We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Always a Cowboy

Judge Wilson McCarthy and the Rescue of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad

Will Bagley

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


pdf iconDownload PDF (33.2 KB)
pp. vii-viii


pdf iconDownload PDF (29.4 KB)
pp. ix

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (59.6 KB)
pp. x-xii

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 ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (52.1 KB)
pp. 1-3

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, ...

read more

One: Happy, Optimistic, and Good Company: Charles McCarthy Goes West

pdf iconDownload PDF (159.3 KB)
pp. 4-22

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 ...

read more

Two: A Prisoner for Conscience Sake: The Pen, the Railroad, and the Lord’s Vineyard

pdf iconDownload PDF (168.3 KB)
pp. 23-52

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 ...

read more

Three: We Have Always Been Sweethearts: Home on the Canadian Range

pdf iconDownload PDF (247.2 KB)
pp. 53-79

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 ...

read more

Four: No Reversals: The Rapid Rise of Judge McCarthy

pdf iconDownload PDF (196.8 KB)
pp. 80-107

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 ...

read more

Five: No Fairy Godmother: The Reconstruction Finance Corporation

pdf iconDownload PDF (245.0 KB)
pp. 108-147

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 ...

read more

Six: The Tug of the West: A California Interlude

pdf iconDownload PDF (204.9 KB)
pp. 148-169

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 ...

read more

Seven: Dangerous & Rapidly Getting Worse: How to Ruin a Railroad, or the Checkered History of the Denver & Rio Grande Western

pdf iconDownload PDF (243.0 KB)
pp. 170-190

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 ...

read more

Eight: Like a Drunken Gandy Dancer: Saving the Denver & Rio Grande Western

pdf iconDownload PDF (206.7 KB)
pp. 191-213

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 ...

read more

Nine: The Great Arsenal: The War to Save Democracy

pdf iconDownload PDF (134.1 KB)
pp. 213-231

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 ...

read more

Ten: Rocky Mountain Empire: The Cowboy Judge

pdf iconDownload PDF (191.5 KB)
pp. 232-253

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 ...

read more

Eleven: A Western Railroad Operated by Western Men: The Rio Grande Redeemed

pdf iconDownload PDF (304.5 KB)
pp. 254-276

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 ...

read more

Twelve: Divers Projects of Imperial Proportions: The Judge and History

pdf iconDownload PDF (102.9 KB)
pp. 277-284

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 ...

read more

Afterword: A Missed Opportunity: Judge McCarthy and an Alternate Vision of America’s Future

pdf iconDownload PDF (91.5 KB)
pp. 285-291

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 ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (42.4 KB)
pp. 292-293

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 ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (102.7 KB)
pp. 294-306


pdf iconDownload PDF (304.4 KB)
pp. 307-316

E-ISBN-13: 9780874217162
Print-ISBN-13: 9780874217155

Publication Year: 2008