The Honorable John Cresswell, Jr. was born January 16, 1819, the son of John and Margaret (Mytinger) Cresswell of Petersburg, Huntingdon County. Grandfather Robert Cresswell emigrated from County Down, Ireland to Harford County, Maryland before the Revolution. After the war, the family moved to the Kishaquillas Valley, Mifflin County. John’s father worked as a chair-maker, later a successful canal grain merchant, and pursued state and local political positions. In 1825, he received an appointment to the Huntingdon County committee, whose task involved the evaluation of the most efficient canal-portage route through the Alleghenies. He additionally served as a county commissioner, prothonotary, collector of canal tolls, and justice of the peace. Considered the state’s resident-expert in canal engineering by the late 1820s, John Sr. additionally accepted a position as chief contractor for the Wabash, Indiana Canal.
Senator John Cresswell, Jr. first received note as a schoolteacher, 1834 to 1836, however, like his father, pursued public service. He accepted an appointment to the 1837 Hollidaysburg Railroad Convention to help assess the feasibility of laying track through the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Horseshoe Bend – a route essential to linking Philadelphia to Pittsburgh through the Alleghenies.
The senator additionally studied law and gained admittance to the Huntingdon bar in 1842. Three years later he married Margaret Armitage of Huntingdon, and in 1846, Governor Shunk appointed John, Altoona’s first district attorney. After establishing a thriving practice in Hollidaysburg, he developed a keen interest in politics, successfully running for a Democratic Senate seat in October 1853. Senator Cresswell served for two terms and became the body’s Speaker in 1859. Although he voted as an early Buchanon-Democrat, the senator drifted toward Simon Cameron’s fold, later serving as his master’s eyes and ears in the Capitol. His affinity toward Cameron, however, did not rise to the extent that he kowtowed to the powerful political boss. His correspondence indicates a marked candor with Simon. Before the convening of the notorious 1855 Know-Nothing Legislature, Cresswell cursed Cameron for not keeping him in the loop, regarding the party’s state political strategies. Cameron’s backstage political chicanery evidently exacerbated already chaotic conditions within the caucus. The senator continued, “I am on my way to Harrisburg;” ending with the understatement, “things are looking in bad condition for organizing the senate.” Cresswell’s assessment proved profoundly correct.
Democrat Cresswell voted pro-improvement, typically supporting legislation promoting gas, gaslight, and iron company technology. His backing of a unanimous vote in favor of the “tariff resolution,” in collaboration with Republicans Finney, Francis, Palmer, Penney, and Democrat Turney indicates Cresswell’s penchant to support a pro-Cameron protectionism. Cresswell voted for the passage of PRR’s tonnage tax exemption, supported the Dred Scott decision, and opposed the sale of the state’s canal system (1858) and rail mainline (1855). He was a hard-money Democrat, favored the Ten-Hour Labor Law and the fair wage bill benefiting Schuylkill County coalminers, cast for the Philadelphia consolidation bill, and supported the 1854 Common School (County Superintendent) Act. He opposed femme sole trader reform and was ambivalent toward anti-liquor legislation, voting in 1855 for the Jug Law; then casting for its repeal in the following session. Cresswell opposed the state-mandated debt ceiling amendment and the proposed 1856, 21-year residency suffrage provision.
During the 1860 Reading convention, Senator Cresswell unsuccessfully competed with Henry Foster for the governor’s nomination. Leaving public service, Cresswell retired to his Hollidaysburg legal practice, served as a justice of the peace in 1879, and remained active in civic affairs until he passed away in Hollidaysburg on January 27, 1882, age-62.