Friday, December 30, 2016

Ex-Governor Frank Steunenberg Assassinated, Fire Destroys Post Falls Sawmill [otd 12/30]

Governor Steunenberg. University of Utah.
On December 30, 1905, an assassin’s bomb murdered former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg. The resulting investigation, arrests, and trials had worldwide significance in the management- labor conflicts of the time.

Labor union support helped elect Steunenberg to two consecutive terms as governor. However, when union activists blew up the ore mill at Wardner and two men were killed [blog, Apr 29], the governor declared martial law. Although Steunenberg was simply doing his duty to maintain order, he began to receive hate mail. Finally, union thug Harry Orchard planted the 1905 bomb to punish Steunenberg for what the unions considered his “betrayal.”

Authorities soon captured Orchard and he confessed to the deed. Prosecutors then tried to convict union leaders as instigators of the crime. This led to a sensational face-off in court between the celebrated Clarence Darrow for the defense and attorney William E. Borah [blog, Jun 29], soon to be famous in the U. S. Senate as the “Lion of Idaho.” The State’s case depended largely upon the tainted testimony of the bomber Orchard … and failed. Orchard “got off” with a sentence of life in prison.

For an exhaustive treatment of this incident, consult the linked blog that specializes in that topic: “Idaho Meanderings: Steunenberg, Trial of the Century, Labor, Legal, Political History.”

The episode was also the subject of the book: J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America, Simon & Schuster (1998).

Post Falls sawmill, early 1900s.
North Idaho Museum.
On December 30, 1902, the sawmill that formed the centerpiece for the town of Post Falls, Idaho, was destroyed by fire. The Illustrated History observed, “As an evidence of the importance of the mill as a factor in the prosperity of the town it may be stated that at the time of the fire Post Falls had a population of six hundred. Two months later the population was but little more that half that number.”

In 1871, German emigrant Frederick Post purchased property at these Spokane River falls from the Coeur d'Alene Indians. (An unusual concession for the time, since most whites tended to simply appropriate tribal lands.) He concentrated on other interests until 1880, and then built the Post Falls sawmill. Post leased the mill to other operators, ran it himself from 1886 to 1889, then leased it out again.

As the mill prospered, the area grew, with enough settlement to support a general store and a school (built in 1888). Commissioners incorporated the town of Post Falls in 1891. Post finally sold the sawmill property in 1894. At the time of the fire, the mill belonged to the Idaho Lumber & Manufacturing Company.

Of course, Post Falls was an ideal location for a sawmill to process the region’s timber resources; the facility was soon rebuilt. The Falls also provided a prime setting for irrigation and power dams. Before the end of the decade, dams blocked each of the three natural river channels.

The local utility says the dams “currently provide a combined 14.75 megawatts of electricity.” With average household usage, that would supply about half the power required by the town.
References: [French], [Hawley], [Illust-North]

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