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American Phoenix

American Phoenix

The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, A Man Who Turned Disaster Into Destiny

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 “Skinner-ville,” 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—and succeeded— to rebuild his life for a second time. 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.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 448 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781451671810 | 
  • October 2012
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American Phoenix by Sarah S. Kilborne

A narrative history of the American silk industry and one man, William Skinner, who revolutionized it even after his factory was destroyed by a flood.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter Two

The rain began before daybreak, not much at first, but enough to render it a damp and cheerless morning by the time the first bell rang at the mill, at half past five. This bell served as the workers’ alarm clock, alerting everyone at the boardinghouses that it was time to rise. Ellen Littlefield, who had boarded in Skinnerville for nearly seven years, was well used to the routine. A “packer” at Skinner’s mill, she worked on the ground floor of the office building in a room filled with drawers of finished silk and stacks of boxes for shipping. Of the five or so packers employed at this time, Ellen was... see more

About the Author

Sarah S. Kilborne
Photograph by Giovanni di Mola

Sarah S. Kilborne

Sarah S. Kilborne is a writer, historian, musician, and editor. She holds a degree in philosophy from Yale University and has been a research fellow at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of two acclaimed books for children, Peach & Blue and Leaving Vietnam: The True Story of Tuan Ngo. She lives along the Hudson River in upstate New York.

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