Railway Kings, the public, and the Depression of 1893
“The railroads are not run for the benefit of the dear public. That cry is all nonsense. They are built for men who invest their money and expect to get a fair percentage of the same.” W. H. Vanderbilt in an interview with the Chicago Daily News,October 9, 1882,
As 1893 opened, the judges of Cass County began their eleventh month of confinement in the Jackson County jail. County supervisors rather than judicial officers, they’d been imprisoned, along with their counterparts from St. Clair County, for contempt of court by federal judge John F. Phillips. The judges had refused a court order to levy a tax to pay for railway bonds issued after the Civil War. The original amount of St. Clair County’s outstanding bonds was a quarter million dollars; interest and costs by 1893 were a million dollars more. The railroad line had never been built.
St. Clair County had been conned by Peter La Due, who arrived claiming to represent big New York capitalists. La Due proposed a line -- he called it the Tebo and Neosho Railroad -- to run from Kansas City to Helena, Arkansas. Each of the counties along the line, including Cass, St. Clair, Henry, Knox and Dallas counties, voted a $250,000 subsidy, raised by issuing twelve-year bonds at 10 percent interest.
There was nothing in the contract protecting the counties if the line wasn’t built – money and liquor were said to have assuaged any concerns county judges might have had. La Due had a few miles of the Tebo and Neosho built, sold the bonds to innocent purchasers, and disappeared. Thirty years on, the bondholders wanted their money.1
The Cass County judges were working on a compromise with bondholders for their constituents to vote on later in January. The judges were mostly in favor of the proposed settlement with the bondholders, even those elected on a no-compromise platform: “Ten months of imprisonment has served to rid them of the willingness to go to jail for their people,” the Kansas City Times reported, “and if this has to be endured they will gladly let others take their places.”
The Cass County judges were released pending the outcome of the vote, but the two St. Clair County judges, B.P. Copenhaver and Thomas Nevitt, were not trying hard to get out. They’d been imprisoned only a month and were prepared to wait until they knew what voters in the neighboring county would do. Their conditions weren’t uncomfortable, the Times reported; they were getting $2 a day as judges, a decent stipend in 1893, and had a large room to themselves: “In one corner stood a large table decked with groceries, cooking utensils and dishes. There was canned corn, tomatoes and peas, a plethoric pie peeped from beneath an overturned tin pan, and a lot of broken egg shells told of a recent meal. There were stacks of good mental food in the room, too. A complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica filled one window, the leading monthlies for ten months past were stacked in a corner and the beds, shelves and boxes were strewn with books by standard authors.”
Cass County voters approved the compromise. In February, Judge Phillips let the two St. Clair judges out for a brief furlough to do some county business, specifically to recommit Judge Copenhaver’s daughter Caroline, to the insane asylum in Nevada, Missouri. His daughter had become, as the Times delicately put it, “a raving maniac” after her father was imprisoned. After their return from the sad mission, they filed a writ of habeas corpus with Judge Phillips, but he turned it down, to no one’s surprise. Perhaps, mused Copenhaver, public sentiment would be aroused, “and public sentiment,” he said, “sometimes is effective, even against a court of law."
He probably had in mind the long history of Missourians resisting authority. There had already been shootouts and confrontations over railway cases. In 1877, after rumors circulated that the county court was intending to tax residents to pay for the bonds, a gang of men rode into the St. Clair County seat at Osceola and held tax officials at gunpoint while its members stole the official tax records. The gang warned the county judges they would be lynched unless they resigned immediately.
Local lawmen recognized the gang members but took no action; the gang destroyed tax records so the county had no means of taxing anyone. All three judges resigned and, at a special election, judges were chosen who could be trusted not to support the railroads, one of them a relative of the notorious train robber Cole Younger.2 In another raid in 1879, an armed gang seized the railroad tax book to keep the county from collecting taxes; no one was prosecuted. County residents routinely sheltered judges from federal marshals. Jo Shelby, famous ex-Confederate general and, in 1893 a U.S. marshal, had spent over a hundred days looking for Judge Lyons while local residents kept him hidden. For twenty years successful candidates for county courts pledged to go to jail rather than levy railroad taxes.3
Copenhaver had been back in jail less than a month before he was released again, this time to bury Caroline, who had died at the Nevada asylum. “Surely,” commented the Kansas City Times, “Judge Copenhaver’s burden is heavy. And the case is doubly sad when it is known that he traces his dead daughter’s insanity directly to his imprisonment.” Copenhaver recounted the story of Caroline’s illness from his first imprisonment eight years earlier: “She was “my petted, eldest child,” Copenhaver told the Times, “and her affections were centered in me and it is not to be wondered that she took the matter to heart.”
Upon Judge Phillips’ refusal to grant habeas corpus, a bill was introduced in the Missouri state legislature with the bellicose support of the governor, William Stone, a Democrat who enjoyed confrontation, giving him authority to appoint a special county judge commissioned to carry out certain specific duties. If federal courts interfered and attempted to compel the special judge to levy the railroad tax, then, commented the Democratic Times, “the issue will immediately arise regarding the authority of the federal courts to interfere with state officials acting exclusively under the laws of the state.”
