Railroads & Clearcuts
How Land Grant Fraud Helped
Create Mt. Rainier National Park
compiled by George Draffan
Railroads & Clearcuts Campaign
PO Box 95316, Seattle WA 98145-2316
A century ago, Congress established the Mt. Rainier National Park. Cause for celebration, to be sure. But it was corporations which arranged the park boundaries, and corporate attorneys wrote the enabling legislation -- and they traded Rainier's rock and ice for superlative public forests in other states. The creation of the Park became another step in the forgotten "looting of the public domain" by the land grant railroads and the timber and mining corporations with which they were allied.
In 1897, the Sundry Civil Appropriations Act had established the 2,500,000-acre Mount Rainier Forest Reserve. The Northern Pacific Railroad held nearly half of this land, having been the beneficiary of the largest public lands subsidy in U.S. history. The Northern Pacific Railroad land grant was supposed to be sold to homesteaders, but the railroad was in the process of selling millions of acres to timber and mining corporations, and would keep millions of acres more for itself. The same year, the Forest Lieu Exchange Act allowed owners to exchange their inholdings in the newly-reserved lands for other lands outside the forest reservations. Two years later, a special in-lieu selection law was passed in connection with the creation of Mt. Rainier National Park, which allowed the Northern Pacific Railroad to exchange 450,000 acres of largely-worthless rock and ice inside the park boundaries for 444,159 acres land in any state or territory through which the railroad ran. A federal agency investigating the monopolistic control of the nation's forests described the loss:
"A large amount of comparatively worthless land was returned to the Government by the Northern Pacific Railway Company, which obtained in exchange an equal amount of excellent timbered land" in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Minnesota." (U.S. Bureau of Corporations, The Lumber Industry, 1913-14, Part 1:19 and 1:237-239).
Carsten Lien's book Olympic Battlground (Sierra Club Books, 1991), pp. 9-15) gives a good description of the passing of the laws. Section 3 of a bill for a Washington National Park, introduced in January 1896 by Rep. William Dolittle of Washington, allowed the NP to exchange its checkerboards in the park for "an equal quantity" of public lands, "whether surveyed or unsurveyed," and "within any state into or through which the railroad... runs." Later in 1896, NP's own bill "emerged from the Public Lands Committee with eight additional words, 'also the lands of the Pacific Forest Reserve.' The railroad could exchange, if the bill passed, not only lands in the proposed park but also lands throughout its holdings in the whole Pacific Forest Reserve, equal area of rock and ice for heavy timber. It could even make those choicesin the heavily timbered lowlands of western Oregon. The bill also specified that "the mineral-land laws of the United States are hereby extended to the park.' This opened the park to miners and gave them free timber to cut in the park. The railroad, also on amendment, had the right to build a railroad and a tramway into or through the park.
The NP park bill sailed through Congress and went to President Cleveland's desk, but Cleveland refused to [sign it]." Instead, he proclaimed the forest reservations on his own. This angered the corporations, and South Dakota Senator Richard Pettigrew, who got passed President McKinley's amendment to the Sundry Civil Act of June 4, 1897, which "later Pinchot dubbed The Forest Management Act of 1897." The Pettigrew Amendment "restored to the public domain the [reserves] as though said orders and proclamations had not been issued. The Amendment included the Northern Pacific's language in the Rainier Park Bill, but was ambiguous in the context of bills that had passed since. Washington Senator John L. Wilson and Rep. James H. Lewis introduced the same bill that Cleveland had vetoed, and it passed, with the help of a fraudulent report to Congress by Lewis that claimed the railroad's land inside the park was heavily timbered. McKinley signed the bill, and within three days the railroad had released 450,000 acres for exchange. Most of the timber it received was sold to Weyerhaeuser. Illinois Congressman Thomson said that:
"Mountain peaks, barren hillsides, lava beds, swamp lands and other valueless holdings... were released and the most valuable timber, coal and oil lands within the public lands were taken in exchange... The bars were let down for wholesale fraud and a national scandal resulted." (Congressional Record, Vol. 322, p.2147, 63d Cong., 3d Sess., quoted in Lien, 1991, p.15).
Timberman Frederick Weyerhaeuser and Northern Pacific head James Hill (who were next-door neighbors, and who served on each other's corporate boards) had valuable timberland picked out by the time the legislation passed. The Weyerhaeuser syndicate purchased scrip or acreage for about 300,000 acres worth of the Rainier exchange lands, and the Rainier exchange was the basis for Weyerhaeuser's entry into Idaho and Oregon. In Idaho, Potlatch was incorporated by Weyerhaeuser to operate in northern Idaho; Boise Payette (now Boise Cascade) was incorporated to operate in central Idaho. In Oregon, Pokegama Sugar Pine Lumber Company was Weyerhaeuser's subsidiary. In 1902 Weyerhaeuser purchased 200,000 acres of Northern Pacific land in western Oregon at $5 per acre (NP hadn't yet received all of this land from the federal government, so Weyerhaeuser ended up with 172,492 acres; see Hidy, Hill, and Nevins' Timber and Men: The Weyerhaeuser Story (Macmillan, 1963), pp.224 and 227, note 39). Weyerhaeuser also purchased timber lands from the Oregon & California Railroad, a public land grant subsidiary of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Weyerhaeuser then used fraudulent dummy entrymen to block up its O&C checkerboards. The O&C scandal resulted in the great Oregon land fraud trials of 1905-1907, but the restoration of the O&C grant to the public domain exempted . Weyerhaeuser and other large owners were through Congress's "Forgiveness Act." A century later, in 1996, Weyerhaeuser sold 600,000 acres of cutover pineland in southern Oregon.
A quirky but valuable resource on the O& C fiasco is Robert Bradley Jones' One by One: A Documented Narrative Based Upon the History of the Oregon & California Railroad Land Grant in the State of Oregon (Source Magazine, republished by ABS, Medford Oregon, 1990).
The story of the fraud has been told by one of the participants -- S.A.D. Puter -- in his jailhouse memoirs Looters of the Public Domain. Puter was a criminal-turned-government witness, and some of the details of his story have been disputed, but Puter's book remains a valuable eye witness account.
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