Henry Gassaway Davis was an early industrialist and politician who helped shape West Virginia history.
Born in 1823, Davis came from humble origins, and did not get a formal education beyond elementary school. After a youth spent working as a farmhand, he joined the Baltimore and Ohio railroad at the age of 19, saving his money as he worked his way from brakeman up to station agent. Land in West Virginia at that time cost as little as a dollar an acre, and as a beginning businessman Davis invested his life savings in buying up thousands of acres in north and central West Virginia.
In 1858, Davis left his position at the railroad to focus on his private business and political ambition. Politics was a means of furthering his business, and over the course of two terms in the state legislature Davis helped push through bills favorable to his interests, including a charter for his corporation which allowed him to build a railroad to support transport of timber and coal. He would later go on to serve in the United States Senate, and make a failed run for vice-president, but protecting business interests would always be more important to Davis than party affiliation.
After getting a charter in 1866, Davis set to work building the West Virginia Central and Pittsburg Railway which would connect the abundant natural resources of West Virginia with profitable eastern markets. Many of the towns along the railroad were named after prominent members of the Davis family or important business associates. The town of Davis is named after the founder himself, while Thomas is named after his brother, and Elkins is named after Davis’ son-in-law Stephen Elkins, who became a successful industrialist and politician in his own right. In the late 1800s the Davis Coal and Coke Company was one of the largest coal companies in the world, and Davis had other holdings in banking and real estate, all of which made him exceptionally wealthy. He died in Washington DC in 1916, at the age of 93.
Davis left behind a mixed legacy in West Virginia. On one hand, the communities that formed the core of his business empire did experience a period of great prosperity under his management. The company towns were often the first in their area to get paved streets, electricity, and other modern amenities. Davis and Elkins College, and the Davis Memorial Hospital both got their start with funds from the Davis business empire. On the other hand, much of the wealth generated by Davis’ companies flowed to out-of-state investors and business associates who were already wealthy, rather than to the workers and communities of West Virginia. The political maneuvering that paved the way for Davis’ business were technically legal but arguably not ethical, and the boom in timber, coal and coke caused serious environmental harm.
Noted historian John Alexander Williams will be giving a talk about Henry Gassaway Davis on August 11th. More event details will be announced on our website as they become available.