AYRES, WILLIAM, Son of John Ayres and Jane Lytle, of Scotch-Irish ancestry, was born December 14, 1788, at the eastern base of Peter's mountain, Dauphin county, where his grandfather (whose name he bore) had settled in October, 1773. The locality is noted as the commencement of the old road over the mountain. William was endowed with rare native energy and unfailing perseverance, but his opportunities for educational improvement were meager indeed; he was indeed self-educated. His first venture, apart from the business of his father's farm, was an engagement with James S. Espy, merchant at Harrisburg, in 1816. During his two years' residence there he married Mary Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Hon. Jacob Bucher, May 6, 1817.
The next year he was induced to return to Peter's mountain, where he kept the hotel at the crossing, assisted in conducting the farm, and became justice of the peace December 13, 1819. He was elected major Second battalion of the Sixteenth regiment, and commissioned February 22, 1822.
Looking forward, however, to making the law his profession, he removed to Harrisburg in 1824, and resided along the river, just above the town. Here he acted as a justice both for the borough of Harrisburg and for Lower Paxtang and Susquehanna townships; while at the same time he pursued his legal studies under Samuel Douglas, Esq., an eminent member of the Dauphin bar.
He was admitted to practice May 3, 1826, and his private docket shows him to have been successful from the start. He had a very large acquaintance in the "Upper End," was able to speak German, and otherwise possessed many qualifications then valued and essential to practice with profit. The celebrated McElhenny murder case, in which he saved his client from the gallows, gave him a marked prominence.
He was also attorney for various officers of the county, turnpike companies, etc.
He was elected to the Legislature in 1833-34 and again for the session of 1834-35. During this time he was the coadjutor of Thaddeus Stevens in his great conflict against the powers of darkness and ignorance for the establishment of the common school system of 1834. The friendship of Ayres and Stevens Here begun lasted through life.
In 1839 William Ayres was elected to the town council, and the circumstance proved a fortunate one for Harrisburg. He at once brought his great energies to bear on a project for the introduction of Susquehanna water into the borough. The idea seemed so premature that it was deemed fanciful and impracticable. Nevertheless, he alone was the means of its accomplishment, which he did by borrowing funds from the United States Bank, of which he was then a director. Harrisburg received water in seven months' time from breaking ground, and this despite of much opposition from the old fogies.
His directorship in the United States Bank (at Philadelphia) was at the invitation of the famous Nicholas Biddle, who presented him with stock and had him elected; having selected him as "a country gentleman to complete the board of directors."
Having thus embarked in pubic enterprise, even to the great sacrifice of his legal practice, he next sought to obtain a free bridge over the river, but he could not obtain sufficient aid in subscriptions to buy out the old company. He was mainly instrumental in getting up the new prison to replace the old jail.
He was an active supporter of General Harrison for President, and the Harrison letters, still preserved, show that William Ayres was his confidential friend at the capital of Pennsylvania. He had been also the advocate of Governor Ritner, whose confidential correspondence is also preserved.
The successful introduction of water encouraged him to attempt the formation of a gas company at Harrisburg, and having obtained an act of incorporation he went vigorously to work, as was always his way, and Harrisburg was lighted with gas.
The incorporation of the Pennsylvania railroad, about 1846, was a project in which he was much interested, and he gave his time and services on the "Hill" gratuitously.
By this time there was not a man in Central Pennsylvania more widely known for his spirit, energy and capacity in matters of public improvement. As a result he was engaged by the citizens of Huntingdon to lead a project in their coal region -- the Huntingdon and Broad Top railroad. After securing the necessary legislation he was elected president January 10, 1853. He was obliged to spend so much of his time at Huntingdon that he could only give the road a good start, but he left his completion to others. He relinquished his position with honor, the company voluntarily presenting him two thousand dollars in cash and stock.
He immediately took up a more convenient enterprise, the Harrisburg and Hamburg railroad, a rival line to the Lebanon Valley railroad. He became president of the company, obtained subscriptions and had the route surveyed, with the intention of beginning active operations in the spring of 1856. The winter of 1855-56 was devoted to office work by the engineers at Jonestown.
But William Ayres' iron constitution was crumbling by the insidious action of heart disease. He was unable to give his own active duty or instill his own energy into others, and the railroad languished just when it should have progressed.
Mr. Ayres died, after some months' illness, May 26, 1856. His fellow-citizens united with his associates of the bar in attesting the loss of one in whom the capital of Pennsylvania found her most enterprising citizen, ever ready to sacrifice for the public good, and one who, haying many opportunities to have made himself rich, could never be tempted or bribed, proved unflinchingly honest and died poor.
Historical Review of Dauphin County
Transcribed by Robert Demyrdemy@earthlink.net for The Dauphin County, Pennsylvania Genealogy Transcription Project – http://maley.net/transcription.
Date of Transcription: 29 Oct 2000
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