For Judge Phillips it was a simple matter of federal authority trumping state and local authority when it came to what he called the “inviolability of such bonds as commercial securities” owned by residents of other states. Phillips was intimately familiar with the case and the attitude of people in St. Clair toward it: he’d been among the attorneys who’d years earlier tried every legal argument they could think of to persuade the Missouri State and ultimately U.S. supreme courts that the original St. Clair bond issue had been invalid. All efforts failed and they were left, as Phillips put it, “dead ‘in the last ditch.” The debt was an unavoidable fact for the county. Phillips blamed the stubborn resistance of taxpayers on local agitators hoping to “ride into county office.”
Phillips was probably not including Copenhaver and Nevitt among the “local agitators.” For them, he seems to have had sympathy. Toward the end of March, they were released again, under the pauper act, both swearing they weren’t worth more than $20, although Judge Nevitt admited he owned three horses, six cows and calves and a few hogs, amounting to less than $300. Phillips said he was sorry for them but they still had to make the levy or he’d have them jailed again for contempt in May, when the court term resumed. Copenhaver said he wanted to find out what the St. Clair people were thinking; “I don’t think that they have changed any since we were confined in jail last December,” he said.
Sure enough, Copenhaver was back in jail, along with George H. Lyons, who had been elected only a few months before and was being imprisoned for the first time. Judge Nevitt’s wife was ill, delaying his return. Phillips, finding himself unwillingly and unhappily in the role of mediator, brought bondholders and judges together to discuss a compromise.
Copenhaver was described in the Times as “willing and anxious” to put any reasonable compromise before the voters. Unfortunately, the states’ rights position of Governor Stone had only stiffened the position of the “no-compromisers,” Judge Lyons thought: “The people were beginning to come to the conclusion that a compromise should be made when the Governor’s message stirred them up again like a hornet at a camp meeting.” Copenhaven, age 52, and Lyons, age 67, were taken to their old quarters on the fourth floor of the jail at the corner of Oak Street and Missouri Avenue.
A compromise agreement of 50 cents on the dollar was reached in June between the largest bondholders and the judges, subject to voters’ approval. The county judges thought -- or claimed they thought -- that the agreement was fair, although they wouldn’t predict what the voters would do. “The trio is now imbued with a strong desire to go home,” the Times reported, “and every whiff of the fields that is wafted to them through the bars of their room but intensifies this yearning.”
The judges asked Judge Phillips for their release so they could talk to voters; the Judge, burned by previous efforts at arbitration in a case that had earned him only abuse from both sides, agreed reluctantly. The St. Clair county attorney, probably one of Phillips’ “local agitators,” told the Times that the voters weren’t interested in a compromise: “He said it was cheaper to elect judges to go to jail than to pay the debt or any part of it, and they would keep on doing it till Gabriel’s trump should sound.” On July 5th, Phillips ordered the judges released so they could order the August election. “On the result,” intoned the Times, “will depend their liberty. Should the proposition fail to carry they will have to come back to jail, and it seems not at all assured that their freedom is to be permanent.”
St. Clair taxpayers had good reasons to resist the agents of the predatory Gilded Age industrial order: eastern bondholders, New York bankers, railway companies, and their ally, the federal courts.4 Railway companies, built and owned by robber barons like Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt and their offspring, were the corporate bullies of the Gilded Age. “Few people realize,” a Times editorial would argue later in the year, “how entirely the welfare, if not the very existence, present and future, or any particular city depends upon its receiving just and equal treatment, as compared with other rival cities, in all that pertains to public transportation to and from its markets.” The economic future of rural towns was determined by whether railroad companies based in New York decided to build a line through them. The new town of Enid, Oklahoma, pleaded with the Rock Island Railroad for a station; when Enid had been a base for the great 1893 land rush, people had had to hurl themselves from the train as it steamed full bore through town. An adequate depot could be built and outfitted for a mere $5,000, but company officials weren’t interested.
The town of Hepler, Kansas, had the opposite problem: most of the town was burned down in May, allegedly by a remnant of the old Land League, organized in 1869 to resist the encroachments of railway corporations on the land, and perhaps resentful of the town fathers’ easy accommodation with the railroads. “The control of public transportation is the mightiest power of modern times,” the Times commented; “The selfish use of that power yields the greatest returns to its possessor.” The editors were thinking of the Goulds and Vanderbilts, the eastern“railway kings,” who in a few decades had built up fabulous fortunes and had the power, as they put it, “to levy tribute upon whole States as the price of their prosperity […].”
Dislike of eastern capitalists explains why train robbers were regarded as popular heroes and their exploits sensationalized in the papers. The companies advertised strong measures they were taking against train robbery: the Times noted that the Starr gang, successors to the defunct Dalton brothers gang, would have difficulty robbing express cars in future: “The safes now used on their lines are burglar-proof and the only manner in which they can be opened en route is by dynamite.” This must have seemed an invitation to any ambitious train robber, and indeed a few days after the editorial was published a Missouri Pacific train en route to Kansas City was stopped outside of St. Louis around 10 p.m. and the express car blown open with dynamite. The robber – or robbers, since there was disagreement on the number, from a single man to six heavily armed men – made off with $1,256 in silver.
