A Time of Testing: Omnibus States
and the Excesses of the 1890s
I admire the East, but I do not love it; I love the South, but I do not admire it; and the West, I neither love nor admire, though it entertains me immensely. -- Sue Harry Clagett, "Sectional Traits of Americans", West Shore ( 1886)
The twelve years from 1888 to 1900 were marked by a series of unusual events that severely tested the political institutions of Oregon and her two new sister states, Washington and Idaho. Nationwide economic collapse during the early 1890s and popular protests on a scale never before witnessed in the Pacific Northwest severely stressed constitutions, courts, and laws.
In the spring of 1894, armies of unemployed men stole freight trains in Oregon, Idaho, and several other parts of the West in a desperate attempt to reach Capitol Hill and present themselves to Congress as a living petition for jobs. The U.S. Army halted them only after several dramatic chases. The few protesters who completed the journey failed to sway lawmakers, but their bizarre odyssey held newspaper headlines captive for more than a month. Some readers found the saga entertaining, but the unusual protest frightened many more Americans who wondered what it portended. Likewise, the meteoric rise of the Populist party as a vehicle for protest disconcerted many observers. All was not gloom and doom, however: the Klondike gold rush of 1897 wrote an exciting finish to the nineteenth-century Northwest, and in the end the region handily survived the stresses of the 1890s and emerged better prepared to address the complex demands of life in a new century.