William Edward Carson (1870–1942)


William E. Carson, chairman of the Commission on Conservation and Development, was a Virginia businessman whose friendship with Harry F. Byrd elevated him to political prominence in Virginia in the 1920s. Disagreements with the more-powerful Byrd over commission matters and his own political ambitions, however, led to a falling out. Though Byrd declined to renew Carson’s commission appointment in 1934, Carson remained chairman of the Democratic committee in the Seventh District until 1940.

William Edward Carson was born at Enniskillen, (now Northern) Ireland, on October 8, 1870. He came to America in 1885, took over his father’s lime-manufacturing plant at Riverton, and turned it into a lucrative business. From 1908 to 1919 he chaired the board of directors of the National Lime Manufacturers Association, during World War I (1914–1918) he served with the War Industry Board, and from 1923 to 1926 he was a member of the Hampton Roads Port Commission.

Harry Flood Byrd Sr.

Will and his brother, Adam Clarke “Kit” Carson, became friendly with Winchester neighbor Richard Evelyn Byrd, which led to close friend-and-mentor relationships with Byrd’s sons, Harry and Dick. These friendships moved Carson into Democratic Party politics; he led the Seventh District Democratic Committee and served on the state central committee from 1910 to 1940.

When Harry Byrd ran for governor in 1925, Will Carson managed his campaign. As a reward for his efforts, Byrd appointed Carson to be the unpaid chairman of the newly created Commission on Conservation and Development, whose primary task was to promote Virginia as a favorable location for new businesses and destination for tourists. During his tenure from 1926 to 1934, Carson had roadside markers placed to designate historical sites and encouraged the creation of the Colonial National Historical Park, which connected Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown.

Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover

Byrd also assigned Carson the task of collecting pledges and acquiring land for the newly created Shenandoah National Park, an assignment Carson energetically carried out. He discovered, however, that land prices far exceeded earlier estimates, tripling the acquisition costs. Carson recommended that Byrd cut the size of the park in half by eliminating some of the higher-priced land. The result was a smaller, but more manageable park. Carson also utilized the advice of his brother, Kit Carson, to draw up legislation to reduce litigation in the acquisition of park lands. Carson’s negotiations with U.S. president Herbert Hoover in the establishment of Hoover’s fishing camp on the Rapidan River in Madison County were a prelude to the development of Skyline Drive.

The Commission on Conservation and Development reflected its divided nature in the creation of Shenandoah National Park for both scenic and commercial purposes. This rift also manifested itself in the objectives of its two creators, Harry Byrd and Will Carson. Although both thought the commission could help develop the state, Byrd focused on the need to lure industry, while Carson emphasized the appeal of Virginia’s natural resources and history to tourists and business alike. Byrd eventually took the value of the tourist trade seriously, but the influence of Carson’s more subtle advertising approach enabled him to become the commission’s driving force. He was later recognized for his work when a peak in Shenandoah National Park was named for him.

William E. Carson

Carson’s ambition for higher office and his efforts to keep the commission out of politics soon cost him his friendship with Byrd. When they disagreed about the appointment of a new secretary for the commission and about compensation for Carson’s brother for his legal services, their relationship cooled. Byrd supported George Campbell Peery for governor in 1933 instead of Carson, and when the commission was reorganized in 1934 on a paid basis, Carson announced his retirement after it became clear the Byrd Organization would not offer him the post of chairman. He returned full-time to his business activities in Riverton and died there on March 25, 1942.

October 8, 1870
William Edward Carson is born in what is now Northern Ireland.
William E. Carson moves from Ireland to America.
William E. Carson manages Harry F. Byrd's campaign for governor of Virginia.
Virginia's General Assembly creates the Commission on Conservation and Development, and Harry F. Byrd names his good friend William E. Carson as the agency's first chairman.
Harry F. Byrd supports George Campbell Peery for governor of Virginia instead of William E. Carson, a move that effectively ends the friendship between Byrd and Carson.
April 9, 1933
William E. Carson spends time with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Camp Rapidan, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, and convinces the president to put the Civilian Conservation Corps to work establishing state parks in Virginia.
William E. Carson announces his retirement from politics once it becomes clear that the Byrd Organization will not offer him a job as chairman of the Commission on Conservation and Development in the new administration.
A portion of the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park is opened after William E. Carson successfully lobbies President Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress to use federal funds on roads in and near the park, including the "skyline drive along the mountain top."
March 25, 1942
William E. Carson dies in Riverton.
  • Engle, Reed L. “Carson, William Edward .” In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss, 50–52. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
  • Heinemann, Ronald L. Harry Byrd of Virginia. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 1996.
  • Horan, John F., Jr. “Will Carson and the Virginia Conservation Commission, 1926–1934.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 92 (1984): 391–415.
  • Simmons, Dennis E. “Conservation, Cooperation, and Controversy: The Establishment of Shenandoah National Park, 1924–1936.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 89 (1981): 387–404.
APA Citation:
Heinemann, Ronald. William Edward Carson (1870–1942). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/carson-william-edward-1870-1942.
MLA Citation:
Heinemann, Ronald. "William Edward Carson (1870–1942)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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