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Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America

Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America

by J. Anthony Lukas

Hailed as "toweringly important" (Baltimore Sun), "a work of scrupulous and significant reportage" (E. L. Doctorow), and "an unforgettable historical drama" (Chicago Sun-Times), Big Trouble brings to life the astonishing case that ultimately engaged President Theodore Roosevelt, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the politics and


Hailed as "toweringly important" (Baltimore Sun), "a work of scrupulous and significant reportage" (E. L. Doctorow), and "an unforgettable historical drama" (Chicago Sun-Times), Big Trouble brings to life the astonishing case that ultimately engaged President Theodore Roosevelt, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the politics and passions of an entire nation at century's turn.

After Idaho's former governor is blown up by a bomb at his garden gate at Christmastime 1905, America's most celebrated detective, Pinkerton James McParland, takes over the investigation. His daringly executed plan to kidnap the radical union leader "Big Bill" Haywood from Colorado to stand trial in Idaho sets the stage for a memorable courtroom confrontation between the flamboyant prosecutor, progressive senator William Borah, and the young defender of the dispossessed, Clarence Darrow.

Big Trouble captures the tumultuous first decade of the twentieth century, when capital and labor, particularly in the raw, acquisitive West, were pitted against each other in something close to class war.

Lukas paints a vivid portrait of a time and place in which actress Ethel Barrymore, baseball phenom Walter Johnson, and editor William Allen White jostled with railroad magnate E. H. Harriman, socialist Eugene V. Debs, gunslinger Charlie Siringo, and Operative 21, the intrepid Pinkerton agent who infiltrated Darrow's defense team. This is a grand narrative of the United States as it charged, full of hope and trepidation, into the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Lukas's impressive but flawed excursion into early-20th-century Western America is an even more ambitious project than his 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, Common Ground, which chronicled the Boston busing wars. His work on the earlier book, he reports here, led him from the American dilemma of race to "the twin issue of class." Thus he sought a story that would illuminate a time when American class tensions were large and in the open. This book is an exhaustive retelling of the 1905 murder (in the Idaho town of Caldwell) of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg (an enemy of labor), the trial of the union men accused of the crime, the context of the Western labor conflict and the passions the case provoked nationally. Melding prodigious research with energetic writing, Lukas delves deeply into a case that deserves notoriety as it involved the quasi-official kidnapping from Colorado of defendants like union leader Big Bill Haywood, coverage by an enormous corps of reporters and the courtroom presence of defense lawyer Clarence Darrowwho gained a surprising acquittal for the accused. Perhaps handicapped by inevitable distance from his characters (unlike in Common Ground), Lukas animates his tale with regular digressions, the history of private detectives, the background of an Army general Steunenberg called in to quell labor unrest, socialist factions in New York, a theatrical road company in Idaho and the emerging sport of baseball. While interesting, the digressions tend to obscure the central narrative. Lukas resurrects a fascinating case too long lost to history and even offers informed speculation that the defendants were guilty. However, the book doesn't take the opportunity to link the class questions of this era to subsequent clashes, and the profusion of detail may deter readers expecting the emotional punch of Common Ground. 100,000 first printing. (Sept.) FYI: Lukas committed suicide in June.
Library Journal
A multiple award winner, both for his work in the New York Times and his book, Common Ground (LJ 8/85), Lukas examines the turn-of-the-century murder of Idaho's former governora case that drew in everyone from President Roosevelt to Supreme Court Justice Holmes to the young Clarence Darrow.
Beginning with a meticulous account of a 1905 murder in Idaho and the subsequent framing of radical labor leaders for it, the author of Pulitzer winner follows the many leads from the scene to explore such aspects of the period as the cult of the private detective, the rise of the reporter, the heyday of the theatrical road company, the development of modern psychology, the growth of the conservation movement, the vogue of societies such as the Odd Fellows and Elks, the allure of grand hotels and Pullman cars, and the competitive fervor of sports. He traces at least one strong motive through several turns to the taking of San Juan Hill by the African- American 24th Infantry (not Teddy Roosevelt). Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kevin Starr
Vast, detailed, colorful, at once analytical and driven by a story line in the best manner of journalism....Big Trouble succeeds as literature as well as history. -- The Wall Street Journal
James Green
We are traveling with a guide possessed of awesome descriptive skills....Lukas covers ground...so impressively, in a way that captures the significance of this event and the conflicts that led to it. -- The Boston Globe Books
Gary Wills
This book is to "true crime" stories what War and Peace is to most war novels. It not only gives us the crime of the era, but the era as a crime. -- The New York Review of Books
Sanford D. Horwitt
Brilliant....Big Trouble reminds us now that there was a time in this century...whenordinary Americans were acutely aware of the links between social inequality and simple justice or the lack thereof. -- San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Richard Bernstein
A stunning, monumental achievement by a journalist and a writer of rare talent and vision. --- The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
From the recently, tragically deceased author of Common Ground (1985), a brilliant but flawed portrait of class warfare in early- 20th-century America.

