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The same old bullshit, for 2 hundred years. First it was the Catholics - German, Italian and Irish - and then Asians, and then Jews. Whose next?

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Friday, July 13, 2012

MR NICE GUY


I think everybody liked Robert Williamson Steele. Every one who knew him speaks in glowing terms; he was genial, honest, an entrepreneur, a good neighbor and a true friend. Maybe he was a little distracted by his pursuit of money, but that's no sin in America. Then, in 1860, with the Civil War building to a roiling boil, “J.W.” presented the Federal government with a ready-made, right-out-of-the-box, pro-union local government to smooth passage of the gold rich Colorado territory into the federal union. And his fellow politicians turned him down flat. For some reason they just didn't trust “JW”. And that was only partly because he was a Democrat.
See, in the 1850's there were only two kinds of Democrats, southerners willing to go to war to protect slavery and northerners who were willing to make any compromise to keep southern Democrats happy. The leader of the latter group was Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who shepherded the Compromise of 1850 through Congress - protecting slavery but keeping it south of the Kansas border. And then four years later Douglas flip-flopped with his Kansas-Nebraska act, which let the locals decide the issue of slavery. His spin was “Let the people rule”, but the effect was to allow slavery supporters to drag their grievances north, across the Kansas border, where they barged into abolitionists. This intimate mixing of political ideologies set off “Bleeding Kansas” where neighbors like John Brown began settling political arguments by literally beheading their opponents. That was the real start of the American Civil War; not at Fort Sumter in 1861, but in Kansas in 1855. And, surprisingly, if anybody had taken notice, a practical solution to the political anarchy unleashed by Senator Douglas had appeared in July of 1858.
William Greenberry Russell was a Georgia peach who was a “49'er”. He had been fairly successful in the California gold fields, running other people's claims. But he really struck gold with his in-laws. His wife, Susan Willis Russel, was 1/8 Cherokee, and that side of her family had been forced marched across the Mississippi River in the infamous Trail of Tears, back when Kansas and Nebraska were supposed to be the new “Indian Territory”- like Indiana before them and Oklahoma afterward. Separate but equal has never worked in America, not for Indians, not for blacks, not for women and not for gays.
Anyway, Susan's Cherokee relatives wrote her about rumors of gold in the Rocky Mountain foothills. Looking to make his own fortune, Russel immediately rushed To Denver. One early July day he panned 20 ounces of gold out of Cherry Creek, a tributary of the South Platte River. And news of that one day bonanza was like opening a safety valve on an overheated steam engine. Overnight, violence levels across Kansas dropped as the most adventurous (meaning the most violent) young males packed up all their excess energy and marched 300 miles westward toward the 14,000 foot high Pikes Peak. They weren't actually going to Pike's Peak, but it was the most visible bit of the Rocky mountains as you crossed the rolling prairies; thus “Pike's Peak or Bust”.
Over the first two years of the Pike's Peak gold rush, one hundred thousand abolitionists and pro-slavery men came pouring out of Kansas and Nebraska. You might have expected a repeat of Bleeding Kansas in the gold fields. In 1860 a Kansas newspaper noted that “It is difficult...to walk half a square (mile) in Denver, without meeting some familiar face...” So the “59'ers” were the same folks who had been shooting each other back in Kansas in '58. Oh, they were still shooting each other in the gold fields, just not over slavery. Now it was over failed business deals and cheating at cards. In fact, it seems that all these violent people were suddenly no longer interested in politics. Greed had changed the political ethos.
The two largest towns in the region sat right atop the gold fields. One, Auraria, even adopted the Latin word for gold as its name. But the other was named to curry the favor of the governor of Kansas Territory, James W. Denver. See, the gold fields were part of the huge Arapahoe County, Kansas Territory, and the residents of the town of Denver were hoping for win favorable treatment over Auraria.. But by the time the town of Denver had adopted its new name, Governor Denver was out of office, and the toadying to him did them no good. So Denver the town returned the favor. They kept the name, but when the ex-governor visited his namesake, the residents largely ignored him. And that would prove the new reoccurring theme in Colorado politics.
