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It is the underlying issue of much of our current national debate. Historians are writing books about it. Pundits are talking about it on television, on NPR, on blogs. It is the subject of signs held high in the streets.

It's the influence of money on politics, they all say, that has created a crisis in our nation. We despair at how the convictions of the founding fathers have been co-opted and corrupted by the almighty dollar.

In case you think this is something that's just come about, that has never happened before, let me tell you the story of the Colton Trial, held in Santa Rosa in 1882 and '83.

It was a civil suit that involved a bereaved widow and the four most powerful men in the American West.

In terms of impact on the state and the nation, the trial, to the surprise of everyone, including the litigants, would assume epic proportions.

LET ME set the scene. Santa Rosa in 1882 had a population of about 4,000 people who were enjoying a slow return to prosperity after a worldwide depression that had affected growth and commerce. (You see, we don't have a patent on hard times, either.)

Banks were being described by the newspaper as being in "good condition." Land prices were up, and families were no longer gathering at the railroad station to return to their former homes in the East, giving up the California adventure. The woolen mill, which had closed for lack of business, reopened.

Understand that Santa Rosa in 1882 was not yet the county's commercial center. Petaluma's tidal creek was still the highway to the Bay Area and the rest of the nation for agricultural products. It had been a dozen tenuous years since a railroad had come to Santa Rosa, and it would be another five years before a rail connection with the Central Pacific would make this town the shipping point for a burgeoning agriculture industry and establish it as the county's market town.

A plan for a new courthouse in the town plaza was still a matter of discussion. County government — and the court — was still in a too-small building on the northwest corner of Fourth and Mendocino. (Think Exchange Bank.)

It was that old courthouse, dating to the founding of the town in the 1850s, which provides the setting for this tale.

THE PLAINTIFF was Ellen Colton, a San Francisco resident and widow of David Colton, who had worked for the Central Pacific railroad as a lobbyist in Sacramento. Colton was a close friend of Charles Crocker, a member of the quartet known as The Big Four (Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington) who owned the Central Pacific. He had been allowed to buy shares in the private company, and when he died, the company bought the shares back from his widow.

Shortly after, Hopkins died. And stories of the value of his estate, including the worth of his CP shares, were published in the newspapers.

Ellen Colton realized that she had received considerably less per share. She had been cheated.

The trial was set in San Francisco, but neither side wanted a jury trial and no judge in San Francisco would agree to hear the case.

Sonoma County's Superior Court had Judge Jackson Temple, one of the first lawyers in Sonoma County. Temple had been a state Supreme Court justice but in 1875 had returned to his Santa Rosa home, where he was elected to the Superior Court bench.

As a jurist with a statewide reputation, Temple was a logical choice to hear the Colton case.

None of the participants had any idea what they were getting into. It started quietly enough. Colton's lawyers argued that the Big Four had not paid a fair price. The defense argued that the widow Colton had signed off on the deal.

And then, midway through the testimony, Ellen Colton's lawyers dropped a bombshell. They introduced correspondence between David Colton and Collis Huntington, who was the Central Pacific's advocate in Washington, D.C.

The Colton Letters, as they became known, clearly showed the methods used by the railroad barons to control state and national politics. Colton and Huntington wrote each other about the huge sums of money paid to legislators, both state and national. They named names. And sums. And what favors were received in exchange.

The national press arrived in Santa Rosa, overflowing the hotels. The published transcripts, much in demand, ran to thousands of pages — and were a windfall for the tiny Sonoma Democrat, which printed the daily testimony.

It was the first chink in the armor of the mighty Big Four and, according to historians, the beginning of a period of public outrage that, eventually, resulted in a reform of California politics.

After all the fuss, Ellen Colton lost her suit. She had, indeed, signed the agreement. The immediate reaction was public outcry against men who would cheat a widow. It would be years before the larger issue of money and politics was understood. Leland Stanford, in fact, became California's U.S. senator the following year. But historians, blessed with hindsight, now see it as the beginning of the end.

I suppose you could say that this old story gives one hope that the law of unintended consequences will apply once more, in some way, and the guilty out there — and we know they are out there — will get their comeuppance.

What we need is another widow woman who gets ripped off by the biggies. But, then again, it may not be as easy to fool old ladies as it used to be.