Two-time Pulitzer awardee Lukas's ostensible subject is the 1905 assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg and the subsequent trial of three officials of the Western Federation of Miners, accused of ordering Steunenberg's death in retaliation for his role in the military suppression of a violent 1899 strike in Idaho's Coeur d'Alenes mining district. This is merely a jumping off point, however, for a ramble through the thickets of America's industrial, political, social, and cultural structures at the turn of the century. When Pinkerton operative James McParland (one of the book's many titanic personalities) emerges as a key player in the prosecution's efforts to convict William Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone, Lukas pauses to recap the history of private detective agencies—in England as well as America. When Clarence Darrow enters as a defense attorney, we get 28 pages of biography before rejoining his clients in Idaho. The story of the army regiment that put down the Coeur d'Alenes unrest; the character and career of each major reporter covering the trial; the fractures within the Socialist Party—Lukas crams all this and much more into a massive, unwieldy text. Many of the digressions are fascinating, all of them showcase the author's superb analytic gifts and powerful prose, but Lukas fails to distinguish the relevant from the merely intriguing. The background material unquestionably gives depth to the book's grim depiction of a nation enmeshed in virtual civil war, with capital and labor equally willing to employ unsavory tactics and the government almost always on the side of the big boys. Without the aid of a coherent story line, however, the narrative ultimately suffocates in excessive detail.

Provocative, maddening, deeply disturbing—a fitting epitaph for a man who in everything he wrote asked Americans to look at their nation's unvarnished reality.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
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6.46(w) x 9.64(h) x 1.97(d)

Read an Excerpt


It began to snow just before dawn, chalky flakes tumbling through the hush of the sleeping town, quilting the pastures, tracing fence rails and porch posts along the dusky lanes. In the livery stables that lined Indian Creek, dray horses and fancy pacers, shifting in their stalls, nickered into the pale light. A chill north wind muttered down Kimball Avenue, rattling the windows of feed stores and dry goods emporia, still festooned for the holidays with boughs of holly, chains of popcorn and cranberries. Off to the east, behind the whitening knob of Squaw Butte, rose the wail of the Union Pacific's morning train from Boise, due into the Caldwell depot at 6:35 with its load of drowsy ranch hands and bowler-hatted drummers.

Sounding up the slope of Dearborn Street into Caldwell's jaunty new subdivision of Washington Heights, the whistle brought an unwelcome summons to the former governor of Idaho, Frank Steunenberg, as he lay abed that final Saturday of 1905. The governor -- as he was still known, five years out of office -- had spent a bad night, thrashing for hours in sleepless foreboding. Now while the snow piled up beneath his cottonwoods, he burrowed deeper under the bedclothes.

One of his favorite boyhood songs had evoked just such a moment: "Oh, it's nice to get up in the morning, when the sun begins to shine / At four, or five, or six o'clock in the good old summertime / But when the snow is a-snowing and it's murky overhead / Oh, it's nice to get up in the morning, but it's nicer to lie in bed!" The Steunenbergs, though, were sturdy Hollanders imbued with a Protestant work ethic, and it offended the governor's temperament to idleaway even a weekend morning. So he hauled himself out of bed and put on his favorite six-dollar shirt with its flowered design. When it had shrunk so much he couldn't fasten the collar, his sister Jo, in her motherly fashion, had cut a chunk out of the tail to expand the chest. She was still looking for matching material to repair the back, but the governor liked the cheerful old shirt so well he donned it that morning anyway, short tail and all. Then he went down to the kitchen and built a coal fire in the great iron stove.

