Always a Cowboy
Utah State University Press,
Number of pages: 316, including bibliography and index
This book appealed to me on a number of fronts: I have read and loved biographies since I was a child; Mormon biography has become a passion in recent years; I have a deep and abiding passion for the West; and, having grown up near the end of the “steam age” with a grandfather who worked forty-seven years for the Pennsylvania Railroad, a love for trains.
Author Will Bagley has done a yeoman's job in writing about one of the most significant railroads in U.S. History, and the man who saved it, Judge Wilson McCarthy. I don't recall ever hearing of McCarthy prior to reading this book, but I came away from it wishing I had known him personally. He was a fascinating man who lived life to the fullest.
The early chapters introduce us to the McCarthy clan (originally McCarty), and their eventual migration to American Fork, Utah. Wilson's father Charles, or Charlie, fell in love with a beautiful Mormon girl, Mary Mercer, to whom he was married October 17, 1876. Charles, at the time of his marriage, was not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), but he did join four years later. After six years of marriage, Charlie and Mary were childless, a source of sorrow to the couple. Anxious to have a posterity, he took Mary's sister, Margaret (Maud) as a plural wife on February 16, 1882. As luck would have it, Maud never did have children, but Mary conceived her first child the following summer. Mary eventually gave birth to Charles Mercer, Warren Wilson, Mary Johanna, and Marjorie. It should be noted Wilson never went by Warren as far as is known.
Because of his involvement in plural marriage, Charlie spent six months in the Utah Territorial Penitentiary, and was required to pay a $300.00 fine. The account of his imprisonment is extremely interesting, but, for the sake of brevity, I will not comment further. Charles served a mission to Great Britain starting in 1890. Many LDS men were called on missions, at least in part, to escape being arrested for violating the Edmunds-Tucker Act. Sometime after his return, Apostle John W. Taylor convinced McCarthy to move his family to Alberta, Canada, and to engage in farming and other business enterprises. Charlie prospered until eventual hard times caused him to lose most everything.
At this point, I will leave the history of Charles McCarthy, and will instead focus on that of his son, Wilson. Let me say, however, that Charles McCarthy is one of the most interesting characters I have come across. It would be wonderful if a complete study of his life and times could be written, perhaps by Will Bagley.
Instead of summarizing what Bagley has written, I choose to quote several passages that struck me, and I will make some comments here and there. It is my hope that the author's own words and insights will engage my readers, invite them to buy the book, and become immersed in the fun.
I pick up the story in 1925. Wilson was called to serve as second councilor to Salt Lake City's Liberty Stake President Bryant S. Hinckley (father of future LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley). Bagley writes, “Brother McCarthy was not, however, in tune with the growing formality and strict adherence to church policy that was being implemented under LDS Church President Heber J. Grant. Wilson's boyhood may have left too much cowboy in him to pay much attention to increasingly important rules such as the Word of Wisdom, the voluntary health code banning alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, which Grant made mandatory in 1927. Proper procedure when McCarthy was in the stake presidency dictated that excommunications were to be proclaimed over the pulpit. When it fell to him to make one such pronouncement, Wilson filled the letter of the law by announcing the member's banishment from Mormonism to an empty chapel on a Saturday afternoon.”(96) I should add the practice continued at least until the early 1970's. It was always uncomfortable for me to hear, particularly when it was someone close to me. If announcing excommunications over the pulpit wasn't bad enough, its publication in The Improvement Era had to be devastating. I am glad the practice has ceased.
I was intrigued with the account of a meeting at Herbert Hoover's retreat, Camp Rapidan, of members of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) in June 1932. Wilson McCarthy served as a member. Bagley reports, “The men at the conference on the Rapidan spent two days reviewing what the corporation had accomplished in its fourteen-week history, outlining its plans, and secretly discussing how to expand its powers. The agency had already loaned a half-billion dollars – a phenomenal sum in 1932 – to banks and other financial institutions, plus some $170 million to railroads. Bank failures were now down 'to about the casualties of normal times' the president reported. The corporation had underwritten $143 million in loans to farmers and ranchers, and the strategy – which TIME Magazine called inflation, or more precisely, 'a rescue of credit from its enemy, deflation' – but which the president preferred to call 'counter-deflation' – appeared to be having a positive impact. The plan received positive reviews from the financial establishment when it was authorized in January. 'If it succeeds the downward spiral of deflation will be definitely checked,' TIME proclaimed, 'If it fails, historians may well look back on 1932 with a shudder.” (108 ) I find the parallels to what is going on in the United States today eerily familiar.
