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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition Stories & Photos
The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit.

Covers from British Columbia to Puget sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan. An evolving history dedicated to the principle of committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
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Russell A. Alger, logging capitalist, Michigan governor, Secretary of War

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore ©2004
(Gov. Russell A. Alger)
Governor Russell A. Alger, 1886

      Various histories of Skagit county have noted that the town of Alger was named for Russell A. Alger, but none have noted his impressive resume, including his service as Secretary of War in President William McKinley's first term. Alger's life is like a strange combination of Horatio Alger Jr. — who may have been related, and a Charles Dickens tale of an orphan picking himself up by his bootstraps, sacrificing and saving for his siblings, and then rising like a meteor in both the political and capitalistic world.
      That inspiring tale is followed in Alger's middle age by humiliation and failure in his national office, but then he redeemed himself before dying while serving his state in the U.S. Senate. Alger's biography strangely fell through the cracks locally, but we will tell you the highlights and refer you to many sources who will tell you more. As far as we can tell, he never actually toured the Skagit county timber tracts that his company bought and logged from the mid-1880s to about 1900. That puts him in the same category as Samuel Royal Thurston, who never toured his namesake Thurston county, site of the Washington territory-and-state capital, Olympia, before his death in 1851 while on his way back to Congress in Washington, D.C.
      Russell Alexander Alger was born in a proverbial log cabin in Lafayette Township, Medina County, Ohio — the area then called the Western Reserve, on Feb. 27, 1836. Orphaned by age 11, he worked hard on farms and attended nearby Richfield Academy in the wintertime. After graduating, he taught country school, much like Mount Vernon-founder Harrison Clothier did in Wisconsin. During this time he supported a younger brother and sister. Later he studied law at Akron, Ohio, was admitted to the state bar in March 1859 and earned the law degree of LL.D. at Hillsdale College in May 1855. In December 1859, he moved from Cleveland to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and set up practice as an attorney there.
      He had practiced law less than two years when the Civil War broke out. On April 2, 1861, just two weeks before the first shot on Fort Sumter, he married Annette H. Henry of Grand Rapids and on September 1, he enlisted as a private in the Union Army. On October 2, he was mustered into service as a captain in the Second Michigan Cavalry. According to Mark M. Boatner's Civil War Dictionary, Alger was captured near Booneville, Mississippi on June 1, 1862, while under Colonel Philip Sheridan's command, but escaped a day later and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer's Michigan cavalry brigade. From then on, Alger fought in several major battles including Gettysburg on July 1-3 and then Boonsboro, Maryland the next week on July 8, where he was severely wounded. His valor and expertise was such that, during the winter of 1863-4, Alger received private orders personally from President Lincoln, who assigned him to visit nearly all the Union armies in the field. He was breveted to Brigadier and then Major General over the next two years "for gallant and meritorious service in the field," even though he was forced because of his wounds to resign his commission in October 1864. He fought in 66 different battled and skirmishes in just over three years. Then, after the war, he was elected the first commander of the Michigan department of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1868 and rose in the GAR to became national Commander-in-chief in 1889.

Logging business after the Civil War and Governor of Michigan
      He resumed his law practice after the war and moved to Detroit, where he became an active Republican in local and state politics, his future main interest. But first he amassed a fortune in the timber business. One biography says that he was so impressed with the stands of virgin pine timber in the Deep South during the war that he decided on logging and lumber investments as his major pursuit after the war.
      Back in Detroit in 1865, Alger dove into the pine timber business and dealing in pine lands. He became head of the firm of R.A. Alger & Co., the largest dealers in pine. He then became president of the corporation of Alger, Smith & Co., which succeeded R.A. Alger & Co. He also became president of the Manistique Lumbering Company and a stockholder and director of the Detroit National Bank, the Peninsular Car Company and several other corporations.
      By the 1880s, his main pursuit became politics. In 1882, the Greenback party took the governorship away from the Republicans on the platform of defeating the alleged machinations of the monied interests and saving the "greenback," which they called the people's money. Named for their color, the notes were issued as legal tender for all debts except customs duties and interest on the public debt. The Grange movement was in league with the Greenbackers, organized to fight what they perceived as onerous tolls by the railroads to take their crops to market. This coalition saw the Republicans as playing into the hands of the wealthy.
      The Greenback reign in Michigan lasted just two years until the Republicans ran Russell A. Alger for governor in 1884 and he won by a small majority over the Greenback incumbent governor, Josiah W. Begole. His short, two-year term was highlighted by legislation regulating the Lake Superior ship canal, and establishment of a soldiers' home, a state mining school and a pardon board. In June 1886, he presided over the semi-centennial anniversary of the admission of Michigan as a state in the union and then declined re-nomination to a second term.
      We share this description of Alger from the Portrait and Biographical Album, Ingham & Livingston Counties, published in 1885:

