Dream Come True

In Edgartown, Andrew Carnegie’s dream lives on

In 1848, a 13-year-old boy and his family emigrated from Dunfermline, Scotland’s historic medieval capital, to the United States, in the town of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, essentially penniless, having sold all of their possessions to fund their voyage to America. This boy would one day preside over the largest steel corporation in the world and would command the title of the world’s richest man. 

Prior to achieving this pinnacle of success, however, the boy would read—hundreds of books. Lacking formal education, he was self-taught in a wide variety of subjects. He would read in his free time, taking advantage of the opportunity that one local citizen provided; Colonel James Anderson had opened his own private library to working boys as a way of giving back to the community of Allegheny. This privilege was extremely rare in working class America, as very few free libraries existed in the 19th century, and it is a key factor in the origin story of Andrew Carnegie, who became known both as the “King of Steel” and as the “Patron Saint of Libraries.” Carnegie’s rise from impoverished immigrant to entrepreneur and titan of industry also cemented his position as a quintessential embodiment of the American Dream. 

Because of the education that he acquired by reading, Andrew Carnegie would later write in his autobiography, “I resolved, that if wealth ever came to me, that it should be used to establish free libraries.” Not only had he achieved the American Dream to a nearly mythical degree, he believed that everyone should enjoy the shot at success that reading, and accumulating knowledge, could provide. He also believed that it was his responsibility to share his riches with the world, and became known as the “father of modern philanthropy.” In 1889, he published “The Gospel of Wealth,” an essay that would find readership worldwide, in which he famously stated, “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” To carry out his mission, he established a number of trusts and institutes dedicated to such issues as advancement in science, teaching, and world peace. He gave away more than $350 million to charitable foundations, and when he died, his remaining $30 million passed to the Carnegie Corporation, which he established in 1911, “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” Adjusted to today’s standard, Carnegie’s total wealth stood at $306 billion, more than the combined worth of Bill Gates, Sam Walton and Warren Buffet. And he gave it all away, though he insisted on doing so along a strict philosophical line. He wrote that “In bestowing charity the main consideration should be to help those who help themselves.” 

Carnegie’s dedication to building free public libraries served as both a tangible and symbolic expression of this guiding principle, and he spent over $55 million to build 2,509 libraries, including 1,679 of them in the United States. He strongly believed that anyone with access to books in this country could live the American Dream, and his free libraries soon became the most visible, nearly ubiquitous standard bearers of his philanthropic pursuits. The smallest of these monuments to philanthropy is a brick building on North Water Street, in Edgartown. Built in 1904, the Carnegie Library served the Martha’s Vineyard community for over 100 years, until the new public library opened in 2016. Vineyard Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving, maintaining and creating cultural opportunities in historic landmarks all across the island, has since renovated and reimagined the building. It now serves as a community center, as a museum that showcases the philanthropic work of Vineyard Trust, and as the organization’s flagship and headquarters under its new name—The Carnegie.