Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Happy Andrew Porter Day

Today is the 270th birthday of General Andrew Porter. And you're asking why you should care, right?

I've been saying for decades that one of Norristown's best economic resources could be our history. I've traveled a lot, and I've learned that history buffs, particularly Civil War history buffs, are the most reliable of tourists. No matter how lousy the economy, history fans will make pilgrimages to all sorts of places to hear the stories of great people and events.

Of course, no big battles were fought here, but we've got plenty of stories to tell about Norristonians who made huge contributions to American history: 2 Pennsylvania governors, a Presidential candidate, several Civil War generals, at least 7 US congressmen and one senator (plus baseball players, authors, musicians, etc.) Norristown was also a MAJOR hub on the Underground Railroad.

But the borough is also famous, or rather infamous, for something else--knocking down historic buildings. General Hancock's family house is gone. Governor Hartranft's house, on Washington, near Hartranft St. is now the site of an apartment building. His family's hotel is gone, too. At Airy and Swede, the original First Baptist Church--that played a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad--was demolished to put up One Montgomery Plaza.

So we should be glad Selma Mansion is still standing, though developers have tried to level it over the years. Selma was the name for the "plantation" that took up most of what is now Norristown's West End. Andrew Porter retired there after the Revolution and built on to the existing small house to create the Selma Mansion we see today, located at Airy and Selma Streets. To get an idea how grand this place was, drive up Airy Street, past Buttonwood. If you look to the right, up the alley before Hamilton, you'll see the original stone pillars that marked the end of the mansion's drive, almost a quarter mile from the house.

A little about Porter himself: he was born in Worcester in 1743. At the age of just 24, he opened a school for mathematics and English in Philadelphia, which he ran until 1776, when Congress appointed him as one of the first captains of the newly formed Marine Corps. Because he was so good at math, he was transferred to the 4th Pennsylvania Artillery, where he progressed through the ranks until becoming a colonel.

After the war, he was offered the mathematics chair at the University of Penn, but preferred to stay on in the Pennsylvania Militia. He served as a state commissioner, helping to set boundary lines in Pennsylvania. In 1801, he was promoted to brigadier-general, then major-general, then appointed as the state's Surveyor-General in 1809. He died in 1813.

However, he also gave us his sons: Robert Porter, who became president judge of the 3rd District Court; David Rittenhouse Porter, who served as Pennsylvania's 9th governor; George Bryan Porter, who was appointed governor of the Michigan Territory; and James Madison Porter, who served as Secretary of War under President Tyler, as well as president judge of both the 12th and 22nd districts, and principal founder of Lafayette College.

If you want Civil War connections, Andrew Porter's great-granddaughter was Mary Todd Lincoln (yes, THAT Mary Todd Lincoln), and two of his grandsons were General Horace Porter and Civil War Brig. General Andrew Porter.

Selma's history went on long after the Porter family. I'll cover that in another blog. But today--Andrew Porter Day--we need to make a commitment to preserving and restoring Selma Mansion. It would make, I think, the best place for compiling and presenting our town's historical stories. In doing so, we could probably attract history buff tourists, and that can only help our economy.

1 comment:

  1. Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated... (Another Andrew Porter)