The Whistleblower

The story of Fred Whiteside, a Flathead senator who took on a corrupt copper king at the turn of the 20th century while tending to an apple orchard back home in Kalispell

By Myers Reece
Fred Whiteside. Photo courtesy of the Montana Historical Society

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2016 edition of Flathead Living.

Fred Whiteside is on a short list of Montanans who are permanently memorialized in the state capitol. It’s a fitting place for him to spend eternity, since, as his plaque asserts, during the statehouse’s construction in the 1890s, the Kalispell senator exposed a scheme to embezzle millions of dollars by inflating the project’s cost. The scandal spurred a reinvigorated endeavor to build a new state capitol, sans corruption, which resulted in the artful edifice that serves as Montana’s governmental lynchpin to this day.

Whiteside’s battle with the fraudulent Capitol Commission was a training ground for his next, and most famous, round of whistleblowing two years later, in 1899, when he publicly challenged the political ambitions of William A. Clark by uncovering the industrial magnate’s use of bribery to obtain votes. Clark, among the most powerful men in Montana history, was believed to be one of the two richest Americans at the time alongside John D. Rockefeller.

Not only did Whiteside’s efforts obstruct and temporarily derail Clark’s rise to the Senate, but they also, most significantly, led to a constitutional amendment requiring direct election of U.S. senators, as opposed to state legislatures selecting them.

The Fred Whiteside plaque that was sponsored by a citizens’ group, assisted by the Montana Arts Council, and installed in the Montana State Capitol in Helena in August 1974. The bronze plaque was sculpted by Richard P. Murphy of California. Photo courtesy of the Montana Historical Society

Whiteside’s state capitol plaque in Helena notes that a “grateful citizenry” has bestowed the honor in recognition of “valiant acts of patriotism.”

“He fought for honesty in government,” the plaque states. “Against staggering opposition at times — setting an example worthy of emulation.”

When Whiteside wasn’t taking on political corruption, he could be found tending to his apple orchard in Kalispell. For this pioneering state senator, growing fruit and whistleblowing were both dignified pursuits, and he approached them with the same fervency as he had buffalo hunting, freight hauling, general contracting, and otherwise placing his stamp on the American West.

Whiteside was the subject of a recent meeting held by the Northwest Montana Posse of Westerners, a Flathead Valley-based group of history enthusiasts, where residents living in the old Ashley area of west Kalispell arrived with apples from trees they believe are descendants of his original orchard. Although there isn’t conclusive evidence of the fruit’s genetic lineage, it was clear the apple gatherers took pride, all these years later, in their potential connection to a man whose relative obscurity belies his enduring significance in Montana history.

Whiteside was born Oct. 31, 1857 in Litchfield, Illinois, the great-grandson of Captain William Clark, the famous explorer of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but no relation to the man of the same name whom Whiteside would later use as a springboard to his own modicum of national fame.

Whiteside made his first trip to Montana in 1878. As he recalled in his autobiography “Three Hundred Grand: Buffalo, Boodle and Bribery,” which was dictated to his daughter the year before his 1935 death and eventually published in 1980, “I grabbed my war bag of personal stuff and jumped down from the farm wagon in which my elder brother had driven me from our tenant farm to the railroad station in the country town of Litchfield.” With that, a frontier life had begun.

Whiteside bought an $18 ticket for a six-day trip on the War Eagle, a steamboat departing from St. Louis. Upon arriving in St. Paul, he hopped aboard a Northern Pacific Railroad train bound for Bismarck, North Dakota, but not before purchasing a .50 caliber rifle for buffalo hunting. When an experienced buffalo hunter saw the gun, he informed Whiteside that he had been swindled.

“If you shoot a buffalo with that damned thing and he finds out,” the hunter said, “he’s liable to make trouble for you.”

After arriving in Bismarck, his journey to Miles City hit another speed bump: a week earlier, Indians had killed two men at the stagecoach station and run off the livestock. While trying to arrange alternative transportation means, Whiteside spent 10 days camped out with a Métis and his wife, learning vital frontier survival techniques.

Whiteside eventually found a man who agreed to take him to Miles City for $15, and the young voyager arrived along with an influx of settlers brought West by the Northern Pacific Railroad and the lure of riches. His autobiography says substantial sums of money were dispersed between “sheep and cattle ranches, building business blocks, and various other enterprises incident to the opening of a new country.”

“Those were hectic days in Montana,” he wrote. “New people were arriving in large numbers and nearly all brought money to give them a start in the new El Dorado.”

Whiteside found a job hauling freight with horse-drawn jerk lines. From there, the entrepreneur would piece together a small fortune through freight hauling and buffalo hunting, and later, general contracting, while accumulating a book’s worth of frontier adventures, which included lowering a body after a hanging, finding a colleague scalped and killed, encounters with grizzlies and Indians, and befriending another Métis named Joaquine.

One of Whiteside’s first forays into the construction business was building a dance hall called the Bella Union in Miles City, although he said in his memoirs that he never patronized the establishment because he didn’t approve of such activities. In fact, he would later try to abolish licensed gambling in the Legislature.

An 1896 historical photograph of the Old Soldiers’ Home, which Fred Whiteside built in Columbia Falls in 1887.

Whiteside was lead contractor for the Old Soldiers’ Home in Columbia Falls, completed in 1887. Now called the Montana Veterans’ Home, the operation today is based out of a newer adjacent building while the original structure is no longer in use, although grassroots efforts are underway to repurpose the historic brick building. Among Whiteside’s other impressive construction feats were the historic Broadwater Hotel and Natatorium in Helena, a silver smelter in Great Falls, and the Hennessy Block in Butte.