What made this holdup especially notable was that prominent public officials, including Governor William Stone and Major William Warner, former mayor of Kansas City and a future U.S. Senator, were on the train. Stone, seeing the opportunity for political grandstanding and appearing as a man of action, offered a $300 reward for the bandits’ capture, announced that “was time that such affairs should be forever stopped in this state,” and rushed off to organize a posse: “It is thought,” reported the Republican Journal, “that if the governor succeeds in catching up with the robbers he may ‘pitch them into the Mississippi river to feed the fishes,’ even if they are not federal officials,” a gibe at Stone’s anti-federal government views. Warner slept through the entire robbery, dynamite, pistol shots and all, or claimed he did.
The dramatic story became undone in following days. Though the Star in its initial report on the robbery described posses being “sent out in every direction” before midnight, Stone was unable in the sparsely populated area to put together a single posse. In its second report, the Star said it wasn’t until the following day that the search began with four detectives tramping unheroically about the countryside, looking for clues.
The Star made no apology or explanation for its sensationalistic reporting of the day before. The “facts” presented previously vanished without a trace, as did the six or even seven outlaws, described colorfully in the first Star report on the holdup as standing “half crouching, on each side of the train with rifles leveled and ready to shoot,” looking so fearsome that “resistance was useless.”
The next day the gang became a single hapless robber who’d had had to abandon half his silver load in a field as too heavy to carry. “The bold crime will go down to history as one of the most daring ever perpetrated in this state,” said the Star, unabashedly reinventing the story. “It is thought,” the Star reported – a phrase often preceding pure speculation – "that [the robber] went to the river seven miles north, stole a skiff and floated to St. Charles, where he could get away before daylight.”
In a third Star report a week later, the skiff to St. Charles also vanished when Sam A. Wilson, a local man, was turned in by his father; “Rumor says that [Sheriff] Jones and the father are to share the $900 reward,” said the Star, never shy of sharing rumors, before assuming a righteously aggrieved if ambivalent position toward “the daring and boldness displayed in the Missouri Pacific robbery,” which marked Wilson “as a desperado of the worst type.” The evolution of the Star’s reportage illustrates the mixed response of the dailies toward train and bank robbery in the Gilded Age. Stories about outlaws carried some of the glamour of the Old West and sold papers, but newspapers felt obliged to deplore banditry.
The Journal argued in an editorial later in the year that public sentiment toward train robbing was changing from a time when a “halo of heroism” surrounded the robbers, a sentiment “created by the flood of vicious literature which followed the breaking up of the James gang,” and fed by railroad companies who allowed such literature to be sold on trains: “Let the circulation of the cheap publications which make heroes of desperadoes be made a criminal offense […]. A free press is one of the principal boasts of the land, but there should be no freedom in the corruption of society which leads directly to robbery and murder.”
Perhaps the Journal didn’t fully believe in its prescription for the train robbing epidemic because soon after it offered another, one-upping Stone’s manly dispatch of robbers into the Mississippi: every train, the paper argued, should become an armed camp; “bullets are more effective during the effort at robbery than rewards after the robbers get away. […] Let the good work go on, and let every trainman, or any other man who kills a train robber, receive a greater reward than the one who captures one alive. This may sound a little bloodthirsty, but burglars, train robbers and mad dogs should be considered in one class and treated accordingly. When one is killed the world is better off […]
The Populists may not have sympathized with train robbers, but with their rural base, they never tired of attacking railroad companies and demanding government takeovers. Populist leader Tom Watson told an Atlanta crowd in 1894:
“Under the law of eminent domain the roads laid out their right of way through your pastures, your front yards, your homes and your cemeteries, condemning any property they saw fit for the good of the public. Can’t we get them back? Why not? Well, we can and get them honestly, for we won’t steal them. […] The railroads are powerful. They bribe legislatures, they bribe congress and they bribe judges. Didn’t Jay Gould give this away in his testimony before the New York legislature? Didn’t he say that he furnished campaign funds? In a democratic community he was a democrat, in a republican town he was a republican and where the independents ruled he perched on their roost, but first, last and all the time he was for the Erie road.”
Antipathy toward the railroads was so intense that the governor of Kansas, Lorenzo Lewelling, had to offer repeated justifications for his midnight meeting in Topeka with George R. Peck, attorney for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, during the Kansas legislative crisis in January and February of 1893. It was widely believed that Governor Lewelling had been summoned by Peck to his office, where the terms of a compromise settlement between Republicans and Populists over control of the Legislature were dictated to him. Lewelling was said to have wept at the outcome.
It was, for Populists, a clear show of who was really running Kansas. Lewellling denied the rumors, telling Kansans that although he regarded Peck and the Santa Fe as hostile, he had gone to meet Peck but that he had been the one who had dictated the terms. The Kansas City Times, a Democratic paper which thought little of Populists, Republicans, or Lewelling, referred skeptically to the governor’s “stereotyped platitudes,”and enjoyed the spectacle of Republicans and Populists each trying to get political advantage out of the famous meeting.
Colonel Allen Sells, Populist police chief of Topeka, told the Times there was no truth in the story that Lewelling wept: “I think he was remarkably cool for a man who had been threatened with death by the Republicans,” he said. “The story that the Santa Fe railroad had anything to do with the settlement of the ‘war’ is the most absurd yarn I ever heard.” Peck, he insisted, was regarded by the governor only as a leading Republican, not a railroad executive.
