OPINION

As It Were: Alfred Kelley was known for helping shape state, building mansion

Ed Lentz
Guest columnist

Alfred Kelley was a hard man to like but a difficult man not to respect.  

Henry Clay once summed up his old friend and fellow Whig politician rather succinctly: “Mr. Kelley had too much cast iron in his composition to be popular.”

Ed Lentz

And his time was a lengthy one in Columbus – the place he came to call home.

When Kelley was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives for the first time in 1814, he was barely old enough to hold his seat. By the time he left the Ohio Senate in 1859, he was the oldest man in the room.

Over the course of a long career, he changed the course of the politics, economics and society of his adopted state. 

Alfred Kelley

In Columbus, he came to be remembered not so much for his personal accomplishments but more for the house he built for his beloved wife. 

Kelley was born in Middlefield, Connecticut, in 1789, the second of six sons of Daniel and Jemima Stow Kelley.

The Kelleys had been in America since the 1600s, and like many American families, they were often on the move. 

In the wake of the American Revolution, Connecticut had ceded most of its claim to land reaching the Mississippi in return for a “reserve” of land taking up most of what is now the northeast quarter of Ohio.

A 1909 photo shows the Greek Revival mansion that Alfred Kelley started building in 1830. The house was razed in 1963.

The land was called the “Western Reserve of Connecticut.” In 1796, Moses Cleaveland led a survey party to the reserve. Alfred’s older brother, Datus Kelley, came to the village that misspelled itself as “Cleveland” early in 1810 and soon was followed by his brother. 

Alfred Kelley liked what he saw and decided to stay. He soon became the first mayor of Cleveland and was involved in several local business ventures.

Because of his success and his energy, he was elected to serve in the Ohio House, then meeting in Chillicothe. When the new capital city of Columbus was created, Kelley would be a visitor there, as well. 

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The Ohio General Assembly met only for short periods in those days, and Kelley continued to live and work in Cleveland.

In 1816, he married Mary Welles of Lowville, New York. They had traveled in a one-horse carriage to Buffalo, New York, and then on to Cleveland. It was the first carriage to be seen in the frontier village.

The Kelleys would have 11 children. Wishing to see her husband more often, Mary Kelley urged her husband to move the family to Columbus, where he was spending more of his time.  

Kelley obliged and purchased 18 acres of swampy land east of the downtown in 1830, and over the next two years, he built a large, imposing Greek Revival mansion.

Many local people could not understand how Kelley could build such a place in the middle of a swamp. It was rather easy, Kelley knew, if you could drain the swamp. He did just that, and the house went up.

Beginning his career as a Democratic-Republican in the tradition of Tomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, Kelley soon became a friend and supporter of Clay and a Whig antagonist of Democrat Andrew Jackson.

Over the course of a long career, Kelley became known as a founder of Ohio’s banking system, a strong advocate of free public education and, most notably, as the founder of the Ohio and Erie Canal system. 

Impressed by the success of the Erie Canal, Kelley and his legislative and political friends soon became advocates for two canals to connect the Ohio River to Lake Erie. As a canal commissioner, Kelley personally inspected most of the canal routes and contracted malaria in doing so. The disease would haunt him for the rest of his life.  

When an economic depression threatened the ability of Ohio to pay its canal debts in the 1830s, Kelley pledged his grand new house as collateral to insure payment. It became known as the “House that Saved Ohio."

Toward the end of his life, Kelley left the Ohio Statehouse with a friend on a cold winter night after losing a bitter partisan battle over a tax bill. The friend expressed regret over the loss as they walked. Kelley was calm and clear. 

“Oh,” he said, “I am used to it. It don’t trouble me. These are honest well-meaning men enough; but I do wonder how many of them were able to find their way from home to Columbus. I hope they will find their way back in safety and turn their attention to something they know more about than legislation.”

Kelley died in 1859 and is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery. His house stood as a Columbus landmark until 1963, when it was torn down to make way for the Christopher Inn, which in turn was razed in 1988 and now is a parking lot.

In Green Lawn Cemetery, a later account noted, “A tall, well-proportioned and massive obelisk of granite marks the spot where his body lies; and a laborer who knew him well, after examining it, said, ‘It is just like him.'"

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.