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Who was Champ Davis?

Ben Steelman
Champion McDowell Davis

Champion McDowell Davis. (Photo courtesy of the Wilmington Railroad Museum)

Long hailed as “Mr. Coast Line,” Champion McDowell Davis (1879-1975) spent more than 60 years working for the Atlantic Coast Line railroad, 15 of them as president. Although he never held public office, Davis was undoubtedly the single-most powerful man in Wilmington for much of the 20th century. In 2009, he was inducted into the N.C. Transportation Hall of Fame.

After his retirement, Davis devoted himself to the problems of the elderly, creating the charitable foundation which launched the Cornelia Nixon Davis Nursing Home (now expanded into The Davis Community) at Porters Neck.

Davis, nicknamed “Champ,” was born July 1, 1879, near Hickory in McDowell County, N.C., the son of Robert Burns Davis, a former captain in the Army of Northern Virginia, and Cornelia Nixon Davis (1848-1931). His grandfather, Nicholas N. Nixon, was master of a 4,680-acre plantation at Porters Neck, north of Wilmington, and had pioneered peanut production in the Wilmington. The boy was named for an uncle, Champion T.N. Davis, a Confederate colonel who had been killed in action in 1862, at the age of 26, in the Battle of Seven Pines.

Despite this pedigree, Davis grew up in decidedly humble circumstances. The family farm in Catawba County seems to have failed in 1890, the year the Davises moved to Wilmington, where his father became a “timer” for the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad and his mother opened a boardinghouse. Young Champ studied for three years at the Hemenway School, but family finances were tight, so on March 1, 1893, at the age of 13, he went to work as a messenger boy at the Wilmington & Weldon’s freight office. Except for brief interruptions – some terms at the Horner Military Academy at Oxford, N.C., paid for by a family friend, and military service in the Spanish-American war – Davis would remain with the railroad (which would be consolidated into the Atlantic Coast Line in 1900) until his retirement on June 20, 1957.

Davis had family connections: a relative, Thomas M. Emerson, was traffic manager for the railroad, in charge of its Wilmington operations. From 1906 to 1913, Emerson would serve as president of the Atlantic Coast Line. His rapid advancement, however, came through hard work and considerable intelligence. The messenger boy taught himself the Pittman system of shorthand and soon earned a promotion to stenographer. In 1898, he became a rate clerk; in 1900, a chief clerk. In 1906, he was promoted to assistant general freight agent; in 1911, to general freight agent, based in Savannah, Ga. During World War I, when railroads were temporarily nationalized, he served in Atlanta on the Southern Freight Traffic Committee of the U.S. Railroad Administration. In 1920, he returned to Wilmington as assistant freight traffic manager, rising to freight traffic manager in 1925 and vice president for traffic in 1928. In 1939, he was made a general vice president, and in 1942, he became president of the line. He was also executive vice president or president for a number of the Atlantic Coast Line’s subsidiary lines.

One of Davis’ first acts was to adopt royal purple as the Atlantic Coast Line’s official colors. Even as a vice president, he had raised the maximum speed on the line from 35 to 50 mph. Under his presidency, the speed limit was raised to 60 mph for freight trains and 90 mph for passenger trains. ACL advertising trumpeted the fact that passengers could ride from New York to Miami in just 24 hours, while Florida citrus could be delivered fresh within three days.

Davis introduced reflective paint on car identification numbers, station signs, whistle posts, mile post and switch markings. He had searchlight-type lights installed and centralized traffic controls. He oversaw the conversion to diesel locomotives and pushed the modernization of equipment; most of the main line was double-tracked under his administration. The ACL’s flagship passenger trains were christened “Champion” in his honor.

His greatest battle — a 13-year struggle in federal courts and the Interstate Commerce Commission for control of the Florida East Coast Railway — eventually ended in defeat, but Davis was able to salvage valuable concessions for the ACL from his adversaries.

Although Davis owned a house at 12 S. Fifth Ave., Wilmingon, he spent most of his time aboard an “office car” tended by an all-male staff. (Claude Howell, the artist, was one of his on-board secretaries during World War II.) Davis would spend a typical week on the road, inspecting the line and taking reports from managers in person. His office car would then pull into Wilmington in time for a mandatory 10 a.m. Sunday staff meeting – which broke up in time for Davis and his executives to have Sunday dinner with their families.

A lifelong bachelor, Davis was devoted to his widowed mother and to a circle of sisters and aunts. He had no hobbies, and his only break from work, beginning in 1924, was a brief stint of diet and intensive exercise each summer at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich. Tall and imposing, he was “hell on wheels!” in the words of one former associate. Underlings who did not meet his exacting standards could be treated to his extensive vocabulary of profanity (which, of course, he never used in the presence of a lady). Known for his dapper wardrobe, Davis sported expensive suits, stiff collars (long after they passed out of fashion) and his trademark straw boater, donned during summer months. In later years, he added a well-polished cane to the ensemble.

