The Grand Rapids Water Scandal

A Chronological View

The urban realities of Grand Rapids allowed the city's elite to fiercely compete in politics, while maintaining social relationships. Likewise, the elite simultaneously served as the city's civic reformers and preservers of the personal politics that facilitated corruption. Mayor George Perry juggled appointing the best man for the job, appeasing his Democratic constituencies, and appealing to Republicans as the city drifted from Democratic to Republican control. Perry was a Progressive mayor, political boss, and shrewd politician all at once. In the same way Perry held many identities, so did organizations like the Civic Club, which was made of men even more entrenched within the city's social system than Perry. The blurring of insiders and outsiders helps explain the elite's contradictory attitudes towards corruption. Though the prosecution of Frank Warren and Lant Salsbury show evolving standards of conduct, the willingness to “forgive and forget” reveals an un-Progressive tolerance of urban corruption. Similarly, the election of a Republican majority common council after a campaign against civic corruption suggests the city was amenable to reform. However, the city's politics had been tilting Republican over the last few elections and the reelection of Salsbury as city attorney shows Salsbury's troubles in Chicago were not considered a politically toxic issue.


Even though Democrats held the pivotal positions in the scheme, the water scandal was clearly a bi-partisan affair. The ability of money to cross political allegiances may seem obvious, but historians have more frequently focused on political machines, not competitive political environments, as centers for pervasive corruption during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Extensive corruption within a small city like Grand Rapids, challenges the notion of political machines as the source of urban moral degradation.

The absence of an urban machine not only allowed the city's elite to dominate the political atmosphere, but also made urban reform in the small city a very complex and uneven affair. Though the elite mixed at social clubs and intertwined their business interests, the political leaders still valued party line patronage. Just as the city elite simultaneously crossed and protected party lines, the elite facilitated corruption through personal politics, yet led reform efforts. Understanding the political and social context of the water scandal is vital to fully gauge the scandal's impact on the city and the city's conceptions of reform and corruption.

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Clay Hollister

Perhaps the best example of the connectivity of the city's elite was the young, up and coming Republican, Clay Hollister. The son of prominent Grand Rapids businessman Havey Hollister, Clay's position at Old National Bank and memberships in exclusive social clubs, put him in touch with many of the city's leaders.

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Clay was working directly under his father at Old National Bank's cashier as assistant cashier at the turn of the century. In 1901, Clay became one of the bank's directors, allowing him the potential to form even stronger relationships with the many influential citizens involved in the operation of the bank. Other men on the bank's board included E. Crofton Fox, a successful lumber wholesaler, organizer of the city's board of trade and vice-president of the Elias, Matter and Nelson Company, one of the city's many furniture companies, as well as James Barnett, who could claim to be vice-president of the Putnam Candy Co. and Powers Building Association in addition to president of Old National Bank.

Working in tandem with these business connections was Clay's social relationships. Clay was the first vice-president of the Grand Rapids board of trade and belonged to the city's preeminent social club, the Peninsular club, whose membership included powerful men of both political persuasions. Prominent Democrats included Dudley Waters, a George Perry appointee to lead the head of the board of public works which oversaw the investigation into obtaining a new water supply for the city and Edwin Uhl, a former mayor and prominent lawyer. Republicans included John W. Blodgett, heir to a a successful lumber business, Roger Butterfield, who much later counted himself as “a personal friend of ex-President William H. Taft,” and William Alden Smith, the congressional representative at the time and future senator from Michigan.

Clay Hollister shows how the elite of Grand Rapids connected themselves socially in exclusive clubs and financially on boards of directors. While many men aligned themselves with politically like-minded partners, for example Old National Bank's directors leaned Republican, while the Grand Rapids National Bank tilted Democratic, politics was rarely a force that could not be overcome in the right situations. Politically diverse social clubs and business arrangements, particularly between furniture manufacturers, reveal an urban world of a cooperative class among the city's elite. Against the backdrop of this urban world, the bi-partisan bribery of the water scandal seems quite understandable. Though the men disagreed politically, when profit was a possibility, clearly these men could put aside political differences. Because of the interconnections between the city's elite was not sharply ideologically divided, when a proposition for profit spread throughout the city's social network, politicians were more likely to spread the wealth across party lines.


George Perry

Despite the fact that the Republican newspaper, the Grand Rapids Herald, frequently dubbed Mayor Perry and his supporters the “Tammany Club,” Perry's willingness to cross party lines to make appointments for the city seems Progressive. Historians have often interpreted the bureaucratization of the government, from civil service reform to city managers, as a Progressive aim. Perry's appointments seem to fit the anti-machine business-like style of government that reformers sought. In defense of his selection of a Republican for a private secretary, Perry invoked this very notion, saying, “If you can show me a Democrat with as much brains as Mr. Hunter has I will point him my private secretary”. The city's Republican newspaper, the Grand Rapids Herald even complimented Perry on choosing “to do what would be to the city's best interest.” The Herald drove the point home that Perry's appointments of Republicans was “for the public good and to insure efficient public service” and “for the welfare of the city” all out of “patriotic course,” and a “high sense of duty to the municipality.