The Wilson family moved to Washington, D.C. in connection with Wilson's service on the RFC. Bagley writes, “The move to Washington marked the end of McCarthy's active participation in Mormon leadership positions, although his youngest daughter would be baptized while the family lived in California. Wilson and Minerva paid part of their tithing and occasionally attended church services for the rest of their lives, and McCarthy without hesitation, identified himself as a Mormon. Wilson maintained very friendly relations with the church's most important leaders, including President Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, and especially his close friend Adam Bennion. McCarthy was always deeply proud of his religious background and service, and his many friends in the Mormon hierarchy appreciated his many contributions to the faith. But, Dennis recalled, 'I was never aware that my father took much part in Church activities after he left Salt Lake City.'” (119) I appreciate the “big tent” feeling fostered by the Church leadership at the time.
“As 1934 drew to a close, RFC Chairman Jesse H. Jones faced a complex problem involving the Denver & Salt Lake and the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroads. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation had made massive loans to both companies. It gained control of all of D&SL's voting stock, and in November 1935, it took over the D&RGW when it defaulted on more than $10 million in RFC loans. The RFC faced the delicate task of maintaining a proper separation between the two operations while making sure the vital construction projects the agency had underwritten proved successful. 'I decided the only way it could be properly handled would be to select a man of unquestioned integrity who would recognize the situation,' Jones recalled. Jones phoned McCarthy and asked his former colleague for a favor: would he go to Denver as president of the Denver & Salt Lake and take on the job of making the road financially viable?
“McCarthy accepted, with the understanding that the task would be a short-term project. He was not required to devote all his time to the project and could continue his legal practice in California. 'I intended to give up my position with the Denver and Salt Lake Railway at the end of 1935,' McCarthy recalled in 1940. Instead, Jones's phone call launched a new career for the judge that would last the rest of his life: as railroad historian Ron Jensen observed, McCarthy spent the next twenty years 'making a failed railroad into one of the nation's premier transportation properties.'” (166) Perhaps those in government struggling with the problems of General Motors and Chrysler should buy this book to pick up pointers on how to do the job correctly.
“One of the great challenges confronting the United States was, 'How are we going to keep the railroads alive and keep them as a factor in our economic life.' McCarthy foresaw that the construction of splendid highways with massive federal subsidies would dramatically reduce the cost of heavy truck transportation and ultimately threaten the prosperity of railroads. Even more insightfully, he recognized that government support of airlines would have a dramatic impact on how America moved its commerce, making him one of the first railroad executives to perceive the most significant threat to his industries’ long-range prospects.
“The specific answer that McCarthy gave to his own question – how would he keep the D&RGW alive? - can be summed up in two words: hard work.” (204-205)
McCarthy was prophetic. Even his hard work could not hold back the tide of interstate highway systems and the ability of the airlines to move people and freight long distances in much shorter time frames than could the railways. Another factor in the demise of the railroads, in my opinion, was the reluctance of the lines to modernize. My grandfather started working for the Pennsylvania Railroad about 1918. I took my grandmother to the division headquarters after he died in 1970 to apply for death benefits, and take care of getting her survivor pension benefits. I was astonished to find clerks sitting on high stools, some of them wearing green eye shades. I would have sworn we had stepped back into the 1870's. Just as mind boggling was the fact that his entire work record, nearly fifty years worth, was hand written.
As an aside, members of the LDS Church will be interested in the fact that Wilson McCarthy offered future president, Gordon B. Hinckley, a draft-deferred job as assistant superintendent for the Union Depot and Railroad Company in Salt Lake, which was a joint Rio Grande-Western Pacific operation. Hinckley accepted as he wrote a friend in May 1942, “I seriously expect that perhaps those in my class will be moved either into the ranks or to the assembly line.”
The reader will also be interested in Wilson's development of the fabulous California Zephyr: “Six fast new streamliners of radically new design expected to revolutionize the railroad passenger picture in the West will soon race between Chicago and San Francisco through the Denver and the Moffat Tunnel on the route of the Rio Grande.” (263) It was a stunning success, and may be McCarthy's most remembered accomplishment.
Bagley's account of Wilson McCarthy's declining years and death are extremely poignant, and reflects his love for the subject of this work. It is noteworthy that “Funeral services for Wilson McCarthy were held in the Assembly Hall on Salt Lake's Temple Square on February 15, 1956 at 12:15 p.m. President David O. McKay presided and conducted the service, which was attended by several hundred friends and associates. The prophet read a tribute Governor Ed C. Johnson sent to Minerva from Denver: 'All Colorado is grieving with you. The West has lost one of its greatest builders, and you have lost your kind and understanding companion.' The Tabernacle Quartet sang two hymns, 'Oh My Father' and 'Abide With Me.’” (283)
I must admit I was touched as I read this account, I wondered if Wilson might have been called into the highest ranks of Church leadership had he remained active. Maybe so, but, as it was, he served his fellow man as few others have.
By now, I'm sure you realize how much I appreciate this book. Will Bagley writes powerfully, and draws you into the story. I've had lunch with him on several occasions. It is too bad Wilson McCarthy couldn't join us.