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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,609

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This is the grave of Oswald West.

Born in 1873 in Guelph, Ontario, West grew up in Salem, Oregon, where his family moved around 1877. He went to the local schools and then went into banking in Oregon. In 1898, he got the gold bug and went to the Klondike to make his fortune, but it went about as poorly as it did for almost everyone excited about what everyone consciously saw as the last pioneering experience in American history, even as they did it. I still think about writing an article about this point every now and then. He was only there for 6 months and made the reasonable choice to go back to Oregon.

Back in Salem, West became the State Land Agent. This was really important in Oregon. See, land fraud was endemic. There were all sorts of schemes of people claiming land that did not belong to them but in fact belonged to the state. Moreover, most of this was not settlers or squatters or something. It was rich people, timber companies, etc. So West became quite diligent at going after this fraud and he managed to recover 1 million acres of fraudulently claimed land for the state. He got a nice name for himself with this and so was then given a seat on the Oregon Railroad Commission.

West’s rising profile led to nomination to be Oregon’s governor in 1910. He was a great example of a Progressive governor. It’s somewhat odd to me that Oregon was such a leader in the Progressive Era because both before and after that, it’s politics were starkly conservative until after World War II. But it did. Oregon had helped create political reforms such as the initiative, referendum, and recall as ways to hold corrupt politicians accountable. West was a major supporter of these things, even though as a general rule more Progressives were Republicans than Democrats. But it really didn’t fit party lines that closely.

West governed very much as a Progressive. First, he was a national advocate for the Oregon System, the overall name for the political reforms he supported. He also did something absolutely critical in Oregon history–he declared the beach up to the high tide line as public property. This proved to be incredibly forward thinking, laying the ground work for the really incredible public access to beaches in that state today. Tom McCall, a half-century later, is more famous for being the person who really enforced this and went after private actors who wanted to create restricted beach access today. But West laid all that groundwork. Thanks to those two governors, Oregon is famous for its completely undeveloped beaches today. Of course it is too cold to go into the water unless you are either insane or own a dry suit, but you can take a very nice walk on the beach without seeing a bunch of bullshit development, unlike many other states.

West did a lot of other things too. He worked closely with suffragists such as Abigail Scott Duniway to see the state legalize women’s suffrage. He created a solid state highway system too, creating new property taxes to fund the first statewide roads that today are basically the routes of I-5, I-84, and US 101. He was also a strong prohibitionist, which is unfortunate really, but pretty typical of Progressive reformer types. There was a little town in eastern Oregon called Copperfield, in Baker County. Today, it’s a ghost town on the Idaho border. It was more of a railroad camp than a real town. The town ignored state law in limiting liquor selling, so on New Year’s Eve of 1913, West actually ordered martial law in the town and sent the National Guard in there to enforce it. Interestingly, he sent his personal secretary to run the thing, a woman named Fern Hobbs, herself a strong prohibitionist who became fairly famous over this issue. Perfect Progressive here–shut down the booze selling and ask a woman to do it since the Progressive Era opened so many spots for women in politics and reform.

Here’s the thing about the Progressives–how you evaluate them really depends on which angle you look at. If you look at things such as labor issues or clean governance or government planning, they look pretty good. If you look at such things as gender and sexuality, they are scary motherfuckers. Such was Oswald West. In 1912, there was a big scandal in Portland. It turns out that respectable young men were using the YMCA to find other men for sex. Yep, the Village People didn’t invent that and they weren’t the first to report on it. The Y was central to gay culture for more than a half-century before they sang about it. The YMCA was supposed to be a place for young men to find somewhere to live in the city under supervision and in clean circumstances, as opposed to falling through the cracks of the big scary city. Well, they did. But they also found other men for sex.

Portland went nuts when this went public. Homosexuality was illegal and some of these men had to flee to Canada or Mexico to avoid prosecution. West wanted them busted. He also wanted them castrated. Seriously. He thought any of these “degenerates who slink, in all their infamy, through every city, contaminating the young, debauching the innocent, cursing the State” needed sterilization. In fact, the Oregon legislature was willing to go along with this and in 1913, passed a eugenics-based law that would forcibly sterilize anyone found to be one of these “degenerates.” Yikes.

Despite this incident, or in part perhaps because of it, leading Oregonian for a long time thought of West as something of a hero. The great Oregon writer and sort of liberal conscience of the state in the mid-twentieth century, Stewart Holbrook, thought of West as by far the greatest governor the state had ever had. And to be fair, he did sign a lot of great legislation. Also some terrible legislation. A very Progressive Era man in that. He also issued the all-time record for vetoes as a governor, rejecting most everything the Republican-dominated legislature wanted if it didn’t suit his policy preferences. He wasn’t going to have any of this old Gilded Age stuff in his state.

West chose not to run for a second term. He went back to Portland and worked in the law. He was the Democratic nominee for the Senate in 1918, but he lost the general election to Charles McNary. He became a Democratic insider after that, particularly to Charles Martin, who was governor of the state in the 1930s. This included moving to the right during the New Deal, as many aging Progressives did, hating the government programs of the New Deal and the power unions had gained. He was particularly known for writing angry letters to the editor as he aged, something likely to inspire many people around here. He had a heart attack in 1945 and retired from the law at that point. He lived until 1960, finally dying at the age of 87.

Oswald West is buried in Mount Crest Abbey Mausoleum, Salem, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit other Progressive Era political leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert LaFollette is in Madison, Wisconsin and Tom Johnson is in The Bronx, though he was famous for being the reformist mayor of Cleveland. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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