When his wife, Belle, joined him, she remarked that he seemed ill at ease.

"The good and evil spirits were calling me all night long," said the governor, who sat for a time with his face buried in his hands.

"Please do not resist the good spirits, Papa," his wife admonished. A devout Seventh-Day Adventist, Belle persuaded her husband, who generally eschewed such rituals, to kneel on the kitchen floor and join her in reading several passages from Scripture. Then they sang Annie Hawks's fervent hymn:

I need thee, O, I need thee!

Every hour I need Thee;

O, bless me now, My Saviour!

I come to Thee.

When their devotionals were done, Frank set out across the barnyard -- joined by his white English bulldog, Jumbo -- to milk his cows and feed his chickens, goats, and hogs.

The family's eccentric gray-and-white edifice, a hybrid of Queen Anne and American Colonial styles, bristled with gables, porches, columns, and chimneys. It was barely seven-eighths of a mile from Caldwell's center, but the governor, with one young hand to help him, maintained a working farm on the two and a half acres, replete with barn, windmill, well, pasture, livestock pens, and apple and pear trees mixed among the sheltering cottonwoods.

After feeding his stock, he turned toward the house for breakfast with Belle and the children -- Julian, nineteen, on Christmas vacation from the Adventists' Walla Walla College in Washington State; Frances, thirteen; Frank Junior, five; and eight-month-old Edna, an orphan the Steunenbergs had adopted that year -- as well as Will Keppel, Belle's brother, who was staying with them for a time while working at the family bank. Their hired girl, Rose Flora, served up the austere breakfast prescribed by Adventists: wheat cereal, stewed fruit, perhaps an unbuttered slice of oatmeal bread (the sect believed that butter -- like eggs, bacon, other meats, coffee, and tea -- stimulated the "animal passions").

Had the governor allowed his melancholy to infect the breakfast table that morning, it would have been out of character. With his children -- on whom he doted -- he generally affected a puckish humor, spiced with sly doggerel, such as the verse he'd composed a year earlier for his daughter: "Frances had a little watch / She swallowed it one day / Her mother gave her castor oil / To help her pass the time away."

After breakfast came a phone call from his younger brother Albert -- universally known as A.K. -- the most entrepreneurial of the six Steunenberg brothers and cashier of the Caldwell Banking and Trust Company, of which Frank was president. An important matter awaited the governor's attention, A.K. said: Edward J. Dockery, a Boise lawyer, a former Democratic state chairman, and now a business associate of the Steunenbergs, would be arriving in Caldwell later that day and expected to meet them at the bank. No, Frank said, he wasn't in the right frame of mind for such a meeting. He asked A.K. to tell Dockery he'd see him in Boise next week.

In days to come, the governor's disinclination to do business that day was much remarked. Some said it was the weather, which by late morning had turned nasty, four inches of snow driven by blustery winds drifting along the roadways, temperatures plummeting toward zero. But Frank Steunenberg was still young (forty-four years old), husky (six foot two, 235 pounds), and healthy (an avid hiker and camper who scorned the big eastern cities, with their creature comforts, their smoke, noise, and dirt) -- in short, not a man likely to be intimidated by a little Idaho snowstorm.

Others said his reclusiveness that day was merely a bow toward Belle's Sabbath, which lasted from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Although Frank was by no means an Adventist, some believed that he was gradually accommodating himself to his wife's recent conversion. Others who knew him well insisted he was profoundly skeptical of Belle's piety and would never have canceled a meeting on religious grounds. He might well have been weary. For only the day before he'd returned from a strenuous trip -- by train, buggy, and horseback -- to his sheep ranch near Bliss, a hundred miles to the southeast. With his business associate, James H. "Harry" Lowell, he'd also inspected an irrigation project along the Wood River. A. K. Steunenberg -- his brother's confidant -- believed there was a quite different explanation for Frank's behavior that day. Later he told reporters the governor must have received a warning late in the week, which would account for his "unusual" manner. On Friday afternoon at the bank, he'd walked the floor with a "meditative and troubled expression" on his face.

