The Water Scandal

As Grand Rapids, Michigan neared the end of the nineteenth century, the growing city looked for a new water supply. The personal interests of the city's leaders quickly overwhelmed the common good. Corrupt schemes quickly developed. As backroom deals came to the city's attention, the Grand Rapids water scandal blossomed. The water scandal was not the city's first instance of corruption, but rather the first genuine scandal. Previous scandals had left few lasting marks. Connected socially and financially, the city's elite became caught in the middle of the scandal as business partners, political rivals, and neighbors landed on opposite sides. These complications slowed the pace of reform. Even after years of occupying headlines and courtrooms only two men ever served prison time for their involvement. Most of the men involved remained politically and socially active after the scandal. However, the water scandal began the transition between Gilded Age politics rooted in personal connections and Progressive politics centered around impartial administration. The water scandal provided the necessary atmosphere for reform-oriented movements to grow, reaching a height in 1917 with the creation of the city's commisioner-manager system.

A black and white picture of Mayor George Perry
George Perry

In 1898, new Mayor George Perry pushed for a new source of fresh water. Early in his second term, two years later, the city's Common Council, its legislative body, took concrete steps towards securing a new water supply. The city's leaders debated a variety of methods, but one quickly gained popularity. A plan to build a pipeline from Lake Michigan to Grand Rapids (roughly forty miles of pipe) became the choice of many of the city's leadership, despite the millions of dollars necessary to complete the project.

By October of 1900, the city's Common Council seemed ready to award a contract for the pipeline to one of two bids. To demonstrate the ability to build the multimillion dollar water system, the bids submitted checks for $100,000. At the meeting, however, Perry dramatically revealed both bids were forgeries. Despite the dramatic news, city leaders decided to simply reopen the bidding process. Phony bids were just part of the process.

A black and white picture of City Attorney Lant Salsbury
Lant Salsbury

Before the city could award the contract, more shadowy actions came to light. In February of 1901, Chicago police arrested city attorney Lant Salsbury for stealing $50,000 dollars from an Omaha capitalist. The money was allegedly for Salsbury to bribe politicians and secure the water contract. Though Cook County dropped the charges shortly after Salsbury returned the money, the foundation of the water scandal had been laid.

Seeing a political opportunity, Grand Rapids Republicans ran a campaign touting their trustworthiness in juxtaposition to the Democratic Salsbury. While effective in adding a couple of Republican seats on the Common Council, the legislative body voted to retain Salsbury along partisan lines.

  • Voted For Salsbury
  • $ John T. Donovan (D)
  • $ Charles T. Johnson (D)
  • $ Daniel E. Lozier (D)
  • $ John McLachlin (D)
  • $ Clark E. Slocum (D)
  • $ James O. McCool (D)
  • $ Abraham Ghysels (R)
  • $ James Mol (R)
  • Charles Phillips (D)
  • Frank Damskey (D)
  • Thomas Doran (D)
  • Frank Hodges (D)
  • Voted Against Salsbury
  • $ Adrian Schriver (R)
  • $ Reyner Stonehouse (R)
  • $ John Muir (R)
  • $ Peter DePagter (R)
  • $ Jacob Ellen (R)
  • Joseph Shinkman (D)
  • Christian Gallmeyer (R)
  • Joseph Renihan (R)
  • John F. Beck (R)
  • Addison Goodman (R)
  • Charles A. Hilton (R)
  • John H. Hosken (R)

Though the bribery of the water scandal's main plot crossed party lines, votes for Salsbury's reelection fell along party lines. The names in BLUE are Democratic aldermen. Names in RED are Republican aldermen. Names with the $ figure next to them were implicated in the bribery scheme of the water scandal at some point. The Grand Rapids Herald reported the vote in its June 18, 1902 edition and Dwight Goss's History of Grand Rapids and Its Industries catalogued the names of the aldermen implicated in the water scandal.

When Salsbury escaped political punishment, the need for legal action became urgent. A Kent County grand jury investigated the rumors of other bribery schemes and indicted five men in June 1901. In addition to Salsbury, the grand jury also indicted Henry Taylor, a young New York millionaire who provided the money, Stilson MacLeod, a local banker who moved the cash, and Thomas McGarry, a local attorney who had put Salsbury in contact with the men running the scheme. The main organizers, con-men Frederick Garman and Robert Cameron, however, did not face any charges after cooperating with the grand jury. The scandal stayed small until 1903, when Salsbury completed a sentence for a federal banking violation and faced additional prison time for bribery. Given limited options, Salsbury became the prosecution's star witness. The legal system, however, struggled to implement reform as many early trials including Salsbury's and the then-former mayor George Perry faced procedural issues. Several defendants' appeals reached the state supreme court. The legal system was admittedly rusty in pursuing punishment.

A political cartoon described further below

This political cartoon appeared shortly after the June 1901 grand jury indicted five men for their participation in a bribery scheme. Some of their names, including City Attorney Lant Salsbury, appear on the fish that Miss Grand Rapids placed on the land to her left after catching them with her "Grand Jury Bait," a can of which is next to the fishing rod she holds in her right hand. The caption reads: "I've had alll (sic) kinds of bites, but this is the first time I've landed anything" referencing the past instances of governmental corruption that had gone largely unpunished. The water scandal's initial grand jury was a major step toward Progressive reform as it was the first attempt in a long time to use the legal system to address municipal graft.

Five years after the water scandal emerged, the prosecution no longer believed they could convict anyone. The water scandal ended quietly. In February 1906, the prosecuting attorneys dropped all open cases, including the case against George Perry. The city's residents had become, as historian Z. Z. Lydens phrased it in The Story of Grand Rapids (1966), "weary if not yet quite bored." Despite the pervasiveness of the water scandal's bribery, only Salsbury and McGarry served any prison time. However, the city had exerted genuine effort to challenge corruption. Before the water scandal, the city only nominally took care of other scandals, if not completely overlooked them.

The Grand Rapids water scandal reveals the manner in which many smaller cities moved from municipal governments centered on personal relations and social connections, to a more Progressive government led by professional managers and their administrations. The city's elite, though intimately involved in the scandal, remained. No political machine dismantled. No dominant family displaced. Grand Rapids made the transition to Progressive-style government gradually. The water scandal was the first step.