POTTSTOWN -- As we approach the end of the 19th year of a new century and millennium, Pottstown has attained its 258th birthday. John Potts bought the land upon which Pottstown would be built in 1751, but construction of the town did not begin until November 1761.
For decades it was nothing more than a country village along the main road from Philadelphia to Reading. However, in the 1830s, with the arrival of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, the town began its transformation from Podunk to a thriving community made prosperous by industries that were attracted to the railroad’s promise of a quick way to carry their products to markets near and far.
This transformation made the borough a magnet for men involved in commerce and the professions that made them wealthy and enabled them to build homes that were on a scale commensurate with their success.
The patriarchs are long gone, but many of their homes still stand and continue to enrich the Pottstown community with their stately appearance. Each has a unique “who and why” story about its creation.
Dr. William Henry Eck was responsible for two of the trophy homes built during Pottstown’s rise in the last decade of the 19th century. Born in Berks County’s Longswamp Township on Aug. 2, 1854, he sometime later moved with his family to the Boyertown area in Douglas Township, Montgomery County.
When he was 8 years old his father, Benneville Eck, went off to fight in the Civil War as a member of Company L of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry. His departure in September 1862 for Camp Curtin in Harrisburg was probably the last time William saw his dad; the man died in a Confederate prisoner of war camp in Salisbury, N.C., in 1865.
Just 11 years old and without resources, William Eck began the path to a successful life that rivals the heroes of Horatio Alger’s novels. A poster child for Operation Bootstrap, he attended Mount Pleasant Seminary, a private school in Boyertown where he worked to pay his tuition. Then he earned the money to pay his was through Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, graduating in 1875. He followed this up with a stint at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and then sailed off to Europe where he completed further studies in Berlin and London.
In 1881 he came to Pottstown and moved into 134 High St. Two years later he had accumulated enough money to build a three-story brick house on a lot that is now 125 N. Hanover St. Next came Eck’s McMansion. In 1901, at the age of 46, he married Anna Beulah Rhoads of Pottstown and for the occasion built a house of grandiose proportions on East High Street, just west of Roland. Some of the locals ridiculed the building, dubbing it “Eck’s Folly” and claiming it was too far out of town. Time proved the doubters wrong.
Eck was skilled with a stethoscope, but he was also an excellent businessman and politician. He made most of his money developing real estate and became prominent enough in Pottstown to serve several terms on Borough Council. In 1894 was elected burgess.
In the latter position, The Daily News compared him to the “Caliph of Bagdad who went about his city and saw things for himself.” Apparently keeping an eye on the local police force was his favorite target as the paper noted the police “never knew when the ‘boss,’ as he was termed, would be out late at night.” As a result, “there was little disposition on the part of the officers to leave their beats before quitting time was up.”
In 1914 William Eck was 60 years old. The years of making house calls day and night no matter what the weather had worn him down. It was said that in his first 13 years of practice in Pottstown he only took six vacation days. He decided to retire and downsize, but not the way most people do. He bought 117 High St., a three-story building in which he and his wife occupied one floor. His mansion on High Street, if a buyer had been found, would have commanded a pretty penny. But Eck donated it to the people of Pottstown for use as a hospital. Thus, in 1914, the Homeopathic Hospital, later named Memorial Hospital, came into existence.
In 1929 Eck developed cancer of the face. Given the state of medicine at the time it was a death sentence. He died at his home, 117 High St., on Oct. 18, 11 days before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.
His widow, Anna B. Eck, died a little less than five years later on Aug. 19, 1934. The couple had no children so the line ended with him. They are buried in the east side of the Pottstown Cemetery.