The incredible story of nineteenth-century millionaire William Skinner, a leading founder of the American silk industry, who lost everything in a devastating flood—and his improbable, inspiring comeback to the pinnacle of the business world
In 1845 a young, penniless William Skinner sailed in steerage class on a boat that took him from the slums of London to the United States. Endowed with rare knowledge in the art of dyeing and an uncanny business sense, he acquired work in a fledgling silk mill in Massachusetts, quickly rising to prominence in the nation’s new luxury industry. Soon he opened his own factory and began turning out one of the bestselling silk brands in the country. Skinner was lauded as a pioneer in the textile industry and a manufacturer who knew no such word as fail. His business grew to sustain a bustling community filled with men, women, and children, living and working in the mill village of “Skinnerville,” producing the country’s most glamorous, fashionable thread.
Then, in 1874, disaster struck. Hundreds of millions of gallons of water burst through a nearby dam, destroying everything in its path, including Skinnerville. Within fifteen minutes, Skinner’s entire life’s work was swept away, and he found himself one of the central figures in the worst industrial disaster the nation had yet known.
In this gripping narrative history, Skinner’s great-great-granddaughter, Sarah S. Kilborne, tells an inspiring, unforgettable American story—of a town devastated by unimaginable catastrophe; an industry that had no reason to succeed except for the perseverance of a few intrepid entrepreneurs; and a man who had nothing—and everything—to lose as he struggled to rebuild his life a second time.
None of Skinner’s peers who lost their factories in the Mill River Flood withstood the shock of their losses, but Skinner went on to stage one of the greatest comebacks in the annals of American industry. As a result of his efforts to survive, he became one of the leading silk manufacturers in the world, leaving an indelible imprint on the history of American fashion and style. More striking still, this achievement would never have been possible if Skinner hadn’t been ruined by the flood and forced, at age forty-nine, to start all over again, rebuilding everything with just one asset: the knowledge in his head.
With masterful skill Kilborne brings to life an era when fabric was fashion, silk was supreme, factories were beacons of American success, and immigrants like Skinner with the secrets of age-old European arts possessed knowledge worth gold to Americans. Here is a story of ambition and desire, resilience and faith, disaster and survival. It is about making it, losing it, and then making it again despite the odds. An enthralling tale, American Phoenix offers a new twist on the American dream, reminding us that just when we thought the dream was over, it may have only just begun.