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Home > Cultural > History > 1859-Present > Troubled Times

Oregon History: Troubled Times

Work often was dangerous in the late 1800s. Shown above is an oxen team used for logging in Coos County. (Photo courtesy Coos County Historical Museum)

Work often was dangerous in the late 1800s. Shown above is an oxen team used for logging in Coos County. (Photo courtesy Coos County Historical Museum)

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Discontents stirred in the hearts and minds of Oregonians in the last three decades of the 19th century. Life left some feeling cheated. Hard work did not bring sufficient wages or sale of farm commodities to secure a decent living. Many jobs took place in the midst of danger in poorly lighted sawmills, dust-filled coal mines, slippery canneries, or woolen mills with whirling spindles. Loggers confronted falling trees, flying cables, surging freshets, and wretched living conditions in the camps where they lived. Clerks were underpaid and labored six days a week in monotonous jobs where they had neither health nor retirement plans and little prospect for advancement. Women attended academies, public schools, normal schools, colleges, and universities, but male Oregonians refused to grant them the right to vote. Too many, it seemed, coped with alcoholic husbands who plundered the egg and butter money for a few more coins to spend on "demon liquor."

 

The disenchanted found inspiration for reconstructing their world. Ideologies beckoned alluringly and became part of an interesting mix of forces that set the stage for significant changes in Oregon. They ranged from arguments for women's suffrage to the pleas of the Christian Women's Temperance Union to control, if not suspend, the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The ideologies ran from economic and social theories to racist and bigoted attacks on minorities and immigrants. Many suggested political action might solve a state's or a nation's problems in a time of increasing industrialization.

 

California journalist Henry George promoted a simple solution to destitution. He argued in Progress and Poverty (1879) that the United States could eradicate poverty by implementing a tax of 100 percent on the "unearned increment," the inflationary value of real estate. The redistribution of the "single tax," he said, could meet need and solve societal problems. Tens of thousands read his book and became "single taxers."

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1887) intrigued others. Bellamy used a shallow plot line about a man who fell into a mesmeric trance in 1887--a time of labor strife, urban pollution, slums, and poverty--and who awakened in 2000. He found a reconstructed American society and economy with abundant prosperity and peace. All had changed through the miracle of "nationalism." In Bellamy's world the solution was government ownership of all means of production, transportation, housing, and basic utilities.

 

Hard rock miners listened to the speakers from the Knights of Labor and the Western Federation of Miners. Many were not happy with their lot. Coal miners on Oregon's southwest coast endured low wages, explosions, and horrendous working conditions. Men extracting quicksilver in Douglas County slowly poisoned themselves tending the furnaces to produce flasks of mercury. Gold miners labored hundreds of feet below ground in the quartz deposits of the Bohemia Mining District in the Western Cascades and in mine shafts in the Blue and Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon. They were inspired by the prospect of forming unions and joining with fellow miners to wrest better pay and safer working conditions from the companies for which they labored.

 

Farmers often were geographically isolated. Local granges helped give farmers a political voice. Shown above is an apple harvest in Freewater. (Photo courtesy Frazier Farmstead Museum)

Farmers often were geographically isolated. Local granges helped give farmers a political voice. Shown above is an apple harvest in Freewater. (Photo courtesy Frazier Farmstead Museum)

Thousands of farmers turned first to the Patrons of Husbandry, joining Granges, engaging in the rituals of the organization, and pressing the legislature to meet the needs of agrarians. Others joined the Northwestern Alliance, a nonpartisan organization of farmers who hoped for reform. Alliance members and Grangers lobbied for collection and publication of agricultural statistics, strengthening of education at Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis, development of experimental farms to test crops, breeds of livestock, and the impact of fertilizer and chemical sprays. And not a few heard about Mary Elizabeth Lease of Kansas, who told farmers in America's heartland that they should "raise less corn and more hell!"

 

Many agrarians embraced the People's Party. In 1892 its platform attempted to create an agenda to meet their needs. The populists endorsed limits on immigration, government ownership of railroads, telegraph, and telephone, free coinage of silver to stimulate western mining, secret ballot, direct election of senators, and the subtreasury system whereby the government would buy unsold farm commodities, hold them, and then unload the products on the world market. Farmers would receive subtreasury notes--backed by the government--when they deposited potatoes, wheat, barley, or apples at the federal warehouse--and could pay off their loans. William Hope Harvey's Coin's Financial School (1892) made the case for expanding the amount of money in circulation. Professor Coin argued that if the federal government would purchase and coin all available silver, the nation's economy could be corrected, farmers could pay off the mortgages for steam tractors and combines, and prosperity would return.