With Populist sentiments in the ascendancy in Kansas, even a Republican politician like J. K. Cubbison of Kansas found it expedient to crib from the Populist handbook in 1892, complaining that the U.S. Senate “has become a social club for millionaires,” while the lower house is “crowded with members elected to represent – not the people of their respective districts – but some great corporation, which needs its interests protected in the halls of Congress […];
When a few railroad kings can meet and water railroad stocks that represent an actual value of two billion dollars until they are made to represent ten billions of dollars, then made to pay dividends on ten billions instead of two, there must be something wrong […]. Stripped of legal technicalities it is nothing more or less than high-way robbery. When it costs the western farmer two bushels of corn to transport one to market there is something wrong either with the laws or with the railroad.
When it is possible for immense wealth aggregating millions to be accumulated by an individual in less than twenty years, when it is possible for accumulated wealth to increase so rapidly that its possessors can indulge in seven hundred thousand dollar stables for their horses, and spend as high as ten thousand dollars for flowers and twenty thousand dollars for wine at a single reception, while thousands are actually starving within the limits of the same city […] there is something wrong.
When the laws permit less than three thousand persons to own and control seventy per ct. of the wealth of the nation we have arrived at the period prophesied by the martyred Lincoln, the giant of the century […] In 1865 he said, ‘I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for my country. As a result of the war corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of this country will endeavor to prolong its rein by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the republic is destroyed.
I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.’ Who can deny the verification of Lincoln’s prophecy? Who can suggest the remedy for the present condition of things?”
Cubbison’s jeremiad appeared in the Kansas City Sun and was reprinted in the American Citizen, an African-American weekly based in Kansas City, Kansas. The Citizen introduced Cubbison’s essay with dismissive remarks about Cubbison’s politics: “Here is a man who not much more than a year ago wanted the people’s party nomination for Judge of one of the courts,” but was now presenting himself as a republican candidate for the legislature. In addition, the Citizen’s editor, C.H.J. Taylor, did not share Cubbison’s view of big corporations, the railroads and their wealthy owners: “We are opposed to this everlasting howl against the railroads. They have been and are now of incalculable benefit to the people. It may be that now and then a railroad company becomes too grasping but as a rule the men who build the railroads are as honest and as fair-minded as any other class of persons, associated together for business.”
The big railway companies, in Taylor’s view, were more willing to give African Americans a chance at employment than labor organizations like the Knights of Labor, from which African Americans were largely excluded, or the Farmers’ Alliance or Populists. African Americans, Taylor thought, “can ill afford to go off after these crazy Alliance men, for they are as mad as a March hare on money and railroad questions. […] The men who compose the Farmers Alliance and People’s Party are the poor white people of this country, especially is this true in the Southern States. A majority of the men who belong to the People’s Party are the shabby, shiftless from hand to mouth white brigade […] called before the war poor white trash and were never considered as good as any kind of a Negro. We have no trouble as a rule with the rich, well to do, educated whites in this country. It is the worthless, trashy poor white element and the grasping greedy foreigners that creates h___ for us. It is our duty to seek powerful friends like the railroad companies. […] We can afford to trust the intelligent Christian hearted wealthy gentleman.” Indeed, railway companies were generally opposed to "separate coach" legislation requiring separate train accomodations for blacks and whites, though more for economic than "Christian hearted" reasons.
Kansas City’s economy was highly dependent on railroads to support its meatpacking and agricultural industries. Local businessman envisioned the city at the center of a vast rail network connecting it to developing agricultural regions south to Texas and as far as Mexico and west to California. The Kansas City Times had supported David Payne’s colonization project in the “unassigned lands” in Oklahoma in the 1880’s’; its businessmen, the paper declared, “paid nearly all of the expenses of the first formal presentation to congress of the sentiment of the sober west. The Times has worked for Oklahoma for nearly twenty years.” In January of 1893 the paper sponsored an excursion train to Oklahoma, taking “representative citizens” of Kansas City, St. Joseph, Topeka, and Atchison to “the busy young towns which have grown up since the first opening in April, 1889."
A local man, J.H. Hampson, was president of the yet-to-be-built Mexico, Cuernevaca and Pacific Railroad Company. Mr. Hampson, the Times proudly noted, “is well known throughout the west as a contractor, and the construction of this line will furnish him a means of adding to the already envied position he has acquired in railroad circles.”
Railroad men like George J. Gould, son of Jay Gould, and William Van Horne, president of Canadian Pacific Railways, were feted by the city elite when they visited town. Van Horne, Times readers were reminded, was formerly general superintendent of the St. Louis, Kansas City and Northern Railway, and now had “perhaps the largest salary of any railway president in the country.” Van Horne was described in the Times as being “as affable and courteous as a man should be who had a down-hill pull on the universe,” and George J. Gould, president of the Missouri Pacific, in the Star as “one of most agreeable railroad presidents in this country” when he stopped in Kansas City in “Atlanata,” the luxurious private railway car built for his father. It had four bedrooms, a dining room, kitchen, butler's pantry, lounge, and bathroom.
