Politician and industrialist Henry Gassaway Davis (November 16, 1823-March 11, 1916) was known in the early 20th century as West Virginia’s ‘‘Grand Old Man.’’ Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Gassaway’s formal education did not extend beyond elementary school.
Starting as a farmhand, young Davis became a brakeman for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1842, later serving as conductor and station agent. Traveling the route from Washington to Cumberland, he noted the potential wealth of forestlands in areas that soon became part of West Virginia. He invested his savings and his wife’s inheritance in thousands of acres of undeveloped land in the region, often paying only a dollar per acre. He left the B&O in 1858 to focus on his personal interests.
Davis, realizing the relationship of political power to business, won election to the House of Delegates in 1865 and the West Virginia Senate in 1868. He sponsored bills to create Mineral and Grant counties and to obtain for himself a charter for a corporation having vast powers to build a railroad and exploit the natural resources in north-central West Virginia. In 1870, Davis helped lead the Democratic Party to victory, which began the party’s quarter-century control of West Virginia. The next year, the legislature elected him West Virginia’s first Democratic U.S. senator. He served from 1871 to 1883, becoming in time chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He opposed the Republican Radical Reconstruction program, denounced corruption in Grant’s administration, and urged creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Davis was a delegate to nine Democratic National Conventions and a dominant force in the state party for three decades. He was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1904.
Tariff protection was more important than party affiliation to businessman Davis. Thus, he tacitly supported Republican Benjamin Harrison for president in 1888. Subsequently, Davis helped his son-in-law, Republican Stephen B. Elkins, win a U.S. Senate seat, where he influenced tariff legislation beneficial to the Davis-Elkins business interests.
Using the charter he had obtained in 1866, Davis built the West Virginia Central & Pittsburg [sic] Railway and its branch lines two decades later, thus enabling him to transport his coal and lumber to eastern markets. Later, he constructed a railroad connecting Charleston and Elkins. Profits from these enterprises and from banking and real estate brought him an immense fortune. He founded Elkins and other towns along his railroad routes.
His philanthropic legacies include Davis & Elkins College, Davis Memorial Hospital, and Davis Memorial Presbyterian Church in Elkins, several YMCAs, and Charleston’s Davis Child Shelter. Fine equestrian statues of Henry Gassaway Davis stand in downtown Charleston and at the college gates in Elkins.
Davis received appointments from three presidents to successive Pan-American Conferences (1889–1902) and served as chairman of the Pan-American Railway Committee for several years. His last public service was in 1913 as chairman of the Semi-Centennial Commission which planned West Virginia’s ‘‘Golden Jubilee,’’ celebrating 50 years of statehood. Henry Gassaway Davis died in Washington.
This Article was written by Thomas Richard Ross
Last Revised on October 15, 2012
Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia and the Captains of Industry. Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1976.
Ross, Thomas Richard. Davis & Elkins College: The Diamond Jubilee History. Parsons: McClain, 1980.
Pepper, Charles M. The Life and Times of Henry Gassaway Davis. New York: Century, 1920.
Cite This Article
Ross, Thomas Richard "Henry Gassaway Davis." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 15 October 2012. Web. 31 August 2015.