restricted access 4. John Mitchell and Other Tales of Corruption, 1868-73
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65 Chapter 4 John Mitchell and Other Tales of Corruption, 1868-73 Oregon was six years old when the Civil War ended in 1865, its infant institutions still rough and ill-formed. Traditions were forming, yet change was the rule. It was during these formative years that a sinister force took hold in Oregon. For the next 40 years Oregon’s politicians and government were captive to political corruption. Unprincipled, greedy men lusted for political power—and all too often gained it. Oregon was riddled with graft. Common attitudes were “If you want to do business with me, it will cost you,” or “How much are you willing to pay for my vote?” Oregon’s political institutions were the tools by which a few advanced their narrow interests. Among the corrupt were governors, secretaries of state, U.S. senators and congressmen, city and county officials. Corruption knew no limits, as both Republicans and Democrats were caught in its web. Not all officeholders were corrupt. Many dedicated and honest men held office during this period. Yet among state legislators, many were as likely as not to take a bribe. Others were willing to sell their vote for a promise of a job or contract for themselves, a friend, business partner, or family member. For such men political power was a ticket to riches and influence. It was an age when politics was played for intensely selfish purposes. Bribes, usually in the form of a $20 or $100 bill, were the most common type of political corruption. Cash bribes were regularly offered to legislators on two occasions: when a vote on a key bill was pending (especially if there was a lot of money to be made), or when the legislature was voting on the office of U.S. senator. Indeed, Oregon’s most notorious episodes of political corruption occurred during the election of two U.S. senators. In virtually every senatorial vote between 1872 and 1906, thousands of dollars (on one occasion, $300,000) flooded the State Capitol as eager candidates and their rich backers vied for votes among legislators. In the late 1890s, Republican lawmakers demanded $4,000 for their senatorial vote; minority Democrats got $3,000.1 66 chapter 4 Ben Holladay, Wheeler-Dealer Benjamin Holladay, the “Stagecoach King” moved to Portland from California in August 1868. Within days, he had a new friend and ally, John H. Mitchell. Mitchell was Ben Holladay’s lawyer, advisor, mouthpiece, and henchman. For five years, the Holladay-Mitchell team rattled Oregon’s fragile political institutions to their foundations. Ben Holladay was a shrewd, bold, sometimes reckless capitalist. A self-made millionaire, he was known for his ruthless business ethics. He had lots of money that he spent liberally. Ben Holladay was the man who introduced Oregon to big-time political corruption. Many Portlanders wondered why such a successful businessman would forsake California’s many riches in favor of doing business in Oregon. Oregon, after all, was a crude and isolated backwater. The answer was simple: Ben Holladay intended to be on the ground floor of Oregon’s budding railroad age. His goal was to build Oregon’s first railroad line from Portland into northern California. Holladay relished challenges. And what could be more of a challenge than directing the building of a railroad across nearly 300 miles of raw Oregon frontier? The financing, engineering and grading, the laying of track, the construction of bridges and trestles, and the opening of new markets—these were the challenges that drew Ben Holladay to the Willamette Valley. For those bold enough to take big risks, the reward could result in a life of influence, fame, wealth, and comfort. It was the potential for huge profits, made quickly, that attracted Ben Holladay and others like him to Oregon in the 1860s and 1870s. Land Scams Oregon’s greatest resource was land, millions and millions of acres of it just waiting to be claimed. Across the land, roads and rail track could be built, on it stood vast coniferous forests, representing billions of board-feet of valuable, quality lumber, and beneath its surface lay rich mineral deposits. The men ready to compete for the title to Oregon’s public lands would capture the great wealth that the land represented. Men like Ben Holladay, Henry Villard, S .A. D. Puter, John Ainsworth, Simeon Reed, Henry Corbett, Joseph Gaston, and John Mitchell set out to take title to as much of Oregon as they could. This is how they...


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