 

As these ideas swept through the newspapers, out of the mouths of speakers, and through books, they found believers. In 1890 Oregon had 2,555 men employed in logging and log transportation, 1,962 working in sawmills, 2,756 engaged in fishing or the oyster harvest, 2,308 mining, and 17,316 working as agricultural laborers. Tens of thousands more Oregonians lived on family farms. Men rode the range to tend cattle, sheep, and horses, while women preserved food and cooked huge meals at roundup and shearing times. The farm population--owners and hired laborers--endured continuous work, dark nights, isolation, taxes on their lands, and uncertainty.

 

In 1889 many of the discontented met in Salem to form the Union Party. The meeting drew Prohibition advocates, members of the Knights of Labor, and the interest of Democrat Sylvester Pennoyer, seeking another term as governor. This was the atmosphere of social and political discontent that brought Oregonians to the People's Party. Hundreds turned out for rallies to meet General James B. Weaver, populist candidate for president. Abigail Scott Duniway, continuing her unrelenting campaign for women's suffrage, in 1892 introduced Mary Elizabeth Lease, the "Kansas Pythoness" and populist stump speaker, to an eager audience in Portland. Duniway's 1894 speech to an estimated 2,800 strikers inspired some to call her the "Patrick Henry of the Northwest" and led her brother, editor of The Oregonian, to refuse to print the text of her address.

 

Democrat Sylvester Pennoyer served two terms as Oregon governor during a period of social and political discontent.

Democrat Sylvester Pennoyer served two terms as Oregon governor during a period of social and political discontent.

While the Republicans and Democrats continued their hold on the majority of state offices, they found populists among their ranks in the legislature. Oregon Democrats got the reform message in the 1890s. Historian Dorothy O. Johansen quoted the saying "Scratch a Western Democrat and you find a Populist," an apt assessment of the Democrats' embrace of free silver, banking reform, income tax, and reform in government.

 

Oregon government needed change. Oregon Senator John Hipple Mitchell, a slippery man when it came to wives and influence peddling, reportedly said: "Ben Holladay's politics are my politics and what Ben Holladay wants I want." Holladay's hold on regional transportation systems and Mitchell's retainer as legal counsel for both the Oregon & California Railroad and the Northern Pacific left little doubt about the senator's loyalties. He may have been elected by the legislature, but he appeared to be in the pocket of special interests.

 

Frustrated Oregonians also turned to the pathetic performance of the builders of the state's military wagon roads. The grants locked up hundreds of thousands of acres in checkerboard sections on both margins of the traces and, by the 1890s, many of the holdings had passed to out-of-state owners. The grant for the Coos Bay Wagon Road--105,120 acres--passed quickly into the hands of speculators little interested in the road or its operation. For a time Californians Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis P. Huntington owned much of the grant. Other portions went to the Southern Oregon Improvement Company, a pool of investors in Boston and New Bedford, Massachusetts. Edward Martin of San Francisco formed the Eastern Oregon Land Company when he secured 450,000 acres of the land grant for The Dalles-Boise Military Wagon Road.

 

By not taking title to the grants, the owners avoided taxation yet no settler could homestead or purchase the land from the General Land Office. A few Oregonians perpetrated unblushing frauds in the scramble for properties under the Swamp Lands Act. Ostensibly the law encouraged reclamation and irrigation. It created, however, a situation where unscrupulous public officials conspired with speculators to gain ownership of tidelands, lush lake margins, and even dry ground. Plunderers also took advantage of the 1887 decision of the legislature to sell school lands, sections 16 and 36, in each township. Had the lands or revenues gone into a school fund, the endowment could have financed public education in Oregon in perpetuity.

In the 1890s neither the ideologues nor the political activists carried the day. Society, business, and political affairs continued much as usual. The times of discontent, however, set the stage for change. Ideas circulated that posed the prospect for deep-seated reform. All that was needed was some principled leadership, public indignation with the corruption, and the will to try something new.

 

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