Whatever the reason, Frank clearly didn't wish to engage with the world that snowy Saturday. Toward noon, a young man called at the house, introducing himself as Theodore Bird of Boise, representing the New York Life Insurance Company. He'd come down from the state capital, he said, to renew the governor's $4,500 life insurance policy, which expired at year's end, barely thirty-six hours away. With some reluctance -- and only because the deadline was so close -- Frank agreed to meet Bird at the bank in late afternoon.

Most of the day, as wind-driven snow hissed at the windowpanes, the governor read and wrote in his study. At four o'clock he put on his overcoat, a slouch hat and galoshes, but no necktie: he was known throughout the state for his stubborn refusal to throttle himself with those slippery eastern doohickeys. Some said the habit began in the governor's youth when he was too indigent to afford a tie. In any case, for the rest of his life he'd button the shirt around his neck, leaving the uncovered brass collar button to glint like a gold coin at his throat.

People loved to speculate on this eccentricity. "His friends have exhausted all their persuasive powers on him," said the Populist James Sovereign. "Newspapers have raked him fore and aft with editorial batteries, theatrical companies have held him up to laughter and ridicule, he has become the basis of standing jokes in bar-room gossip and sewing circles, orators have plead [sic] with him, doctors have prescribed for him and politicians have lied for him, but all of no avail." Indeed, a fashionable Washington, D.C., hotel had once refused to serve him because he wore no tie, an exclusion that he bore with "magnanimous mien." A bemused Wall Streeter remembered him, on one of his excursions East, as "a rugged giant who wore a bearskin coat flapping over a collarless shirt."

Some Idahoans thought he carried sartorial informality a bit too far. On the day he was nominated for governor, he was said to have appeared at the Democratic convention lacking not only a necktie but a collar, with trousers so short they showed off his "cheap socks" and a sack coat so skimpy "as not to exclude from view the seat of his pants."

As usual, the governor didn't spend much time that morning stewing about his appearance. Bundled a bit awkwardly against the storm, he set off down Cleveland Boulevard toward the business district of his thriving little country town. Each time he strode that spacious avenue, he wondered at the transformation wrought on this wasteland in scarcely two decades. When first he'd set foot there in 1887, fresh from the black loam of his native Iowa, he'd been dismayed by the barren reach of alkali desert. Writing to his father, he called it "the worst land that can be found....It is full of potash and the sun draws it out in a white crust on top. It is 'death' on shoe leather and where it drys and mixes with the dust and a 'dust wind' starts up, the best thing you can do is to close your eyes, stand still and take it."

It was that choking, biting dust, the "white desolate glare" broken only by sagebrush and greasewood, that had dismayed Caldwell's founders, Bob and Adell Strahorn, making them feel at times as if it were "a place deserted by God himself, and not intended for man to meddle with." When Bob Strahorn was a newspaper correspondent covering Indian wars along the Powder River, he'd joined so lustily in the cavalry's battle cries that he permanently damaged his vocal cords. Bringing that same zeal to his new job as publicist for the Union Pacific Railroad, he clothed raw data -- as his wife put it -- "in an attractive garb that it might coquette with restless spirits in the East who were waiting for an enchantress to lure them to the great mysterious West." Over the next few years, Strahorn produced a gaggle of guidebooks championing Western settlement -- and generating passenger revenue and freight tonnage -- without disclosing that they emanated from the railroad. His Resources and Attractions of Idaho Territory -- published in 1881 by Idaho's legislature but secretly underwritten by the railroad -- bubbled with braggadocio: "the healthiest climate in America, if not in the world...the richest ores known in the history of mining...the peer of any mining region in the universe...luxuriant crops, emerald or golden, trees blossom- and perfume-laden, or bending to earth with their lavish fruitage."

He didn't hesitate to promise glittering rewards, as in his flat assertion that cattle raising in Idaho was "a sure and short road to fortune." Only rarely did he suffer twinges of conscience for misleading wide-eyed eastern settlers: "I could not but feel that, for a time at least, many of them would be grievously disappointed in what we could already visualize and enthusiastically paint as a potential land of plenty."