Gould arrived in November, when the economic depression of 1893 was driving railway companies all over the country into receivership, but he assured the Star reporter that although the Missouri Pacific was in no danger, western states were making life difficult for railroads. Western legislation, said Gould, “has been injurious to railroads. We shan’t see more railway investments in the West until the law makers look upon such corporations with a greater degree of consideration and justice.”
Early in 1893, before the full weight of the economic depression became evident, Kansas City only occasionally sparred with the companies over routes, rates or schedules, although even these mild complaints made it evident how much power the eastern-owned lines had over the city. In January, the Republican Journal – anything but an anti-business paper -- ran an editorial about providing better train service for businesses:
What the paper argued was needed was service that would allow Kansas City merchants, their merchandise and the mails to reach markets in the west without having to wait half the day for trains coming from the east. The editorial expresses the common view that Kansas City was ignored by eastern interests and Washington where, the editors argued, “there is a very unappreciative sentiment concerning the commercial affairs of the great West.”
Another minor fracas with the railroads early in the year was over the Winner Bridge, intended to cross the Missouri River and link Kansas City to Clay and Platte County in the north. The bridge was originally designed and approved by Congressional charter to be a railway bridge with an additional platform for the free passage of wagons, animals and foot passengers. Work had been suspended when the original companies failed; the new owners wanted to forego the “free” clause from the charter, or eliminate the wagon and foot way altogether.
The Journal was opposed to changing the charter, arguing that business interests were at stake, but the Democratic Star and Times temporized. The Populist-leaning Mail accused the two papers of being “subsidized by the railroad company […] having joined a conspiracy to rob Jackson and Clay counties of a free bridge." A free wagon bridge, the paper declared, “would be worth a great deal more to Kansas City and Clay county than would be a double track railroad bridge. There is no demand for a double track railroad bridge. There are three railroad bridges already – the Hannibal, Milwaukee and Santa Fe. That is enough to do the business for twenty years to come.” The new owners, however, claiming to act in the interests of the shareholders whom it pictured before a dithering city council as widows and orphans rather than eastern plutocrats, made it clear that the Winner Bridge would be a railroad bridge alone, or there would be no bridge at all.
Although the Journal editors seemed to think competition would keep rates down, railway rates were a constant source of complaint for Kansas City businessmen as well as ordinary citizens. The business community tried to fight railway control of rates by starting the Kansas City Packet Line to run steamboats for freight and passengers to St. Louis on the Missouri River.
The Journal itself urged manufacturers and wholesalers to patronize the line, commenting that the city’s importance as a commercial center depended on supporting “the packet line that was established after long and patient submission to the all-rail monopoly of its carrying trade eastward.” The packets, said the paper, were “built by Kansas City money and owned by Kansas City men […] and it is incumbent upon the people who have the disposition of the carrying trade to give the boats all the business that it is possible to have them do. […] The continuance of packet transportation will in a very great measure govern rates by rail on a very large part of the carrying trade […].”
The Kansas City to St. Louis steamboat line, however, did not survive 1893. An ill omen marked the shipping season’s opening: the A.L. Mason, “pioneer of the present St. Louis and Kansas City fleet,” as the Times put it, setting out from town on the first voyage of the year “with all the glory of fresh paint and singing roustabouts,” was blown by a gust of wind into a stone pier of the Winner bridge, causing minor damage and frightening the passengers. Another packet boat, the Chester, sank on the Mississippi.
In October, the company’s stockholders met to discuss dissolving the company. It was $22,000 in debt. One of its boats, the State of Kansas, had been sold to meet mortgage obligations; only the Mason and State of Missouri remained and both would soon have to be sold. The stockholders “who put up their little $130,000 to enable the merchants of Kansas City to hold the railroads level will have paid just so much to find out how well Kansas City people patronize an institution after they succeed in getting it established,” the Mail commented. The line suffered from “indifferent patronage” from those who would have benefited from the boats’ success.
Squabbles over rates increased during the Columbian World’s Fair, May through October of the year in Chicago, when reduced fares were introduced. Kansas City businessman sought a share of passenger traffic. They wanted stopover privileges on through tickets, and the same rate basis for Kansas City as for Chicago for passengers coming from the southwest, which Kansas City considered its economic “tributary territory”: “Kansas City looks to her railroads to see that every man in Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and states west can come here during the season of low rates to the World’s fare on the same basis, distance considered, as he can get to Chicago,” the Times editorialized. “Many foreigners and people from the east will want to visit us,” the paper said, hopefully, “and we want every opportunity afforded them to do so.”
The Western Passengers Association also wanted a single through rate to Kansas City, so that a traveler from New England to Chicago could purchase a single, reduced-rate ticket that would continue to Kansas City. This, they hoped, would funnel passengers from the east to Kansas City who would not come if they had to repurchase a ticket in Chicago.
Perhaps hoping for a share of increased revenues from Fair traffic, machinists, blacksmiths and boilermakers in the Santa Fe yard in the town of Argentine and other Santa Fe yards went out on strike. A week later, the same trades struck Union Pacific yards in Kansas City, Omaha and other cities. The issues were wages – the workers wanted a raise of 25 cents a day -- and what the workers regarded as efforts of the company to reduce the work force and increase working hours from eight to nine hours a day. [1893-04-18-p1KCT-Union Pacific strike]. Railroad officials were reported in the Times to be confident they could weather the strike; they predicted it would be over by the end of the month.
