CHASE SALMON OSBORN

by Saralee R. Howard

The following text is quoted from the Great Lakes Informant, Series 1 - "Famous Michiganians," Number 2, published by the Michigan Department of State, Michigan History Division. It is used here with the permission of the author.

Chase Salmon Osborn (1860-1949) was the twenty-seventh governor of Michigan serving one term from 1911-12. But his career was by no means limited to politics. He was a newspaper reporter and publisher, an explorer, an author, and a public servant. Osborn's varied interests and expansive personality bring to mind a more contemporary public figure - also a resident of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and beloved my many - the late Senator Philip A. Hart (1912-1976).

Osborn was born on January 22, 1860, in Huntington County, Indiana. The name which George and Margaret Osborn gave to their son on the eve of the Civil War was Chase Salmon after the noted Ohio abolitionist Salmon P. Chase. When Osborn was still quite young, his family lost all their money. Nevertheless, education remained a vital goal of the Osborn Family. "My parents," he recalled, "would teach us American history traditionally and they were both well informed. As my father loved or hated so did I come to do." Osborn attended Purdue University in Indianan but left there for Chicago in the late 1870s. Working a short stint as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, he departed from that city in search of employment. In Wisconsin he held down several odd jobs until becoming a newspaper writer for the Evening Wisconsin. The young reporter was then in 1881 financially able to marry Lillian Jones of Milwaukee. Moving to the small town of Florence, Wisconsin, situated near the Michigan border, Osborn ran the local newspaper,prospected for iron, and became involved in politics. Speaking of Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, he said, "I loved the wild new country. It brought into play everything that a soul and mind and body possesses. Nearly all the pioneers were young. The pace demanded youth."

It was this youthful and energetic spirit which brought Osborn from Wisconsin to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, whose faltering weekly newspaper, the Sault News, he had just purchased in partnership. He gained sole ownership of the newspaper and soon shaped it into a more stable and profitable enterprise. In 1890 Osborn was appointed local postmaster for a short time. Later, Governor John T. Rich made him state game and fish warden. Subsequently, in Osborn's inaugural address, he said of Rich:

If I were to look backward for a model of state government, I would select the administration of John T. Rich. When Governor Rich was at the head of state affairs, there was a feeling in every city and in every hamlet that the public business was being attended to capably, conscientiously, simply and economically.
Perhaps this warm approval might be seen as an indirect self- affirmation of Osborn, who as a public servant in Rich's administration was a highly conscientious game and fish warden. Not only did the position give impact to his avid conservationism, it enabled him to make several appointments thus buttressing his political position.

Osborn's 1896 bid for Congress was unsuccessful. But Hazen Pingree, four term mayor of Detroit and Michigan's reform governor for one term, appointed Osborn state railroad commissioner in 1898. Forced to sell out his newspaper in Sault Ste. Marie, he and Walter J. Hunsaker purchased the Saginaw Courier Herald.

As game and fish warden and railroad commissioner, Osborn's work indicated more that a hint of the progressive spirit which swept American in the early twentieth century. Like Theodore Roosevelt whom he greatly admired, Osborn love rugged terrain and out-of- doors adventure and fought to protect the natural world. And in a similar vein to Tom Lawson of Oregon, Michigan's railroad commissioner advocated state control of freight and passenger rates as well as the establishment of a regulatory commission (which was, in fact, created after Osborn left office). He insisted on separated grade crossings where two or more railroads intersected - "safety" being a major goal of the progressive movement. When examining the state's eleven thousand miles of track, he often rode in a special cab located directly above the inspecting engine's "cowcatcher." Osborn was an advocate of government ownership of railroads - a quite radical view which he held the rest of his life. Railroad commissioner from 1899-1903, Osborn had, in the meanwhile, made an unsuccessful bid for the gubernatorial nomination in 1900.

Not only did Osborn identify with Roosevelt as outdoorsman but as political leader.

