three weeks following his death.
Rosenberg’s body was laid in state at the Rosenberg Free School and more than five thousand people came to view the body and offer condolences to the family. The funeral took place on May 14, with services conducted in part at the school with concluding rites at Grace Episcopal Church. Upon his wishes, Rosenberg’s remains were buried at Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland alongside his first wife. (Mollie Ragan Macgill was also interred there after her death in 1917.)
While his philanthropy was recognized during his lifetime, it was not until after his death in 1893 that citizens fully realized his civic contributions. Rosenberg died childless and left his vast fortune to various charitable and religious organizations in Galveston as well as in his birthplace in Switzerland. His will provided funds for the following Galveston landmarks: the Texas Heroes Monument at Broadway and 25th, the Galveston Orphans’ Home, the Letitia Rosenberg Woman’s Home, seventeen drinking fountains “for man and beast,” and the Young Men’s Christian Association, among others. The remainder of his estate — about $400,000 — was to be used for the construction of a free public library for the people of Galveston.
Several years after his death, the Galveston School Board designated May 1 as “Rosenberg Day.” Schools were closed for the holiday and the occasion was marked with festivities to honor the anniversary of Rosenberg’s birth. In March 1906, a larger-than-life bronze statue of Henry Rosenberg was erected at the East Entrance of the library. It was a gift from the people of Galveston and was paid for through voluntary public donations. Several thousand people attended the unveiling ceremony.
Galvestonians fondly remembered Henry Rosenberg for his smart dress and pleasant disposition. He preferred to walk to work each day, donning his signature long black coat and black derby hat. A lover of flowers, he always wore a fragrant bloom on his lapel. On Sundays, children would gather along the iron fence surrounding the Rosenberg residence at Market and 13th and wait to be invited into Mr. Rosenberg’s garden where he would allow them to pick flowers and fruit.