Being ignored by territorial officials in distant Kansas, on 5 September, 1859, the citizens of Denver and Auraria voted to form their own government, which they labeled the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory. They laid claim to a huge expanse of plains and mountains, almost as big as California or Texas. The genial Robert Williamson Steele, a lawyer out of Chillicothe, Ohio was elected Governor. Not yet forty, his sole qualification was that he was genial and had served a single term in the Nebraska Territorial legislature before catching gold fever. The prickly Pennsylvanian born lawyer, Lucien W. Bliss, was elected Lieutenant Governor. He had sought his fortune in Leavenworth, Kansas, but had moved on to Denver where he helped start the Rocky Mountain News, and a couple of freight lines. And they were typical of pretty much everybody in the the self proclaimed Territory.
Everybody in Jefferson who wasn't actually mining gold, was trying anything they could to make money off those who were. Governor “J.W.” even started a town in the foothills 12 miles west of Denver, which he called Mount Vernon.(He had a Tea Party 'thing' about the founding fathers). He sold town lots, and built toll roads heading to the new mines further up-slope. Lt. Governor Bliss started a couple of freight lines of his own, hauling equipment, food and fuel into the mines, and carrying the ore out. All of the men elected to the Jefferson Territorial legislature were only part time politicians, often business partners with their political allies and enemies. Even the judges appointed had to fit court sessions into their busy schedules - one of them never did show up for work. And Oscar Totten had been elected clerk of the Supreme Court because nobody else wanted the job.
The whole rickety structure survived for only 16 months. You see, most of the residents of Jefferson Territory, like their political leaders, saw themselves as entrepreneurs first. And being businessmen they hated to pay taxes. So, they supported their new government with a one dollar poll tax. But the natural response from all these entrepreneurs when faced with a tax on voting, was to not vote, and thus not pay the tax. This left the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory on a very shaky financial and political foundation, made worse by the rickety nature of any business on the frontier.
Of the 100,000 who had joined the Pikes Peak gold rush, seven out of ten went bust and headed back home. The 1860 census of “Jefferson Territory” could find only 25,329, still looking for their Eldorado.  Governor “J.W.” argued that many had gone uncounted because they were working isolated claims up in the hills. But being isolated, said the census takers, meant they were not interested in being counted, and so, they should not count. And the evidence was in the ballot box. The vote to create the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory had been 1,852 to 280 – barely 2,000 participating citizens out of the supposed 25,000 - not what you would call a “popular” election. Certainly Washington didn't call it that.
After their request for recognition had been rebuffed by Washington, in August of 1860 “J.W.” asked Kansas Territory to absorb Jefferson Territory and its power structure, meaning himself and all those other entrepreneurs. Kansas didn't say no, but they didn't say yes, either. They just waited. In November of 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois won election as President of the United States, sweeping the Republican party into power. They were made stronger when most of the southern Democrats walked out, to form the Confederacy. On 29 January, 1861, the new Republican Congress voted to admit the state of Kansas into the union, as a free state, sans the territory claimed as Jefferson. One month later, on 26 February, 1861, the Republican congress created the Territory of Colorado, ignoring the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory to death. A month later the rebels in Charleston, South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter, and the civil war began in earnest.
On 3 June, 1861, Stephen Douglas died in Chicago, of typhoid fever. Three days later “J.W.” admitted reality, declaring the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory disbanded. It had lasted barely 16 months. And even before it was gone, nobody missed it, not even its leaders. Lt. Governor Lucien Bliss eventually sold his businesses at a profit, and moved on to Montana, where he repeated his success. But Robert Williamson Steele, like most early entrepreneurs in Colorado, was not quite as successful.
