Occasionally we publish innocent slice-of-life pictures that somehow elicit monstrous green-eyed retorts about the immoral ease of California life. To you readers persuaded that California suffers insufficient hardship, I offer this portrait, titled “The Curse of California,” published in the San Francisco Wasp bearing this date in 1882. (You can see it at full size by clicking on the little image.)
Gaze upon the fearsome Octopus, also known as the Central Pacific Railroad, which clutches in its dreadful arms the stage lines, the lumber dealers, the fruit growers, the farmers, the miners, the winemakers, the post and telegraph, the shipping industry, even the financial resources of the United States Treasury itself, shoveling them all with the power of monopoly into its maw. The rotten apples of its eyes are its grim pilots, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker1, who built and occupied the luxurious mansions on Nob Hill (at the upper left) using as foundations the dead settlers murdered for squatting on railroad land at Mussel Slough (at the lower left).
The Wasp distinguished itself by illustrations like this one, by Frederick Keller, who had worked for the magazine since the brothers Korbel started it. Yes, those brothers Korbel,2 who also owned a cigar-box business, which put them in the position of appreciating lithographers. And the pictures they printed generally disapproved of the Central Pacific Railroad, which had its fingers in and on and soiling everything in the state, if not indeed the nation. This anti-railroad feeling only intensified after the Korbels sold the magazine to a new owner, who hired Ambrose Bierce to edit it in 1881.
To Bierce, the engineering feats of Crocker were “merely a natural instinct inherited from his public spirited ancestor, the man who dug the postholes on Mount Calvary.” Stanford was $tealand £andford. The railroad itself “conducted the business … of promoting dyspepsia and disseminating death, hell, and the grave.”3
After leaving the Wasp in 1886, Bierce landed eventually with William Randolph Hearst, whose fortune ensured his immunity to mere monetary corruption, and who let Bierce continue his crusade against the Octopus. Bierce won a great battle in 1896, when the Central Pacific sought to get a bill through Congress effectively excusing it from paying its debts to the United States. With proto-muckraking4 Bierce helped ensure the bill’s defeat.
Yet the Octopus5 lived on. Four years after “The Curse of California” depicted it as a monstrous living entity, a Supreme Court Justice declared the Central Pacific6 was a rights-bearing living entity, and with that tool and Huntington’s ever-ready bag of bribes, it defended itself, surviving into Frank Norris-ification, into the years of E. H. Harriman’s ownership and through litigation and regulation, its tentacles become the lineaments and ligaments of the state, inseparable from and indeed constituting the reality underneath the California dream.
And so indeed does Ambrose Bierce, or a descendant of his yet live, interested now not in the railroad, but the American historical profession. But that’s worth a whole ’nother post, isn’t it?
1I think. And I don’t know why Collis Huntington should get off the hook here, but anyway. Mark Hopkins probably gets off the hook because seemed relatively mild. And was dead by then.
2A-and, we’re back to California as insufferable paradise. Look, just, if you want to hate, I can’t stop you. Haterz.
3Quoted in Daniel Lindley, Ambrose Bierce Takes on the Railroad: The Journalist as Muckraker and Cynic (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999), 81 and 85.
4See Lindley and also Carey McWilliams on this too.
5Yes, I know it seems to have ten tentacles. I didn’t draw the picture or title Norris’s novel.
6Yes, I know the case is Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific. But (a) the Central and Southern were largely a single thing, separate mainly in name and (b) the Court bundled this case with a case involving the Central Pacific.