One of the most distinguished citizens of Indiana was Silas Moorhead Clark. He was born January 18, 1834 in Plum Creek Township, Armstrong County. He was the son of James and Ann Moorhead Clark and came from a long line of notable ancestors on both his parent’s sides. On his maternal side was his great grandfather, the pioneer, Fergus Moorhead. Mr. Moorhead was one of the first persons to settle near Indiana in 1772. It was in 1777 that Fergus was captured by Indians and taken to Canada during the Revolution. Not long after, Mrs. Moorhead, while alone in the wilderness, gave birth to Fergus Moorhead, Jr., Silas Clark’s grandfather. His paternal great grandfather, Captain James Clark, was among the defenders of Hannastown when it was attacked in 1782 by Indians and Canadians and burned it to the ground.
Silas and his family moved to Indiana when Silas was about a year old. His father was in business for 37 years as a tannery operator and held the offices of school director and justice of the peace. Silas only received a basic education in the public schools; at the age of 14 he began attending the Indiana Academy, which was the first institution of learning equivalent to a high school. His classmates included: Matthew S. Quay, who later became Pennsylvania’s Republic “boss,” and Harry White, later serving as judge and Congressman. Not only was Clark studying at the Academy, he also worked on his father’s farm and carried the mail for a year between Indiana and Blairsville.
Once his education was complete at the Indiana Academy, Mr. Clark entered Jefferson College at Canonsburg, Washington County (now known as Washington & Jefferson College). In 1852 at the age of 18 he graduated fifth in a class of sixty people. Following graduation, he became a teacher at the Indiana Academy, for two terms, instructing 45 young men.
It was in 1854 that Mr. Clark began the study of law at the office of William M. Stewart, an Indiana attorney who later became Solicitor for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1856, Clark founded, along with Joseph M. Thompson and John F. Young, a Democratic newspaper, The Democratic Messenger. After a few months, Clark sold his interest in the paper, which later became the Indiana Messenger.
In September 1857, at age 23, Clark was admitted to the Indiana County Bar and the following year he became a junior partner of attorney Stewart. The firm of Stewart & Clark was said to have had the “largest and most lucrative practice in Indiana County.” The partners are believed to have never had a written agreement and never had a disagreement. Their association continued for sixteen years until 1873 when Stewart moved to Philadelphia; Clark continued the practice alone. His office was in the Edward Nixon house, North Sixth Street, which is now the Delaney automobile lot.
Clark’s next move was into the political world, being elected to Indiana Borough Council in 1859, and he was reelected in 1861 and 1865. In 1869, he was elected a school director for the borough and continued to hold this position for many years. It was said, “To his [Clark] judgement and energy are the public schools (of Indiana) are largely indebted for their prosperity.”
His law practice quickly attained a reputation as “a strong and logical reasoner and an eloquent advocate.” His personal inclination was to shun litigation wherever possible and settle cases peaceably out of court. It is claimed that Clark never sued anyone himself nor was he sued by anyone. Much can be said about Clark as a lawyer by the following quote, “Whether arguing questions of law before a court or questions of fact before a jury, the strong points of his case were so forcibly presented that the weak ones were likely to be lost altogether.”
In his personal life, Clark married Clarissa Elizabeth Moorhead on April 26, 1859. She was not related to Silas’ mother’s line.
Clark’s political career continued, on July 4, 1862 while in Harrisburg attending a State Democratic Convention, he was elected chairman of the Indiana County Democratic Committee. Now during this time, the Civil War was raging, and many people looked upon Democrats with suspicion as “Secessionists” and “Copperheads” allied with their rebellious brethren in the South. Clark made a proposal that both Republicans and Democrats of Indiana County, who had previously announced public meetings for the same day, cancel the meetings and campaign without political meetings; Clark pointed out that “the present is indeed no time for partisan strife.” The Republican candidate for Congress, was Clark’s law partner, William M. Stewart. But Clark received no reply to his proposal, so he suggested a joint meeting of both parties, but I.M. Watt, the Republican chairman, declined to consider either idea.
As Clark’s professional and political career prospered, he began the erection of his mansion in 1869. During construction, a newspaper item in October mentioned that he had been struck on the head by a failing brick and he was somewhat stunned for a few hours. The location of the home was on the site of the old academy, where Clark had attended as a boy, and had burned in 1864. The house was said to cost $12,000 and was completed in 1870. It was during this time that, without his knowledge, Clark was nominated by some friends at the State Democratic Convention for Justice for the State Supreme Court. He received forty or fifty votes, but the choice of the Convention was Cyrus L. Pershing.
