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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 796

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This is the grave of Francis Newlands.

Born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1846, Newlands grew up in the wealthy antebellum South. His father was a prominent physician who moved there from Scotland. He went to Yale, graduated in 1867 and then went to law school at Columbian College, which is today George Washington University, finishing there in 1869.

In 1870, Newlands decided to make his way in the West, moving to San Francisco. Being a rich guy, he married well, to the daughter of the future senator from Nevada William Sharon, who also was a major investor in the Comstock Lode. Newlands and Sharon reopened the Bank of California. His wife died soon after though and Newlands inherited her fortune. She was loaded and now so was he. He remarried and moved to Nevada himself. He also bought a bunch of land just outside of Washington on the Maryland side to create what was one of the first streetcar suburbs. He made a ton of money on this, building up the whole thing, from the streetcar itself to the recreational facilities to the water and sewer. He owned a lot of land in California too.

Although Newlands basically lived in D.C. and not Nevada, he got into politics representing Nevada. A Silver Democrat, he was elected to the House in 1893 and the Senate in 1902. Mostly, he was a pretty nasty guy. He was a huge white supremacist. An imperialist, he pushed hard to annex Hawaii in 1898. He supported all laws to hurt Black Americans, including denying them the right to vote. He was the only Democrat to vote against Louis Brandeis’ nomination to the Supreme Court, thanks to his powerful anti-Semitism. He made sure that his housing developments had no Black or Jewish residents.

What Newlands is in fact known for today, to the extent he is known today, is for his other big policy issue: conservation. He was a big supporter of federal intervention in natural resources. He supported both the creation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and the National Park Service in 1916. He was happy to work with Republicans on these issues, despite being a pretty partisan Democrat otherwise. His signature bill was the Newlands Act in 1902. It’s official name is Reclamation Act of 1902. This bill is intensely important in American history. It brought the government into the world of damming rivers and creating large-scale water projects in the arid West. Over the years, Bureau of Reclamation, established in the bill, has built more than 600 dams that irrigate over 10 million acres in the West. It created the world where we can have giant cities in the desert such as Las Vegas and Phoenix and Los Angeles. It’s not sustainable. But it is Newlands’ contribution to American life. This is why Nevada was happy to have Newlands in the Senate without him actually spending any meaningful time there. This fit into the larger conservationist mindset and Theodore Roosevelt happily signed the bill.

In 1917, Newlands, still a senator, dropped dead of a heart attack in his home in Washington. He was 71 years old.

Newlands’ racism remains an issue today. Last year, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Jamie Raskin introduced a bill to remove Newlands’ name from a plaque on a fountain in Chevy Chase Circle, which is his big land investment discussed earlier.

Francis Newlands is buried is Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other key figures in the creation of the water systems of the American West, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Floyd Dominy is in Arlington and Frederick Haynes Newell is in Needham, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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