Oldest running mate ever had Md. roots

Henry G. Davis, 80 when tapped in '04, was born in Howard

Backstory

July 06, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

If the age of Republican presidential hopeful John McCain is of some concern to voters, how about the case of Henry Gassaway Davis, who was 80 when he was nominated to be Democratic nominee Alton B. Parker's vice presidential candidate in 1904?

While Davis' name - not to mention Alton B. Parker's - is admittedly not on the tongues of most people these days, he does share a certain local distinction.

Throughout the nation's history, there have been two vice presidential candidates from Maryland: One was elected - Spiro T. Agnew in 1968; and one was not, and that's our man Davis.

One who came close was Maryland Gov. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin.

During his first term as governor in 1951, McKeldin had jumped on Dwight D. Eisenhower's bandwagon early on, and it was thought in Republican circles that he might be Ike's running mate in the 1952 presidential election.

Eventually edged out by Richard M. Nixon, McKeldin was given the honor of placing Ike's name before the GOP convention in Chicago, and thereafter enjoyed a national reputation in Republican circles.

Davis was born in 1823 in Woodstock, Howard County, as was his first cousin, Arthur Pue Gorman, who later became a U.S. senator after serving in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Educated in country schools and left fatherless when quite young, Davis was 19 years old when he began working as a brakeman on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

"The services of young Davis were so efficient that he was soon promoted to be freight conductor and afterward to passenger conductor," reported The Sun.

Davis was eventually made superintendent of the railroad's shops and terminals at Piedmont, W. Va.

His interest in politics was stimulated by a friendship with U.S. Sen. Henry Clay, who'd ride B & O passenger trains from Baltimore on journeys that were completed by stagecoach to his home in Kentucky.

"Mr. Davis got his first taste for politics from Henry Clay in his conversations with that great statesman during these trips over the Baltimore and Ohio, and he cast his first ballot for the 'Great Commoner' for President," reported the newspaper.

In 1858, his Davis Coal and Coke Co. began mining coal at Piedmont. He took a major interest in the Piedmont National Bank, which later became the Davis National Bank.

He expanded his business interests to include lumbering and building the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railroad, and later built a second line, the Coal & Coke Railway of West Virginia, which coursed some 200 miles from Elkins, W. Va., to Charleston, W. Va.

Along the way, Davis founded and helped develop two cities in West Virginia: Elkins and Davis.

Davis built a farm in Garrett County, and at the same time began lumbering operations in the hemlock forests near Swallow Falls and Deep Creek.

He built a spacious summer home at Deer Park in Garrett County, and in the 1870s, convinced John Work Garrett, president of the B & O, to build the Deer Park Hotel, which became a stylish summer resort for the heat-oppressed bon ton of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, who arrived there aboard the railroad's steam cars.

His political career began with this election to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1865. He was elected to the state Senate in 1868 and reelected in 1870.

In 1871, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and served two terms. In 1882 he declined renomination and returned to Elkins to resume his business career.

At one time, his company, which became one of the largest coal companies in the world, had dominion over 135,000 acres of land, employed 1,600 men and operated two power plants. More than 1,000 coke ovens and nine coal mines were within a mile of his Coketon, W. Va., office.

He also maintained offices in Baltimore and lived during winters the Hotel Rennert.

"He was as familiar in the lobby of the hotel during this time as he was on the streets of this city," said The Sun.

Another Maryland connection was his wife. He was wed to Kate A. Bantz, daughter of Judge Gideon Bantz of Frederick, in 1853, and later raised five children.

The couple spent summers at Graceland, an elegant 260-acre estate in Elkins, and traveled in comfort aboard their private railroad car of the same name.

Davis later represented the United States at the Pan American conferences of 1889 and 1901. He was also a member of the United States Intercontinental Railway Commission.

He was the permanent chairman of the Pan American Railway Committee from 1901 until 1916.

When nominated for the vice presidency, Davis was 80.

"There is no doubt that ex-Senator Davis is a more robust and vigorous man than Gladstone was at the same age. He does not look a day over sixty, and few men of sixty can ride, as he rides, forty miles on horseback a day," observed The Washington Post at the time.

Alton and Davis lost the 1904 presidential election to Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Fairbanks.

However, Davis has earned a footnote in American political history, at least for the moment: He was the oldest person ever to be nominated for president or vice president on a major party's ticket.

He was 92 when he died in Washington in 1916.

Among his philanthropic interests was Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia, for which he donated the land.

Davis, whose estate was estimated to be worth somewhere between $10 million and $30 million, left half of it to his surviving three children according to The Sun.

In a stroke of further generosity, he willed $100 to Edward Gillam, his faithful longtime coachman.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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