Mary Harriman was determined to be more than a debutante.
Although born into a family of great privilege, the path she took was quite different from that which was expected of a member of one of New York City’s wealthiest and most powerful families. But as the oldest and favorite child of E.H. Harriman – grade-school dropout turned railroad tycoon – Mary had an exceptional role model in her father, who was a man of energy and diverse interests. “While he was a man of great wealth,” Mary later said, “he was very civic-minded and in fact, his was the first railroad that had a pension plan for employees and safety regulations for both workers and passengers.” Harriman was also a dedicated philanthropist, whose work included the founding of the nation’s first club for underprivileged boys on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In addition to providing financial support, he was also a presence at the club and took the time to work directly with the boys the club served.
At the age of 17, riding in a specially designed railway car pushed by a slow-moving engine, Mary accompanied her father on an intensive inspection of every inch of the 5,000 miles of railroad track he owned on the Union Pacific line; The next year, 1899, she joined him on the two-month “Harriman Alaska Expedition,” a voyage to document the previously uncharted coast of Alaska. They were joined by scientists from varied disciplines, including Sierra Club founder John Muir and George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society.
In Mary’s obituary, The New York Times wrote of the relationship between Mary and her father that they “in their close companionship developed a breadth and intensity of interest in large affairs, and a desire to accomplish valuable things herself, which was extremely rare in her contemporaries of the same position in the world.”
It was during her freshman year at Barnard College year that Mary, along with her classmate and friend Nathalie Henderson, had the idea to organize her classmates and peers to move beyond a “debutante life” into more purposeful activity. Nathalie later recalled that Mary’s concept was to recruit young women from all religious backgrounds to go into New York’s settlement houses and do frontline social work among the needy. Thus, in 1901, was born “The Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements,” the organization that would become the New York Junior League.
The movement blossomed, and within ten years Junior Leagues in Brooklyn, Boston, and Portland, Oregon were formed. Twenty years later the number of Leagues reached over forty. As The League grew and times changed, its mission evolved to include more diverse community action, but its goal, as defined by the first League’s charter was still firmly in place: to enrich its members’ lives by improving the living conditions of its city’s poorest neighborhoods.