When Henry Clay, the American Statesman, died on June 29, 1852, the citizens of Pottsville decided to honor the great American Senator. A committee of citizens met on July 6, 1852 for the purpose of erecting a monument to Clay.
Henry Clay was a Whig who ran for president four times, but was never successful. He advocated a protective tariff in his famous American System that would protect the fledgling American industries from imports from Great Britain.
Tradition holds that the monument to Clay was erected because he favored a tariff on coal which helped the anthracite coal region. Examination of this period reveals that a tariff was placed on iron and the increased production of iron products, in turn, created demand for anthracite coal which was used to smelt iron.
Analysis of the 1830-1855 period in Schuylkill County, however, reveals two other reasons for the erection of the Clay monument: patriotism and politics. Clay, the great American, was noted for his nationalistic feelings.
Benjamin Bannan, the publisher and editor of the Miners’ Journal, a Whig newspaper, was a strong supporter of Clay’s policies, and was one of the first to call for a monument to the statesman.
The first idea the Clay Committee had was to show their respect to the statesman by holding a funeral procession for him. John Bannan then offered the committee land on which a monument could be erected. The idea for the monument evolved very quickly, and a building committee was formed.
The funeral procession for Clay was held on July 26, 1852. There were 1,600 people in the parade, and as usual for a parade in Pottsville, it rained from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The local military units headed the parade followed by a hearse, drawn by four white horses.
At the conclusion of the parade, elaborate ceremonies were conducted to dedicate the monument. The ceremonies concluded with the laying of the corner stone. A metallic box containing a number of articles was deposited in the stone and hermetically sealed.
Seven masons began work on the base of the monument, and it was completed on November 27, 1852. Meanwhile, work on the casting of the statue was progressing by Robert Wood in Philadelphia, and it was expected that all would be ready for placing the statue on the column by April 1, 1853. This did not happen on schedule.
Because of fundraising problems, the committee had to postpone work on the monument. Early in 1855 the committee was still raising funds for the Clay monument project. The total cost of the monument was $7,151.00.
The column was completed by June 14, 1855, and the base placed upon it ready to receive the statue. On June 23rd all was ready, and John Temple, with twelve mules, succeeded in pulling the statue up South Second Street followed by a large crowd of onlookers.
Waters Chilson, of Palo Alto, builder of the monument, with the assistance of six men, raised the statue in one hour and fifty minutes and placed it on its base. The statue was at first placed looking east toward Greenwood Hill and Port Carbon, but the following day the committee had it turned so that it looked north over Centre Street.
The grand dedication was held July 4, 1855 with elaborate ceremonies. The day started out with a heavy downpour, but the parade went on as scheduled. John Bannan was elected president of the dedication ceremonies and introduced all of the notables in attendance. The orator of the day was the Hon. Charles Gibbon a Whig supporter of Clay from Philadelphia.
That evening the streets of Pottsville were crowded with celebrating citizens and all manner of fireworks kept the town illuminated. Editor Bannan of the Miners’ Journal said that the day passed pleasantly, but if liquor could be exiled from Pottsville, it would be one of the most delightful places to live in the world.
Over the years trees and shrubbery grew up and obscured the monument. Henry Clay was largely forgotten by the citizens of Pottsville and Schuylkill County and only faintly resided in the history books. Some public spirited citizens noticing the decay that the monument had fallen into determined to do something to restore the monument.
John Bryden, who lived near the monument, instituted the idea to conserve the monument, and so the Henry Clay Monument Committee II was born in 1983 – and there wasn’t a Whig among them.
It took three years for the Clay Monument Committee II, led by Steve Cotler, to complete the project, which was the same amount of time that it took their forefathers to erect the monument. The statue was taken down from its column, refurbished, unveiled, and replaced on its column once again to become a familiar landmark in Pottsville.
The work was completed in 1985.
Leo L. Ward