Senator Stephen B. Elkins, namesake for the town of Elkins and Davis & Elkins College, lived the American dream and an amazing life. As last week’s column described, he left his boyhood home in Missouri to join the Union Army, eventually crossed the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico and established his law career and built a political base. His marriage to Hallie Davis, the daughter of West Virginia Senator Henry Gassaway Davis, brought him to West Virginia. Now, the rest of the story.
Working together with his father-in-law, Senator Henry Gassaway Davis, his West Virginia business interests exploded in the late 19th and early 20th century. Railroads were built, lumber harvesting and manufacturing expanded, and coal mines were opened. Stephen Elkins needed a home closer to business interests. Wanting to be on the bank of the Tygart River, he sent a scouting party to select the perfect location. Today, we know that location as Elkins.
The following was his description of the land selected for the construction of his home: “The place selected stood on the rim of a mountain, overlooking an amphitheater decorated with the native forest of gray and green, shading into red and bold during the autumn season. Below, along the gentle curves of the river, the quiet valley spread about a mile in width, containing a few farm homes and a small Presbyterian Church which denoted the Scottish ancestry of the native people.”
Prominent New York architect Charles Mott drew the plans for Elkins’ spacious home, today known as Halliehurst. The mansion was patterned after a castle in the Rhineland admired by Mrs. Elkins. When completed in 1890, the house had 31 rooms each heated with steam and supplied with running water. Some 200 paces north of Halliehurst stood Graceland, the newly constructed pink sandstone mansion of Henry Davis. One additional mansion was built just north of Graceland for R.C. Kerens. An interesting historical footnote from Senator Elkins in 1889 is that a site had already been selected for President Henry Harrison’s home in Elkins. This home was never built.
With the new railroad business boom in the 1880s and 90s the town of Elkins became the capital of the industrial empire in central West Virginia. Between Senator Davis and Senator Elkins, they owned 80,000 acres of land centered in the upper Potomac and Cheat River basins. The industrial developments of these areas, coupled with political interests, would occupy the rest of Elkins’ life. In the late 1890s he stated, “No other state in the Union has a brighter business and industrial future than West Virginia.”
Elkins was appointed Secretary of War by President Harrison in 1892 and served in the United States Senate from West Virginia from 1895 until his death in 1910. He rose to national prominence in the Republican Party and was considered a viable nominee for both vice president and president, but ultimately was never selected.
In 1904 a “school of higher learning” was founded in Elkins and named for its chief sponsors. In 1923 Hallie Davis Elkins and her children provided a deed of conveyance for Halliehurst and 60 acres for the current campus of D&E. Graceland was deeded to Davis & Elkins College in 1941.
With gratitude for the amazing life journey of Stephen Elkins, our journey continues….
Chris A. Wood
Davis & Elkins College