Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Idaho & Oregon Land Improvement Co.

Here is an interesting letter from A. Caldwell, President of The Idaho & Oregon Land Improvement Company written to Howard Sebree, Montie B. Gwinn and Sherman M. Coffin. Other company officers listed on the letterhead are Robert E. Strahorn, Vice President & General Manager; A.W. Mellon, Treasurer; and F. Taylor, Secretary.

This letter comes to us compliments of Ben Collins over in Eagle, ID. Thanks Ben for sharing this interesting item. I have posted the copy provided by Ben followed by my transcribed version as the original is rather difficult to read. Don't hesitate to let me know if I got something wrong. Depending on your software, you should be able to click on the images to enlarge.

Leavenworth, Kas., 29th July 1890
Mess. Howard Sebree
Montie B. Gwinn
Sherman M. Coffin
Caldwell. Idaho.
When I wrote you on the 17th, instant, I had before me a statement of expenses accounting to between $500. and $600. that had been personally paid by me since the cancellation of the Whitehead entry, and being on accounts of the tracks now claimed by E. Verley; H.W. Dorman; Col. Hand; and F. Steunenberg. This sum of course is over and above the thousands of dollars previously expended by Whitehead and others on this land. I thought if all these prior expenses were waived in favor of the new company, that I should be reimbursed the recent personal sum of, say $500.- The amount however, is

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H.S - M. B.G. - S.M.C. (2)
not large enough to stand in the way of consummation of the deal, which you three gentlemen seem to think will result to the great advantage of all of us. I am willing therefore to submit the matter to you when you come here and abide by your decision. It will readily occur to you why I would hesitate to write more in detail about these outside lands, viz; the tracks claimed by Verley, Dorman, Hand and Steunenberg in advance of the fiscal closing up of the pending deal. We can go more into detail when you are here. Owing to a prior proposition that has been pending for some time for sale of the Caldwell Town Site, with other property of the Improvement Co. it is important that this deal should be closed without delay. Wire me upon receipt of this, if all is satisfactory and say when I may expect you.
Very Truly Yours,
A. Caldwell

The above letter sheds a little more light on one of the many land speculation deals that were occurring out West, this one involving the principals of The Idaho & Oregon Land Improvement Company and Frank Steunenberg, Colonel Hand, E. Verley and H.W. Dorman. One gets the sense of a bit of shenagigans behind the scenes—perhaps common during that period of limited oversight of land, timber and mining deals as the rush out West continued, the railroads came and towns could seemingly pop-up overnight. I guess in many ways, things still haven't changed a whole lot in that regard today. I am not sure where the land and the money ended up but at the time it was all legal even if such transactions favored those in high places and who were "in the know."

Below are two excerpts, the first from the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce website and the second a fairly lengthy one from Big Trouble but closely connected to the topic and individuals mentioned in this letter.

Excerpt From Caldwell History
In August of 1883 the original town site was platted parallel to the Oregon Short Line rail tracks (later to become part of Union Pacific). The property was owned by the Idaho and Oregon Land Improvement Company, which was interested in persuading settlers and businessmen to move here. The group ignored compass and section lines and established the town site in honor of the company’s president, C.A. Caldwell, ex-senator from Kansas. Others prominent in the company’s operation included Robert E. Strahorn, vice-president and Howard Sebree, Caldwell’s first mayor. By January 1884, there were more than 600 residents and 150 structures, 40 business operations, one school, a telephone exchange and two weekly newspapers (the Caldwell Tribune and Caldwell Record) in the community of Caldwell. Two months later there were several churches and social activities including an amateur theatrical group, a skating rink, and the Caldwell Silver Cornet Band. The first circus in 1884 drew from surrounding areas and had 7000 paid admissions. The date of ordinance establishing Caldwell as a city is January 15, 1890. The College of Idaho, a Presbyterian college, was founded in Caldwell in 1891.

From Big Trouble:
It was that choking, biting dust, the "white desolate glare" broken only by sagebrush and greasewood, that had dismayed Caldwell's founders, Bob and Adell Strahorn, making them feel at times as if it were "a place deserted by God himself, and not intended for man to meddle with." When Bob Strahorn was a newspaper correspondent covering Indian wars along the Powder River, he'd joined so lustily in the cavalry's battle cries that he permanently damaged his vocal cords. Bringing that same zeal to his new job as publicist for the Union Pacific Railroad, he clothed raw data -- as his wife put it -- "in an attractive garb that it might coquette with restless spirits in the East who were waiting for an enchantress to lure them to the great mysterious West." Over the next few years, Strahorn produced a gaggle of guidebooks championing Western settlement -- and generating passenger revenue and freight tonnage -- without disclosing that they emanated from the railroad. His Resources and Attractions of Idaho Territory -- published in 1881 by Idaho's legislature but secretly underwritten by the railroad -- bubbled with braggadocio: "the healthiest climate in America, if not in the world...the richest ores known in the history of mining...the peer of any mining region in the universe...luxuriant crops, emerald or golden, trees blossom- and perfume-laden, or bending to earth with their lavish fruitage."