The Santa Fe management gave strikers a deadline to be back at work or their jobs would be filled by others. Within a few days the Santa Fe strike was “practically over,” the New York Times reported, but not before violent tussles in Argentine between strikers and non-union workers the company brought in to take their places. According to the men assaulted, the police had stood by while they were attacked, so they intended to sue the town. “The leaders of the strikers,” the Star reported, “are trying to show that all the trouble was caused by outsiders and not by union men.”
Both strikes were over fairly soon, but later in the year as the effects of economic depression worsened, conflicts involving railroads became increasingly intense. In July, the Star mocked what it called a “senseless scare” about the railroads, which it regarded as just gloomy talk while all about was evidence of “great prosperity,” the railroads showing increases in revenue: “conditions have been grossly exaggerated […].” The scare, the editors believed, “is passing away and six months from now the business world will realize that, instead of passing through flood and fire, as it imagines it has been doing for a month, it has simply had a bad nightmare.”
A month later the Star had to change its tune – as usual, without reflection on the error of its earlier optimism. One by one the great railroads tumbled into receivership as their earnings and stock values plummeted: Missouri Pacific shares fell from $60 to $16 from the previous year, Union Pacific's from $40 to $16, Northern Pacific's from $21 to $7. Gross earnings had fallen an estimated 20 percent by August; “The only thing to do,” a general manager of one road said, “is to reduce operating expenses,” which meant cutting worker salaries, increasing rates, and reducing service to less profitable destinations . Eugene Debs, chief organizer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, charged the roads were just trying to take advantage of hard times, knowing it would take years for the workers to recover their position. Wages for railroad workers had fallen to $1 a day, and there was a surplus of men willing to work for that pay. [1893-08-09-KansasCityStar-p1-WagesLowerThanEver]
The Northern Pacific went into receivership in mid-August, “in consequence of the extraordinary depression of business and the stoppage of shipments along the line [...],” said the company’s announcement. In October the Union Pacific system followed: “8,900 miles of rail and water line and the employment of 22,000 men changed control” to the receivers, the Star reported. As of April, the company was almost $250 million in debt, about a fifth of it owed to the U.S. government. The Union Pacific line was already inseparable in the public mind from the massive Credit Mobilier fraud scheme which had bilked the U.S. government out of millions of dollars by overcharging for building the line, so the government was first in line to recover what it could from the company entering receivership.
Late in October workers at the Santa Fe yard at Argentine began threatening a strike because they had not received their September wages. The company’s General manager telegraphed instructions to the Argentine superintendent asking him to “explain fully to our employees that during the last three months the management has been compelled to face the most difficult financial problem of its existence. The monetary stringency all over the United States resulted in the sudden loss of revenue in each of the three months of a sum which would have been sufficient to have paid more than half of the entire pay roll of the company.” Banks were not loaning, the manager complained, and revenue had slumped, so the workers were being asked to “join with the management in a hearty endeavor to carry the company through the critical period.”
The manager hoped September’s payroll would appear by early November, and while Santa Fe workers grumbled and sent delegations to Topeka, striking workers at the Midland railway, also without pay for several weeks, spiked switches, chained up rolling stock, removed rails and burned several bridges.
Kansas City’s cozy relationship with the railway companies was frayed as the companies pulled back, reducing service to save money. In August, the Missouri Pacific took off the Coffeyville to Kansas City daily train, meaning that a one day trip to Kansas City for business or shopping would now take three days. “The reduction in the number of trains running in and out of Kansas City not only seriously discommodes the traveling public,” complained the Star, “but is sure to cripple the trade of Kansas City with the points affected.” [1893-08-18-KansasCityStar-p1-InjuryToKansasCity.pdf]
The news for the St. Clair judges was also unfavorable: county voters overwhelmingly rejected the compromise with bondholders. Copenhaver, Nevitt and Lyons had to return to jail but this time Judge Phillips, the unwilling mediator in the compromise, was less favorably disposed to them. They were locked up on the fourth floor of the jail, and provided only with basic jail furniture. Said Judge Copenhaver regretfully, “I favored accepting the compromise proposition, but it was rejected. What will next be done in the matter I have no idea.” Judge Nevitt said that the St. Clair people were willing to pay only the original amount of the outstanding bonds -- $231,000 -- not the interest and costs. So the judges faced confinement for the remainder of their terms, when St. Clair voters would be sure to try to elect new judges willing to be jailed rather than agree to levy the tax.
In the meantime the normal business of the county would remain on hold, the judges having been forbidden by Judge Phillips to do county business while out of jail. The judges, said the judges are “reputable and honored citizens,” said the Journal, and are “entitled to sympathy notwithstanding the fact that they are in contempt of the judgment of one of the highest courts in the land, upon grounds which cannot be set aside without the greatest danger to property rights throughout the nation.” Yet if the judges capitulated, their lives and property would be in danger from their constituents, who were looking at a tax equal to a fourth of the county’s property valuation.
