At an early age he went to work in a Bradninch paper factory. After serving a full apprenticeship, in the course of which he was rapidly advanced and five years later brought his family to America. In later years, when he had become a millionaire, he made many trips back to Bradninch and gave generously to the support of the village school that others might have educational advantages which his parents had been unable to furnish him. He also bought and operated an idle paper mill there to give employment to the population. In Massachusetts, where he established himself after arriving in the United States, he was "burned out, " and in 1861 removed to Saratoga County, N. Y. , where the waterpower on Kayaderosseras Creek had already attracted numerous investors in the paper-making industry. Here West began in a humble way what was to prove a spectacularly successful career in a similar field. He had at his command a thorough practical knowledge of every phase of the industry, executive talent, a genius for organization, and tremendous energy. By 1878 he was sole proprietor of nine busy mills, the total output of which was estimated to exceed that of any other paper manufacturer in the United States and Europe. He made only one kind of paper -manila wrapping - importing the raw materials until the 1880's, when he established a chemical process (replaced in 1895 by a soda process) wood-pulp factory, supplied from his own eight-thousand-acre spruce forest near by. In 1875, at Ballston Spa, where he made his home, he began to utilize some of the paper in the making of grocers' bags, and the immediate and increasing demand for this product was the chief basis of his fortune. He maintained in New York City a large store where the bags were sold and where he kept four presses constantly engaged in printing them for his customers. In 1899 he sold his entire mill interests to the Union Bag & Paper Company for $1, 500, 000. From the inception of the Republican party he was one of its staunch members. After representing his district for five terms (1872 - 76) in the New York Assembly, he entered Congress in 1881, where he remained until 1889, except for the term 1883-84.
As a legislator his qualities were described as sterling and solid rather than brilliant. Outspoken and firm in his principles, however, he labored to convince his colleagues by personal contact and in committee. He advocated government ownership of telegraph lines and government control of railroads. Entering Congress just when the Democrats were concentrating their efforts on a downward revision of the tariff, he remained a thoroughgoing protectionist, basing his convictions on his actual experience as a manufacturer and an employer of labor both in the United States and in free-trade England. He was willing, however, to afford the producer of raw materials as much protection as the manufacturer. He tried not to merit his own criticism that too much of the personal element entered into legislation, rather than the good of the country as a whole. "I represent my constituents, " he said, "not George West. "
He married Louisa Rose, in April 1844. They had a son and a daughter.