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Harmon’s Histories: The Montana senator who bought the election, but was loved nonetheless

Jim Harmon

He was fabulously rich, shamelessly obsessed with power and notoriety – and ruthless.

In 1899, he showered Montana legislators with money, literally buying a seat in the U.S. Senate. Although forced to resign over the bribery scandal, he was quickly reappointed to the Senate in 1901 by a new territorial legislature, serving a full term until 1907.

Of the whole bribery affair, he was famously quoted as having said, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”

But in 1911, when it came time for Missoula’s annual Chamber of Commerce banquet, all thoughts of scandal were set aside, forgotten. After all, their guest of honor, William Andrews Clark, had also done much good for the state and for the Missoula area.

He’d built the Western Lumber Company in Bonner, constructed a dam and electric company, and even created the Missoula streetcar system.

Some of the speakers that night were Clark associates. Judge W. M. Bickford had worked with W.A. and others to create the constitution for statehood and had headed up Clark’s interests in the Garden City.

U.S. Sen. Joseph M. Dixon agreed to be the toastmaster. Guests included University President C.A. Duniway. Others invited to speak were Mayor John M. Evans, former Mayor John M. Keith, Lt. Winton of Fort Missoula and President Kellogg of the Chamber of Commerce.

Sen. William A. Clark

It is quite likely that Arthur L. Stone, managing editor of the Daily Missoulian at the time, either assigned the speakers’ topics or had a hand in the matter. For the past year, Stone had been writing articles under the headline, “Following Old Trails.”

Each speaker at the banquet was asked to address a variety of “trails.” Judge Bickford would speak on “Legal Trails,” University President Duniway would address “Trails to Learning,” former Mayor Keith would speak of “Financial Trails,” and so on.

Mayor John M. Evans was asked to talk about “Municipal Trails,” specifically the new experiment with a commission form of government and William Clark was asked to speak of “Old Trails.”

Clark delighted the overflow crowd of 200-plus, gathered at the Palace Hotel, recalling: “In 1860, I was a little bit of a merchant at Reynolds City, over near the little city of Bear. In the fall of that year, I came down this canyon to where Missoula is.”

Back then, he recalled, “there was Worden’s mill, Worden’s store and a very few houses here. I went on down through Frenchtown, where there were a few French-Canadians then, and on over the Mullan Trail.”

With pride in his voice, he recounted helping in “developing the resources of (Missoula) and of western Montana. He told of constructing a dam at the mouth of the Blackfoot River, of the city waterworks, of the local street railway system,” adding: “Isn’t it a little daisy?”

But it was his promise to help create a “new trail” that made the next day’s headlines.

“This morning it seems very sure that Missoula is to be connected with the wonderful Flathead country by bands of steel,” reported the Missoulian, “for last evening W.A. Clark promised that he would do what he could to help the project, which contemplates a line from here to Polson, at the foot of Flathead Lake.”

The reporter (possibly A.L. Stone, himself, although there were no bylines back then) concluded, “The railway will be built, it’s safe to say.”

The prediction seemed a sure bet, as Clark had concluded his remarks by telling the audience, “I assure you of my desire to cooperate with you in anything that tends toward the welfare of Missoula or the state.”

As it turned out, it took just over six years for the Flathead branch of the Northern Pacific to be completed. Trains began running between Dixon and Polson in the late spring of 1918.

It is understandable, given the fact that the 1911 banquet was specifically arranged to “compliment (Clark) and his importance to western Montana and Missoula,” that there was no mention of Clark’s dubious past in the newspaper recap of the event.

The Missoulian described the banquet as “one of the most enjoyable and successful banquets ever held under the auspices of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce,” gushing: “The menu served was unusually good, the speeches were clever, interesting, to the point, and – oh, it was a good banquet, that’s all.

“There was that feeling of friendship, good fellowship, neighborliness – call it what you like – that will make any gathering worthwhile, and that is the one thing that cannot be improvised. So – it will bear repeating – it was a good banquet, a first-class banquet, a thorough success.”

Clark’s bribery scandal, still very much in the news, would play a large part in the passage of the country’s 17th Amendment a few months later in Washington. The amendment would allow the people to vote for U.S. senators, rather than state legislators.

Clark died in 1925, leaving a fortune estimated in the $300 million range, equivalent to something over $4 billion in today’s dollars, including real estate and artwork.

A few art pieces from his massive acquisitions have just been added to a collection at the University of Montana.

While much has been written about W.A. Clark, Marcus Daly and the Copper King era, Keith Edgerton, an associate professor of History at MSU-Billings, says no detailed biography of Clark has yet been published.

Edgerton’s taken on the task, but eight years in, is still working on the project.

In the meantime, “Empty Mansions” by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. provides a fascinating insight into the family through the story of Clark’s daughter, Huguette, who became a recluse, living to age 104.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.