Always in public life and in politics I have clung to certain ideals of citizenship and its responsibilities. Like millions of others I have looked upon Theodore Roosevelt as personifying most nearly these mind and heart types. He was human and made errors, but he was heartful and earnest, courageous and honest.
But despite the governor-to-be's progressivism, he was no "muckraker." In fact, in his 1918 autobiography The Iron Hunter, he underplayed one of the great scandals of the turn of the century - the abominable quality of food given to soldiers in the Spanish-American War. But Osborn lightly explains:
There had not been a battle severe enough to attract public attention from the minor discomforts of war: sickness in camp and quality of food. Someone found a can of Chicago corned beef that emitted gas when it was punctured for opening. It was one the few cans that did not stand the subtropics.
His concern here seems to be the defense of fellow Michiganian, General Russell A. Alger, Secretary of War during the Spanish- American conflict, rather than genuine investigative interest. For these "minor discomforts of war" accounted for over half of the war's victims.

A loyal resident of Sault Ste. Marie, Osborn also traveled extensively. He temporarily abandoned his political career after his tenure as railroad commissioner ended to journey and explore in this country and elsewhere. His object: a visit to every place in the world where iron ore was produced in commercial quantities.

It is on the subject of iron ore that this politically astute man - this man of business and material reforms - becomes a poet.

When the Crusader dreamed and gave his life to recover the land of Christ, the sword that gleamed with the glory of heaven and the zeal of deep desire was a thing of iron ore.... Our span of life is ticked off by springs of iron ore in clock and watch...let those who produce it hold up their heads with dignity and walk erect among men.
And quite appropriately, the eminent Osborn, even after a term as governor, entitled his autobiography The Iron Hunter (1918).

A bit of background on Michigan's iron industry serves to emphasize the relevance of Osborn's deep interest in iron ore and the "Iron Hunter's" strong identification with Michigan's Upper Peninsula. As the iron industry developed, three major Upper Peninsula iron mining districts opened, the Marquette, the Menominee, and the Gogebic. Not only did Michigan have vast and quality iron ore deposits, it had a fine lake system for transporting the materials. Railways and port cities sprung up to facilitate the iron industry.

Osborn explored iron deposits in Michigan and elsewhere and discovered a vast iron range in Ontario, Canada, called Moose Mountain. Iron was not his only concern: he wrote humanistically of his travel and researches in The Andean Land (1909). After numerous adventuresome and profitable forays, Osborn returned in 1908 to his earlier love - politics. He served as chairman of the Michigan delegation to the Republican National Convention which nominated William Howard Taft. A delegate to the National Conservation Congress that same year, he was also appointed a regent of the University of Michigan, a job in which he took much pride.

These highly visible as well as influential positions provided an ideal springboard for another venture into elective politics. Osborn announced in 1909 his candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial primary election. Frank Knox, editor of what had once been Osborn's Sault News and future Secretary of the Navy during World War II, managed the race. The energetic and vibrant candidate conducted a fast-paced campaign criss-crossing the state by automobile. He was running against incumbent three term governor, Fred Warner. Osborn recalled:

There was much dissatisfaction with the state of public affairs in Michigan. Higher ideals of government began to be asserted in many places. A man, perhaps worthy enough, but who was regarded as being very ordinary, had been elected Governor for a third term.
"Osborn, Harmony, and a New Deal" was his slogan: anti-Warnerism (and indirectly, anti-corruption) was the underlying message. Why the stress on "Harmony" can be explained by looking at the gubernatorial campaign of 1908. At that time Governor Fred Warner, a conservative Republican who got caught up in the wave of progressive reform, successfully spearheaded the drive mandating primary elections for Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, and United States Senator. This act enabled Warner to run for an unprecedented third term which he won by a minute margin. The episode coupled with hints of corruption caused considerable discord within the Republican Party. And so Osborn - capitalizing on the growing unpopularity of Warner - promised to bring the Republicans together.

