Industrialist, journalist. Tompkins was born in Edgefield on October 12, 1851, the eldest child of Dewitt Clinton Tompkins and Hannah Virginia Smyly. Tompkins began his education in schools around Edgefield, including Long Cane School and Dr. Luther Rice Gwaltney’s Academy. By the time he was ready for college, South Carolina had just emerged from the Civil War. Tompkins spent two years at South Carolina College, but in 1869 he traveled north to study civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he graduated in 1873. While in college, Tompkins began to work in the John A. Griswold and Company steel plant in Troy, and after graduating he went to work for Alexander L. Holley’s engineering office in Brooklyn designing and setting up steel plants, including the J. Edgar Thompson Iron Works at Bessemer, Pennsylvania, and Bethlehem Iron Works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Tompkins spent ten years working in industries in the North, but he always intended to return to the South to put his experience to work there. In 1883 he took a position as a representative of Westinghouse Machine Company. Establishing the D. A. Tompkins Company with headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, Tompkins sold and installed electrical equipment all over the South. He soon expanded his business to include building facilities to serve the cotton industry, such as cottonseed oil mills. By 1892 Tompkins expanded his interests to include the construction of cotton textile mills. The first mill he was involved with was the Catawba Manufacturing Company in Chester, South Carolina. Until the D. A. Tompkins Company was reorganized in 1907, it helped promote, finance, design, and build more than 250 cottonseed oil mills and 100 cotton textile mills, many of them in North Carolina and South Carolina.
At least as important as Tompkins’s efforts to build industry in the South was his role as a spokesman and leader for that industry. He bought the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer in 1891 and used it to express his views about the place of industry in southern society. He also bought a controlling interest in the Greenville News in 1905. In 1900 Tompkins became a member of the United States Industrial Commission and the National Association of Manufacturers. In all these capacities, he was one of the leading opponents of child labor legislation in the nation. For several years he successfully blocked the implementation of child labor laws at both the state and national levels. He also opposed compulsory education and supported bringing European immigrants to the South to augment the industrial workforce.
Tompkins died at his summer home in Montreat, North Carolina, on October 18, 1914. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte.
Clay, Howard Bunyan. “Daniel Augustus Tompkins: An American Bourbon.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1950.
Sutherland, Daniel E. The Confederate Carpetbaggers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
Tompkins, Daniel Augustus. A Builder of the New South: Being the Story of the Life Work of Daniel Augustus Tompkins. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1920.