In 1891, Whiteside moved to Kalispell, where he built a 14-room ranch house and planted an apple orchard with 50,000 trees. He grew vegetables between the rows of trees. His autobiography commits a single paragraph to this undertaking, hardly glowing.

“I learned from bitter experience that the world has but little sympathy with the man who feeds it,” Whiteside said. “He must sell his products at the price fixed by those who buy, and for all he buys he must pay the price fixed by those who sell.”

His qualms with agricultural economics aside, Whiteside pursued fruit growing with the same diligence he displayed in other arenas of life, and his daughter recalls Kalispell fondly in her foreword to “Three Hundred Grand.”

“I considered my childhood and teenage years perfect due to my parents and the environment they provided,” Eunice Whiteside Reasoner wrote.

Whiteside, who was also the editor and publisher of the Kalispell Bee newspaper, was elected in 1896 as a Democrat to Montana’s lower house of the Fifth Legislative Assembly. He admitted to being “green and ignorant of the ways of politicians, but to me the same coin of honest purpose was the standard of value as in my youth.”

During his first session, in 1897, he “caught the odor of various forms of graft,” the strongest of which “came from the state Capitol Commission, then in the preliminary stages of constructing the Capitol.” Whiteside sniffed out and uncovered a plot to raise $5 million for a project that would actually cost not even half that sum. The rest of the money would be secretly divvied out to a ring of insiders.

Despite providing compelling evidence, Whiteside was greeted with resistance from the legislators allied with commission members. For its part, the commission sued Whiteside for $50,000 in damages for libel.

But a district court ultimately rendered a verdict in Whiteside’s favor, leading Gov. Robert B. Smith to appoint a new commission, based on Whiteside’s findings. The building was constructed for $350,000, or 7 percent of the original commission’s figure, predominantly with land grant funds, according to Whiteside’s account.

The Montana State Capitol. File photo

Whiteside was elected to the state Senate in 1898. By the 1899 legislative session, it was widely known that William A. Clark, who had amassed great wealth through his industrial enterprises as one of Montana’s “Copper Kings,” was brazenly offering $10,000 apiece to state legislators in exchange for their vote in his U.S. Senate campaign.

With assistance from fellow legislators who also found the bribery deplorable, Whiteside agreed to accept a series of payments totaling $30,000 for himself and on behalf of others ostensibly as bribe money, though in reality he planned to use the cash as physical proof of corruption.

Once John Wellcome, an attorney who served as Clark’s primary bagman, grew wise to the plan, he called Whiteside into the office of Helena Independent publisher, John Neill, for a meeting. The location wasn’t arbitrary. According to Dennis Swibold’s book, “Copper Chorus: Mining, Politics, and the Montana Press,” Neill later admitted that Clark held a $25,000 mortgage on the newspaper. Clark was known for swaying public opinion by either subsidizing or outright purchasing Montana newspapers.

Whiteside tucked a gun into each pocket of his overcoat and headed to the meeting, where Wellcome offered to pay 10 to 1 in hush money to keep the bribery under wraps, meaning the $30,000 would now swell to $300,000. That tidy figure gave Whiteside his autobiography title.

Whiteside writes in his memoir that he feigned interest in the plan and said he’d have to think it over, but in the meantime Wellcome could have the key to a Union Trust Co. Bank safety box where the money was supposedly deposited. But Whiteside had removed the cash and stashed it in a hotel room.

Whiteside called a committee chairman that evening and immediately began hashing out a report to be read at a joint balloting session the next day. Along with the report, he dramatically presented the $30,000 in bribery cash on the Senate floor, “which fell like a bombshell in the camp of the bribers.”

“The friends of Clark among the members scattered like frightened rabbits,” Whiteside recalled, “and in the ballot that day Clark received only seven votes out of the total of about 100 that were cast.”

But money and power ultimately spoke louder than virtue. Clark’s cronies in the Legislature voted to boot Whiteside from the Senate, while newspapers under Clark’s influence publicly excoriated the Kalispell senator. After 18 ballots through January of 1899, Clark won enough votes to head to D.C.

“I was mistaken in the belief that indisputable proof of bribery would prevent the election of Clark and stop further bribery,” Whiteside lamented. “About the only visible effect it had was to double the price they were obliged to pay for votes.”

Still, Whiteside doggedly pursued the scandal, buoyed by the support of Marcus Daly, a rival Copper King who steadfastly opposed Clark’s political aspirations. Whiteside followed Clark to Washington D.C. and stayed there through the winter into 1900. He testified before the Committee on Privileges and Elections, which unanimously supported his findings and removed Clark from office.

Clark responded by attempting to orchestrate a scenario where he stepped down only to be named as his own replacement, which historians Michael Malone, Richard Roeder and William Lang, in their book “Montana: A Tale of Two Centuries,” called a “move so preposterous that it is still difficult to believe.” After the governor quashed that plot, Clark persevered until he finally achieved the higher office he so coveted; he served one term in the U.S. Senate from 1901-1907. The 17th Amendment establishing the election of senators by popular vote was ratified in 1913.

Noting the robber baron’s history of buying votes, Mark Twain wrote that Clark was “as rotten a human being as can ever be found anywhere under the flag.”

“He is a shame to the American nation,” Twain continued, “and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that the proper place for him was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs.”

No doubt Whiteside agreed with Twain’s assessment. But he didn’t let Clark’s victory slow his own ambitions, and he was reinstated to the state Senate, where he served until 1918. He also went on to pursue interests in mining and oil exploration, in addition to building. And there are a few people in west Kalispell who say he grew some delicious apples, too.

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