On August 11th, roughly 40 people gathered at Cottrill’s Opera House to learn about Henry Gassaway Davis, the pioneering businessman who named many of the towns in this area. The speaker, John Alexander Williams, is a native of White Sulphur Springs in Greenbrier County, and has written about his home state for more than 50 years. Williams’ books include West Virginia and the Captains of Industry; Appalachia, A History; and West Virginia, A History for Beginners. He was also the script writer for the Public Broadcasting West Virginia Film history project.
Henry Gassaway Davis was an influential businessman in early West Virginia, who started out as a land speculator before getting into the coal and railroad businesses. He relied on political connections to protect his business, including enacting tariffs on foreign coal to make West Virginia coal more competitive. One of his West Virginia railroads was referred to as “the Senatorial railroad” because he liked to reward friendly Senators by naming railroad stops after them.
Davis himself was responsible for some legally questionable business deals, and was sued for operating his railways at such a low profit margin that his investors couldn’t make money. This was an intentional strategy by Davis, meant to drive other railroads out of business by undercutting their prices. Davis could afford the temporary financial loss this strategy involved, since he made most of his money from coal and the mercantile business. In fact, the part of his business that had the highest return on investment was operating company stores. With many miners paid in scrip and unable to shop elsewhere, stores operated by the Davis Coal and Coke Company were virtually guaranteed to turn a profit.
Davis’ political savvy didn’t always benefit ordinary West Virginians, but he did have some insight into his workers. While many coal bosses in the southern part of the state evicted workers who went on strike, Davis predicted that the threat of homelessness would only make workers more desperate and increase the likelihood of violence. For as long as he was owner of the company striking workers were allowed to stay in their homes, although the owners that succeeded him did not always abide by this rule.
The Davis business empire was a family affair, with his son-in-law Stephen Elkins serving as a major business partner. Davis’ daughter Hallie was apparently the family favorite, but in that era a woman could not have taken over the family business, so that role instead fell to her husband. Stephen Elkins had become successful as a western land speculator and lawyer in New Mexico, before moving east to cultivate political connections in Washington DC, so he was well positioned to continue growing the Davis business empire.
Both Elkins and Davis were elected to the United States Senate, and both served on government commissions and other similar appointed roles. Davis even made an unsuccessful run for vice-president in 1904, at the age of 81 years old(!) Davis was the oldest person to ever be nominated for national office by a major political party, but this accomplishment was marred by the fact that he was running on a ticket that opposed the civil rights reforms of the post- Civil War era.