In 1883, the lanky Strahorn, with his aquiline nose and lofty airs, graduated from publicity to the lucrative role of town building along the railroad's sprawling rights-of-way. As general manager of the Idaho and Oregon Land Improvement Company -- an independent enterprise in which both railroad officials and local nabobs enjoyed juicy financial interests -- he colonized land along the Oregon Short Line, a Union Pacific subsidiary, so named because, by skirting San Francisco, it provided a shortcut from Omaha to Portland, linking the parent road directly to the rich resources of the burgeoning Northwest. In this capacity, Strahorn had a major voice in determining where the tracks would go. Infant communities throughout the West desperately sought access to the railroad, for it often spelled the difference between bleak isolation and bustling prosperity.

In 1883, Boise was waging a fierce campaign for a rail connection. All that spring, the territorial capital seethed with rumors about where the Short Line would ford the Boise River on its way west, a crossing that speculators were sure would mark the site of Idaho's future metropolis. One June morning, the Strahorns set forth by buckboard from Boise, ostensibly to visit a northern mining camp. But once out of sight, they abruptly swung west, and after some thirty miles Bob drove the first stake, intoning in mock frontier lingo, "Dar whar we stake de horse, dar whar we find de home."

When Boiseans discovered what had happened, they railed at Strahorn's betrayal. A mob hung him in effigy and vowed that, if ever they laid hands on him, they'd hang him in earnest. Strahorn had sufficient grounds for his decision: the stubborn conviction of the Union Pacific's chief locating engineer, a stolid Dutchman named Jacob Blickensderfer, who stoutly opposed the notion of dropping six hundred feet from grade just to embrace Boise in an awkward "ox-bow" bend. The Idaho Daily Statesman, voice of the capital city, attributed Strahorn's actions to sheer greed: "an ambitious young man [whose] syndicate is investing in desert lands for a town-site," it called him. The officers of Strahorn's company did stand to realize handsome -- and legitimate -- profits from the sale of town sites in Caldwell, Hailey, Mountain Home, and Payette, not to mention from the building of highways, bridges, telegraph lines, hotels, and irrigation works up and down the Short Line.

But since the officers were notified in advance of others about the exact route the road would take, they had ample opportunity to make illegitimate profits as well. One reason Boiseans so bitterly resented Strahorn was that he'd bilked them out of a bunch of money. While the new town site was still a closely held secret, he'd quietly bought the Haskell ranch north of the Boise River, then made sure that news of his purchase leaked out. Convinced they'd now smoked out the town site, Boiseans snapped up thousands of acres around the ranch, inhabited only by jackrabbits and golden-mantled ground squirrels. Some speculators were permitted to buy up much of the ranch itself -- at a nifty profit for Strahorn. Only then did he reveal that he'd acquired the town's real location -- miles away on the river's south bank.

In its dyspeptic campaign, the Statesman called Strahorn's new town Sagebrush City. Others derisively dubbed it Alkali Flats. But Adell Strahorn had already named it Caldwell after Alexander Caldwell, the former U.S. senator from Kansas. With Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh banker and industrialist, Caldwell had put up most of the capital for Strahorn's improvement company and, in return, the patriarchal figure with his flowing white beard had been named its president.

If "the senator" provided substantial resources, he did not lend the enterprise much luster. While others had fought at Manassas and Antietam, Caldwell had made a fortune during the Civil War transporting military supplies by ox-drawn wagons -- not unlike J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, who'd procured substitutes to serve in the army for them, or Andrew Carnegie, Philip D. Armour, and Jay Gould, who "preferred the emoluments of the market place to the miseries (or glories) of the battlefield." After the war, Caldwell was elected to the Senate. Rivals argued that he'd secured the post through bribery -- by no means unusual in an era when senators were elected by state legislatures, not renowned for their immunity to commercial influence. Another candidate in the same race kept a suite of rooms, known variously as the Soup House and the Bread Riot, where legislators were plied with "eatables," "refreshments," and other, more lubricious, inducements. Alexander Caldwell, backed by the Kansas Pacific Railway and other formidable interests in his hometown of Leavenworth, countered with thick bundles of cash: up to $15,000 per legislator's vote, a substantial sum in those days. When a senatorial committee found against him in 1872, Caldwell attributed his discomfiture to "a mean spirit of revenge" but promptly resigned.

