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Turn of the Century California
Halycon Days of the Southern Pacific 

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California at the turn of the century was in dire need of political and social reform. Public policy was dictated primarily by the political machine of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the most powerful corporation in the state. The Southern Pacific then controlled 85% of California's railroad mileage. To complete its near transportation monopoly, it owned the bulk of the state's ferry services, local transit companies and wharf facilities. Competition was cruelly crushed. When a competing ferry line was opened on San Francisco Bay, the railroad blocked its wharves, rammed its boats and blew coal dust from their bay side bunkers onto its passengers. 1

The Southern Pacific used its political and economic clout to avoid effective regulation and maintain its monopoly. The California Railroad Commission, elected via Southern Pacific dominated political machines, was referred to as the “Southern Pacific Literary Club.” A 1895 study on rate regulation declared “Not a single majority report has ever been issued from the railroad commission of a nature unsatisfactory to the company the commission was established to control.” 2 Even when the commission of three did wish to perform its duties, it was so under-funded by the Southern Pacific dominated legislature that it remained virtually impotent. 3 Judges were equally in the pocket of the Southern Pacific, and courts repeatedly ruled in favor of the railroad's interests, consistently frustrating attempts to seek legal redress against the corporation. More often than not the railroad also owned the governor. Henry T. Gage (1895-1903), George Pardee (1903-1907) and George Gillette (1907-1911) all owed their position to the railroad's influence. Of the three, only Pardee can be considered an honest earnest administrator, but the railroad had selected him only in order to defeat the popular reformer candidate Democrat Thomas Flint. 4 Thus the railroad monopolized the branches of government in the same ruthless fashion it did track mileage.

The Southern Pacific's political machine, run by the company's blatantly named Political Bureau, was firmly in control of both political parties in the state. At political conventions, agents of the railroad freely circulated the convention floor and dominated smoke filled rooms, arranging the nomination of pro-railroad candidates. Railroad lobbyists were allowed on the floor of the legislature, where they were able to directly consult their legislative puppets, prompting them towards a legislative program suitable to the railroad's interests. Not only was the democratic process subverted, but basic liberties were endangered when the legislature banned in 1899 certain forms of political drawings, attempting to silence the political cartoonists whose doodlings constituted vicious assaults aimed at a popular audience. 5

The Southern Pacific's near transportation monopoly profoundly affected businessmen and farmers who relied on the railroad to transport their goods to to eastern markets or Pacific ports. The Southern Pacific exploited this dependency to the utmost. Firms that wished to transport freight had to submit their books to the inspection of Southern Pacific accountants so that shipping prices could be increased if the firm's profits began to rise.6 When the Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909 went into effect, which increased the profits of California farmers by an average of 50 cents per ton of produce, the Southern Pacific raised its rates accordingly, pocketing over half the protectionist benefits.7

Yet the state's problems were not limited to the Southern Pacific's machinations. Municipal governments were also shockingly corrupt, and dominated by local utilities that exploited their monopoly on basic services such as water, power, and transportation. Many cities were in the iron grip of local bosses such as the notorious Abe Ruef of San Francisco. A city boss was often an affable and charismatic man, with connections in both politics and business, allowing him to serve as a corrupt mediator between the two. Corporate bribes and favors flowed through him to lawmakers, whom he prompted to pass legislative conducive to corporate interests.

City governments also entered into corrupt bargains with the vice industry, looking the other way in return for kickbacks. Half the profits of San Francisco's 133 woman "Municipal Brothel," went into the pockets of city hall politicians who went so far as to provide a conveniently situated public clinic across the street to maintain the health of the revenue generators.8

Against the background of a corrupt and indifferent local government lay a brewing conflict between labor and capital that threatened to explode into violence. California was rapidly industrializing at the turn of the century. Newly discovered oil wells provided the requisite power source, and between 1899 and 1909 California's output of industrial products increased 100%.9 In San Francisco, labor unions had organized almost as quickly as the city had industrialized. Los Angeles was rapidly industrializing, trying to catch up with the City by the Bay, and thus on the brink of its first major labor conflicts. Both cities had a large socialist voting block, along with a capitalist elite that lived in chronic fear of a socialist triumph in the polls or worse yet a violent communist revolution like the one that erupted in Petrograd in 1917.

Thus the reformers who from 1900 to 1920 sought to solve California's problems shouldered a heavy burden. They had to free the state from the stranglehold of the Southern Pacific Railroad, clean up the wretched municipal administrations, and mediate the tensions between capital and labor. Yet in California they were not alone. Across the nation, like minded individuals were confronting the multitude of problems their communities faced. Dubbing themselves “progressives,” they constituted a nationwide trend of earnest reform.


Go To: Progressivism in America



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