Biography of Charles Wood Davis

A significantly varied, distinguished and interesting career was that of the late Charles Wood Davis, and fortunate it was for the State of Kansas that he early established his residence within its borders, for his splendid initiative and executive powers came most effectively into play in the furtherance of the eivic, industrial and general material development and progress of this commonwealth. He was one of the famous argonauts of the year 1849 in California, was long and prominently identified with railway interests, was a recognized authority in all matters pertaining to the basic industry of agriculture, was a pioneer in the exploiting of the coal-mining industry in Kansas, and there seemed to be no bounds set about his constructive energy and broad-minded public spirit. By very reason of his two personal names he became widely known and highly honored throughout the Middle West by the sobriquet of “Cotton Wood Davis.” He was one of the venerable and honored pioneer citizens of Sedgwick County, Kansas, at the time of his death, and it is signally fitting that in this history of the state and its people be entered a tribute to the memory of this strong, resourceful and noble man.

Charles Wood Davis was born at South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on the 17th of April, 1832, and was a scion of the staunchest of colonial stock in New England, where his ancestors had been prominently concerned with the shipbuilding industry as well as with general seafaring activities, the original American progenitor having landed on the Massachusetts coast in the year 1630. John Davis, a minuteman of the Colonial forces in the War of the Revolution, was a representative of this family and was the first man to ascrifice his life in the first engagement with the British forces at the ever memorable battle of Lerington. The Davis family had been represented in every polemic conflict in which the nation had been involved prior to the Spanish-American war. Lieut. Alexander G. Davis, a brother of the subject of this memoir, was an officer of the Twelfth Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil war and was killed in the battle of Shiloh, on the 6th of April, 1863. The parents of Charles Wood Davis were birthright members of the Society of Friends and at the time when he was born his father was engaged in shipbuilding and seafaring pursuits.

He whose name introduces this review acquired his early education in the common schools of his native state, and through self-discipline and the broad and varied experience of later years he became a man of specially wide mental ken and fine intellectuality. When he was a lad of about sixteen years Mr. Davis sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts, as cabin boy on a whaling vessel. He was specially alert and vigorous and when the vessel was discovered to be afire, he was the first to put forth efforts to subdue the flames. In the ordeal the captain of the vessel was severely burned, and it became the privilege of Mr. Davis to show his youthful versatility by serving cheerfully and efficiently as nurse to the injured officer. Before the voyage was completed he had won promotion to the position of first mate of the vessel. After two or three subsequent voyages on merchant vessels and after having incidentally circumnavigated the globe, Mr. Davis became one of the adventurous spirits who, at the time of the discovery of gold in California, in 1849, was among the first to make the long and perilous voyage around Cape Horn and thence up the Pacific coast to the New Eldorado. He was successful in his goldmining operations in California, and finally he became concerned with some of his friends in the erection of a large hotel in San Francisco. About the time of the completion of this building he set forth for the old home in the East, and the hotel building was destroyed by fire shortly after his arrival at New Bedford, Massachusetts.

On the 5th of December, 1851, was solemnized the marriage of Mr. Davis to Miss Sarah F. Rowe, and they established their home in the City of Detroit, Michigan, where he assumed the position of check clerk for the Michigan Central Railroad Company. His remarkable genius as an accountant won to him rapid promotion and he finally became auditor of the railroad mentioned. While the incumbent of this important executive position he organized the classified freight system that is now utilized on virtually all railway lines in the United States. Mr. Davis continued in the employ of the Michigan Central Railroad Company for a period of fourteen years, and he was then, through the influence of Gen. John C. Fremont, tendered the office of traffic manager of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He retained this position three years and then resigned, owing to his ill health. It was at this juncture in his career that Mr. Davis settled in Saline County, Kansas, and gave his attention to the drilling of a salt well to a depth of more than 600 feet. From the well was obtained a strong flow of salt water, and this was conveyed to vats, where by process of solar evaporation the salt product was precipitated and preserved, this having been the first commercial enterprise of the kind established in Kansas.

In the spring of 1870 Mr. Davis acquired and made settlement on a tract of land in the Clear Creek Valley, near the present Village of Viola, Sedgwick County, and this place continued to be his home from that time until his death. In 1877 he organized a railroad company for the purpose of constructing a railroad line north and south through the state. Bonds were voted in Sedgwick and Sumner counties but at that time Kansas and its resources were too little known and appreciated to make possible the raising of the required capital. Three years later Mr. Davis was instrumental in securing the construction of the line of the Frisco Railroad from Oswago to Wichita, and later he induced the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad Company to extend its line into Kansas.

The constructive genius of this honored pioneer found yet other avenues in which to direct its energizing forces. In 1879 Mr. Davis founded the Town of Pittsburgh, in Crawford County, and initinted the development of the coal deposits in that county and in Cherokee County. He was the first president of the Oswego Coal Company, and he continued his active association with the coal mining industry until 1883, when he sold his interests and returned to his home in the Clear Creek Valley, where he died on the 30th of December, 1910, venerable in years and secure in the high regard of all who knew him. He was in the most distinctive sense one of the world’s productive workers, and to him Kansas shall ever owe a debt of honor for all that he accomplished in the furtherance of the state’s civic and material advancement.

Mr. Davis had the further distinction of being a member of that staunch body of men who assembled “under the oaks” at Jackson, Michigan, and effected the organization of the republican party, which there had its birth. He was a Seward delegate in the national convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency, and in the climacteric period leading up to the Civil war he was an intense and uncompromising abolitionist. The late Charles A. Dana, while editor of the New York Sun, importuned Mr. Davis to make a journey through Thibet and Siberia for the purpose of investigating conditions and writing a series of articles pertaining to the possibilities offered in those countries for the production of grain.

During the most of the time that Congress was in session from 1890 to 1892 Mr. Davis was in Washington in the interests of the anti-option bill, which failed of enactment. The last fifteen or eighteen years of his life were devoted largely to literary work. He was the authority of many articles on crops and crop conditions and these articles were published in leading periodicals and nowspapers both in America and Europe. Sir William Crooks, president of the British Society for the Advancement of Science, designated Mr. Davis as the greatest grain statesman in the world.

Mr. Davis was twice married, his first wife, of whom mention had already been made, having died while they were residing in Saline County, this state. She is survived by two sons, Charles G. and Morton R. The second wife, Mrs. Mary M. Davis, likewise preceded him to eternal rest, her death having occurred in the spring of 1910.

Charles G. Davis, elder of the two sons of the honored subject of this memoir, was born at Detroit, Michigan, on the 23d of November, 1852, and he is now eugaged in the bottling and distributing of the puro spring water from the homestead farm at Viola, Sedgwick County. This enterprise is conducted under the title of the Viola Spring Water Company and during about three years of active operations substantial and gratifying auccess had attended the company. Mr. Davis wedded Miss L. Gertrude Sproat, of Enid, Oklahoma, in the year 1914, and they have one daughter, Gertrude. Mr. Davis had his business headquarters in the City of Wichita, and here he and his family reside a portion of each year, with the remainder of thair time passed principally on the fine old homestead near Viola.



Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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