The Corrupt Network

Visualizing the Grand Rapids Water Scandal, 1900-1906

Municipal graft dominated turn of the century Grand Rapids, Michigan. As the city sought a new supply of water, outside promoters and city leaders devised a corrupt scheme. When Chicago officials uncovered another bribery plot involving city attorney Lant K. Salsbury, a scandal began to unfold. For five years, the water scandal filled the courts, drawing in politicians who were looking into the proposed water plans and city leaders from both parties, including the mayor, city attorney, fourteen of the city's twenty-four aldermen, and other prominent citizens.

Though an important event in the history of Grand Rapids, the significance of the Grand Rapids water scandal transcends local history. The experience of Grand Rapids, a regional economic center falling in between Detroit and Chicago, exemplifies the uneasy adoption of Progressive ethics in small cities that did not have large political machines and did not attract the attention of national urban reform movements.

In this project, I use digital visualizations to explore how the social and political networks of the city influenced the corruption of the water scandal. I argue the city's social networks facilitated Gilded Age style personal politics, while the city was handling with Progressive Era issues of corruption and reform.

I explore the social networks in a macro sense, meaning that I assume men do not need to be close friends to be business partners, political allies, or participants in a bribery scheme, but they do need to be acquaintances with social, business, and spatial connections that would result in frequent interaction. I also do not closely detail the individual events of the bribery schemes behind the water scandal, instead choosing to focus on the larger meanings of the events. More narrative approaches to the water scandal's events can be found in some of the city histories, which can be found in my archive.