Daniel Augustus Tompkins, industrialist and newspaper editor, was born in Edgefield District, South Carolina, on October 12, 1851 to Dewitt and Virginia Tompkins. Interested in engineering since his boyhood, Daniel entered the University of South Carolina in 1867, but shortly thereafter transferred to the Renssalear Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he graduated in 1873 with an engineering degree.
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After graduation, Tompkins became a master machinist with Bethlehem Iron Works in Pennsylvania. The factory head, John Fritz, considered Tompkins one of the finest machinists in the industry, and sent him to Germany in 1877 to oversee the development of the Schwerte Iron Works. Following his return in 1879, Tompkins took a position with the Crystal Plate Glass Company of Crystal City, Missouri. Two years later, Tompkins moved to Charlotte as a machinist for the Westinghouse Machine Company. Soon thereafter, he began his own business, D. A. Tompkins Company, installing steam engines in the numerous cotton mills of western and central North Carolina.
By the late 1880s D. A. Tompkins Company had expanded operations to the construction of various mills and electric plants. By 1910, the organization had developed 250 cotton oil mills, 150 electric plants, and 100 cotton plants. Because of his success in the manufacturing industry, President William McKinley appointed him a member of the United States Industrial Commission. In addition, he served as a member of the board of trustees at what is now North Carolina State University and was instrumental in the development of the university’s textile school. He also served as the director of Equitable Life Insurance.
Tompkins also understood the influence of mass media, and how he could use it to give voice to his industrial New South policies. Therefore, he obtained controlling interests in the Charlotte Daily Observer, the Charlotte Evening News, and Greenville (S.C.) News. Under the guise of several ghostwriters, Tompkins also produced a number of pamphlets and books such as Cotton Values in Textile Fabrics and History of Mecklenburg County from 1740 to 1903 (written by Charles Lee Coon).
Tompkins spoke out against compulsory public school, child labor legislation, and wage per hour regulation and sought to maximize profits and retain cheap labor in the southern mills. Tompkins retired from business in 1910, owing to poor health, and moved to his summer home in Montreat. He died of a paralytic condition on October 18, 1914, and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte. After the death of his fiancée in 1884, Tompkins never married and left no children.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, VI, 42-43—sketch by Brenda Marks Eagles
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)
Charlotte Daily Observer, October 19, 1914
Howard B. Clay, “Daniel Augustus Tompkins: An American Bourbon” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1980)
George T. Winston, Daniel Augustus Tompkins: Builder of the New South (1920)
Jack Claiborne, “Daniel Augustus Tompkins,” in Howard Covington, Jr., and Marion A. Ellis, eds., The North Carolina Century (2002)