Edmund “King” Cole, a leading late nineteenth-century railroad entrepreneur, financier, and philanthropist, was born in Giles County, a descendent of a prominent Virginia family. Cole's father died when he was three months old, leaving his mother with a large family to support. Cole worked on the family farm until he was eighteen and had little schooling and few advantages. In 1845 he left the farm for Nashville, where his life became a Tennessee version of the Horatio Alger story of rags to riches. Cole worked as a store clerk and attended night school. In 1851 he became a bookkeeper for the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad; by 1868 he was the company's president.
Over the next decade, “King” Cole transformed this dilapidated railroad into a formidable contender among the rail systems of the central South, linking Nashville to St. Louis to the north and Atlanta and Savannah to the southeast. Cole envisioned Nashville as the gateway connecting the growing Midwest commerce in grain and meat to the cotton-producing South. In 1879-80 Cole moved to implement his scheme to build a grand trunk line linking the Midwest to the Southeast and a line of transatlantic steamers. As he was putting his plan into place, the rival Louisville and Nashville (L&N) system secretly organized a coup and took over Cole's railroad, which by then was known as the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis (NC&St.L). The merger, one of several that established L&N's regional dominance, ended competition for railroad service to Nashville, except for a brief and futile challenge by Jere Baxter and the Tennessee Central.
Cole resigned from the NC&St.L following the takeover, and for the next two years he served as president of the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad, which also controlled the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Cole resigned in 1882 and channeled his business energies into Nashville banking and real estate, becoming a major property owner and developer. He financed the construction of downtown office buildings, including the Cole Block at Union and Cherry (now Fourth Avenue). Much of his entrepreneurial energy and capital also went into the founding of several different Nashville banking institutions. During the 1880s, when the city laid its foundations as a regional financial center, Cole was among the leading financial architects. Chief among his banking enterprises was the American National Bank, which he founded in 1883.
Cole became a prominent philanthropist in the late 1880s, a southern version of the many American capitalists of the Gilded Age who supplemented and offset their reputation for acquisitive fortune building with public-spirited charities. A civic-minded man, Cole served on the State Board of Health and was active in the Tennessee Historical Society. A devout Methodist, he donated his time and fortune to the promotion of Methodist missionary and educational work. He was an important donor to the Methodists' Vanderbilt University; among other contributions, he endowed a lecture series which continues to bear his name. In honor of his late son, Cole also donated to the State of Tennessee property for the Randall Cole Industrial School, designed to educate orphaned and wayward boys. Established in 1885, it was renamed the Tennessee Industrial School in 1887. In an 1890 autobiographical sketch, Cole depicted his life as an American parable of success which owed much to his strict Methodist mother and her lessons of hard work and self-denial, in particular abstinence from drink, tobacco, gambling, and dancing. These values guided Cole's philanthropy as well.
Cole married twice, first to Louise McGavock Lytle of Williamson County, who died in 1869, and in 1872 to Anna V. Russell of Augusta, Georgia. Among Cole's survivors was his son, Whitford R. Cole, who continued in his father's footsteps as a successful railroad magnate with the L&N and a leading supporter of Vanderbilt University.