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People & Events: William Barclay Foster, 1779-1855

William Barclay FosterHe rose to prominence as one of Pittsburgh's elite. Yet poverty plagued William Foster for most of his life. The son of James Foster, a Revolutionary War veteran, William Foster was born on September 5, 1779 in Berkeley County, Virginia. In 1796, when he was only sixteen, young William headed for Pittsburgh, recently little more than a frontier outpost, but already a city on the rise.

William found a job with the merchant firm of Denny & Beelen, and soon prospered. Among his duties were accompanying loads of furs, whiskey, and agricultural goods down the river to New Orleans. On return trips, Foster sailed up the East Coast to New York and Philadelphia, where he bought finished articles to bring back to Pittsburgh. By 1807 he had been made a partner in the firm.

On November 14, 1807, William married Eliza Clayland Tomlinson, niece of Oliver Evans, who invented America's first steam carriage. She bore him four daughters and five sons, two of whom died infancy and one who died in her teens. One child, Stephen, would become one of America's most popular songwriters. But William Foster would be saved from the poorhouse by his son William Jr., whom he had fathered with another woman before his marriage to Eliza.

At the height of his prosperity, William Foster Sr. lived a life of luxury, socializing with Pittsburgh's elite. In 1814 he purchased a 123-acre estate two miles northeast of Pittsburgh. After selling 30 acres to the government for use as an armory, Foster built a handsome home, which became known as the White Cottage. Just twelve years later, in 1826, it would be lost.

Foster's financial troubles began in 1814, when he was named Deputy Commissioner of Purchases for the U. S. Army, then fighting the War of 1812. To speed the transport of supplies to New Orleans, Foster paid for some of them himself. But when he applied for reimbursement, the government balked, leaving more than $2,700.00 unpaid -- a huge sum at the time. Foster's financial plight worsened after he was named manager of the Pittsburgh and Greenburgh Turnpike Company, some time around 1815. The company went bankrupt, and as manager, Foster was liable for its considerable debts.

Still respected -- and well-connected -- Foster won election to the first of two terms in the Pennsylvania legislature in 1824. But holding this position did little to assuage his financial plight. In 1826 the Bank of the United States foreclosed on the White Cottage. From that point on, William Foster struggled to stay afloat. The family moved often, frequently staying in homes owned by William Jr., from whom William Sr. secured frequent loans. The elder Foster's fondness for drink undoubtedly contributed to his problems.

By 1828 the success of the Erie Canal had caused canal-building mania to sweep the East. William Foster was named Collector of Tolls for the Blairsville-Pittsburgh Canal. But delays in construction -- and in salary payments -- kept Foster in debt. He resigned his position in March, 1834. By that time, Foster had become active in the burgeoning Temperance Movement. He took a pledge of abstinence from alcohol in 1833 and spoke publicly at rallies, encouraging citizens to live sober lives.

Time and again, Foster struggled to right himself. In 1835 he joined a business venture to open a retail store on Pittsburgh's Market Street. The store quickly failed. A brief stint as a lower-level Treasury Department appointee proved no more remunerative; in any case, Foster quit the job after only a few weeks in Washington. He returned to Pennsylvania, where he was elected mayor of Allegheny, a suburb of Pittsburgh. For five years -- or even more -- he had no employment. The family relied on a small income from a number of rental properties and the subsidies of William Jr.

In 1847 William Foster once again went into business for himself, this time as a soldier's agent. In this line of work, he helped veterans of the Mexican War and their survivors to collect pensions, back pay, and land grants. The job provided some income but never returned him to his former state of affluence. Foster suffered a stroke in 1851 that left him bedridden. He lingered for four years before passing away on July 27, 1855.

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