By Stephen Raher, USDCHS board member
It was a slowly evolving series of political scandals that captivated the nation. Driven by politics of the post-Reconstruction era and the economics of westward expansion, the star route scandals provided fodder for editorial pages and political wags throughout the early 1880s. Oregon played a small but important role in the narrative of the legal drama that unfolded in Washington, DC.
As the United States pursued its policy of “manifest destiny” after the Civil War, one perennial problem in newly occupied territories was reliable mail service. In large swathes of Oregon and other frontier areas, the Post Office Department relied on contractors to transport mail between sparsely populated communities (for arcane bureaucratic reasons, these routes were often referred to as “star routes”).
A politically-connected contractor would submit an unrealistically low bid to carry mail on a route. The Post Office, required by law to accept the low bid, awarded the contract. Soon thereafter, the contractor submitted petitions—purportedly from local residents, but sometimes forged—asking the Post Office to increase the frequency of mail service. Through an emergency provision in the procurement statute, Second Assistant Postmaster General Thomas J. Brady approved a substantial payment increase, enriching contractors while avoiding solicitation of new bids. The contractors benefiting from these supplemental appropriations then made payments to Brady and his co-conspirator, Sen. Stephen W. Dorsey, a Republican from Arkansas.
The corruption of star route contracting had a distinctly political aspect. The nation was reeling from economic depression and Reconstruction was a hotly contested issue. Both parties used star route contracts as a convenient form of political payoff. As the party in power, Republicans seemed to be more commonly implicated. Most notably, some evidence suggests that Republican James Garfield asked Asst. Postmaster Brady to enlist the help of star route contractors in support of his 1880 presidential campaign, although this was never proven. Interest in President Garfield’s role diminished after his assassination in 1881.
As Democrats challenged the Republicans’ national majority, so too did the parties compete in Oregon. Oregonian voters chose Republican presidential candidates in 1876 and 1880 (by narrow margins), but three Democrats served as governor between 1870 and 1882. While Democrats controlled the state legislature for most of the 1870s, Republicans captured both chambers in 1880. Given the political landscape and the number of isolated frontier communities in Oregon, it was practically inevitable that the star route scandals would touch the state.
After congressional investigations in the 1870s produced no reform in postal contracting, the U.S. Department of Justice secured criminal indictments in 1882. The indictments concerned 19 routes that were the subject of a bid-rigging conspiracy. Three of the routes were in Oregon: Eugene to Bridge Creek (in Wheeler County, near the present-day town of Mitchell), The Dalles to Baker City, and Canyon City to Fort McDermitt (just across the Oregon-Nevada border).
The epic courtroom battle started on June 1, 1882, lasted three months, and featured 115 witnesses and 3,600 exhibits. The prosecution’s case focused on establishing details concerning the volume of mail and the changes in service on the 19 suspect routes. This required several Oregon witnesses—not an insignificant undertaking, given that round-trip train travel would have taken weeks.
John Carrey of Grant County was a witness who provided colorful behind-the-scenes details. Described by the Washington DC Evening Star as a “Frenchman [who] talked broken English,” Carrey worked for defendant John R. Miner on the Canyon City-McDermitt route. Carrey testified that the postmaster, a Mr. Abbott in Alvord on the east side of Steens Mountain (Carrey was unsure of his first name and documentation shows either S.H. or J.G. Abbott), had complained to the Post Office Department that no more than weekly service was needed with so little mail traveling between Canyon City and Fort McDermitt. This complaint threatened the increased service that Miner had obtained—service that increased payments by $50,166 per year, an astounding 1,700% increase over the original price. According to the trial testimony, Miner directed Carrey to pay Postmaster Abbott to keep his opinions to himself.
Other witnesses testified about petitions demanding increased mail service. James F. Browne, of Fort McDermitt (trial records alternate between the spellings McDermitt and McDermott), testified that he had circulated petitions at the direction of defendant Miner. These petitions included the signature of Canyon City Postmaster Edwin Hall; however, Hall himself testified that his and at least two other signatures on the petition were forgeries. Two subcontractors from Utah (Nephi and W.D. Johnson) testified that they had signed petitions for increased service between Canyon City and Fort McDermitt even though they lived nowhere near the route in question.
Other Oregon witnesses provided mundane yet important details for the prosecution’s case. Three subcontractors (John M. Fisk and Joseph E. Masterson, both of Canyon City, and Emil Schultz, of Camp Watson near present-day Antone in Wheeler County) testified over several days about the details of their respective portions of The Dalles-Baker City route. The prosecution elicited these details to lay a foundation for proving that contractors had submitted false affidavits regarding the number of men and horses needed to transport the mail. Testifying about the mail volume in the area, Elizabeth Wilson, postmistress of The Dalles, told the jury that there were there were more mountains than people in Wasco County.
While the prosecution focused on details, the defense—led by renowned orator Robert Ingersoll—sought to portray the defendants as innocent public servants merely implementing Congress’s postal policy. The first defense witness was Oregonian John H. Mitchell A Republican politician, Mitchell represented Oregon in the U.S. Senate for three non-contiguous periods (totaling 22 years) between 1873 and his death in 1905. The trial took place between his first and second terms. Mitchell testified that he had contacted Asst. Postmaster Brady “a great many times” on behalf of constituents, supporting their calls for increased mail service. He also spoke about his advocacy on behalf of the Eugene-Bridge City route, describing the distances between Oregon’s population centers to the East Coast jury and the delays that came from mail being routed through Portland.
The trial results were not a high point for the nation’s justice system. The jury acquitted two defendants, found two comparatively minor actors guilty, and could not reach a verdict on the remaining defendants. The trial court judge, Andrew Wylie, set aside the entire verdict due to “general unreasonableness” and allegations of jury corruption. The jury foreman was subsequently indicted for bribery, and five government employees in Washington, DC were dismissed from office for meddling in the trial. The government swiftly commenced a second trial, which concluded in June 1883 with a verdict of not guilty as to all defendants. Public dissatisfaction with the outcome of the 1882 and 1883 trials paved the way both for the Pendleton Civil Service Act and the Independent Counsel Act. Meanwhile, rural residents in modern-day Oregon enjoy regular mail service, threatened less by corruption than by Congress’s inability to chart a future course for the U.S. Postal Service.