Businessman, contractor, banker
Frederick Gwinner was born in Württemberg, Germany in 1832 and immigrated to America at the age of 18. He initially lived in Maryland with an uncle but relocated to the Manchester neighborhood of Allegheny City where he established a successful stagecoach route. He parlayed that success into securing the post of driver when the Old Allegheny and Manchester horse car line was established. After fifteen years as an omnibus driver he moved into contracting—not such a departure from being a driver when one considers how integral horses were at the time for both transportation and heavy construction work. Early investments he made in railroad stock coupled with his profitable contracting firm put Gwinner in a position of wealth and influence. He would concurrently serve as director for many businesses, including The Humboldt Fire Insurance Company, People’s Natural Gas and Piping Company, the Allegheny and Manchester Traction Company, Pittsburgh Brewing Company, The Columbia Malting Company and Dixmont Hospital for the Insane. He is credited as a founder of the Protestant Home for the Aged in Fair Oaks and served as a manager of the Home from its founding in 1890 until his death in 1909.
Like many 19th century men of influence and means, Gwinner served as a bank director, heading The Enterprise National Bank and serving on the board of directors of the Fourth National Bank of Pittsburg [sic] and the Allegheny Trust Company of Allegheny [sic]. In 1905 it became apparent that The Enterprise Bank was having troubles. Audits showed large discrepancies in the books that were eventually traced to a cashier who, seeing he was under investigation, committed suicide. Gwinner was at no time implicated in the shady dealings of his bank, all evidence suggesting that his sterling reputation was the curtain behind which the perpetrators hid. Before the investigations were over, several prominent politicians, including United States Senator Boise Penrose, would also be implicated in the bad loans that brought The Enterprise Bank to ruin. The Republican Party of Pennsylvania suffered from the bad publicity and, later that year, reform Democrat, William Berry would be elected as State Treasurer.
Gwinner was seriously ill when the Enterprise Bank failed. While such foreclosures were part of the risky business of banking at the time, the dramatic circumstances of the Enterprise Bank’s demise was national news. Despite disliking any sort of limelight, Gwinner himself made headlines when he left his sickbed to repay as many Enterprise depositors as he could from his own money. When word got out that the bank director was giving away cash, his house was besieged and he reluctantly called the police to restore order. He initially dispersed over $170,000 but some estimates of the total amount of money he repaid in the three years before his death peak at $400,000. At the time of his death in 1909, his estate was valued at 3 million dollars, comparable to $74,000,000 in 2010.
A memorial tribute from the board of directors of the People’s Natural Gas and Pipeage Company described Gwinner as, “rich in experience, quiet in manner, sturdy in character and action, beloved and honored.” Gwinner was survived by his sons, Edward W. Gwinner and Frederick Gwinner, Jr., and their families.