Alfred Kelley was born in Middlefield, Connecticut, on November 7, 1789, and then moved with his family to Lowville, New York, at the age of ten. He trained as a lawyer under New York Supreme Court justice Jonas Platt beginning in 1807.
Kelley's family was connected to the earliest settlers in the Connecticut Western Reserve. His mother's brother, Joshua Stow, was one of the first members of the Connecticut Land Company and had traveled with Moses Cleaveland in 1796 to establish the settlement of Cleveland. Kelley moved to Cleveland in 1810, becoming a member of the Ohio bar and the community's first attorney. He quickly became involved in local politics, serving as prosecuting attorney from 1810 to 1822 and becoming Cleveland's first mayor in 1815. (The election was unanimous, with Kelley receiving all twelve votes.)
Kelley also became involved in state politics, elected to the Ohio House of Representatives for the first time in 1814 and serving in state politics in some capacity for the rest of his life. In 1814, Kelley was the youngest member of the House. When he retired from the Ohio Senate in 1857, he was then the oldest member of the state legislature. During the intervening years, Kelley was an instrumental figure in a number of important state issues. He introduced a bill to end the policy of imprisoning people who could not pay off their debts and helped to create the office of state superintendent of schools. He authored an important banking reform bill in 1845 and the state's first general property tax law the following year. In addition, Kelley served as chairman of Ohio's Whig Party commission and helped William Henry Harrison become President of the United States in 1840.
What Kelley was probably most known for, however, was his passionate support for canal construction. In fact, he became known as "the father of the Ohio canal system." In addition to persuading the state legislature to finance the building of canals, Kelley also devoted much of his time to supervising construction, first in Akron and then in Columbus. In spite of the fact that the canal went significantly over budget, Kelley's reputation for honesty and integrity insured that the legislature did not withdraw funding for the project.
By the 1840s and 1850s, Kelley realized that canals were being surpassed by a new form of transportation, the railroad. With his urging, the city of Cleveland began a long-term project to connect the community to Cincinnati. By 1851, the railroad already reached from Cleveland to Columbus. Kelley also served as president both of the Columbus and Xenia Railroad and the Cleveland, Painesville, and Ashtabula Railroad.
Kelley died in Columbus on December 2, 1859. During his years of public service, the state of Ohio and the city of Cleveland had grown tremendously and, because of his support of transportation and financial reforms, Kelley had played an important role in their transformation.