By Gwenda Blair
Back home, in Kallstadt, Germany, a young Friedrich Trump had listened to stories of those who had left for America and made it, determining to do likewise. Arriving in New York City in October 1885 at the age of sixteen, he listened to sagas of the West and picked up what he would need to head that way. In Seattle, he listened to descriptions of Monte Cristo and set himself up in the small Washington mining town. Now, at twenty-eight, he listened to the tales miners were telling one another about gold strikes in Alaska and, especially, in the Yukon.
The Trumps: Three Builders and a President, courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Frederick Trump (who had Americanized the spelling of his first name) was tempted to follow. When two Monte Cristo mining veterans, Paul Hebb and Ed Monohan, declared that they were heading north, Trump joined in their plans. Although he was too deeply involved in Monte Cristo to fling himself headlong into anything so speculative, he cut a deal. He would help pay for Hebb and Monohan to reach the rumored gold fields. In return they promised to stake claims in his name. Trump was taking a flier, but not an enormous one. In the meantime, he would continue to pursue his business in Monte Cristo, which still seemed to him a more likely source of future revenues. The next summer everything changed. On July 15, 1897, a steamer called the Excelsior landed in San Francisco, full of Yukon gold. Rumors spread that another steamer, then bound for Seattle, was bringing more. The Portland arrived in Puget Sound before dawn on Saturday, July 17, and was met by a boatload of reporters. One year earlier the first tales of Yukon gold had arrived; here was actual evidence that those wild stories were true.
That morning Trump’s contribution to Hebb and Monohan’s grubstake had been a flier. That night it was the most prescient thing he’d ever done. By the time he was eating supper, his priorities had turned upside down. Now the Yukon was on the top of the list. Monte Cristo, it seemed, was merely a dress rehearsal, preparing him for the real thing in the North. But after four years, pulling up stakes was not a simple matter. It would be some weeks before he could leave, and in that time he pondered how to exploit the new discovery. At Monte Cristo he had never expected to find precious metal himself, whereas in the Yukon he might have a shot at it. But he had seen scores of Monte Cristo claims come to nothing, and he had learned that there is always one sure thing in any mineral rush: the prospectors need rooms, refreshments, and female companionship. In Monte Cristo he had made a profitable business for himself out of providing hundreds of miners with all three. Trump, like everyone else thinking about the Yukon, wanted to get rich. But unlike the others, he realized that the best way to get what he wanted was to lay down his pick and shovel and pick up his accounting ledger.
On the pass, more than two thousand packhorses had died on what was known as the Dead Horse Trail, and at least one thousand more would perish there. Most people saw the horse carcasses as the sickening evidence of human brutality. To Trump, this frozen horseflesh could have other possibilities. Stampeders were tired and hungry, and certain provisions were there for the asking. Opportunity was knocking, and Trump was listening. In the spring of 1898 he joined another cheechako named Ernest Levin in running one of the dozens of tent restaurants that dotted the trails. Six or eight men would crowd into a small canvas tent, wolf down a meal, then be replaced by another six or eight, all day long, day after day. A frequent dish was fresh-slaughtered, quick-frozen horse. After a day of hauling heavy packs up the trail, no cheechakos were going to argue about prices.
Nonetheless, the bulk of the cash flow came from the sale of liquor and sex. This was hardly surprising in a town where the population, overwhelmingly male, existed in a perpetual state of boredom and anxiety. “There are two basic activities in Bennett,” the Victorian Colonist commented in the spring of 1898. “Frantically building boats, and then once that is completed, sitting on thumbs waiting for the ice to clear.” As in Seattle, Trump’s establishment included accommodations for prostitutes. Newspaper advertisements in the Bennett Sun touted the Arctic’s kitchen, but the restaurant was renowned for its raunchiness as much as its food. “For single men the Arctic has excellent accommodations as well as the best restaurant in Bennett,” remarked one writer in the Yukon Sun, “but I would not advise respectable women to go there to sleep.”
