Portrait: Brady-Handy Collection, Library of Congress
Born January 1, 1814 at Gibson Mill, Sherman Valley, Cumberland (Perry) County, the Honorable William Bigler emerged as Pennsylvania Governor, 1852-54, and an influential force backing James Buchanan’s successful bid for the 1856 Presidency. He was the son of Jacob and Susan Dock Bigler, German immigrants and land speculators who moved to Mercer County, Pennsylvania while William was young. He attended public schools, became a printer’s apprentice, a journalist, and member of his brother’s (John) newspaper staff – the Centre County Democrat. His brother became the third governor of California in 1852. William married Maria J. Reed of Clearfield in 1836.
Bigler entered the newspaper business as publisher of the Democratic Clearfield Democrat, championing Jacksonism and evolving as a potent voice in the state party. He sold the paper and joined his father-in-law’s timber business as co-partner. Between 1845 and 1850, Bigler became the largest producer of building lumber on the West Branch of the Susquehanna, earning the nickname, “The Clearfield Raftsman.”
He served in the state Senate six years, becoming Speaker in 1844; reelected in 1845. From 1842 through 1847, Senator Bigler advocated a central railroad from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh as competition against the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. He, nevertheless, advocated both routes, recognizing the benefit to Pennsylvania industry that the three-point (Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh) terminus plan offered. Bigler and Western Pennsylvania B&O champions also believed that the railroad possessed the necessary financial resources to expedite its program, thus saving Pennsylvania taxpayers considerable money, assuming no need to construct costly lateral rail systems. A much publicized drawback concerned the main line’s inability to access most of Eastern Pennsylvania. While the B&O eventually constructed its east-west line, Bigler’s efforts were equally successful in establishing a Pennsylvania route in 1847. The railroad was constructed, and in 1857 its bed was sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad – later the Penn Central.
He served as state revenue commissioner, 1849; and as Governor, 1852-54, championed public education, and banking reform. Bigler fought wildcat bank charters, protecting depositors and bond investors from unscrupulous bankers and the potential to abuse charters of privileges. He was an avowed opponent of disconnected, multi-provision omnibus bills in the legislature.
Bigler supported the Walker Tariff; the right of southern states to retain slavery; the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act; attempted a second unsuccessful bid for governor, 1854; elected to the U.S. Senate as a Buchanan Democrat; 1855-1860 (to fill a vacancy); served as a tireless campaign worker for President James Buchanan (1856) and John Breckenridge (1860). He was an 1864 delegate to the Chicago National Democratic Convention and endorsed General George Brinton McClellan for president. Bigler served as a delegate to the 1866 Philadelphia Union National Convention and the 1868 New York Democratic National Convention. A memorable point in the senator’s illustrious career concerned his selection as an 1872-73 Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention delegate. Late in life, the former senator and governor served as president of the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad. He died at Clearfield, Pennsylvania on August 9, 1880.