Osborn's "New Deal," not to be confused with Franklin D. Roosevelt's program of the same name, was a platform of legislative and administrative reforms. A speech before the Republican Club of Greenville, Michigan, in October 1909, two weeks after he declared his candidacy, introduced the measures which formed the backbone of his campaign. Efficiency in government, high personal standards, conservation, controls on banks, improved roads, child and woman labor laws, workman's compensation, and electoral reform were mentioned - bulwarks of the progressive movement. These were extensive promises but Osborn's achievements were commendable. During his two-year term as governor he supported (in some instances unsuccessfully) or passed legislation on the following issues:

  1. Woman's suffrage (not incorporated as law in Michigan until 1918)
  2. Prohibiting wholesale distributors or producers of liquor from owning saloons
  3. Teaching of agriculture in public schools and state aid for country agricultural schools
  4. An unsuccessful attempt to create a State Department of Agriculture
  5. Controls on banks
  6. Legal use of convict labor to build roads and a general road improvement program
  7. Child and woman labor laws
  8. Workman's compensation

With so many crucial issues and personalities at stake, the primary election was an exiting one. Osborn emerged victorious. The election race between the Republican and Democrat Lawton T. Hemans was considerably less animated and Osborn won easily.

Besides the accomplishments discussed above, Osborn, by abolishing unnecessary offices and employees and by carefully managing state business, transformed Michigan's half-million dollar debt into a surplus of a half-million in two years.

As mentioned before Osborn was an avid supporter of Theodore Roosevelt whom he urged to run for the presidency in 1912. In hopes of helping Roosevelt, Governor Osborn called a special session of the State Legislature in the spring of 1912 and attempted to push through a presidential preferential primary bill. This would have bound delegates to vote for a certain candidate in accordance with the people's vote at the polls. The measure failed.

That same spring the State Republican Convention held in Bay City turned into a rout with supporters of Roosevelt and Taft (the incumbent who had in 1908 been Roosevelt's hand picked successor) fighting tumultuously among themselves. Although not in attendance, Osborn attempted to aid Roosevelt delegates. Ultimately, the Michigan delegates seated at the Republican National Convention backed Taft who won the nomination. Roosevelt bolted the party and ran as a Progressive (the "Progressive" party overlapped but was, by no means, synonymous with the "progressive" movement).

Feeling that he simply could not follow Roosevelt out of the ranks of the Republicans, Osborn did, nevertheless, campaign for him in Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma, though not in Michigan. Interestingly enough, Michigan - for the first time since 1852 - did not cast its Presidential electoral votes for a Republican but instead supported Theodore Roosevelt.

Choosing not to run for a second term, Governor Osborn left office and took a world trip. Upon returning he made a late entrance into the gubernatorial race of 1914 but lost. In both 1918 and 1928 Osborn ran for the Republican senatorial nomination and met with defeat. Michigan's Republicans endorsed him their "favorite son" vice-presidential candidate in 1928 but the nomination did not materialize.

To some, this string of defeats would have signaled the end of a career. But the former governor's vibrant personality and interests extended beyond the political arena. His progressivism did not cease as the movement ebbed for in his capacity as political delegate, public speaker, member of numerous government and private committees, and resident of his beloved Upper Peninsula, he continued to agitate for reform. Partly because of his travels, Osborn developed a firm concern for international affairs. Supporting Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations, he urged active American participation in world affairs during the 1920s and 1930s despite the consensus of isolationism during those years particularly in the Midwest.

One historian has referred to Osborn as an "imperialist" of the stripe of Theodore Roosevelt during the early twentieth century. If true, the attitude was later tempered. Welcoming the establishment of the United Nations, this "booster" of the Upper Peninsula suggested that Sugar Island on the Canadian-American border near Sault Ste. Marie be that international body's site of operations - a loyal even if impractical idea.

Civic projects such as the designation of Isle Royale as a national park occupied a part of Osborn's time. In 1939 he met with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to discuss the possibility of a bridge over the Straits of Mackinac, a dream which did not materialize during Osborn's lifetime. Osborn's reform programs as governor were part of that era's progressive movement. But his later activities particularly after World War I can be more directly attributed to his individual beliefs and character rather than the impetus of a social movement. The world of politics intrigued this Republican aspirant all his life. Yet only six years after his term as governor he entitled his autobiography The Iron Hunter. Dying in 1949 at the age of ninety, his legacy remains in material achievements, such as workman's compensation laws. Yet the intangibles of "heart" and individuality touch those who knew or read of him.

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