Two years later, on June 8, 1900, in the town of White Horse, Yukon Territory, nearly one hundred miles north of Bennett, locomotives from the White Pass & Yukon Railroad (WP&YR) steamed up on newly completed tracks. The railroad would carry passengers from Skagway to White Horse, located on the Yukon River north of a treacherous series of rapids. Because the river was navigable from this point on, traffic could continue by steamboat all the way to Dawson, hundreds of miles farther north. Watching the proceedings, Frederick Trump had every reason to
be happy. Across the street from the train depot, the Arctic Restaurant was opening for business. Along with most of the other business folk in Bennett, he and Levin had followed the railroad and relocated in White Horse.
The Arctic Restaurant began its third incarnation just like its first, as a tent. But unlike the eatery on the trail, the restaurant in White Horse had a wooden facade and a wooden frame inside the tent reinforcement. Described in the White Horse Star as the principal restaurant in town as well as the biggest, it was open round-the-clock and boasted that it could serve some three thousand meals in the course of a day. Along one side of the main room was a long wooden lunch counter with stools. A newsstand carried fresh fruits, cigars, tobacco, late papers, and magazines. The main floor area had tables and carved straight-back chairs, and along the opposite side of the room and in the back were accommodations for gamblers and for what were called “sporting ladies,” curtained areas where prostitutes could entertain miners in privacy.
By April, however, there was a problem for the business. Major Zachary Taylor Wood, the superintendent, was preparing to suppress gambling and liquor sales, declaring his intention to banish “the scarlet women” from the center of town. Trump and the other merchants petitioned the central government in Ottawa, pleading that they would be stuck with a huge inventory of unsold liquor and the town would be saddled with unemployed gamblers and prostitutes. In response, Wood postponed the new regulation. Trump seized the moment, leaving just in time to avoid the economic decline that would soon sweep over White Horse. Once again, in a situation that created many losers, he managed to emerge a winner. He had made money; perhaps even more unusual in the Yukon, he had also kept it and departed from White Horse with a substantial nest egg. He had accomplished this goal of making and saving enough money to marry. But he had no intention of doing so in America.
Trump returned to Kallstadt in 1901 a wealthy man. Sixteen years earlier he had slipped out of his home in the dead of night, running away to a new life in the New World. Now he was returning to the Old, planning to fashion a life for himself that would be both old and new. Although he had become an American citizen in 1892, like other emigrants he had always felt part of his birthplace. From New York City he had helped support his mother with his earnings as a barber. In 1896, when his older sister Elizabeth married Karl Freund, he returned for the wedding. Now, five years later, he came back for a wife of his own.
Elizabeth Christ had lived across Frankenheim Strasse from the Trumps since her birth on October 10, 1880. Because she was only five when Frederick Trump left Kallstadt, they hardly knew of each other’s existence.To her, he had been, at best, a distant name; to him, she had been one more small child on a street full of small children. Despite their proximity, the families were not close. By the end of his visit, though, Frederick and Elizabeth were engaged. A year later he returned to Kallstadt, and their wedding was on August 26, 1902.
Not long beforehand it had been empty farmland, on which large estates had only recently been divided into more modest holdings. By the end of the nineteenth century, though, the South Bronx had become urbanized, with paved streets, noisy factories, and big-city vices. Those favoring consolidation with New York City in 1898 painted a picture of a place riddled with corruption and pockmarked with so many gambling halls and saloons that it was a veritable Skagway on the Hudson. Consolidation, it was argued, would bring effective law enforcement, in addition to connecting the Bronx to New York sewers and subways, thereby raising property values.
Within four years of consolidation, developers were building across the South Bronx. It was in one of these newer structures that Frederick and Elizabeth Trump made their own home, in the German neighborhood of Morrisania. There were new city-style amenities, such as public phones and trolleys. There were also new urban problems: rats, vandals, and shortfalls in overburdened school budgets. The newlyweds were moving into a place that was a far cry from either Elizabeth’s home in Kallstadt or the Lower East Side tenement that had been her husband’s first home in the city. With hot water, steam heat, electricity, and a private bathroom, the Trumps’ Westchester Avenue residence was a new sort of dwelling, with a new name to underscore its novelty. It was called an “apartment house.”
