Asa Whitney was born in Townsend, Massachusetts, on December 1, 1791, the son of Asa Whitney and Mary Wallis. As a boy, he worked in his father's blacksmith shop, and he spent much of his adult life working with machinery. His work installing machines and building railroad cars for the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad led to a position as superintendent, and in 1839 he was appointed Erie Canal commissioner. He later formed a locomotive-building business with Matthias Baldwin of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and afterward founded Asa Whitney & Sons, a cast-iron car wheel manufacturing company. In 1860, he became president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, though illness forced him to resign the following year.
On August 22, 1815, Asa Whitney married Clarinda Williams of Groton, Connecticut. They lived in Brownville, New York; Albany, New York; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their seven children were: William Wallace (1817-1847), George (b. 1819), Mary Jane (b. 1821), Daniel Lyman (b. 1824), Eliza (b. 1826), John Randall (b. 1828), and James Shields (b. 1830). Asa Whitney died on June 4, 1874. Mary Jane Whitney taught school in Washington, D.C., between 1839 and 1841, and married John H. Redfield in August 1843. Eliza Whitney attended the Albany Female Academy while Mary Jane was employed in Washington.