His toll roads closed when the mines they served ran out in the early 1860's. His town of Mount Vernon died shortly thereafter. Today, the only thing to mark its existence is an abandoned cemetery and a roadside plaque. “J.W.” fell back on the law to make a living, but he kept prospecting in his spare time. He lived a long and a productive life, and everybody liked him, right up to his death in Colorado Springs in 1901.
And I suppose if you believed lives can teach lessons, you should remember that genial makes for a good politician, but it ain’t enough to make a viable government - and neither do entrepreneurs. Good government requires shared sacrifice and commitment. And people infected with gold fever aren't interested in sharing anything.
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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

DIGGING THEIR OWN GRAVES


I have noticed that in all things, drama attracts drama -  which as often confuses as it sheds light. Forty miles east of Coeur de'Alene, Idaho, there is proof of this. Through fissures opened by dramatic continental collisions over a billion years ago, water percolated up through sedimentary rocks. And where it pooled and cooled it left behind veins of silver, lead, and zinc. Then 190 million years ago this shattered wreckage was struck again, theatrically folding forested ridges upward until they broke, then shoving the amputated segments atop their own abandoned limbs, stacking the veins haphazardly through the new mountains. Fifty million years ago erosion found the weak points in the fault lines, opening the land to ambition and greed and human drama.
Burke Canyon Creek, like a hundred other streams in the panhandle of Idaho, divides two of these ridges. To the southeast the 6,000 foot high twin Grouse Peaks are separate by a mile from the 6,000 foot high Tiger Peak to the northwest. Between them, at just 2,500 feet above sea level, snakes the 300 foot wide “Silver Valley”.  Burke Canyon is so narrow, in the winter it receives only two hours of sunlight.  Shopkeepers had to close their awnings when the narrow gauge trains carried out the ore. The dead had to be carried out as well, as there was no space to bury them in the canyon.
 But by 1891, the 11 mile long, constricted, twisting valley was dotted with one-street towns and the 100 mines they served; The Bunker Hill, The Burke, The Star-Morning, The Standard-Mammoth, the Hercules, The Gem, The Poorman Tigar, The Union, The Sunshine, the Frisco, The Tamarack.and The Hecla were the biggest.
In less than a hundred years humans would extract from this dramatic landscape $5.5 billion worth of metal, including 37,00 metric tons of silver – half of all silver mined in the United States - 8 million tons of lead, and 3 million tons of zinc These were no paper profits, this was production, rare metals pried from the earth. But the handful of owners who risked their capital to exploit this bonanza, and the 3,500 hard-rock miners who risked their lives a mile and more beneath this canyon for $3.50 a day, were all digging their own graves.
In the fall of 1891 the railroads who transported the ore once it was out of Burke Canyon, announced they were raising their rates $2 a ton. The Mine Owners Association, which effectively owned the canyon, responded by shutting down production. Three thousand miners were laid off, and untold store clerks, cooks, maids and laundresses lost their incomes as well. The standoff continued until April of 1892, when a compromise was reached and the mines announced they would reopen. But because of increased overhead the mines would rehire only 2,000 men, would add six hours a week to their six day workweek, and for the 500 hundred unskilled miners, there would be a pay cut of fifty cents a day.
The workers at each mine formed unions, and were unified in their demand - $3.50 a day for all workers, skilled and unskilled. The Owners Association refused, and in June began advertising for replacement workers. Soon, every train that arrived in Wallace, Idaho, at the foot of the canyon, carried miners (“scabs”) from Michigan and Wisconsin. Union miners took to greeting the new arrivals with fists and clubs. The Owners hired Pinkerton “guards” to protect the replacement workers. Tensions increased, threats increased, violence increased. Two of the mines reopened with union miners, and two, the Gem and the Frisco, reopened with non-union miners.
When the sun rose over the narrow canyon on Monday, July 11, 1892, the hills overlooking the Gem were covered with armed union men. At first light, the shooting started. After several hours of unproductive gunfire, the miners switched to more familiar weapons. A black powder bomb exploded a building (above) housing one of the stamps which broke up the ore before shipment. After a little more shooting the company men surrendered. The human cost was three dead. 
