U.S. Senator William Edwin Chilton (March 17, 1858-November 7, 1939) was one of the leaders of West Virginia’s Democratic Party. He was a politician, lawyer, and businessman. His enduring legacy was to establish Chilton family ownership of the Charleston Gazette, a major force in West Virginia politics throughout the 20th century.
Chilton was born in Coalsmouth, now St. Albans. After attending local schools, he became a teacher and principal while studying law. He passed the bar in 1880 and was appointed to fill an unexpired term as Kanawha County prosecutor in 1883, but was defeated in the following year’s election. Chilton ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 1886, then worked behind the scenes in politics for several years. He became chairman of the state Democratic Party in 1892 and helped engineer the election of his friend, William A. MacCorkle, as governor. MacCorkle then appointed Chilton secretary of state (1893–97).
After their terms in office were over, the two men formed the law firm Chilton, MacCorkle, and Chilton with Chilton’s brother in 1897. Chilton continued as a leader of the so-called Kanawha Ring, which fought industrialist and agrarian elements in the Democratic Party for control of the state party.
In 1911, Chilton was elected as a U.S. senator by the state legislature. While in the Senate, he chaired the five-man subcommittee considering the confirmation of Louis Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court. Brandeis faced opposition because he was Jewish and because he supported controls on big business. Senator Chilton also supported the League of Nations, and championed a bill that would have allowed West Virginia to sue Virginia for a share of the millions of dollars that had been realized from the sale of land to the new federal government in 1784. He lost the 1917 election to Republican Howard Sutherland, the first election after the constitution was changed so that U.S. senators were directly elected by voters. He also lost Senate elections in 1924 and 1934.
Besides law and politics, Chilton tried his hand at several businesses. He and others bought Charleston’s electric streetcar system in 1905 and expanded the service throughout Kanawha County. In 1907, the Chilton family bought the Daily Gazette, and the name was changed to the Charleston Gazette. After his election defeat in 1917, he became publisher and assumed editorial control of the Gazette. Chilton’s son took over the paper in the early 1920s. The elder Chilton kept the titles of associate editor and company vice president until his death in Charleston.
This Article was written by Greg Moore
Last Revised on October 04, 2012
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MacCorkle, William A. The Recollections of Fifty Years of West Virginia. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1928.