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LeBARON: Widow's Santa Rosa trial revealed much about money, politics

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.)


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