The union men marched their prisoners across the narrow street to saloons in the town of Gem, while company men still on mine property began sniping. Women and children ran for their lives, fleeing either up or down the canyon. Fifty more company men arrived and surrounded the saloons where their men were held. Three more men were killed, this time union men, and eventually, the union men surrendered in their turn.
Meanwhile, shooting had also begun at the Frisco mine, and three more company men had been killed. Yet another surrender prevented further loss of life. The sheriff and Federal Marshals escorted these company men down the canyon to Wallace. Pro-union forces now occupied both mines and had captured 2,000 rounds of ammunition, to boot. All of this had isolated the largest mine further up the canyon, the Bunker Hill, in tiny Burke, Idaho.
On day two of the “Burke Canyon War”, Federal troops arrived in Cataldo, twenty miles to the west, but the union men threatened to blow up the mines if they moved any closer. That left the company men in the closed Bunker Hill Mine cut off from any support, heavily outnumbered and out gunned. The company men walked out without putting up any further fight.  All non-union mines in the Silver Valley were now shut down. It was only a matter of time before all would be forced to sign union contracts. It looked like the Union had won. And then somebody did something really dramatic, and really stupid.
It happened in Cataldo, where the narrow gauge railroad met the head of navigation for the Cour d'Alene River. There had once been a Mission nearby, and as daylight began to fade that Tuesday evening, 130  survivors from the Gem and Frisco mines, were gathered on the dock, waiting for a boat to allow them to escape from this insanity. They had already been shot at and some had even been blasted. Then, out of the shadows, union men now appeared on horseback and started shooting into the unarmed crowd. Panicked men began running in every direction, some even jumping into the lake. It does not appear that anyone was actually killed in this shadowed fusillade, but it was claimed that 17 were wounded. It was labeled “The Mission Massacre”, and most public sympathy for the union cause died right there.
On Wednesday, July 13, Idaho Governor Wiley placed the entire county under martial law. A thousand state milita appeared, followed by a small but more vocal army of reporters. Before the week was out 400 union men were under arrest. So backed up would the courts become, that it would be a year before some of prisoners would have their chance to defend themselves. Very few would be found innocent. Many served years in prison. All union men were forced out of the mines, and the Owners Association reigned triumphant. The Wallace Free Press summed up what was lost, when it noted, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword, is an old proverb, and labor is not trained in that school.”
Eight years later they all did it again. This time the Bunker Hill mine was blown up. But again the owners won. Six years later the two sides went at it again,  and the then Governor - Frank Steunenburg - called out National Guard troops. This time,  he boasted, “We have taken the monster by the throat, and we are going to choke the life out of it.” Union men responded by blowing up the governor. It took the skills of lawyer Clarence Darrow to keep the union man convicted of the Governor's murder, out of the electric chair . But the tit for tat never really ended, which helped ensure that by 1920 the 5,000 non-union miners in Silver Valley were the highest paid workers in the state.
But almost unnoticed at first, the real cost of all this drama began to surface. Around 1900 farmers downstream began complaining that the spring floods on the Coeur d'Alene had poisoned their fields and killed their livestock. By the 1930's the south fork of the Coeur d'Alene river had become a dead zone. People drinking from the river became sick, even losing their hair. The farmers sued the mine owners, but the courts, already used to crush the union, now crushed the farmers. Still, there was so much lead in the Burke Canyon Creek, the miners began calling it “Lead Creek”. After the World Wars the price of silver began to fall. The mines began to close. And as they did, their political power began to wane.