For Elizabeth, life at 1006 Westchester Avenue was busy, noisy, bustling — but not entirely strange. The language and many of the customs, including local breweries for those who did not care for American-style beer, were German. Friends and relatives from Kallstadt lived nearby. Frederick Trump’s sister Louise worked in Gramercy Park as a cook in the well-to-do household of Samuel Cooper, brother of the inventor and politician Peter Cooper. Fred Schuster’s cousins George and William lived in Mt. Vernon, not far north of the Bronx, and his brother Carl lived in Manhattan. Still, it was not Kallstadt. Although Frederick was a U.S. citizen, Elizabeth remained a German. After a year in her new home, she was desperately homesick. She was also pregnant. As soon as they could travel, Frederick honored his commitment to Philip Christ. By the end of June, mother, father, and infant were on board a ship, headed for Bremen and their hometown in Germany.
Trump brought to Kallstadt his savings of eighty thousand marks. A stupendous sum in Kallstadt at the time, it would still be a handsome amount today, worth just over $350,000 in purchasing power. He promptly deposited the money in the village treasury, an act that surely contributed to the warm welcome he received from village officials. His wife was ecstatic to be back home, and it seemed possible that in newly industrialized Germany there might be a place for go-getters such as Frederick. Soon after his arrival, he asked permission to remain permanently in Kallstadt and regain his original citizenship. But although Kallstadt had not changed much while Trump had been away, Germany had. In addition to becoming more industrialized, it had become more militarized. After years of Prussian domination, the traditional Junker emphasis on hierarchy, order, obedience, and social discipline had permeated the entire nation. The army, no longer an ad hoc organization that materialized when the nation was at war, had become a permanent fixture of national life. Every able-bodied man had to serve; indeed, having been in the army was virtually a condition for male citizenship. Under Kaiser Wilhelm II, who reigned from 1888 to 1918, the size and disposition of the military machine was a national obsession. Into this environment stepped Frederick Trump, draft dodger.
Initially, the process of repatriation seemed no problem. The local village government heartily endorsed the move. Then, on Christmas Eve, a shadow fell in the form of a communication from the Department of the Interior, in Speyer: “It seems noteworthy that Trump wants to return permanently to his native land, now that he is at an age at which he can consider himself released from his military obligation. Since the assumption is not unfounded that said Trump had at the time of his emigration the intent of avoiding military service, his request for naturalization cannot be granted. On the contrary, there are reasons to examine whether said Trump should not be expelled from the kingdom.”
Trump was stunned. “I did not immigrate to America in order to avoid military service, but to establish for myself a profitable livelihood and to enable myself to support my mother,” he declared to Speyer. “It was my intention to remain in America forever.” He had, he added, “never even thought about returning to Germany as a permanent resident, since I thought I was making more money in America than I could ever make back home.”
But his request for reconsideration went nowhere. So did the plea from Kallstadt’s mayor, who pointed to “Trump’s tax and investment capacity.” Neither man could change the fact that Frederick had not served in the German army, had become a U.S. citizen, and had stayed away until he was no longer eligible for conscription. Nor could they change the even more damning fact, from Speyer’s point of view, that he was a Pfalzer, native of a hotbed of subversive republican ideas. Letter after letter went out, all to no avail. On June 30, 1905, the young couple left, Elizabeth five months pregnant with her next child, Frederick Christ. The Trumps were to be Americans, after all.
After his return from Germany, Frederick Trump dusted off his barber tools and supported his growing family by giving shaves and haircuts. At first he lathered and snipped at home in the Bronx, but within a few years he had rented a room at 60 Wall Street, a large office building in lower Manhattan, and hired a tonsorial staff. The chairs in his shop were seldom empty, for the modern safety razor was not yet in general use, and being shaved by a barber was part of any successful businessman’s daily routine. But Frederick Trump was no more content to remain a barber now than he had been back in Germany two decades earlier. He worked, he saved, and he searched for a spot where a quick, energetic fellow who’d already knocked around the globe a bit could use what he’d learned, where things were still open and there was a chance to get in on the ground floor. By the end of 1906 he had found it: he would stake his future on the growth of a section of western Queens called Woodhaven.
