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L. A. THEN AND NOW

The Tangled Tale That Inspired a Muckraker

August 19, 2001|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the darkest chapters in the turbulent history of the Southern Pacific railroad in California was the "Mussel Slough Tragedy," which left seven men dead over a land dispute, turned a mild, bookish family man into a train robber and killer and led author Frank Norris to write about "The Octopus"--the nickname for the railroad with a stranglehold on the state.

No other single California company ever held the power and influence that Southern Pacific did. For almost three decades, its slightest decisions about where to lay tracks and where not to created some cities and destroyed others. The company determined which industries would rise and which would fall. It owned governors, entire legislatures and political parties.

The way the railroad did business eventually prompted reformers to create the state's present political system, including the initiative process, to weaken the grip of politicians who were bought and paid for by the railroad.

In 1876, the Golden State's golden spike linked Los Angeles to San Francisco and the East by rail, enabling farmers to sell their fruit and vegetables to markets elsewhere. About 200 miles north of Los Angeles, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, near the towns of Hanford and Visalia, immigrant farmers were lured with false advertising to what was really parched railroad-owned land in an area called Mussel Slough. It was named for the freshwater mussels that lived among the reeds when the Kings River ran high.

Once the farmers had built homes and an irrigation system that made the land more profitable, Southern Pacific jacked up the purchase prices from the promised $2.50 to upward of $30 an acre.

The farmers banded together to form a Settlers Land League, whose 600 members vowed to fight the railroad. Some opponents claimed it was nothing more than a vigilante group for protection against outlaws. Meeting in secret, leaguers made midnight visits threatening those who didn't agree with them, especially railroad employees and supporters.

Bitterness began to grow when most of the settlers refused to pay Southern Pacific's asking price and the railroad secured judgments against them. On May 11, 1880, the process of evicting the settlers from their homes was begun by four men: a U.S. marshal, a Southern Pacific land appraiser and two locals who were eager to buy the repossessed property. About 20 men from the league rode out to stop the evictions. They met up with the foursome in Henry Brewer's wheat field.

From close range, several of the two dozen men on both sides began shooting. Most managed to get away or take cover. Five settlers fell mortally wounded, one with 12 slugs in his chest. The railroad appraiser was shot and died four days later. One of the two local men slunk away, pretending he had been hit, but the settlers weren't fooled and evidently caught up with him; he was found dead, shot in the back by a rifle at close range.

All seven bodies were laid out on Brewer's porch. The giant oak tree that shaded the place, christened "Tragedy Oak," stood for 114 more years before dying in 1994.

Although an outpouring of sympathy for the farmers came from across the nation, Southern Pacific pressed the authorities to take the matter to court. Of the 17 men tried on charges of obstructing a federal officer, five were found guilty. None was prosecuted for murder.

As public outrage swelled against the powerful railroad after the convictions, Christopher Evans, a farmer and father of seven whose wife's uncle had lost his land in Mussel Slough, was planting beans on 20 acres south of Visalia.

When Southern Pacific abruptly raised its shipping price at harvest, he lost money. He got out of farming and managed a grain storehouse for a local bank, where his patrons told him horror stories about the railroad company.

In 1887, Evans hired a disgruntled former Southern Pacific brakeman named John Sontag to work his land, and in 1889, a string of unsolved train robberies began plaguing Southern Pacific. All but one of the five holdups, over about three years, were within a 60-mile radius of Mussel Slough, where more than 200 settlers had eventually been evicted from homes and fields on Southern Pacific land.

The outlaws wore masks and long dusters and once made off with as much as $25,000 in gold and silver, leaving four railroad men dead and several wounded. Each time, the robbers said they were avenging the "Mussel Slough Robbery."

Evans was in his barn on the day in 1892 when legendary railroad detective "Whispering Smith" and a sheriff's deputy came to question him and Sontag. Evans drew his gun and walked to the parlor, where he met the lawmen.

When Sontag then stepped into the room with his shotgun aimed high, the two lawmen whirled around, bumped into each other and ran. Evans and Sontag fired after them, wounding the deputy. Smith sprinted off for reinforcements, while Evans and Sontag fled.

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