Despite his demanding self-imposed schedule, Davis did find time for outside interests. He served on the boards of the Home Savings Bank, the Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Co., the Home Insurance Co. and Nation’s Business magazine. He was also a director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (1949-1952). A member of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Davis served on the national executive council of the Protestant Episcopal Church and was chairman of its finance committee from 1942 to 1952. He was also a trustee of the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va.

In 1897, Davis enlisted in the Wilmington Light Infantry, the prestigious local militia unit. When war with Spain broke out, he joined the 2nd Regiment, N.C. Volunteers. After the war, he kept up his role in the N.C. State Guard until 1901, ending up as a captain.

Closer to home, Davis served as president of the Cape Fear Club in 1920 and was a member of the Cape Fear Country Club (although he reportedly loathed golf) and the Carolina Yacht Club. In later years, he would serve as a trustee for Wilmington College (now the University of North Carolina Wilmington) and Cape Fear Technical Institute (now Cape Fear Community College).

His impact on Wilmington cannot be underestimated. By 1955, more than 1,500 city residents worked for the Atlantic Coast Line, with an annual payroll of $6.5 million; if you didn’t work for the Coast Line, one of your relatives did, or else you depended on ACL employees for your livelihood. For all these people, Champ Davis was the Boss.

In his last years with the ACL, Davis often skirmished with an increasingly unsympathetic board of directors. He could not block the board’s decision – announced on “Black Thursday,” Dec. 10, 1955 – to move the railroad’s headquarters from Wilmington. As Davis passed the age of 70, he apparently also felt greater pressure to retire. The extent of his estrangement can be noted from the fact that, on his retirement, he refused a seat on the board, resigned from all his railroad-related positions (the list ran to several pages) and sold every share of railroad stock he owned.

Davis retired to a large house on old family property at Porters Neck. (According to historian Diane Cobb Cashman, the interior in his day resembled a standard railroad station, with bedrooms laid out like Pullman sleeping cars.)

Soon afterward, Episcopal Bishop Thomas H. Wright of Eastern North Carolina invited him to serve on a commission to study the feasibility of opening a diocesan home for the elderly. The work led him into a study of the problems of American aging, years ahead of his time. As a result, he pondered founding a community for retired Atlantic Coast Line workers, but when that proved unworkable, Davis altered his plans.

In November 1963, he set up the Champion McDowell Davis Charitable Foundation and donated to the new non-profit some 90 acres of land in Porters Neck and $650,000 in marketable securities. By 1966, the foundation had built and launched the Cornelia Nixon Davis Nursing Home (named for Davis’ mother). Davis would remain closely involved with the facility for the rest of his life, regularly paying each resident a Sunday visit as long as his health permitted.

In 1952, Davis received an honorary doctor of science degree from The Citadel — one of the few non-graduates ever to be so honored by the South Carolina school. He was named “Citizen of the Year” by the StarNews in 1963, received a citation from the National Woodmen of the World in 1966 and was saluted by a joint resolution of the North Carolina General Assembly in 1965.

Davis died on Jan. 28, 1975. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered around the flagpole at the Davis nursing home. A memorial – a replica of the Champion T.N. Davis monument at Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery – was later erected near the site.

A complete biography of Davis remains to be written. Diane Cobb Cashman’s book “Champions,” focuses on his later years and on the founding of The Davis Community.

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2 Responses to “ Who was Champ Davis?”

  1. On November 16, 2009 at 11:26 am Vince Hagerty wrote:

    My uncle was Joseph S Davis and he was head of the Revenues Department at ACL Railroad. I don’t know if he was related to Mr “Champ” Davis but I recall he would mention him on occasion. His wife was Thelma and they owned some property at Porters Neck. My mother and I used to go with Thelma fishing on their dock. That was in the late 1950s. We all moved to Jacksonville FL in 1960 when ACL moved here.

  2. On December 7, 2010 at 11:50 am Betsy Casey wrote:

    I met Mr. Davis a few years after my first husbands parents built a home near his at Porter’s Neck. He found out my husband did telephone construction and asked him if he could get and put up some poles for him…He said yes and I asked him if I could go watch because I had always heard my grandmother talk about him. When we got there it was a little cool and I was outside so he invited me in by the fireplace. I was scared to death as he looked me over and started patting his walking cane. He asked my name and I told him and I don’t know how he knew but he said you are kin to Bessie Stanland aren’t you…I said yessir and he contemplated a while and then said Might fine folks those Stanlands…
    Then we talked about her and I was not afraid anymore and I thought how big and awesome he looked but he had a gentle side too. He said come back anytime but I never made it back…..He was the greatest and also gentle at the same time

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