Historical Markers
David R. Porter Historical Marker
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David R. Porter

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
3rd and Penn Sts., Huntingdon

Dedication Date:
October 15, 1955

Behind the Marker

Oil on canvas of David Porter.
David R. Porter, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1839-1845.
David R. Porter's life followed a meandering path, from work and investment in iron works in Huntingdon County, to high political office, and then back to iron investments. Along the way, he failed in iron businesses, gained the state's highest elected office twice, and dealt with enormous financial problems posed by the internal improvements that he and other ironmasters had favored.

Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in 1788, Porter moved to Huntingdon in 1813 where he studied law and then became a clerk at Barree Forge, one of the county's earliest iron operations. After a year of clerking, he became manager of the forge, then invested in the nearby markerColeraine Forges and Millington Forge, only to see both these businesses fail by 1819.

Porter enjoyed more success in politics, beginning with his election and re-election to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1819, 1820 and 1822. After holding a number of appointed offices in Huntingdon County, he advanced his political career greatly by winning election to the Pennsylvania Senate as a Jacksonian Democrat.  In 1838 Porter beat the incumbent Whig Governor Joseph Ritner on a close and a bitterly contested election.

Official Governor painting
Joseph Ritner, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1835-1839.
As governor, Porter faced the politically thorny issue of finding a way to keep the Commonwealth from going into bankruptcy. Overcoming the cost, obstacles, and slowness of transporting iron over poor roads or paths had long been a major challenge for ironmasters, even for those who sold mostly in local markets. As early as the 1730s, ironmasters had petitioned the colonial government to improve roads and transportation networks. Through the early -nineteenth-century ironmasters continued to seek internal improvements that bettered transportation. Porter, like many ironmasters, supported improved roads and canals as a way to encourage manufacturing by facilitating the economical transport of iron products to markets.

With the completion of the Pennsylvania Canal system, some ironmasters now had an economical means for transporting iron. Future Pennsylvania governor markerAndrew Curtin, for example, sent iron from the markerEagle Ironworks in Centre County to the Pennsylvania Canal, down the canal to Harrisburg, and from there to Baltimore. The state, however, had borrowed millions of dollars to fund internal improvements, particularly the Pennsylvania Canal system. By the time Porter took office, the Commonwealth was so deeply mired in debt from these loans that it could not pay even the interest.
An etching of the ironworks, with smoke stacked buildings, water-wheel, workers, and in the distant background a house sits.
Barree Iron-Works, Huntingon County, PA, circa 1883.

To solve the state's financial crisis, Governor Porter led the legislature in enacting new taxes. He also cut state spending and hiring, but continued to push through the expansion of canals and railroads. The total state debt rose 25 percent under Porter, but his new taxes and other spending cuts helped the state pay the interest and solve the immediate crisis. He was easily re-elected governor in 1841. The state constitution forbid his running for a third term, so after his second term and quarrels with his own party over protective tariffs, he retired from politics.

After leaving office, Porter and a partner constructed Harrisburg's first anthracite-coal furnace, which went into blast in 1850. Like other mid-nineteenth-century ironmasters, Porter realized that anthracite furnaces were superior to the charcoal furnaces that had supplied his forges more than thirty years earlier. And like other ironmasters, he built the furnace in an urban center, in part because he could ship coal on the canal system that came right by his furnace.

Porter invested heavily in anthracite-coal production, only to again have his career in the iron industry end in failure. Hit by the Panic of 1857, Porter closed his furnace down and in 1860 sold it. He died in Harrisburg in 1867.
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