However, Perry's appointments were not as self-sacrificing as they initially seem

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Perry's appointments clearly tap into the power structure of Grand Rapids. Son of leading Democrat Edwin Uhl, David Uhl was a clear up and coming citizen of Grand Rapids. He even had a membership in the ultra-exclusive Peninsular Club. Even better connected, Dudley Waters had business ventures with many other leading citizens like the People's Savings bank and the Grand Rapids National Bank, which placed him in frequent contact with the city's Democratic and Republican leaders alike. Similarly, Orson Ball functioned as an ideal connection to the Republican establishment through the Grand Rapids Savings Bank.

Even more than shrewd politics, however, Perry was appointing men who traveled in similar social circles. Dudley Waters, as well as another of Perry's appointees, Republican William Boyns, served on the board of directors of the Lakeside Club with Perry. The wives of Perry, Ball and Waters, as well as the mother of David Uhl, also all belonged to the preeminent women's social club, the Ladies Literary club.

Though wrapped in a discourse of Progressive non-partisanship, Perry's appointees represent the Gilded Age style of personal politics that emphasized rewarding friends




The Scandal

The first sign of scandal came in October of 1900, as the common council began receiving bids for companies to begin building a pipeline from Lake Michigan. On the 15th, the Pure Water Commission, a body of city officials appointed to evaluate the water question, recommended the bid of a plan backed by David Fitzgerald over another similar bid by J. M. Jackson. The council required bids to submit a check for one hundred thousand dollars to demonstrate the financial ability to complete such an expensive project, and one week after the Pure Water Commission had made these recommendations, mayor Perry revealed that he investigated the worth of these checks and they turned out to be worthless.

Though it would seem logical that upon finding the two leading bids for supplying the city with pure Lake Michigan water were frauds city leaders or outside activists would push for reform, little happened at that time. Instead of halting construction plans in favor of an investigation into corruption, the city leaders decided to simply reopen the bidding process, as if phony bids was just another issue for which they had to account.

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The real outbreak of the water scandal would not come for another four months, when the city of Chicago issued an indictment of Grand Rapids city attorney Lant Salsbury for stealing fifty thousand dollars from Omaha capitalist Guy Barton out of a bank safety deposit box on February 21st.

Even though calls for a grand jury investigation, which began within a week of the discovery of Salsbury's Chicago mischief, seem to represent an emerging notion of reform and a desire to punish corruption, they do not reveal a Progressive movement. The grand jury was not actually formed until early May right after the city's common council reelected Salsbury as city attorney.

Furthermore, had Salsbury not been reelected by the Common Council, or quickly resigned, it would not be hard to envision the matter ending at his loss of political office. However, events unfolded differently and, instead of “forgiving and forgetting,” the grand jury convened and the water scandal began in earnest.

Although the water scandal eventually drew in the names of over half of the city's aldermen,

Aldermen who were drawn into the water scandal

nearly all the council's Democrats, and some Republicans, publicly voted for Salsbury. Even though the city's Republicans took two additional seats after running a campaign against Salsbury's corruption, the Democrats on the council, as well as some Republicans, did not see Salsbury's all but admitted guilt in the Chicago affair as a politically toxic issue. In a secret ballot, at least one Republican joined the Democrats on the first ballot, which gave Salsbury twelve votes, and at least three joined on the next, which gave Salsbury fourteen votes, a majority of the council. Even after the council passed a resolution, which forced a public re-vote, Salsbury received two Republican votes and a twelve to eleven edge.

Aldermen who voted to reelect Lant Salsbury City Attorney

Furthermore, among the Republicans that voted against Salsbury, were Republicans that accepted bribes from the city attorney himself.

Aldermen who voted against reelecting Lant Salsbury with those who accepted bribes marked

In a city with bipartisan corruption, dealing with corruption became, for the most part, a partisan issue. The election of Salsbury once again reveals a gray area between reform and corruption in which city officials occupied contradictory stances, accepting corruption while abstaining from it and denouncing corruption while partaking.



At the end of the water scandal, thirty-one men from Grand Rapids were legally implicated in one part or another of the bribery scheme, fourteen of them were aldermen. Even though the key local figures in the plan to profit from expanding the city's water supply were Democrats, City Attorney Lant K. Salsbury, Mayor George Perry, and Thomas McGarry, a political ally of the mayor, the aldermen reflected the surprisingly bi-partisan bribery scheme.

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Aldermen who were drawn into the water scandal

Though evenly split, where the aldermen implicated in the water scandal lived once again suggests these men were partaking in a Gilded Age style of personal politics. The best example is that of John Donovan and Adrian Schriver, aldermen representing the 5th ward, who lived at 32 Page St. and 29 Page St. respectively. While political allegiances may have divided them, their status as neighbors likely aided their participation in the water scandal's bribery scheme, for which they had to pay fines.

Aldermen Donovan and Schriver