He didn't hesitate to promise glittering rewards, as in his flat assertion that cattle raising in Idaho was "a sure and short road to fortune." Only rarely did he suffer twinges of conscience for misleading wide-eyed eastern settlers: "I could not but feel that, for a time at least, many of them would be grievously disappointed in what we could already visualize and enthusiastically paint as a potential land of plenty."

In 1883, the lanky Strahorn, with his aquiline nose and lofty airs, graduated from publicity to the lucrative role of town building along the railroad's sprawling rights-of-way. As general manager of the Idaho and Oregon Land Improvement Company -- an independent enterprise in which both railroad officials and local nabobs enjoyed juicy financial interests -- he colonized land along the Oregon Short Line, a Union Pacific subsidiary, so named because, by skirting San Francisco, it provided a shortcut from Omaha to Portland, linking the parent road directly to the rich resources of the burgeoning Northwest. In this capacity, Strahorn had a major voice in determining where the tracks would go. Infant communities throughout the West desperately sought access to the railroad, for it often spelled the difference between bleak isolation and bustling prosperity.

In 1883, Boise was waging a fierce campaign for a rail connection. All that spring, the territorial capital seethed with rumors about where the Short Line would ford the Boise River on its way west, a crossing that speculators were sure would mark the site of Idaho's future metropolis. One June morning, the Strahorns set forth by buckboard from Boise, ostensibly to visit a northern mining camp. But once out of sight, they abruptly swung west, and after some thirty miles Bob drove the first stake, intoning in mock frontier lingo, "Dar whar we stake de horse, dar whar we find de home."

When Boiseans discovered what had happened, they railed at Strahorn's betrayal. A mob hung him in effigy and vowed that, if ever they laid hands on him, they'd hang him in earnest. Strahorn had sufficient grounds for his decision: the stubborn conviction of the Union Pacific's chief locating engineer, a stolid Dutchman named Jacob Blickensderfer, who stoutly opposed the notion of dropping six hundred feet from grade just to embrace Boise in an awkward "ox-bow" bend. The Idaho Daily Statesman, voice of the capital city, attributed Strahorn's actions to sheer greed: "an ambitious young man [whose] syndicate is investing in desert lands for a town-site," it called him. The officers of Strahorn's company did stand to realize handsome -- and legitimate -- profits from the sale of town sites in Caldwell, Hailey, Mountain Home, and Payette, not to mention from the building of highways, bridges, telegraph lines, hotels, and irrigation works up and down the Short Line.

But since the officers were notified in advance of others about the exact route the road would take, they had ample opportunity to make illegitimate profits as well. One reason Boiseans so bitterly resented Strahorn was that he'd bilked them out of a bunch of money. While the new town site was still a closely held secret, he'd quietly bought the Haskell ranch north of the Boise River, then made sure that news of his purchase leaked out. Convinced they'd now smoked out the town site, Boiseans snapped up thousands of acres around the ranch, inhabited only by jackrabbits and golden-mantled ground squirrels. Some speculators were permitted to buy up much of the ranch itself -- at a nifty profit for Strahorn. Only then did he reveal that he'd acquired the town's real location -- miles away on the river's south bank.

In its dyspeptic campaign, the Statesman called Strahorn's new town Sagebrush City. Others derisively dubbed it Alkali Flats. But Adell Strahorn had already named it Caldwell after Alexander Caldwell, the former U.S. senator from Kansas. With Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh banker and industrialist, Caldwell had put up most of the capital for Strahorn's improvement company and, in return, the patriarchal figure with his flowing white beard had been named its president.

If "the senator" provided substantial resources, he did not lend the enterprise much luster. While others had fought at Manassas and Antietam, Caldwell had made a fortune during the Civil War transporting military supplies by ox-drawn wagons -- not unlike J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, who'd procured substitutes to serve in the army for them, or Andrew Carnegie, Philip D. Armour, and Jay Gould, who "preferred the emoluments of the market place to the miseries (or glories) of the battlefield." After the war, Caldwell was elected to the Senate. Rivals argued that he'd secured the post through bribery -- by no means unusual in an era when senators were elected by state legislatures, not renowned for their immunity to commercial influence. Another candidate in the same race kept a suite of rooms, known variously as the Soup House and the Bread Riot, where legislators were plied with "eatables," "refreshments," and other, more lubricious, inducements. Alexander Caldwell, backed by the Kansas Pacific Railway and other formidable interests in his hometown of Leavenworth, countered with thick bundles of cash: up to $15,000 per legislator's vote, a substantial sum in those days. When a senatorial committee found against him in 1872, Caldwell attributed his discomfiture to "a mean spirit of revenge" but promptly resigned.