This was just the beginning of Clark’s career in the judicial-political sphere. In 1871, he was unanimously chosen as the Democratic candidate for President Judge of the Tenth Judicial District – consisting of Armstrong, Indiana, and Westmoreland Counties – but Clark was defeated by James A. Logan of Greensburg. Logan was a solicitor for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and on Election Day trains were sent out along the PRR lines in the three-county area to haul voters to their polling places free of charge. Even though these tactics were employed, Logan only had a majority of some 400 votes. In the years that followed Clark declared “Judge Logan was a good, able and just judge.” By this time, Attorney Clark was considered one of the best attorneys in Indiana County.
Clark did not give up running for office, he was successfully elected on October 8, 1872 as a delegate from the 24th Senatorial District to the Convention which framed a new Pennsylvania Constitution. As a member of the Convention, he was named to a committee to make rules for governing the Convention; he also served on the Declaration of Rights Committee, Committed on Private Corporations, and the Revision and Adjustment Committee.
Again in 1874 Clark was nominated for the State Supreme Court, receiving 41 votes, but he was once again defeated with the nod going to W.J. Woodward.
Clark continued to be active in both business and politics. He was a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in St. Louis in 1876, in which Samuel J. Tilden for President. It was said “Silas M. Clark is not one of those men who avoid politics as a filthy pool in which honest men should not dabble. He holds it the right and duty of every good citizen to vote; he recognizes that good men should not shirk their share in party management.” In 1879, he was elected to serve as president of the First National Bank. He also served several terms as president of the Indiana County Agricultural Society.
In 1882, the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania, unanimously chose him as its nominee for Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Following the Election of November 7, 1882, the entire Democratic ticket has been elected. Clark was elected, and surprising had won Indiana County, breaking a rule since the days of Andrew Jackson that no Democrat could carry the county.
Once the Indiana County Court adjourned on December 23, 1882, the members of the Bar organized and passed resolutions “highly complimentary of the character and ability of Judge Silas M. Clark” who severed his long connection with the county attorney’s association. On December 28, General White entertained the members of the Bar and other guests at an evening party in honor of the Supreme Justice-elect. The following day, Clark left to take his seat on the bench of the high court, with a salary of $8,000 per year.
Clark was highly esteemed on the bench, “his opinions, always brief, were couched in the simplest and choicest language, and were as readily understood by laymen as by lawyers.” Clark was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Lafayette College in 1886. However, there was sorrow during his term as Justice, with the death of his wife, Clara, on January 17, 1887.
Following the death of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Morrison R. Waite in 1888, many Pennsylvania newspapers pointed to Justice Clark as being qualified for his replacement. However, this was not meant to be.
Late in September 1891, while holding court in Pittsburgh, he suffered from a large carbuncle on the back of his neck, but he continued to sit on the Bench until early November when he was obliged to come home. His physicians could not do much and gave up all hope of his recovery. On November 20, he lapsed into a coma and died about 9:15 p.m. at the age of 57.
Funeral services were held at the Presbyterian Church Monday afternoon at 2:00 pm on November 23; this was a remarkable demonstration of respect and affection, and it is likely that Judge Clark would not have wanted all this fuss. The Courthouse was draped in black; business establishments were closed until 4:00. John Sutton Hall was also draped in black and the bell tolled during the services. The church was overflowing, every available seat upstairs and down was occupied, there were many standing in every possible space, and there were more than a hundred waiting outside. At 11:20 a.m. a special train arrived in Indiana carrying Governor Pattison and five of Clark’s fellow judges, plus attorneys, county and state officials and other judges. At the conclusion of the service, the processional to the cemetery was delayed permitting Normal School faculty and students to file by for a last farewell. Afterwards, hundreds of others who had been patiently waiting outside walked silently past. Justice Silas M. Clark’s final resting place in Oakland Cemetery is marked by a simple stone bearing the words “S.M. Clark.” This was fitting for such a humble man as Silas.
In 1893, a boy’s dormitory was built on the Normal School campus, and it was named “Clark Hall,” in Silas’ honor. After it burned in 1905, another was erected and rededicated on January 12, 1907. After an “open house,” there was a ceremony held in the chapel of John Sutton Hall where a large portrait of Justice Clark, festooned with carnations, hung on the wall above the rostrum. Attorney J. Wood Clark, a son of Clark, presided.
Members of the Clark family continued to reside in the house until 1915 when J. Wood Clark moved to Pittsburgh. The house was rented to F.M. Fritchman, General Superintendent of the R&P Coal Company, until January 19, 1917, when the surviving Clark heirs sold the house to the County Commissioners for $20,000 less $1,000 which was donated by the heirs. The intention was for the house to be a veteran’s memorial and so it was known for years as “Memorial Hall.” It served various veterans’ groups, patriotic organizations, the Red Cross during World War I and II, as civil defense headquarters, and the Historical Society; it was also used as a polling place.
The Clark House continues to serve the community as a museum for the Historical Society. It serves as a “time capsule” a look into the past to see how the Clarks would have lived. Come visit us for one of the many events held at the Clark House or set up a tour of the Clark House to learn more about this fascinating and interesting house.