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A View From The Overlook: Robber Baron


Sometimes you need a good robber baron, such as Edward H. Harriman.

"Money won’t buy you happiness; on the other hand, poverty buys you nothing." -- Anonymous

"To get rich is glorious!”----Deng Xiaoping, Premier of Red China

“I been rich and I’ve been poor, and let me tell you, rich is better!”---Sophie Tucker

“I can hire half the working class to kill the other half---Jay Gould

The robber barons: There were around 25 or 30 of them, depending on who was doing the counting; these were the men (there were no women, unless you count Hetty Green) of almost unlimited wealth and power who dominated America at the end of the 19th century. Their names are familiar even today; Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, Duke, Harriman and so on.

In the last year of the 19th century, Edward Henry Harriman, one of the richest men in America, became bored.

Now, when rich folks become bored, things began to happen, sometimes unpleasant things.

For example, the year before, William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy newspaper publisher, became bored with the humdrum news flow, so he started the Spanish American War, the results of which are felt to this day. (Guantanamo anyone?)

Edward Henry Harriman was cut from different cloth. He was a slight, prematurely bald man with goggle-like eyeglasses and an introspective, yet decisive personality. He made his fortune in railroads and at one time or another owned some of the big ones: the Union Pacific, the Illinois Central, and of course, the legendary and much feared and hated Southern Pacific Railroad.

The “ESS PEE,” as it was called, had a significant role in California’s economy and a dominant one in its legislature; the “ESS PEE” board of directors thought that only fair, others thought otherwise. California writers and novelists such as Frank Norris, (The Octopus) Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce took delight in vilifying the “ESS PEE,” particularly after the unfortunate massacre of settlers at Mussel Slough by forces working in behalf of the railroad.

When bandit groups such as the Sontag & Evans gang took to robbing Southern Pacific trains, California populists rejoiced. (One gang member, Christopher Evans, even wrote a novel, Eurasia, suggesting that the robber barons, or Captains of Industry, depending on which side you were on, should be replaced with socialists in the running of the country.)

All that outrage bothered Edward Henry Harriman not a whit. All he wanted to do was run his railroads in a safe and profitable manner with no danger to his customers and no interference from the government.

Such was the case of one of Harriman’s Union Pacific railroad trains that was making its way through the wild and remote mountain country of eastern Arizona in the year 1896.

It was a rather special train in that it carried members of the U.S. Forestry Commission who were studying the forests of the public lands of the United States to determine how best to manage them.

Among the passengers were the naturalist and writer John Muir and the up-and-coming young forester, Gifford Pinchot, who was destined to become the Chief Forester of the United States.

The two men could not have been more different. Muir, the older of the two, looked like an off-duty Old Testament prophet with his flowing grey beard and rumpled suit. Pinchot, tall and rangy and outfitted with a magnificent drooping handlebar moustache, looked like a Southwestern sheriff.

They differed in background. John Muir, the son of a dirt-poor religious fanatic, was a college dropout who had headed west to California, drifted through the Sierra supporting himself with a variety of odd jobs while ceaselessly observing nature in all its moods, and eventually writing about it in such a readable, flowing style that he became the spokesperson for the emerging preservation movement.

Gifford Pinchot was pure Eastern Establishment aristocrat. The son of a wealthy lumber and land speculator, he prepped at Philips Exeter and then went on to Yale, where he was a popular insider (Skull & Bones). As the Pinchot family had some qualms about the amount of destruction the family had rained down upon the environment in their successful efforts to become rich, young Gifford was encouraged to do post-graduate work at The French National School of Forestry, as America did not have a school of forestry. Gifford Pinchot was so impressed by the French efforts that he had his father endow a chair of forestry at Yale. Just like that! The Pinchots were not quite rich enough (or piratical enough) to be Robber Barons, but they moved in similar circles.

Anyway, Muir and Pinchot differed philosophically.

Muir did not put humankind at the apex of creation. We were just another clump of cells and organs along for the ride through time and the universe and all of our co-passengers on the journey had equal rights. He believed that an organism, say a tree, had the right to exist of and for itself, not necessarily for the benefit of mankind.

Pinchot was the “practical” utilitarian. We mustn’t waste nature nor despoil it, but we must be realistic. “Forestry,” said Pinchot “is the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of Man.” (Apologists for Pinchot would later argue, correctly I’m sure, that Pinchot meant to include “spiritual values” in the “whatevers” to be “yielded.”)

