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This Week in Port Jervis History

On July 28, 1884, George Lea ran a $1 excursion from Port Jervis to New York City. George Lea, was a French-born Englishman, who was a successful New York businessman. Lea was born Guillaume George Lea in Paris on May 18, 1818 to Louis Phillippe Guillaume Lea (1800-1878) and Marianne Lee nee Kemlett (1800-1878). His father was born in France and his mother in England. Lea grew up in Bath, England, where his father taught French at Grosvenor College. His father authored several books, including, Parallel between French and English Poetry, An Abridged History of France, and La Coquette: A Comedy in Three Acts and in Verse. George Lea was trained as a pharmacist in Bristol, England, while still a teenager. He came to New York in 1838 and found a job at a drugstore on Crosby Street in New York City. Although Lea came to America penniless, he saved his earnings and eventually bought the shop from his employer. George Lea bought several other drugstores in the city in short order. George Lea began his theatrical career in the autumn of 1848, when he partnered with theater manager, J. Pesch, at the Franklin Museum theater on Chatham Street (now Park Row). At the end of the year, Pesch left the theater and Lea became the manager of the Franklin, which he ran for a decade. Lea married a woman named Julia around this time and they had two children, Flora (born 1852) and George Lea, Jr. (born 1854). Lea left the Franklin at the end of the season in 1860. Lea realized that to be successful he had to make a name for the theaters he managed. Lea paid a cash price of $212 in 1856 for an advertisement in the New York Herald for his performance at the Chinese Assembly Rooms. This performance was initially a flop. After Lea took out an advertisement, which is believed to be the first full page advertisement in the United States, demand for tickets took off and Lea’s performance quickly turned a profit. Lea once ran nineteen advertisements in a single issue of the New York Herald. By the 1860s, Lea had acquired theaters on Broadway, as well as in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Washington. He had amassed a fortune and began speculating on Wall Street. In the 1860s, however, Lea’s Oriental was raided and he was arrested for selling liquor on a Sunday. Lea became ineligible to acquire future theater licenses in New York City. In 1866, Lea lost over $50,000 on Wall Street. Lea soon relocated to Port Jervis, where he opened a pharmacy and began managing the city’s theater. Lea initially had a drugstore uptown on Pike Street in the Morse House Block (the second building from Main Street). In the Spring of 1869, John Dutton and Marx Samuels erected a brick building at the corner of Pike and Railroad Streets to replace Dutton’s building, which had been destroyed by fire. George Lea opened a new drugstore at this location. You can see Lee’s “Established Since the Time of Noah” advertisement on the building in the photograph from the 1880s. On July 28, 1884, Lea ran $1 excursion train from Port Jervis to New York City. Three trains carried passengers on the Erie Railroad to the Pavonia Terminal in Jersey City, where passengers were taken by boat to Coney Island. Lea filled all three trains, carrying over 3,300 passengers to Jersey City. Lea had paid the Erie Railroad $1500 for use of their coaches. On November 1886, George Lea bought the Monticello and Port Jervis branch Railroad for $20,100 at an auction at the Delaware House (just across the tracks from Lea’s drugstore). Lea’s bid was accepted and his friend, Marx Samuels, offered to pay the balance on Lea’s bid. On November 8th, just two days later, Lea accepted an offer from Judge H.R. Low of Middletown and Lea made a profit of nearly $50,000 from the subsequent sale of the railroad. George Lea died a few weeks after his second wife, Catherine T. Lea nee Goldberg, passed away in 1902. George and Catherine are buried in Greenwood Lake Cemetery.


Lea's pharmacy at Pike and Front Streets in the Dutton Building (picture taken between 1883-1889)


George Lea's Opera House on Pike and Hammond Streets (the building collapsed in 1971)

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