Thomas H. Perkins (1764 – 1854)

November 30, 2016

Merchant and philanthropist Thomas Handasyd Perkins was born on December 15, 1764 and by his 20th birthday he was traveling the world.  After a trip to China with his wife Sarah Elliot’s uncle, James Magee who was then a captain of a ship in the China trade, Perkins and his brother formed J. & T. H. Perkins which soon became the foremost American trading house with China.  Their ships carried tea, cloth and china to the United States, coffee and sugar to Europe and furs and opium to China.  To ensure an advantage over other merchants they formed a branch in Canton in 1803.

Perkins’ later invested in cotton mills, mining, iron-making, hotels, theaters and quarrying.  The 1826 Granite Railway Company organized under his leadership was instrumental in building the first railroad in America.  For half a century Perkins’ company operated both quarries and railroad, but after laying a network of railroads he gave up railroad work and concentrated on the quarrying side of the business.  His quarrying business supplied the stone for many important buildings and structures in Boston, including the Bunker Hill Monument, the Boston Custom House, and Minot’s Ledge Light, one of the most famous lighthouses in the world near Boston Harbor.

Business acumen aside, Perkins is perhaps best known for his philanthropy, leading the way for the creation of the New England Asylum for the Blind, later known as the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind.  He also gave generously to the Bunker Hill Monument Association, the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Athenaeum.

Thomas Handasyd Perkins was originally buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, but was later moved to Mount Auburn Cemetery on March 21, 1914.  He is buried in an underground tomb, Lot # 108 on Central Avenue with his family.  The lot’s marble monument is a dog (photo above) sculpted by Horatio Greenough (Lot # 97 Cedar Avenue), commissioned by Perkins and placed at Mount Auburn in 1844.  Considered “America’s first sculptor,” Greenough is known for his famous portrait statue of George Washington now in the Smithsonian Institution.  Several volumes about Perkins’ life and business are held in the Perkins Collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society.


Portrait of Thomas Handasyd Perkins (top image): Parker, Warren S. “Thomas Handasyd Perkins, first president of Granite Railway.” Photograph. 1870. Digital Commonwealth, (accessed January 06, 2021).


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