As the rest of the city had urbanized, Queens had remained “the cornfield borough,” a source of fresh produce
and unspoiled countryside. As a result, although it was the largest borough in terms of land area, it had by far the smallest population, just 152,999 inhabitants, or four percent of the city’s total, in 1900. In large part this was because Manhattanites could reach the borough only by ferry or via Brooklyn. But now the city was building
the Queensboro Bridge over the East River, and the Pennsylvania Railroad was digging a tunnel under it. When they were finished, Queens would be as accessible as the South Bronx. Surely, Frederick Trump reasoned, the real estate development that had occurred in the rest of the city would then touch Queens, creating opportunity for people like himself.
In September 1908, nine months before the completion of the bridge, he made his move, beginning the family’s New York holdings by purchasing a modest two-story frame structure in Woodhaven. The first acquisition in a real estate portfolio that would expand manyfold over the next century, the building was on the north side of Jamaica Avenue, a Native American track that had served as the main east-west road across Long Island for more than two centuries. In choosing this site, Trump had, as in his northwest ventures, followed the primary rule of real estate: location, location, location. With an electric trolley that ran down the center of Jamaica Avenue, it was a perfect site for business. But his purchase violated real estate’s second rule: never use your own money. He paid cash.
Between 1910, when the bridge was finished, and 1915, Queens’s population increased 40 percent. Land prices soared, nearly all of the borough’s remaining farms quickly disappeared, and builders, most of whom worked on a small scale, began constructing one- and two-family homes and small apartment buildings. Trump had high hopes for the future, for he had his own savings to invest as well as possible funds from his sister Louise, who had backed his real estate ventures in the West. Trump was working on Jamaica Avenue at a time of almost inconceivably rapid change. When he arrived, Long Island farmers still traveled the old road, taking produce to Manhattan at night in horse-drawn wagons. By 1915, though, the weeping willows and chestnuts that had lined Jamaica Avenue were gone, replaced by mounds of dirt from the construction of the elevated train. With this enclosure, yet another wave of suburbanization ensued, bringing development and subdivision to the farther reaches of Queens. In keeping with the borough’s new, modern profile, Queens adopted a street-labeling system known as the “Philadelphia grid.” Gone were Suydam, Shaw, and other references to the Dutch and English inhabitants whose farms once covered Queens. Gone also were other plain but familiar street names, replaced by sequential numbers.
But the greatest changes occurred in August 1914, when World War I erupted. Americans were neutral at first. As time went on, though, they lined up with the British and against the Germans — and, inevitably, against German-Americans. Well before the United States officially entered the war, the country yanked up the wilkommen mat for what was now perceived as the domestic Hun. The German music that had filled concert halls and opera houses vanished. Cities with German names changed them. Ground meat, formerly called “hamburger,” became “Salisbury steak,” patties made from it turned into “Wilsonburgers” and “liberty sandwiches,” and “sauerkraut” became “liberty cabbage.” Teddy Roosevelt, the former president who had originated the notion of the hyphenated American, now denounced anyone who qualified. President Woodrow Wilson banned German males over fourteen from all boats other than ferries as well as airplanes, balloons, and all areas of military import. The government also ordered six hundred thousand German aliens to register with local police and not to change residences.
Unlike their neighbors, the Trumps did not change their name. Theirs had always been a German-speaking household, and so it remained. Hunkering down to avoid suspicion, Frederick and his sister Katherine stayed in contact with their Kallstadt relatives. But the bitter experience of having been tarred by their German ancestry had left scars on the Trump children. Years later, the older son, Fred, would quietly promote the notion that the family was actually Swedish.
When Frederick Trump died, his estate included the family’s two-story, seven-room home in Queens, five vacant lots, $4,000 in savings and life insurance, $3,600 worth of stock, and fourteen mortgages. The net value was estimated at $31,359, the equivalent of about $345,000 in 1999 dollars. He had come from nothing, and he had left something for his wife and children. Had he lived, he would probably have left much more. But he had accomplished a great deal in that time. Above all, he had redirected the course of his life and that of his family and the descendants who would follow. Instead of being German, part of the Old World and the old order, they were American, in place to assume leading roles in the century now unfolding. By establishing his family in Queens and becoming involved in real estate, he had set the stage for what was to come.
Gwenda Blair is the author of the bestselling Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch And The Selling of TV News. She has written for Politico, The New York Times, New York, Newsweek, the New York Daily News, Esquire, Smart Money, The Village Voice, Chicago Magazine, and other newspapers and magazines. She lives in Chicago and teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.