Friday, January 31, 2014

Senator Stephen Benton Elkins: Carpetbagger or Savior?

West Virginia is closing in on the 120th anniversary of a milestone achievement in the life of one of its most important figures.  In early 1895, the West Virginia State Legislature chose Stephen Benton Elkins to represent the state in the United States Senate.

Elkins did not have to win in a popular vote.  Before 1913, legislatures chose senators.  His career, however, had been remarkable.  Elkins had helped to build one of the most powerful coal companies in the United States, extended railroads deep into the West Virginia countryside, and had served under President Benjamin Harrison as Secretary of War.  Since 1888, he had guided the once lowly state Republican Party to the brink of decades of political dominance.

He officially came to West Virginia in early 1888.  The Republican Party paper Wheeling Intelligencer rhetorically rolled out the red carpet, announcing his arrival almost like royalty.  Civil War veteran and POW Nathan Goff of Clarksburg had capably led the party through much of the 1880s while a congressman.  Elkins' arrival coincided with a tightly contested Goff run for governor.  When Goff lost, many state Republicans switched their allegiance to Elkins.

Goff handled the shift with grace, likely consoled by appointment to the federal bench and eventual elevation to the US Senate.  Meanwhile, Elkins and his regional allies strained to make the party and county Republican committees and clubs more active and effective.  Elkins recruited Preston County newspaper editor W. M. O. Dawson to help run the day to day affairs of the state party.  With the onset of free public school in West Virginia in the 1860s, experience and knowledge of the new media environment was crucial to helping build coming Republican majority.

Not everyone supported the new party leadership.  In 1890, rumors swirled of an Elkins run for Congress.  One Preston County Republican promised future congressman Alston Gordon Dayton that "If Elkins is to be the nominee . . . there will be many 'stay at homes' when election day rolls around."  Despite Goff's quiet acceptance and willingness to work with Elkins, his former allies resented the new guard.  They expected to be ignored and rejected by the newly minted West Virginia, but more often than not Elkins extended his hand to former Goff men willing to accept it.

Elkins' businesslike administration of the state party built on the prior work of the charismatic Goff.  By 1894, the GOP had gained ascendancy in voter registrations, fundraising, and elected offices.  West Virginia remained a Republican state until 1932.

Unlike his father-in-law Henry Gassaway Davis who was a powerful Democrat from West Virginia, but spent most of his time at a Maryland residence, Elkins embraced his new state.  In 1890, he built for himself and his family the beautiful mansion Halliehurst.  Not long before construction, the site of the home was near wilderness.  Starting in 1890, the Randolph County city bearing his name grew up around his home and the new railroad connection.

On reaching the Senate, Elkins kept his eye on both state and national issues.  During the 1896 presidential campaign, Elkins resisted considerable pressure by William McKinley advocates on the West Virginia and national level.  While he could have gained personally by joining the McKinley bandwagon, Elkins was trying to obtain federal funds to dredge the Monongahela River.  Other presidential aspirants sat in the Senate and Elkins feared antagonizing them.  He explained "You know what is pending here and the reasons that move me to my opinion . . . Hope you can trust my judgment."  He won the improvements and also ensured that a new United States Weather Service tracking station would be built in the state.

In national and foreign affairs, Elkins also had influence.  In 1898, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst conferred with Elkins on ideas about national war policy.  Several years later, Elkins authored legislation that ended the use of free passes by railroads to buy influence with politicians, editors, and others.

Rivals in his day and leftist historians later harped on Elkins' origins.  John Alexander Williams called him New York's senator in West Virginia.  In his personal and public correspondence, however, Elkins demonstrated his love for the state, concern for its people, and willingness to work very hard for the betterment of his adopted home and its Republican Party.  West Virginia owes Elkins for much of its early 20th century prominence and prosperity.

He was certainly no opportunistic carpetbagger, looking for short term gains with plans to abandon his new home.  Elkins brought his family to West Virginia to serve his new state and to grow along with it.

Unfortunately, Democratic machine rule cancelled out many of his achievements.

But now it is a new century and a new day for West Virginia Republicans.  It is only right to occasionally honor the transplant from New York who worked so hard and did so much good for the Mountain State.

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