Updated August, 2022
Chapter Ten ~ Copper control, corporate greed, alternating current, and a massacre
With the exception of Luther’s roles in these chapters, the events leading to the Union Pacific’s acquisition of the Utah Northern Railroad and transforming it into the Utah and Northern Railroad accurately summarize the historical events of 1877 and 1878. The expectation that electricity would be the next new profit opportunity made controlling the transportation of copper exceedingly important to the Union Pacific. In order to enhance the general public’s awareness of the potential for the Utah Northern to go bankrupt while simultaneously buying up all available stock at a fraction of its worth, a reputable person in the Salt Lake City area would be needed to spread the rumors convincingly.
The federal government encouraged the rapid expansion of railroad lines all over America. In the West, indigenous populations were moved to reservations to make way for the railroad and the government gave incentives to railroad companies by offering them land for not only the right of way but an additional strip of land on either side of the rails for future development. To take advantage of this, railroad companies advertised the “land of milk and honey” available in the West and built railroad towns along their routes. It was part of a railroad strategy to populate and control the territory along its line. Successful or not, a railroad town was a tool of ambitious corporations to manipulate people and resources, to control space, and to consolidate their own position in order to maximize profits for the company. In the 1860s and 1870s, “every terminus of track laying became a city; wicked, wonderful and short-lived,” wrote a former railroad agent in Harper’s Magazine of one such place at the end of track in western Kansas. The writer found that “the Pacific railways have been responsible for more and worse towns than any other single cause… These shabby towns were the personal creations of railroad builders and their companies, everyone’s favorite symbols of greed and corruption in the Gilded Age.”
Note that the Gilded Age is a term used to describe the tumultuous years between the Civil War and the turn of the century. In fact, it was wealthy tycoons, not politicians, who inconspicuously held the most political power during the Gilded Age.
Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse – Although Thomas Edison is normally recognized as the man who developed the light bulb and electricity for public use, it was actually Nikola Tesla that introduced alternating current (AC) electricity that is used today. Edison, with Morgan’s financial backing, was developing direct current (DC) electricity and proposed that large generation plants be built so electricity could be distributed throughout New York and eventually the nation. Edison was recognized as a genius inventor of his times and obtained 1,093 patents during his life. Tesla was an assistant to Edison and strongly urged him to consider AC electricity over DC but Edison was unmoved, so Tesla approached George Westinghouse for assistance in competing with the Edison/Morgan approach for the best form of electrical distribution. The competition led to an intense and divisive marketing between the two teams, nearly causing Westinghouse to go bankrupt. In the end, Westinghouse convinced the 1893 Chicago Fair to use AC electricity to provide the first fully lighted World Fair. This was a huge success and, in turn, convinced builders of the largest electrical generation plant being built at the time at Niagara Falls to use AC electricity. With that, AC became the new standard for electricity in the nation.
The Mountain Massacre – “The Massacre, in 1857, was one of the most explosive episodes in the history of the American West—not only were 120 men, women and children killed, but the denouement of the so-called Utah War set Utah on the path to statehood and the Mormons on a long and fitful accommodation to secular authority, but the Mountain Meadows Massacre remained the focus of suspicion and resentment for decades.” (SmithsonianMag.com, February 29, 2012 by Gilbert King.)
The Mormons had moved from the United States in 1847 to an area governed by Mexico (which, unknown to them would shortly become the Utah Territory) to avoid the hostility of members of other religions. Six months later, Mexico ceded the land to the United States and hostilities became a concern again for the Mormons.
But, in 1857, when a Mormon apostle named Parley Pratt was murdered by the legal husband of one of Pratt’s plural wives, Joseph Young (Jr.) declared martial law and made it illegal to travel through the Utah Territory without a permit. When the Baker-Fancher party, a large group of American settlers passing through the Utah Territory, set up camp in Mountain Meadows, they were surrounded by Paiute Indians as well as Mormons dressed as Indians. The battle lasted five days until John D. Lee of the Mormons approached the camp under a white flag. The Mormons arranged a truce whereby the members of the Baker-Fancher party were promised safe passage if they would put their weapons down. When they did, the entire party, including the remaining men, women, and older children, were executed with the exception of seventeen young children. Although the Mormons disavowed any participation in the massacre for 150 years, leaders of the church issued the following statement on the sesquicentennial anniversary of the massacre:
“We express profound regret of the massacre carried out in this valley 150 years ago today, and for the undue and untold suffering experienced by the victims then and by their relatives to the present time. A separate expression of regret is owed the Paiute people who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre. Although the extent of their involvement is disputed, it is believed they would not have participated without the direction and stimulus provided by local church leaders and members…”