History Lecture Explores the Legacy of Early W.Va. Industrialist

On Aug. 11, 55 people gathered at Cottrill’s Opera House to learn about Henry Gassaway Davis, the 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 the script writer for the Public Broadcasting West Virginia Film history project

His subject, Henry Gassaway Davis, built a railroad, timber and coal empire in Tucker County, and the artifacts of that era are part of today’s cultural heritage in the region. The Davis Coal and Coke Company attracted workers to settle here, and created an economic boom that put Tucker County on the map in the late 1800s.

However, Henry Gassaway Davis also manipulated the political system to advance his business, and helped ensure that family members like son-in-law Stephen B. Elkins ended up in positions of power. Williams did not shy away from the elements of corruption in this piece of history, and helped to explain the tangled web of business interests, patronage, and political appointments that supported Davis’ empire.

Earlier that week Williams gave a lecture in Morgantown, focused on how the natural resource economy has driven politics throughout West Virginia’s history. Both talks are sponsored by the conservation group Friends of Blackwater, with assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council. For more information contact Friends of Blackwater at 304-345-7663.

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