A St. Clair county resident contradicted the Journal’s uplifting view of the judges, telling the Times that Copenhaver and the others were actually opposed to the compromise agreement, and suggesting it was because they had a cozy berth, getting $2 a day while in jail, “the same as if holding court.” The man also said a lot of St. Clair men would be willing to take their places: “there is no necessity,” he thought, “for the judges posing as martyrs.” One of the principal bondholders, a former state senator, had a similar opinion: they “draw two dollars from the county treasury for each day of their imprisonment and spend it in playing poker with the attaches of the Kansas City jail.” If an order of the court is disregarded, he thought, “Anarchy reigns and the dagger and the bowie knife are supreme.”
The judges planned to appeal to Governor Stone to aid them, hoping the pugnacious governor would take on the federal government. The governor, the Journal worried, “may easily overstep the boundaries of prudence and do the cause of the judges and the people of St. Clair county much more harm than good. It is sure to become a celebrated case.” Nevertheless, the judges decided to exploit what they hoped was a conflict between federal and state law, submitting a writ of habeas corpus to the Missouri state Supreme Court claiming that they would be breaking state law if they ordered the levy without the voters’ approval. The Prosecuting Attorney of St. Clair county was not encouraging, telling the judges they could only get out by making the levy or waiting until their terms expire a year hence.
A few days later he admitted that people in the county were convinced the state Supreme court could secure the judges’ release and the only way he could show them otherwise was to file the habeas corpus writ: “The application will be refused,” he told the Times. “I make the application to gratify the desire of some of my constituents and to dispel the fallacious idea which many of them possess, not with the hope of success.” While the judges awaited the decision, the unfortunate Copenhaver was released on parole, suffering from heart disease and dropsy: “He was in a very bad way indeed,” the government physician told the judge.
As 1893 came to an end, the railroads were at the center of multiple conflicts arising from the deepening economic depression. In December the Burlington railway raised rates: grain from Kansas City would henceforth cost 4 cents more per 100 pounds than from St. Joseph and Atchison: “no line attempts to discriminate against Kansas City to anything like the extent that the Burlington does,” the Times complained. The line, some believed, “has already displayed an unreasonable enmity toward Kansas City, and an urgent desire to attract the grain trade to other points. […] The Kansas City, Wyandotte and Northwestern, Missouri Pacific, Santa Fe, Union Pacific and Rock Island make Kansas City, St. Joseph, Atchison and Leavenworth common points. Kansas City asks no favors but insists on being treated at least as well as the smaller river towns.”
The Star called it “outrageous discrimination,” and a “prohibitory tariff against Kansas City. […] The Burlington system has in plain terms declared war against the Kansas City grain market, and the grain men are justified in using every weapon within reach to win the fight which is thus precipitated.” The Burlington rate change made it all too clear how dependent Kansas City’s future was on the decisions of railway executives.
The answer, declared the Times in an editorial anticipating reforms of the Progressive Age a decade hence, is government regulation. When capitalism was wide open after the Civil War, great fortunes were built up by “the Goulds, the Vanderbilts and other American railway kings” through their power to “levy tribute upon whole States as the price of their prosperity, to locate and build up cities […]. The people have at last come to realize that public transportation is a public function, and its regulation is a right and duty of the government; that unfair discrimination in fixing rates of transportation, either in favor of or against individuals or communities, is an evil of the same class as an unjust or unfair use of the taxing power, and is even more injurious and produces more disastrous results.” The Interstate Commerce Commission was only six years old in 1893, but was, the Times editors believed, already considering criminal rather than mere civil action against those practicing “unjust discrimination” of the kind Kansas City thought it faced from the Burlington.
Year end newspaper reports on the railway business were uniformly grim: declining earnings, lines going one after another into receivership, strikes. Union Pacific and Northern Pacific earnings were $5 million below 1892’s, the Missouri Pacific's $2 ½ million. It had, the Journal summarized, been the worst year ever for railroads: 13 per cent of railway mileage had gone into receivership; counting 1892, it was 19 percent. “The year 1893 […] will be forever memorable as a year unprecedented in the number and magnitude of railway bankruptcies.” [1893-12-16-DailyJournal-p8-bad year for railroads]
Just before Christmas the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe went bankrupt; George R. Peck, Lewelling’s interlocutor in the Kansas legislative wars, represented the company before the judge. The Union Trust Company held $130,000,000 in Santa Fe bonds and the cash strapped railway had an interest payment of $5,000,000 due January 1, the equivalent in current dollars of $135,000,000.
It wasn’t only the stockholders who faced a loss; days before Christmas the Santa Fe workers in Argentine hadn't yet been paid for November. This time, the Times reported, the men “had no intention to strike as they feel the company’s embarrassment very much, and have taken a sensible view of the matter.”
Out of habit the Star continued trying to find good times just around the corner: “Business in this country is simply in a cleaning up condition,” it said hopefully in mid-December, but by Christmas, the tone was gloomier: there was “almost a panic in railroad circles,” the paper reported. “Despite the unprecedented record of disaster the opinion is prevalent among railroad men and financiers that the end is not yet. Such failures as those of the Philadelphia and Reading, the Union Pacific, Santa Fe, Northern Pacific and Erie railways, coming one after another in quick succession, could only result in great depreciation of railway stock and a loss of confidence on the part of the public in railroads and their management.”
