Chattanooga businessman and politician Henry Clay Evans was born in Juniata County, Pennsylvania, to Jesse and Anna Single Evans. In 1844 his family moved to Wisconsin, where he attended public schools, and he graduated from a Chicago business training school in 1861. In May 1864 Evans joined the Forty-first Regiment of the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, from which he was honorably discharged as a quartermaster sergeant in September 1864. For the next year, he handled clerical duties as an agent with the quartermaster department in Chattanooga. After spending some time in Texas and New York, he returned to Chattanooga in 1870 to join the Wasson Car Works. Two years later, he moved to the Roane Iron Company, where he held progressively important positions over the next decade, and in 1884-85 he worked as cashier of Chattanooga's First National Bank. Evans became president of the Chattanooga Car and Foundry Company and remained principal owner until 1917.
All the while, Evans maintained an interest in public affairs. He helped organize Chattanooga's public school system and became president of the school board and school commissioner. In 1873 he was elected city alderman and served as mayor from 1881 to 1883. In 1888 Evans won election to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican, but he lost his bid for reelection in the Democratic triumph of 1890. His loyal support of the 1890 Federal Elections Bill to safeguard African American suffrage contributed to his electoral loss. In recognition of his party service, though, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him first assistant postmaster general (1891-93), providing Evans with an opportunity to distribute federal patronage.
In 1894 Evans ran against Democrat Peter Turney in the Tennessee gubernatorial election. Evans won a plurality of 748 votes over his opponent, but lost in a recount ordered by the Democratic-controlled state legislature, which rejected some returns for alleged irregularities. Although Turney won the race, Evans gained a national reputation. In 1896 he ran second to Garret A. Hobart for the Republican vice-presidential nomination. In 1897 President William McKinley selected Evans for commissioner of pensions. From 1902 to 1905 Evans served as U.S. consul general in London at President Theodore Roosevelt's request.
Upon his retirement from diplomatic service, Evans returned to Chattanooga. When the city adopted the commission form of government in 1911, he was elected commissioner of health and education. Evans also served as a trustee of the University of Tennessee and University of Chattanooga.
Evans married Adelaide Durand in Westfield, New York, in 1869. They had three children. He died in Chattanooga on December 12, 1921, and was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, St. Elmo, Chattanooga. Evans's papers are in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library.