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Thesis Intro

The following is an excerpt from a draft of the introduction to my thesis. If anyone is interested in reading more I’d be happy to provide additional text as well.

Drawing its name from the Grand River’s rapids near which the city was founded, Grand Rapids’ rise was somewhat fortuitous. Grand Rapids occupied a regional economic importance located between Detroit and Chicago. However, Grand Rapids did not benefit from its location. It was neither directly between the two major cities, nor was it positioned on the lakeshore. Early industry was positioned around natural resources, namely the river which bisected the city, and its flour and lumber mills and gypsum mines. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the city gained its reputation as the “furniture city” and many of the city’s factories became internationally recognized as leaders in the field. At the turn of the century, the city was looking to grow and its leaders began taking the necessary steps to ensure Grand Rapids could become a regional power. One step was improving the city’s water supply. Home to pollution and sewerage, the Grand River quickly became a less than ideal source of drinking water.1

In 1898, George Perry became mayor of Grand Rapids and began pushing for the city to find a new source of fresh water. Early in his second term, in 1900, the city’s legislative body, the Common Council, began taking concrete steps towards securing a new supply of water. The city’s leaders debated over several plans, from filtration, to ground water, to other nearby lakes and rivers. However, on plan in particular quickly gained popularity. A plan to build a pipeline from Lake Michigan to Grand Rapids (meaning roughly thirty to fifty miles of pipe) became the choice of many of the city’s leadership, despite its huge construction costs, estimated in the millions of dollars.

By October 1900 the city seemed ready to award a contract for the pipeline to one of the handful of bids the Common Council had received. However, at one city meeting, mayor Perry revealed that the two bids to build the pipeline had forged checks intended to prove financially solvency to the city. With the two bids disqualified, the council reopened the bidding process. However, before a contract could be awarded, more shadowy actions came to light. In February of 1901, city attorney Lant Salsbury was arrested in Chicago for stealing $50,000 dollars, money allegedly intended to provide bribes to win Grand Rapids’ water supply contract. A Kent County circuit court grand jury indicted five men in June 1901 for a different bribery scheme. Lant Salsbury was again at the center of the plot. The grand jury also indicted Henry Taylor, a young east coast millionaire who provided the money, Stilson MacLeod, a local banker who helped move 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, did not face any charges though.

The scandal stayed small as Salsbury and others remained tight lipped. Not until 1903, when Salsbury completed a sentence for a federal banking violation and faced additional prison time for bribery. Given his options, Salsbury became the prosecution’s star witness and naming dozens of names. Salsbury revealed that McGarry put him into contact with Cameron, Garman’s representative who came to Grand Rapids. Salsbury then took $100,000 of Taylor’s money, passed down through Garman and Cameron, and used it to bribe various aldermen, city officials, and even newspapermen. The resulting legal trials occupied the city’s headlines for the next three years.

The bribery scheme and the resulting events that I, and the handful of other historians of Grand Rapids, call the “water scandal” was a fairly typical instance of municipal graft. Outsiders of questionable moral character used the money of a wealthy outsider to bribe city officials in order to win a massive construction project. When the scandal broke it rocked the city, as more than half the city’s alderman, the city’s mayor, the city attorney, and other prominent citizens faced legal action.

However, the water scandal’s rather typical events stand out due to the scandal’s timing. The water scandal occurred in between the Grand Rapids’ recognition of and adoption of the progressive ethical system for which big city reformers were advocating. The city’s identification of the bribery scheme surrounding the water supply plans as a scandalous event marked a turning point in the city’s adoption of progressive ethics in regards to corruption and municipal government. As a small city, Grand Rapids’ adoption of the ethical system of Progressives does not necessarily align with the narrative arch of Chicago’s Jane Addams, or New York’s Tammany Hall. Rather, Grand Rapids tolerated scandalous behavior until the city reached a breaking point, the water scandal. As the breaking point, the water scandal became the city’s first genuine scandal. Although many scandalous events had occurred before this specific bribery scheme, the water scandal was the first major scandal to be interpreted through this new Progressive ethos that identified bribery and corruption as criminally and morally wrong offenses. In this work, I argue the development of the water scandal was intimately tied to the city’s process of adopting a Progressive era ethical system. As the water scandal unfolded, the city’s transition from a Gilded Age ethos of personal politics to a Progressive ethos of professional governance becomes increasingly clear. This transition was not always easy or quick and it was not completed at the end of the water scandal. The water scandal was only the first part of Grand Rapids’ ethical revolution in its government.

In the first chapter, I explore the urban world of the city’s elite. The most powerful men in Grand Rapids connected themselves financially, socially, and even physically by largely residing in one neighborhood. Politically, the elite were fiercely competitive, though this party loyalty still fit neatly within a Gilded Age ethos of personal politics. While the closeness of the elite was good for a system of reliant on personal connections, it slowed, but did not prevent, the first attempts at reform during the beginnings of the water scandal.

The second chapter examines the transition in society’s ethos through George Perry. Perry was mayor at the beginning of the water scandal and later faced bribery charges during the ongoing scandal. Perry recognized many ideas of Progressivism and utilized much of its rhetoric as mayor. However, he never quite replaced personal politics and tolerance of corruption with the detached Progressive ethos to which he even alluded. His trial also serves as a reminder to the inexperience of Grand Rapids in punishing corruption. Contention over legal technicalities in many of the water scandal trials reveals that simply adopting an ethical system that does not accept corruption was not enough. Grand Rapids still had to figure out how to punish offenders.

The third chapter takes a step back, looking at how the scandal was and is viewed by the national press, local citizens, and historians. For the scandal of a small city, the water scandal got relatively impressive national coverage, suggesting the Progressive ethos Grand Rapids was adopting during the water scandal was also present at a national level. Local impressions of the water scandal focused on one figure, Lant Salsbury. The city did not scapegoat “outsiders,” recognizing corruption as an internal issue, but by placing the blame on one man, the city did not seem to be fully ready to address the full ranging causes of corruption. I also examine the legacy of the water scandal in Grand Rapids, which I argue is the growth of reform organizations, like the Civic Club. The water scandal was the first step towards a more Progressive municipal government and the Civic Club and other reform organizations helped bring the city to a commissioner-manager form of government in 1917.

Published in Research Urban