In May of 1972,   91 miners died in a fire at the Sunshine Mine. And this time the disaster brought in the new Environmental Protection Agency. And what they found, scared them. In  Burke Canyon Creek between Burke and Wallace they could find no fish. By measurement, the water carried 550 pounds of zinc every day into the Coeur d'Alene River – so much that when the stream pooled, the water was yellow . Twenty miles of streams in surrounding areas could support no fish, and 10 miles of tributaries of the Coeur d”Alene River had “virtually no life” in them. In those waters outside of Silver Canyon, lead and zinc levels were fifty times the federal safe water quality standard. How had it spread so far outside the canyon?  
Every day each mine had been dumping between 40 and 60 tons of lead into the air. Rain settled this poison into the  Coeur d'Alene river, and had contaminated Lake Coeur d'Alene, which had contaminated 160 miles of the Spokane River, which flowed out of the lake. Water fowl were dying each year in thousands, 21 bird species were at risk of local extinction. And human children living in the valley had the highest levels of lead in their blood ever seen - in the world.
The result was the 21 square mile Bunker Hill Superfund Site. When this cleanup is finally finished (if ever), it could cost taxpayers $1.4 billion – or just about 20% of the value of the ore removed from the “silver canyon” over the last century, to enrich a few mine owners. In 1996, after twenty years of cleanup effort, EPA scientists put healthy trout in water from the Burke Canyon Creek. All were dead in four hours. Today, if you take a drive up Silver Canyon, you will pass the abandoned mine buildings, surrounded by chain link fences. Those fences were erected by the EPA, to protect curious tourists from being poisoned.
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Sunday, July 08, 2012

ETERNAL TRIANGLE Pt. One


I wonder why they call it “news”? The one thing it never is, is “new”. Every headline merely documents a  sad, sustained repetition of scandal, sin, stupidity and sex . History does not repeat itself. People do. As an example, I give you the obtuse triangle of “Big” Jim Fisk, Helen Josie Mansfield and Edward Stokes; a triangle which would have been familiar to Pythagoras and would have bemused Sigmund Freud, and might have informed John Edwards and Governor Mark Sanford - among others - if they were to consider themselves as not quite unique.
Jim Fisk was born in Vermont on April Fools’ Day in 1835. His father was a traveling “bummer”, selling pots and pans and trifles. W hen he was 15 Jim ran away to join “Van Amberg's Mammoth Circus and Menagerie”, and returned three years later with a splash of color and bombast which he marketed into a fortune. In the midst of the Civil War, together with Jay Gould - the most hated man in New York - “Big” Jim took over the Erie Railroad.
But it was “Big” Jim who moved the Erie’s corporate offices into the upper three floors of the Grand Opera House (above), which he owned. For while Gould had no interests outside of making money, Jim Fisk was a man of prodigious appetites, many of them involving divas of one kind or another. Jim had been married to his dearest Lucy when he was 19, but she resided in far off Boston with her own lady love, Fanny Harrod. And while Jim kept both ladies in luxury, and even visited them occasionally, he spent most of his free time with “actresses” in New York, and was a regular visitor at the business house of “the notorious Annie Wood”. And it was there one night that Anne introduced Jim to his personal Helen of Troy, Josie Mansfield.
Josie was a beauty in an age when a sexy woman had some meat on her bones. One admirer noted her
“…full, dashing figure …Her eyes are large, deep and bright…Her voice is very soft and sweet”. It was Josie’s mother who first recognized the girl’s talent as “an incorrigible flirt”, and used her as bait in a badger game, played in Stockton, California. A pettifogging local attorney named D.W. Perley , while in a state of undress, was caught "courting" the girl.  He wrote at least one check at gunpoint. There was some quarrel over the proceeds of this venture, and shortly thereafter Josie secretly married and ran off with Frank Lawlor, an actor.
She followed Frank cross-country on the music hall circuit, arriving in New York City in 1864. Here, two years later, Frank came to the shocking discovery that Josie “was going astray” on him. Although why that should have shocked him, considering where they met, seems an open question.  In any case, they divorced, and Josie sought a career more suited to her talents, in the bordello of Annie Wood. There she enticed Annie to introduce her to the genial and generous Mr. Fisk. He was enchanted. She was enriched.