Boise's partisans held that the disgraced senator was precisely the man to lend his name to the odious little tank town that had filched its railroad. When a construction crew finally brought the tracks through Caldwell in September 1883, the Statesman noted, a bit hyperbolically, that the place had "eleven saloons and one pump." And it was pleased to report that two guests at the reception offered there for railroad officials had their horses stolen outside the hall. "The entire population of the city started in pursuit of the thieves," the paper chortled, "but at last accounts had not caught up with them."

If Caldwell had been born a colonial dependency -- founded by an eastern con man, named for a Leavenworth grafter, bankrolled with Kansas and Pennsylvania money to serve the interests of the Union Pacific Railroad -- it gradually achieved a resonant sense of its own identity: bold to the point of pushy, fiercely competitive, out for the main chance. Settlers who found their way to Caldwell in the 1880s and 1890s, drawn by the grandiose promises of promoters like Strahorn, were animated by a faith that the West would somehow liberate them from the economic servitude that prevailed by then in much of industrial America.

Some explorers had warned against false expectations. Captain James L. Fisk, who led a government expedition to the Idaho Territory in 1863, admonished prospective emigrants: "Have a good reason for loosing from the old anchorage before going in search of a better. Do not start on such a journey with the idea that it is going to be simply a fine play-spell, and that when you get through you will tumble into some gulch and come forthwith laden with your fortune in gold. Success in any new field of civilization and labor can only be reached through hardship, privation, endurance, and great industry."

But later propagandists -- often, like Strahorn, in the pay of railroads and land companies -- managed to persuade ambitious young Easterners that places like the Idaho Territory were free of the old class divisions, the encrusted privileges long associated with Europe and now with much of the New World. In boomtowns like Caldwell -- so the message went -- everybody started on the same footing, and because the agricultural, timber, and mining resources were prodigious, the prospects for enriching oneself were limitless. The bold of heart would leave the past behind; the future opened wide before them.

From the start, Caldwell shot for the stars. On December 9, 1883 -- when the town was just a clump of canvas tents and frame shacks along a dusty track, the only boardinghouse a converted railway car -- the first issue of the Caldwell Tribune boasted of "the great city that she will become, a fact that even the Boise City Board of Trade map cannot hide -- the center of commerce, the center of education, the pivot about which the great social fabric of Western Idaho will revolve." Such conviction was no more unshakable than many other booster prophecies across the land, represented by the 1890s promoter who wrote of Chicago, "the place was pregnant with certainty." But though such transformation struck some as an unlikely feat of prestidigitation, the newspaper began calling its tiny village the Magic City.

When a rival journal in Hailey, 120 miles to the east, pointed out derisively that the word Caldwell had appeared 187 times in one Tribune issue, the paper's editor, W.J. "Uncle Bill" Cuddy, shot back: "It will be found 187,000 times before we get through. That is what we are for and that is what we are doing." When the Boise Republican questioned the "Caldwell boom," the Tribune offered "to cut off a chunk and send it up to show you what metropolitan life and vigor is." Like other booster papers across the West, the weekly Tribune was a major instrument for town building, even if -- or precisely because -- it "sometimes represented things that had not yet gone through the formality of taking place." Western newspapers, like western railroads, often ran well ahead of settlement -- a process that, in many bleak locales, was still waiting to happen.

Boiseans worried that Caldwell might snatch the state capital away, as it had the railroad. Don't worry, the Tribune reassured them, "we prefer business to corruption." Business was surely Caldwell's métier. Its merchants called themselves "rustlers," proud of their "vim, vigor and vitriol" and of the "close and sharp" competition that had made Caldwell "synonimous [sic] with the word enterprise."

The town would thrive on the sheer exuberance of late-nineteenth-century American capitalism. In their rampant boosterism, its promoters appealed to the naked self-interest of potential settlers. In that respect, it was no different from thousands of other towns across the West. "The spirit of the times, which we called the spirit of progress," wrote the Kansas editor William Allen White, "was a greedy endeavor to coax more people into the West, to bring more money into the West. It was shot through with an unrighteous design for spoils, a great, ugly riproaring civilization spun out of the glittering fabric of credit. Everyone who owned a white shirt was getting his share of some new, shiny, tainted money in those days."

