Henry G. Davis was an industrialist, U.S. senator, and 1904 Democratic vice-presidential nominee. He was born in Woodlawn, Maryland, on November 16, 1823, to Louise Brown Davis and Caleb Davis. His father was a railroad construction contractor, whose job-related debilitating injury and early death left financial support of the family to his mother, who ran a female academy. His mother was a maternal aunt of Arthur Pue Gorman, a U.S. senator from Maryland (1881-1899; 1903-1906).
After serving as superintendent of a plantation, Davis began working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1842 as a brakeman before rising to the position of conductor, supervisor of the Cumberland line in 1847, station agent at Piedmont, Virginia (today, West Virginia), in 1853, and later a division superintendent. In 1853, he married Katharine Anne Bantz; the couple later had seven children. While continuing to work for the railroad, he and his brothers opened a general store in 1854, which soon became the leading mercantile house in the Potomac River region that extents from what is now West Virginia, through Virginia, southern Pennsylvania, and Maryland. He expanded into other enterprises, including timber and coal, and retired from the railroad in 1858 to concentrate on his businesses. An avid unionist, Davis supplied the federal government with goods and hardware during the Civil War, using the profits to expand his business holdings. In 1867, he purchased thousands of timberland in the Allegheny Mountains, and soon after built a summerhouse and vacation village in Deer Park, Maryland. By 1870, he had become one of the richest men in West Virginia.
Davis entered politics in 1865, winning a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates as a Union-Conservative. In 1868, he was elected as a Democrat to the state senate, and reelected two years later. Although he favored the Republican support of protective tariffs, he opposed black voting rights and restrictions on former Confederates. He was instrumental in building the Democratic Party in his state by founding newspapers, cultivating candidates, and providing funds. The state legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1871 and reelected him in 1877. He was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1879-1880. Fearing defeat, he declined to seek a third term in 1883.
In 1881, Davis established the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway Company with his son-in-law, Stephen Elkins, a former congressional delegate from the New Mexico Territory (1873-1877) and future senator from West Virginia (1895-1911), who was a Republican. In 1902, the two men sold the railroad to a group headed by George J. Gould (son of Jay Gould), and then became major investors in the Coal and Coke Railroad, the construction of which was completed in 1906.
In the 1880s, Davis had become dissatisfied with the Democratic Party, especially factional battles in West Virginia, the failure of an offer to work in the administration of President Grover Cleveland, and the rising tide of party’s tariff-reform wing. In 1887, he supported the Republican Party in the West Virginia elections, and encouraged Benjamin Harrison, a former Senate colleague, to seek the Republican presidential nomination. Davis also helped Elkins build up the GOP in West Virginia and gain a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1895. As a result, Democratic dominance of the state gave way to a longer period of Republican control. Republican Presidents Harrison and William McKinley appointed Davis to the first two Pan-American Conferences in 1889-1890 and 1901-1902, respectively.
Nevertheless, Davis retained his Democratic affiliation. In 1896, he regained a leadership role in the state party when many Gold Democrats bolted the party following the presidential nomination of William Jennings Bryan. Although Davis failed in a quest to return to the Senate, he was nominated in 1904 as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee on a ticket headed by Judge Alton B. Parker of New York. At 80, Davis was the oldest person ever nominated for that office by a major party. Democratic delegates’ main hope in selecting the former senator was that he would contribute part of his fortune to the election effort. He donated $185,000 ($3.7 million in 2002 dollars), which was over a third of the very small campaign fund. In November, the Parker-Davis ticket lost in a landslide to the Republican ticket of President Theodore Roosevelt and his running mate, Charles Fairbanks, 336-140 in the Electoral College and 56%-38% in the popular vote.
Davis continued serving in the management of the Coal and Coke Railroad until 1912. On March 11, 1916, he died at the home of his daughter in Washington, D. C.
Sources consulted: American National Biography; Congressional Biographical Directory online; Dictionary of American Biography; and, Harper’s Weekly.