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There’s Still Gold In Them Thar Hills, But it May Be Fool’s Gold

By Martha Quillen

During the second week of November, most of my Facebook friends were posting glad tidings about both the national election results and Salida’s recent city council election. I should have been elated myself, since I voted for winner P.T. Wood. Wood struck me as well-informed, amiable and less partisan than his opponent, and I hoped he might inspire earnest discussion and cooperation.

But with that said? I’m not sure collaborative politics can work right now, because whether the subject is national or local, political discourse tends to be antagonistic and reduced to talking points and reflexive arguments.

I used to weigh in on whether I wanted trees planted or sidewalks repaired in Salida, but that was before accusations, counter accusations and perpetual charges of rudeness, misconduct and incompetence started dominating Salida’s public affairs. Six years ago, I routinely voted for council members and mayors, but in the last five years? I often skip that part of the ballot because local campaigning is so freighted with allegations and suppositions it would take a police investigation to sort it all out.


And I personally don’t feel comfortable even talking about, let alone deciding, whether assertions by Eileen Rogers are more or less valid than Jim LiVecchi’s claims that her assertions were libelous. It’s not that I don’t believe there are things worth fighting over, but I don’t think Salida’s procedural and line item budget issues are in that category.

On the other hand, however, I don’t actually think that’s what we are fighting about. All too often, modern issues are secondary, and sometimes totally insignificant, in comparison to the hostility displayed, likely because what citizens are really fighting about is who matters, which is downright wrong and un-American. But at this point, our political process has divided the whole country into a patchwork of conflicting peoples, and it has us battling over whether red or blue, black or white, rich or poor, Northern or Southern, Idahoan or Ohioan, administrative professionals or blue collar generalists should prevail.

As for local matters? Regardless of what side is speaking or what issue is involved, Salidans and their representatives often portray finances and proposals as so sacrosanct, they shouldn’t be questioned or negotiated. So sometimes I find myself angrily fighting about whether an issue is actually important or even a real issue, which is as ludicrous as fighting over minor procedures.

Yet that’s where we’re at today. Politics are incendiary and emotional, and campaigns are so high on condemnation and blame and so low on substance that they’re dangerous. And all too often, we the people don’t seem to care whether our leaders are telling the truth or not; or are downright insulting, mean and intentionally hurtful; or even if they’re sexual predators, crooks or notoriously corrupt, as long as they are on our side.

Today the entire political process seems more painful than effective. But in a televised presentation for his newest book, The Republic for Which It Stands: the United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, historian Richard White sheds some light on possible reasons for this development. White contends that we are living in a second Gilded Age, and lists commonalities between our era and the Gilded Age (which occurred after the civil war and continued into the 1890s): partisan stalemate; immigration and reaction; corruption in both politics and business; rising inequality; environmental crisis; claims of white supremacy; and attempts to restrict suffrage.

Those aren’t the only parallels White cites. The Gilded Age saw the “invention of American popular culture,” with the birth of professional sports, the mass press and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows. A deluge of popular new influences transformed people’s lives, and many Gilded Age citizens expressed the feeling that they were living in a world they’d never intended to produce or inhabit, “a feeling we can have sympathy with.”

In those days Americans favored small towns, Protestant churches, safe communities and homogeneous populations. But they got industrialization, urban life and scads of immigrant workers. As White tells it, during the Gilded Age, Americans envisioned Springfield and got Chicago. They anticipated the growth of middle class towns but got cities teeming with tenements and famed for renowned mansions.

The first Gilded Age also produced a huge GDP, but it was so poorly distributed that it fueled growing inequality, and most people thought their lives were getting worse. White contends they were right, and presents health statistics to prove it.

But perhaps the most fascinating thing White says is that Western expansion wasn’t really due to rugged individualism or true grit, but was actually a product of Gilded Age economics, which gave rise to the industries, mines, railroads and immigration policies that made the frontier inhabitable.

During the Gilded Age, the United States was home to half of the manufacturing capacity in the world, and our nation’s growing wealth and influence were astounding. But the nation’s good fortune wasn’t shared by the people who toiled in America’s fields, mines and factories, and as a result our country became polarized and prone to violence, strikes, murder and frontier justice.

In that era, Central Colorado was home to brothels, opium dens, ethnic enclaves and Chinese laundries. In Salida in 1883 alone, Marshal Baxter Stingley and Deputy James Bathhurst were both shot while quelling a brawl at a local hotel. Bathhurst died, but Stingley recovered. Also in 1883, two men were lynched in Maysville, and a Salida rancher was charged with rustling and lynched in Cañon City. And in October, Stingley was killed trying to arrest another local rancher suspected of rustling.

During the following years murder and mayhem persisted, but a violent frenzy in 1891 made locals reconsider their behavior. A drunken mob advanced on the Salida jail, kidnapped a murder suspect, killed him, dragged him, and strung his mutilated body up in the Salida railyards for all to see, including hundreds of passengers aboard a morning train. Stories about that perfidy spread across the nation, resulting in cries for justice; several men were arrested, but later released.

And now Americans are once again being shaken by violence; Klan activities; and politically motivated riots, marches and demonstrations. During the Gilded Age there were devastating fires, fatal mining and railroading accidents, smallpox epidemics, bank failures, notoriously crime-ridden red-light districts and shootings aplenty, and the people clamored for reform. Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Frances Willard, Ida B. Wells, Eugene Debs, Samuel Gompers, Mother Jones, unions, benevolent societies and churches weighed in. They spoke, they marched, they protested. But things didn’t settle down until the excesses of the period became so disturbing they couldn’t be dismissed.

According to pretty much everybody, things seem to be running awry in our own era of excess. In fact, Richard White says our current course is so unsustainable it can’t persist.

It takes powerful collusion to keep capital flowing at Gilded Age levels. To generate such astounding levels of wealth we pollute rivers, contaminate bays, befoul skies, endanger wildlife, dry up wetlands, mow down forests, mistreat workers, use and abuse immigrants and minorities, threaten other nations, create mountains of refuse, poison our own water supplies …

White believes the seeds for the Progressive Era were planted during the Gilded Age, and he assumes that we are planting seeds that will compel a future transformation, but the 70-year-old historian doesn’t expect to live to see it.

Eventually we must address our extravagance. But it’s far easier to speak, march, protest and argue about how to spend money, than to turn your back on it. And to actually join together and cooperate and make sacrifices for a better world? White’s right; we’re not there yet.

I’d like to extend my congratulations and best wishes to Mayor Wood, and to thank all of those who ran and who have served. Politics can be brutal, and remarks are all too often personal and stinging, but without people willing to take criticism, there would be no democracy.

Richard White’s presentation is terrific and free online on the Book TV site at