The two men argued long into the night as the train crept up a steep grade in the Arizona darkness, Muir possibly lapsing into the Scotch vernacular as he did when angered.

Suddenly the train came to a complete halt. There was a curious popping sound and a breaking of glass.

Muir and most of the other passengers did not at first understand what was happening.

Gifford Pinchot, ever the utilitarian and man of action, understood perfectly.

The train was under attack by bandits, probably the Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Pinchot secured his Winchester from his bedroll in the rack and bravely stepped out into the darkness to fire in support of the train crew, who were exchanging shots with the bandits. At that moment, silhouetted against the lights of the passenger cars, Pinchot remembered an important and salient fact. The ammunition for his rifle was still in his suitcase in the baggage car. He was facing the Wild Bunch with an empty weapon.

Fortunately, the future Chief Forester of the United States, need not have worried. The ever meticulous and micro-managing Mr. Harriman had seen to it that there was a detachment of Indian Police on the train, and their firepower put the bandits to flight.

(Decades later, a film about The Wild Bunch jump-started the career of Robert Redford, who later became a renowned environmentalist; ironically more in the mold of John Muir than Gifford Pinchot.).

As for the Wild Bunch, the efficient and creative Mr. Harriman became so effective at thwarting their plans that, according to Harriman’s memoirs, Harvey Logan (Kid Curry) was dispatched back East with the purpose of dispatching Mr. Harriman. Fortunately for Harriman and, as we shall see, Yosemite National Park, Kid Curry was unable to locate Mr. Harriman.

North To Alaska!

As noted, by 1899, Edward Henry Harriman was bored and tired. His doctor decided he needed a rest. But how does a Robber Baron rest? The answer is: spectacularly.

Harriman, with his powers of organization, decided that what would be really fun and restful would be to charter a ship, fill it with interesting, nationally famous naturalists, and explore the coasts of Alaska and the Aleutian islands as far as Siberia. He would also have the opportunity to kill a Kodiak bear, which was something he always wanted to do.

As an industrialist, Harriman was good at delegating, so he had the eminent biologist C. Hart Merriam select the scientists for what was to be called The Harriman Alaska Expedition. Merriam selected Muir for the role of “Arctic expert.”

At first, Muir was hesitant to accept. Harriman’s reputation as a Robber Baron had preceded him, and Muir also disliked the idea of going along on a big game hunting expedition. Still, it was an all-expense paid trip back to Alaska (What would YOU do?)

Muir accepted and the expedition left Seattle on May 31, 1899, bound north.

C Hart Merriam chose well. There was very little friction among the various scientists, something rather unusual in a culture where pecking order disputes are not unknown, and Edward Henry Harriman and his family were delightful hosts.

John Muir could also be charming—and mischievous. When some of the scientists speculated on exactly how much their “Robber Baron” host was worth, Muir smiled mysteriously and said, “I don’t know but I have more money.”

When asked how this could possibly be, Muir’s punch line was, “Well, I have all the money I need, so I’ve stopped working. Mr. Harriman continues working, so I guess he doesn’t have as much as I do!” Harriman thought this a great joke and the two became life-long friends; Muir would write a hagiographic little book about Harriman and would deliver the eulogy at Harriman’s funeral in 1909.

The expedition was a great success: Volumes of scientific work were done, Harriman shot his bear and even discovered a new inlet and glacier (named in his honor), and Muir now had a rich and powerful ally.

Saving Yosemite

There are times you need a Robber Baron on your side. Yosemite National Park had been established in 1890, but Yosemite Valley, which Barbara Moritsch calls The Soul of Yosemite, was still a state park and only the California State Legislature could undo that. Then, as now, powerful “States Rights” interests wanted to keep Yosemite Valley out of the hands of the “loathsome” Federal government.

Fortunately, the California State Legislature was corrupt. Harriman knew this because he helped make it so; not all of them, but enough to drive a wedge. Harriman knew that he and his railroad, the Southern Pacific were hated and feared. He cleverly used that as the wedge. He ordered his puppet legislators to campaign vigorously and publicly AGAINST John Muir and the Sierra Club and FOR continued State ownership, knowing that public opinion would be rabidly against anything the Southern Pacific cabal proposed. Harriman’s hired hands were told to switch sides at the last moment and vote FOR the recession.

The trick worked. The recession measure passed by one vote and Yosemite Valley, “The Soul of Yosemite,” became part of Yosemite National Park.

Sometimes you need a robber baron.

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