Over night Josie went from being behind in her rent to the “Cleopatra of West Twenty-third Street”, the owner of record of a four story brownstone (after some $65,000 worth of improvements) - conveniently located just around the corner from "Big" Jim's Opera House – with four servants, a wardrobe filled with dresses, and a jewelry case accented by real jewels. But having achieved everything she had hungered for, Josie was now bored. And that was when she made the acquaintance of one of “Big” Jim’s business partners, Edward Stokes, and fell head over heels in love for him.
It was understandable. Where Big Jim had few social skills, Edward had an excess. Where “Big” Jim was physically blunt and crude, Edward was handsome and dashing. He was a privileged, pompous and prideful dandy, with a trophy wife and a 9 year old daughter. Josie was experienced enough to recognize that Edward was also a spendthrift and an inveterate gambler, losing a small fortune on race horses. An affair would be dangerous for them both. Josie depended on "Big" Jim for her income, and Edward was partnered with “Big” Jim in a Brooklyn oil refinery. Edward ran the place, and “Big” Jim’s Erie Railroad transported the refineries’ oil at a discount.  But for reason, in 1869, the suggestion self delusion and self destruction drove Edward and Josie to began an affair -  they thought behind “Big” Jim’s back.
Such a triangle could be maintained only so long as all the parties carefully judged the angles. But algebra was a skill that none of the three possessed in quantity or quality. In January 1870 Josie announced that she no longer wanted to see “Big” Jim unless he made her financially independent. She reminded him,  “You have told me very often that you held some twenty or twenty-five thousand dollars of mine in your keeping…a part of the amount would place me where I would never have to appeal to you for aught” And now, she said, she wanted "her" money.
The entire point of their relationship, as far as “Big” Jim was concerned, was that Josie had to appeal to him for everything. He was hurt, and responded, “Have I not furnished a satisfactory mansion? Have I not fulfilled every promise I have made?” And then he let it be clear that he was fully aware of her affair with Edward. “You may well imagine my surprise at your selection of the ‘element’ you have chosen to fill my place. I was shown today his diamonds, which had been sacrificed ... at one-half their value ….You will, therefore, excuse me if I decline your modest request for a still further disbursement of $25,000” Jim even began calling Josie his Little Miss “Lump-sum”.
Having received a definitive “no” Josie began shifting her demands. First, she threatened to publish “Big” Jim’s love letters to her, then she said was willing to spend an evening with him, then she hinted she would share secret details of his Erie stock manipulations. Through an intermediary “Big” Jim asked Edward how much he would require to return those love letters and return Josie as well. Edward asked for $200,000, and that seemed to have hit “Big” Jim’s limit, again.
Of course,  "Big" Jim still sent Josie cash when she asked for it - $500 on November 7th, $300 on November 10th, another $500 a week later. Now why did he do that? He must have suspected that most of the money was going to Edward. Of course that was also the month that “Big” Jim cancelled the shipping discount for the refinery he shared with his paramour. Of course “Big” Jim was hurting his own profit margin, but Edward, having recently lost yet another fortune at race tracks, was squeezed much harder. Edward grew so desperate that in January of 1871 he collected a $27,500 debt owed to the refinery, and pocketed it.  Almost as if he had been waiting for this, “Big” Jim had Edward charged with embezzlement, and the Lothario spent a weekend in jail before he could raise bail. Edward swore his revenge.
Why “Big” Jim had not done this sooner remains a mystery. The man could make Wall Street tremble, and yet he seems to have been sheered of his strength before Josie's demands. The lady now filed suit in open court, demanding that “Big” Jim pay her $50,000 (the $25,000 plus interest). And Edward climbed on the bandwagon, suing “Big” Jim,  to force him to buy out Edward’s share of their refinery for $200,000. And at last the entire mishegoss, was out in the open, where the press could profit by it.  And they always love that. This story, they knew,  was just beginning.
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