One of the most important local legacies of the Gilded Age is the Carnegie Library that still stands at 138 Pike Street. There has been a library in Port Jervis since about 1835, when state legislation allowed for the creation of school district libraries. Efforts to enhance the library began in 1848 along with the creation of the Port Jervis Literary Association in 1865, whose main purpose was to provide for a public library and reading room.
As a result of this longstanding interest in a public library, Port Jervis became home to a Carnegie Library, perhaps the only one ever built in Orange County. Now known as the Port Jervis Free Library, it was organized in August 1892, the first in New York State under the Free Library Law of 1892. Up until 1903 then the library was located on the second floor of the Farnum Building on lower Pike Street. By 1893, the library had outgrown its space and in 1899, efforts were begun by prominent businessmen to construct a library building in the village. However, early on, it became apparent it would be too expensive to erect such a building with local funds.
After a long and dedicated effort these men convinced steel industry magnate Andrew Carnegie to donate money towards its construction. With a substantial contribution of land made by local businessman Peter Farnum, and finally a contribution of $30,000 by Carnegie, the building of a library became possible. In February 1901 local residents were, according to the local newspapers, "electrified" by the announcement of Carnegie and Farnun's donation.
The library was designed by W. S. Ackerman of the New York City architectural firm of Ackerman and Ross and was built by local contractor Lorenzo Wood. The cornerstone was laid in 1902 and opening ceremonies took place in 1903. The firm had also designed Carnegie libraries for Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, Ga; San Diego, Calif; East Orange, N.J.; and Utica, N.Y.
It was dedicated during the height of one of America's greatest and most famous philanthropies, that ultimately amounted to $40 million. It is one of 1,679 libraries given to 1,412 towns and cities across America. Today it is one of only a few hundred that survive and are still used for their original purpose or some other municipal function. Carnegie, known as the "Patron Saint of Libraries" supposedly said that "The Library building is built to last." And, indeed it has.
The library may have been the first in Orange County to have a separate children's reading room and it was annually a leader in the state in acquiring new books, ranking in the top 30%. It was the first library in the state to establish a permanent maintenance fund, a condition for the Carnegie donation, and by 1903 there were 14,000 books in the collection, with 1,000 books being added per annum. A contemporary library report concludes the "volumes of the best thought of the brightest minds of the world, ever ready to talk to us in the best of language" were available for loan.