Business Magnates, Industrialists, Railroad Tycoons, Capitalists, Financiers
Calvin Stewart Brice
Calvin Stewart Brice

Calvin Stewart Brice (1845-1898) was a Democratic politician from Ohio. Born in Denmark, Morrow County, Ohio, Brice dropped out of Miami University in 1861 to join the Union Army. After a short stint in the army he returned to Miami and earned his undergraduate degree in 1863. After the Civil War, Brice studied law at the University of Michigan and then started a business career where he amassed a fortune, largely in railroads. In 1879, he became president of the Lake Erie and Western Railroad and built the Nickel Plate Road in 1882. A Democrat, Brice was the chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1889 until 1892 and won elected to the Senate in 1890, serving a single term in office.

Calvin Brice was born on September 17, 1845 in the small town of Denmark, Ohio, to Elizabeth Stewart and William Kilpatrick Brice, a Presbyterian minister of no great wealth. Originally home-schooled, he later entered the Columbus Grove public school system in Putnam County. Showing some promise as a student, Brice began preparations for higher education and in 1859 gained admission to Miami University, to which he would become a devoted alumnus later in life. His efforts in 1885 and 1888 to provide funding for the University were largely responsible for its survival, and a science building, Brice Hall (now demolished) was named in his honor.

Brice's first attempt to join the army in 1861 met with little success, after being turned down because of his young age. In the summer of 1862, however, Brice enlisted and served three months in the 86th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, seeing action in West Virginia. In 1863 he returned to and graduated from Miami University and worked as a schoolmaster, before he joined the army again in 1864, this time serving as captain to a company of volunteers he recruited for the 180th Ohio Infantry. Brice rose rapidly through the ranks of the Union Army and, by the end of the war, attained the position of Lieutenant-Colonel.

After working as a private lawyer, Brice joined the Lake Erie and Louisville Railroad law department, where he gained his initial experience with the railroad industry, learning how to operate, fund, and expand its lines. Around the same time, he put his foot in the door of the railroad business through connections with Charles Foster, the governor of Ohio at the time. Foster became impressed with Brice after he unveiled a plan to save a foundering rail project running from Toledo to Ohio’s coal fields. With Foster’s support, Brice managed to guide the railroad through the Panic of 1873 and expand it into Lima and other areas. Brice eventually rose to president of the company in 1887, which by then had become known as the Lake Erie and Western Railroad.

Over time, Brice netted a great fortune, laying claim to ten different railroads while spreading into numerous other businesses, including the National Telegraph Company and the Chase National Bank of New York. Perhaps his most marked achievement came with his role in the construction of the Nickel Plate Road in 1882, which ran from New York to St. Louis. He later sold this road for a generous profit to William Henry Vanderbilt, who recognized it as a dangerous competitor.

Throughout his business career, two overlying themes appeared dominant - Brice’s ability to take a failing or fledgling business and restructure it to make profit, and his involvement with Charles Foster, whose support was crucial to Brice’s success. The mining town of Briceville, Tennessee, which he proved instrumental in helping to connect to railroad service, is named for him. At the same time, however, Brice remained selfless in his aims and frugal in his desires, unlike most of the so-called robber barons of his day. According to historian James White, Brice did not accept much compensation for his services during a business transaction and often held himself accountable to the public by "stripping a proposition of every incumbrance and laying it bare for inspection."

In addition to his business career, Brice played an ongoing role in state and national politics. A Bourbon Democrat, he was an electoral candidate for Samuel J. Tilden in 1876 and later worked for the 1884 presidential campaign of Grover Cleveland. As time passed, Brice became more active in the Democratic Party and was elected as a delegate-at-large to the national convention. In 1889, Brice was chosen to replace the late William H. Barnum as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and served in that capacity until 1892.

In 1890 Brice won nomination as his party's candidate to succeed George H. Payne, the outgoing U.S. Senator from Ohio. Heavy campaign spending secured the election of a Democratic majority to the Ohio General Assembly, enabling Brice's selection. Because of suspicious circumstances deriving from Payne’s initial selection, though, Brice was scrutinized by the Senate before assuming office. Although Brice enacted few memorable measures as Senator he gained a reputation as one of the most hard-working and intelligent members of Congress, serving on the Democratic Steering Committee, Committee on Appropriations, and as Chairman of the Committee on Pacific Railroads. Brice's reversal on the critical issue of tariff reform, however, cost him the support of many in his Democratic base. Though Brice fended off a censure motion at the 1894 Democratic party state convention, he lost his bid for reelection to Republican Joseph B. Foraker three years later. After his defeat, Brice dropped out of Ohio politics and died in 1898 of pneumonia.