Always a Cowboy
Judge Wilson McCarthy and the Rescue of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad
Publication Year: 2008
Cowboy, judge, federal official, then business executive, Wilson McCarthy mirrored change and growth in the twentieth-century West. Leading the Denver & Rio Grande back from the brink saved a vital link in the national transportation system. The D&RGW ran over and through the scenic Rockies, developing mineral resources, fighting corporate wars, and helping build communities. The Depression brought it to its knees. Accepting federal assignment to save the line, McCarthy turned it into a paragon of mid-century railroading, represented by the streamlined, Vista-Domed California Zephyr, although success hauling freight was of more economic importance. Prior to that, McCarthy’s life had taken him from driving livestock in Canada to trying to drive the national economy as a director of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the first line of federal attack on the Depression. Always a Cowboy positions McCarthy’s story in a rich historical panorama..
Will Bagley is the author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows
Published by: Utah State University Press
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Every historian hopes to learn something new when he or she undertakes a project. As a writer who has dealt mostly with nineteenth-century subjects, I knew I would have to learn a lot to write a credible biography of a twentieth-century figure. But a key subject of this biography—the West’s transformation from a colonial frontier based on resource extraction ...
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In the depths of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover appointed an obscure Utah attorney and Democratic legislator to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), the powerful institution the Republican administration launched in February 1932 to deal with the nation’s deepening financial crisis. As a respected western stockman, lawyer, banker, and businessman, ...
One: Happy, Optimistic, and Good Company: Charles McCarthy Goes West
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The American saga of Utah’s McCarthy family began when blight struck the fields of Ireland. Black rot destroyed the island’s potato crop in 1845. Over the next five years, famine killed a million Irish men, women, and children and drove almost another million to seek a home across the Atlantic Ocean. Among those who fl ed starvation aboard the ...
Two: A Prisoner for Conscience Sake: The Pen, the Railroad, and the Lord’s Vineyard
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The Rocky Mountains have never been an easy place to make a living, especially for farmers and ranchers dependent on the weather, but it has always been, as Wallace Stegner said, the native home of hope. Rising to the challenge of wrestling a living from unforgiving land in Utah’s difficult and fickle climate inspired some men and women to dream dreams a reasonable ...
Three: We Have Always Been Sweethearts: Home on the Canadian Range
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One of the unintended consequences of the federal campaign against polygamy was the extension of Mormon Country south into Mexico and north to Canada. Even though polygamy was illegal in both countries, hundreds of Mormon colonists fled to Chihuahua in 1885, and within ten years, more than three thousand Latter-day Saints had settled in ten colonies ...
Four: No Reversals: The Rapid Rise of Judge McCarthy
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Charles McCarthy’s sons came of age on the Canadian prairie, but both boys completed their high-school education in Utah. Young Charles, his sister Marjorie recalled, “wanted business,” and so went on to train at the high school associated with the Latter-day Saints University, now LDS Business College. Wilson followed him and graduated in 1902, but his first ...
Five: No Fairy Godmother: The Reconstruction Finance Corporation
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As America’s economic nightmare darkened, in early June 1932, the president of the United States called together the seven directors of the powerful new federal agency he and Congress had created to deal with the crisis. The leaders of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation met at the president’s private retreat, Camp Rapidan, high in the Blue Ridge ...
Six: The Tug of the West: A California Interlude
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Dennis McCarthy’s busy father greeted him in New York when the young man returned from serving in the LDS Church’s British Mission in August 1933. He joined Wilson in Washington for several days at the Shoreham Hotel. Minerva and the rest of the family had already decamped to their new home in Piedmont, California, while Wilson wrapped up his ...
Seven: Dangerous & Rapidly Getting Worse: How to Ruin a Railroad, or the Checkered History of the Denver & Rio Grande Western
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As Wilson McCarthy was wrapping up his work on the Denver & Salt Lake Railway in November 1935, Federal Judge J. Foster Symes made McCarthy an offer that was too good to refuse: the chance to save one of the West’s great railroads from ruination. His service with the D&SL had won him the respect of the most powerful men in Colorado, and they ...
Eight: Like a Drunken Gandy Dancer: Saving the Denver & Rio Grande Western
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During 1934, the Denver & Rio Grande Western faced one financial crisis after another—and there were no solutions in sight. Any talk of sales, mergers, or consolidations had ceased, proclaimed Arthur Curtiss James, the single largest stockholder of the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, the Southern Pacific, and the Western Pacific—and, some said, the ...
Nine: The Great Arsenal: The War to Save Democracy
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Historians have long debated when the Great Depression began and ended—and why. All but the most hidebound ideologues agree that the beginning of the war in Europe in September 1939 led to the revival of the American economy. Business was more than reborn: over the next six years, it boomed as the nation became what Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed ...
Ten: Rocky Mountain Empire: The Cowboy Judge
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Shortchanging half the region’s population, it asserted, “The story of this vast domain is the story of its men.”724 A photograph taken in the late 1940s of one such man shows Wilson McCarthy, still trim in his mid-sixties but looking somewhat weary, seated at his paper-strewn desk, his hands folded before him and a cuspidor gleaming on the windowsill behind him. Except for his obvious fitness, the judge appeared much like any other ...
Eleven: A Western Railroad Operated by Western Men: The Rio Grande Redeemed
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The Americans who led their nation through the Great Depression and World War II did not view their country’s prospects in 1945 through rose-colored glasses. Like many of them, Wilson McCarthy cast a wary eye on the future. Most economic forecasters expected the traditional economic downturn that had always accompanied peace: almost no one anticipated ...
Twelve: Divers Projects of Imperial Proportions: The Judge and History
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The name Wilson McCarthy appeared “frequently in connection with divers projects of imperial proportions,” the Columbia Law School News observed in 1951, and it was typical of the praise that his associates and acquaintances heaped upon the judge as he entered his seventh decade. He seemed more comfortable when the eulogies celebrated his railroad and its ...
Afterword: A Missed Opportunity: Judge McCarthy and an Alternate Vision of America’s Future
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In December 1968, the Rocky Mountain News interviewed Harry Swan at the restaurant at Denver’s Stapleton Airport, a dozen years after the death of the co-trustee with whom he had engineered the redemption of the D&RGW. Swan casually mentioned that if he and Wilson McCarthy had gotten their way, “some of the big jets outside would be wearing the Rio Grande ...
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As always, I am deeply indebted to a host of dedicated librarians and archivists. I deeply appreciate the excellent service I received at several great institutions, most notably the Colorado Railroad Museum’s Robert W. Richardson Railroad Library, the Western History and Genealogy section of the Denver Public Library, and the Colorado Historical Society’s Stephen ...
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Publication Year: 2008