Boise's partisans held that the disgraced senator was precisely the man to lend his name to the odious little tank town that had filched its railroad. When a construction crew finally brought the tracks through Caldwell in September 1883, the Statesman noted, a bit hyperbolically, that the place had "eleven saloons and one pump." And it was pleased to report that two guests at the reception offered there for railroad officials had their horses stolen outside the hall. "The entire population of the city started in pursuit of the thieves," the paper chortled, "but at last accounts had not caught up with them."

If Caldwell had been born a colonial dependency -- founded by an eastern con man, named for a Leavenworth grafter, bankrolled with Kansas and Pennsylvania money to serve the interests of the Union Pacific Railroad -- it gradually achieved a resonant sense of its own identity: bold to the point of pushy, fiercely competitive, out for the main chance. Settlers who found their way to Caldwell in the 1880s and 1890s, drawn by the grandiose promises of promoters like Strahorn, were animated by a faith that the West would somehow liberate them from the economic servitude that prevailed by then in much of industrial America.

Some explorers had warned against false expectations. Captain James L. Fisk, who led a government expedition to the Idaho Territory in 1863, admonished prospective emigrants: "Have a good reason for loosing from the old anchorage before going in search of a better. Do not start on such a journey with the idea that it is going to be simply a fine play-spell, and that when you get through you will tumble into some gulch and come forthwith laden with your fortune in gold. Success in any new field of civilization and labor can only be reached through hardship, privation, endurance, and great industry."

But later propagandists --often, like Strahorn, in the pay of railroads and land companies -- managed to persuade ambitious young Easterners that places like the Idaho Territory were free of the old class divisions, the encrusted privileges long associated with Europe and now with much of the New World. In boomtowns like Caldwell -- so the message went -- everybody started on the same footing, and because the agricultural, timber, and mining resources were prodigious, the prospects for enriching oneself were limitless. The bold of heart would leave the past behind; the future opened wide before them.

From the start, Caldwell shot for the stars. On December 9, 1883 -- when the town was just a clump of canvas tents and frame shacks along a dusty track, the only boardinghouse a converted railway car -- the first issue of the Caldwell Tribune boasted of "the great city that she will become, a fact that even the Boise City Board of Trade map cannot hide -- the center of commerce, the center of education, the pivot about which the great social fabric of Western Idaho will revolve." Such conviction was no more unshakable than many other booster prophecies across the land, represented by the 1890s promoter who wrote of Chicago, "the place was pregnant with certainty." But though such transformation struck some as an unlikely feat of prestidigitation, the newspaper began calling its tiny village the Magic City.

When a rival journal in Hailey, 120 miles to the east, pointed out derisively that the word Caldwell had appeared 187 times in one Tribune issue, the paper's editor, W.J. "Uncle Bill" Cuddy, shot back: "It will be found 187,000 times before we get through. That is what we are for and that is what we are doing." When the Boise Republican questioned the "Caldwell boom," the Tribune offered "to cut off a chunk and send it up to show you what metropolitan life and vigor is." Like other booster papers across the West, the weekly Tribune was a major instrument for town building, even if -- or precisely because -- it "sometimes represented things that had not yet gone through the formality of taking place." Western newspapers, like western railroads, often ran well ahead of settlement -- a process that, in many bleak locales, was still waiting to happen.

Boiseans worried that Caldwell might snatch the state capital away, as it had the railroad. Don't worry, the Tribune reassured them, "we prefer business to corruption." Business was surely Caldwell's m├ętier. Its merchants called themselves "rustlers," proud of their "vim, vigor and vitriol" and of the "close and sharp" competition that had made Caldwell "synonimous [sic] with the word enterprise."

The town would thrive on the sheer exuberance of late-nineteenth-century American capitalism. In their rampant boosterism, its promoters appealed to the naked self-interest of potential settlers. In that respect, it was no different from thousands of other towns across the West. "

The spirit of the times, which we called the spirit of progress," wrote the Kansas editor William Allen White, "was a greedy endeavor to coax more people into the West, to bring more money into the West. It was shot through with an unrighteous design for spoils, a great, ugly riproaring civilization spun out of the glittering fabric of credit. Everyone who owned a white shirt was getting his share of some new, shiny, tainted money in those days."

But somehow Caldwell seemed a bit more brazen, more unashamedly greedy than many western communities. "Caldwell is a straight business proposition," the Tribune calculated in 1893. "It is a cold-blooded, moneymaking consideration. You don't want to come here solely for your health and religion....Your health will improve in Caldwell with the swelling of your assets, and salvation comes easier with prosperity."

Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas

P.S. I am adding more links above as I run across items and perhaps another related blog post will come later. If someone is able to identify F. Taylor, the treasurer of the Land Company, or E. Verley, one of the investors, please let me know. Ben, if I can ever pry the letter and/or post card out of know where to find me.

Thanks for sharing. John

Building the Pacific Railway (325 pages!)

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