But somehow Caldwell seemed a bit more brazen, more unashamedly greedy than many western communities. "Caldwell is a straight business proposition," the Tribune calculated in 1893. "It is a cold-blooded, moneymaking consideration. You don't want to come here solely for your health and religion....Your health will improve in Caldwell with the swelling of your assets, and salvation comes easier with prosperity."

Indeed Frank Steunenberg and his five brothers, all of whom migrated there shortly after the town's founding, had prospered mightily in Caldwell these past years -- in sheep ranching, banking, retailing, newspapers, and real estate. Now, as the governor slogged through ankle-deep snow in the gathering dusk, he could pick out palpable symbols of that prosperity along this grand new thoroughfare, named Cleveland Boulevard after the nation's twenty-second -- and twenty-fourth -- president.

On the first corner was the turreted home of the governor's old friend John C. Rice. A big lantern-jawed man just turned forty, Rice was Caldwell's most successful lawyer, practicing in an office over Steunenberg's bank. But increasingly he was off in Boise arguing before the state courts, as he was that very day, representing that city's Evening Capital News in a bitter lawsuit against James H. Brady, chairman of the Republican state committee, over control of the feisty newspaper.

A former mayor of Caldwell, and now -- with his law partner, J. M. Thompson -- its city attorney, Rice had long been one of the governor's closest business associates: an organizer of the Steunenberg bank and still a board member, he served as an adviser on the governor's multifarious commercial enterprises.

People said Rice had built his elegant Queen Anne mansion -- so similiar to those rising in comfortable neighborhoods of San Francisco and Chicago -- to satisfy the luxurious tastes of his wife, Maude. If so, it had filled the bill, providing no fewer than four porches and an airy sewing room in a turret. The Rices could use the space. With four children already, Maude was pregnant again. In anticipation, she was expanding her household staff, advertising for a "competent girl to do general housework."

The Rice and Steunenberg mansions, looming in the southeast corner of town, were outposts of gentility in what was still a parvenu neighborhood. When the governor moved there in 1893, so rural were its surroundings that he was said to be occupying his "country seat." But Steunenberg had built there precisely to promote that relatively undeveloped quadrant of the community, for the Steunenberg brothers were trying to market lots in their own adjacent Steunenberg-Hand addition. They stood to benefit as well from new construction in the addition, and elsewhere in town, as they were officers of Caldwell's Independent Lumber and Manufacturing Company, headed by their colleague Harry Lowell, who also served as manager of the newly formed real estate department at the Steunenberg bank. Lowell and the Steunenbergs reaped thousands of dollars from exclusive sales rights on the remaining lots of the Caldwell Land Company, once run by Bob Strahorn.

There were those in town -- "mossbacks," they defiantly called themselves -- who thought that "airy, lightweight newcomers" like Lowell were too big for their bumptious britches. Newcomers, in turn, pictured the mossbacks as "rubbing their eyes which had become bleared by their long Van Winkle repose." Caldwell's relentless booming invoked a civic unity that never quite existed. For years, the mossback faction -- men like tavern keeper Chris Fahy; the town's first butcher, Mike Roberts; and hardware dealer W. H. Redway, who hauled the first wagonload of nails into Caldwell -- chafed at the brass of "johnny-come-latelies" like Lowell, haberdasher J. F. Herr, and lumber, sash, and door man and all-round "go-getter" Harry Crookham.

For the most part, Caldwell's first families -- among them the Reverend William Judson Boone, a Presbyterian minister now heading Caldwell's fledgling College of Idaho; John T. Morrison, the former governor; William Isaacs, a sheep rancher; the druggist Henry Blatchley and his wife, Carrie, the town's social arbiter, widely known as Queen Carrie -- all lived north of Indian Creek and the railroad, in the town's best residential neighborhood.

But as Caldwell boomed in the new century -- more than doubling its population, from 997 to 2,200, in the first five years -- it expanded south and east. The scale of Cleveland Boulevard -- some eighty feet in breadth -- suggested that it would soon be one of the town's most prestigious addresses. It was already lined for two miles with Western Colonial or bungalow-style houses -- rustic, rangy dwellings with graceful porch posts, bits of colored glass in their door panels, dormer windows (when a man made some money in Caldwell, he got himself a dormer), and spacious verandas, perfect for whiling away long summer evenings amid the thrum of cicadas.

