“Leading the Way” is an apt tagline for an institution named for two United States Senators. Over my tenure as president of Davis & Elkins College, I have learned much about Senator Henry Gassaway Davis and his beloved Graceland mansion on our campus. The other namesake, Senator Stephen Benton Elkins, who constructed Halliehurst that today adorns the D&E campus, I knew less about. At least, I knew less until recently. Board of Trustee member Dave Cutlip ‘76 recently loaned me a book about the senator whose name adorns both the town and campus. Credit is due to author Oscar Lambert for his text “Stephen Benton Elkins” published in 1955.
The future senator was born in Ohio in 1841 to parents of very modest means. He grew up in Westport, Missouri, and spent considerable time in Kansas City. He was among the fortunate of his day to attend college at The University of Missouri at Columbia and taught for a brief time following graduation.
With a deepening national divide over the evil of slavery in the 1850s, young Elkins had family and friends on both sides of the issue. He attended one of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas and participated in many intense discussions on the topic during his college years. Ultimately, he sided with the cause of the Union. As frequently occurred in the border states, his father and brothers sided with the Confederacy. Stephen Elkins served as a captain in the Union Army where he participated in numerous regional skirmishes.
Upon being discharged from the Army, Elkins chose not to return to his hometown still polarized from the war. Having watched covered wagons from the days of his boyhood depart Missouri to head west, he decided to follow the pioneers trekking across the Santa Fe Trail to the New Mexico Territory. During the long and arduous trip, he devoted himself to learning the Spanish language which would serve him well throughout his career. He made his way to Mesilla, New Mexico, and began the practice of law. Later he would relocate to Santa Fe.
Quickly Elkins began amassing wealth through his legal work. Later he began a bank, purchased large swaths of inexpensive land, and sold much of it to the railroad as it was being constructed in the territory. Within a few years his name had become prominent. His political career began with his election to the territorial legislature in New Mexico, then New Mexico Attorney General, and finally, in 1873, a delegate to the United States Congress. He had voice, but not vote representing a territory. He entered Congress as a Lincoln Republican.
As a result of political connections in Washington, he met Hallie Davis, the daughter of West Virginia Senator Henry G. Davis. Their courtship resulted in marriage in Baltimore in 1875. With his marriage, a move to the newly formed state of West Virginia ensued. His remaining years in his newly adopted state spent in business and politics had far reaching consequences for what we now know as the town of Elkins and Davis & Elkins College. More on the fascinating life of Stephen B. Elkins next week.
This story, and our journey, continues….
Chris A. Wood
Davis & Elkins College