Railing Against Injustice

Good morning, it’s Friday, May 11, 2018. On this date in 138 years ago, an angry group of American farmers protesting inequity and injustice gathered at the California railroad village of Hanford in the Central Valley.

You could say the men were part of “the Resistance” (and, interestingly, that they were protesting an obscene presence in their lives that would soon operate a commercial venture known as “Stormy”). But I don’t want to make light of this episode: By the time the May 11, 1880 confrontation was over, seven men were dead or mortally wounded and 13 children were fatherless.

The Hanford gunfight, known as the “Mussel Slough Tragedy,” altered American politics in ways that are still being felt.

Southern Pacific Railroad opened its train service from New Orleans to California on February 5, 1883. The railroad dubbed the service the “Sunset Route,” but passengers took to calling it “Stormy” for the summer thunderstorm that often occurred along the way.

Weather was the least of the issues when it came to Southern Pacific, however. With a monopoly not just on passenger trains but, more importantly, on all the freight moving by land in and out the state, SP had come to dominate California’s economic and political life in a way difficult to comprehend today.

The railroad’s tentacles reached into wheat farmers’ pockets in the Imperial Valley and politicians’ war chests in Sacramento. The title of Frank Norris’ influential 1901 historical novel explaining California’s turn-of-the century politics was called “The Octopus.” That influential book documents how Southern Pacific’s rise to power was made possible by its relentless push to acquire land and railroad easements in the 1880s. “The Octopus” includes a dramatized account of the bloody confrontation between settlers and railroad men that took place on May 11, 1880 at a homestead belonging to Henry D. Brewer, who lived outside Hanford.

Although Southern Pacific came out ahead in the Mussel Slough Tragedy — government allowed the railroad to continue to use its land grants to gouge homesteaders who’d settled the land — the events of that day galvanized muckraking journalists, reform-minded politicians, and voters.

Foremost among the reformers was Hiram Johnson, who won California’s governorship in 1910 as a liberal Republican crusading against Southern Pacific’s influence.

Two years later, Johnson helped launch the Progressive Party, and he was Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate in the three-way presidential race of 1912, in which a divided GOP handed the presidency to Woodrow Wilson. Johnson ran for governor again in 1914, winning in a landslide. Two years later he left Sacramento for Washington, D.C., where he served as a U.S. senator for decades.

Looking back today, Johnson’s first campaign proved a harbinger of California’s future. The state began its long inexorable evolution toward progressivism and innovation. Partly to show that he was a man who embraced science and technology — and partly because he was running against the railroads — Johnson often eschewed rail travel in 1910, preferring to campaign in a new-fangled mode of transport. It was, of course, the automobile.

That line was my original kicker in 2013, when I first wrote about these events. But historical paradoxes have a way of looping back on themselves. What’s that famous William Faulkner line in “Requiem for a Nun”? Oh, yes: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Jerry Brown, the California Democrat currently winding up his second stint of two-term governorships, knows that feeling. In California’s current political climate, Brown is no longer the flighty futurist once derided by columnist Mike Royko as “Gov. Moonbeam.” These days Brown is a relentlessly pragmatic liberal who likes to get things done.

One of the things Brown wants to make happen is a high-speed train service between San Francisco and Los Angeles. As it happens, a 119-mile section of that railway is slated to go through the San Joaquin Valley. In community meetings about the project, residents of Hanford and other Central Valley towns have often invoked a battle cry unfamiliar to California High-Speed Rail Authority officials: “Remember Mussel Slough.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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