Through the panicky summer of 1893 and into the decade of economic depression that followed, however, railways remained central to the cultural life and economy of Kansas City. Citizens took local trains, such as the Kansas City and Independence Air Line road, from neighborhoods to work and shop in the city center. They got around the city core on one of the country’s best cable car systems. A suburban belt railway was under construction linking urban railway stations to terminals of the many railways serving the city – the Union Pacific; Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific; the Wabash, Hannibal & St. Joseph; Kansas City, St. Joseph & Hannibal Bluffs; Kansas City, Wyandotte and Northwestern; Chicago & Great Western; Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis; Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroads and others – and to Union Depot in the West Bottoms.
Union Depot was the meeting place for all sorts and conditions of people, “a rather stirring place when you come to consider it,” as a Journal writer observed it: “dingy walls and seats, the smell of pies that comes from the lunch counter near at hand, the sound of many voices in all sorts of keys, the shuffling and scraping of many feet and to these the hoarse yell of the newspaper man, the thunder of trains outside, the bellow of the white-haired old gentleman who announces the departure of the trains."
Through it came middle class families bound for the Chicago World’s Fair, farmers “tanned and brown from wind and weather,” soldiers stationed at Fort Leavenworth, new immigrants from Europe headed west, “their bundles and satchels piled near them,” an occasional Indian “usually in all the gay trappings of which his race is so fond,” and country rubes who were easy marks for con men.
One swindle well known to the police was the “lock game,” played at Union Station in June on a “young and likewise verdant” passenger, Fred E. Wilson, as a story in the Journal described the victim, who was befriended by a man in the depot waiting room. Taking Fred for a walk, the man produced a lock and offered to bet that Fred couldn’t unlock it, “at the same time handing him a key. The young man wouldn’t bet, but was willing to try his skill on the lock. It worked so easily that Wilson’s cupidity was aroused. He offered to bet $10, his gold watch and a revolver that he could beat the game.” Naturally, the lock didn’t work a second time and when Wilson objected, an accomplice appeared in the role of policeman, "arrested" the con man, and the two marched off with Wilson’s booty. Chief of Police Speers explained to the victim how the trick lock worked.
Trains left Union Depot at all hours for all parts of the nation. The companies advertised special rates: $5.00 to California on the Rock Island Tourist Excursions from Kansas City, and speedy times: Kansas City to Denver in 19 hours, to San Francisco, 72 hours on the Union Pacific. For long trips the companies advertised Pullman dining, parlor and drawing rooms, and sleeping cars. The Rock Island said it had the “best dining car service in the world,” and advertised its “vestibuled trains, magnificent dining cars, sleepers and chair coaches, all the most elegant, and of recently improved patterns.”
For young women traveling alone overnight, the Star provided an appropriate protocol: “nothing is quite so desirable for wear in the sleeping car as a wrapper of dark colored flannel,” the paper advised, which should be donned in the toilet room. “When she is ready to go to bed, and the porter arranges her berth for her, she goes to the toilet room, taking with her her shawl strapped package. She removes her shoes and stockings, puts on the knitted slippers that she has taken out of her bag, removes any garments which she pleases, and assuming her wrapper, which has been folded in her shawl strap, repairs to her birth.”
The year did not end well for the St. Clair county judges, whose habeas corpus appeal to the Missouri supreme court was declined, as everyone knew it would be. State courts, the court ruled, have no power to discharge people who are in custody by authority of federal courts, even if “the judgments or orders of the Federal courts or commissioners are illegal.” The tone of the decision suggested that the justices wanted to be seen as sympathetic to the St. Clair voters. Meanwhile, affairs in the County were in rapid decline in the absence of the judges. The county prosecuting attorney warned, in a eerie reminder of Caroline Copenhaver’s fate, that there was a danger of the county’s insane being returned to the county because of unpaid bills at the Nevada asylum, and there were “hundreds of like things to be attended to.” Copenhaver was still at home, severely ill, but Lyons and Nevitt remained in jail.
Phillips refused to let the two go home for Christmas, allowing them only some Christmas shopping for their families. The Journal painted a sad picture of Judge Lyons buying toys for his grandchildren and wiping away a tear after sending them off: “this is the first time in forty years that I have been away from home on Christmas eve,” he told the paper. “If I was down in St. Clair County tonight the chances are I’d enjoy myself a whole lot. You ought to see the way we celebrate Christmas there. Talk about your swell Christmas balls, you just ought to attend one of our play parties, where the boys and girls play possum pie and postoffice and other funny games.”
Not until 1919 was St. Clair’s bond default case finally settled, half a century after Peter La Due absconded with the county’s money. Straus Investors’ Magazine described St. Clair County in 1919 as one in which “Title to every acre of land was clouded, schoolhouses have gone to rack and ruin, the courthouse is falling into decay, and not a dollar was spent on public improvements." [The Literary Digest, Volume 61, Funk and Wagnalls, May 31, 1919, p. 81 Google eBook http://books.google.com/books?id=qKk5AQAAMAAJ&pg=RA8-PA81&lpg]
Some of the St. Clair county judges who’d collaborated with La Due were driven from the county; in Cass County, two were hung. Peter La Due was never prosecuted.
2Thelen, David R. Paths of Resistance : Tradition and Dignity in Industrializing Missouri: Tradition and Dignity in Industrializing Missouri (Google eBook) Oxford University Press, 1986 . p 68
3Thelen, p. 69