Scarcely a neighbor was in sight that afternoon of the governor's walk, save for packs of neighborhood boys pelting one another with snowballs, a practice the town fathers were trying to discourage. A few days earlier, little Ella Lowe had been smacked in the face with a hard-packed ball that had smashed her glasses and driven shards into one eye, which doctors said she would surely lose.

Plunging on through the storm, the governor tried to keep his footing on the icy boardwalks that lined the city's major thoroughfares. Cement sidewalks were still rare in Caldwell; ten feet of the new underfooting, among the first in town, had just been laid along Main Street in front of Hartkopf's Tin Shop, paid for by surly Sam Hartkopf himself. Few merchants could yet afford that extravagance, so they relied on the icy boardwalks, which popped and crackled under a man's weight.

But no walkway could protect the townspeople from Caldwell's immutable realities: dust and mud. In summer, the powdery dust rose in choking billows under iron-rimmed wagon wheels and the hooves of sheep on their way from feeding lot to range. The municipal sprinkler wagon, pulled by a plodding team, with its driver dozing under his yellow umbrella, dutifully made its rounds, laying down a fine spray of water on each baking street twice a day; but the caked soil seemed to suck up the moisture as soon as the cart rounded the next corner. A growing faction in town pressed for macadam surfacing of all principal thoroughfares, but the city fathers shied from the expense, preferring to experiment with sand from Indian Creek.

The first few automobiles -- "buzz carts" or "devil wagons," as they were known -- had made their appearance in Caldwell, among them the big black beauty of Ralph Cowden, cashier of the First National Bank, and the sporty roadster belonging to Walter Sebree of the power company. But both the town and the county roads were so bad it took a prominent judge rushing to his courtroom almost three hours to drive the twenty-nine miles from Boise to Caldwell. In winter and spring, the gumbo engulfed wheels and hooves and boots alike, spattering skirts and waistcoats along even the finest boulevards.

If the town still had to reckon with dust and mud, at least it had beaten back the damned desert. Nothing had contributed more to Caldwell's startling prosperity than reclamation of the parched wasteland through a host of irrigation projects. As early as 1864, individual settlers had channeled Indian Creek's waters onto their land. The town's network of roadside "ditches" got under way in earnest in the 1880s. Later, water was drawn from the Boise River into larger systems of reservoirs and canals, dug the hard way with hand plows, scrapers, and shovels. Frank and A. K. Steunenberg, often led by Harry Lowell, invested in many of these projects; recently they'd participated in a more massive scheme to reclaim 250,000 acres in the Twin Falls area, 130 miles to the southeast.

The week before, under the heading "Musings on Our Material Progress," a Tribune correspondent had extolled the lush cultivation along Caldwell's own Sebree Canal. "One is favorably impressed," he wrote, "with the belief that this country is fast improving in all lines of farming industry when he rides along this canal, as compared with what it was a few years ago. In the haying season, it is no uncommon thing to see from three to eight hay derricks going at once....All we desire is for the Government canals to start, and we will truly be living in 'God's own country.'"

The earth was volcanic ash, dry as sawdust but immensely rich. As water seeped into the parched cinders, it turned the landscape from ghostly white to vivid green. Alfalfa, timothy, clover, sugar beets, apples, peaches, and pears all flourished in the fertile new soil. In 1890 alone, Caldwell had planted more than four thousand trees. Seemingly overnight, sagebrush and greasewood gave way to cottonwoods and box elders, Lombardy poplars and catalpas, black willows and elms. Nobody was more thrilled by this transformation than Frank Steunenberg, who had ached for the luxuriant foliage of his Iowa youth.

On a train trip East in 1904, gazing through the windows at the dense woodlands of southern Indiana, Steunenberg wrote home, "The great forests are a never ending joy and comfort and I never tire of looking at the graceful trees, now right at the car window, now covering an adjacent hillside and again gracing a distant ridge with glory

Meet the Author

J. Anthony Lukas won two Pulitzer Prizes: the first for his reporting at The New York Times, where he served for a decade as a foreign and domestic correspondent; the second for Common Ground, which also brought him the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

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