      Gen. Alger is now forty-nine years of age, an active, handsome gentleman six feet tall, living the life of a busy man of affairs. His military bearing at once indicates his army life and although slenderly built, his square shoulders and erect carriage give the casual observer the impression that his weight is fully 180 pounds. He is a firm yet a most decidedly pleasant-appearing man, with a fine forehead, rather a prominent nose, an iron-gray moustache and chin whiskers and a full head of black hair sprinkled with gray. He is usually attired in the prevailing style of business suits. His favorite dress has been a high buttoned cutaway frock coat, with the predominating cut of vest and trousers, made of firm gray suiting. A high collar, small cravat, easy shoes and white plug hat complete his personal apparel. He is very particular as to his appearance, and always wears neat clothes of the best goods, but shuns any display of jewelry or extravagant embellishment. He is one of the most approachable men imaginable. No matter how busy he may be, he always leaves his desk to extend a cordial welcome to every visitor, be he of high or low situation. His affable manners delight his guests, while his pleasing face and bright, dark eyes always animate his hearers.
Back to logging in Michigan and Washington
(Russell A. Alger)
Russell A. Alger, pen-and-ink drawing from Ingham & Livingston Counties Portrait Album

      As far as we can tell, that was about the time that Alger invested in the timberland around Lake Samish in Skagit county near the village of Lookout [later called Alger]. Details are very sketchy, but we know that he was a partner with R.K. Hawley, a lumberman who also made a fortune in the forests of Pennsylvania and then in Michigan [Hawley's first name has spelled as Ravand and Revaux]. Hawley also financed George Blanchard, who logged Chuckanut Mountain from his base on Samish bay where John Fravel established a village while building a telegraph line in the 1860s. We know that Alger's company was logging here by the summer of 1886 because Alger paid taxes that year on income of $7,600. That was way behind the logging company that posted the highest income — $36,072 by [Jesse B.] Ball and Barlow of Sterling; the highest income that year was reported by Mrs. L.A. Conner — $60,563, mainly from real estate. The 1906 book, Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties, commented on both Alger's logging company and his political career:
      Perhaps mention should also be made of the Alger Logging Company, which some time in the later eighties bought out the Samish Logging Company and moved the outfit to McElroy slough [between Lookout and Blanchard], where for years it operated very extensively. It sold in 1900 to the Lake Whatcom Logging Company. It is said that whatever may have been the failures of R.A. Alger as secretary of war [see that section below], he was one of the most skilful managers of a large lumbering company that every operated on the sound
      As far as we can determine, the Alger company did not have a sawmill in the county. You can read about the Alger-Hawley partnership and land disputes in our website about Lookout and Alger pioneer Fred G. Abbey [see Subscribers Issue 18].
      Meanwhile, back in Michigan, Hawley hauled logs by railroad in the late 1880s. Even before Alger was governor, he was president of a logging concern called the Alger, Smith and Company. In 1883 the company took over the Detroit Bay City & Alpena railroad [DBC&A] a junction with the Michigan Central railroad was named Alger. We do not know if a town formed there. By 1888 the DBC&A railroad, with Alger as president, owned 17 engines, 650 freight cars and five coaches, and by 1890, the road operated over 200 miles of track. With the decline in pine timber, DBC&A became a losing proposition and by 1893 could not meet its obligations and the bond holders forced it into receivership. During that time period, McKinley tentatively put his toe in the national political waters by campaigning to be Michigan's Republican favorite-son presidential candidate, but he lost out. The Financial Panic of 1893 set in and businesses along with banks began to fail. Alger organized his resources and his Alger, Smith and Co. built the Alpena & Northern Railroad that year and in January 1894 extended it to Lake May. But early in 1895, the Detroit Evening News, carried nearly a column article headed, "A successful Management of a Bankrupt Railroad." Hard times set in and Russell A. Alger had a couple of rocky years until William McKinley was elected president in November 1896 and Alger got a call from the president's men.

Secretary of War Alger
(Russell A. Alger)
Russell A. Alger, Secretary of War, a portrait by noted artist By Percy Ives, oil on canvas. He was a member of the Society of Western Artists, and an official of the Detroit Museum of Art and the Archaeological Institute of America. Ives painted Secretary Alger from life soon after Algerís departure from the War Department. From this website.

      President McKinley appointed Alger as Secretary of War in his new cabinet on March 5, 1897, and at first, Alger must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. Little did he know that he would soon experience the worst year of his life while at the pinnacle of his national prominence and go down in history as possibly the worst secretary of war in our history. The year 1897 was largely uneventful for Alger, but in early 1898, Cuba was rebelling against Spain and U.S. newspapers whipped the flames of anger about the tyranny of Spain, which was fading as a world power.
      On Feb. 15, the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, resulting in the death of two officers and 258 crew. Although the cause of explosion has just recently been determined as mechanical and accidental, powerful forces blamed the explosion on Spain and urged McKinley to go to war, even though he was reluctant. That set up a national debate about America as an imperialist power. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge from Massachusetts was the Senate leader of the war cause and Theodore Roosevelt — who McKinley appointed as Assistant Secretary of the Navy on April 16, told a friend, " I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one." The tabloid newspaper publishers pushed McKinley, including Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. When Hearst's artist Frederick Remington went to Cuba and wired back that he couldn't find a war, Hearst responded, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war."
      "Remember the Maine became the rallying cry," and Russell A. Alger was right in the middle as war erupted in late April 1898. To complicate matters, Commodore George Dewey launched a surprise naval attack on the Philippines, following the secret orders of Roosevelt. By July 26, when Spain requested peace terms, the Spanish Navy lay in ruins in the Caribbean, and the U.S. was in control of Puerto Rico and Wake island, but bogged down in the Philippines. The death total from the Spanish-American War was 5,462, but only 379 were battle casualties. The largest number fell to diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. Alger started taking heat when a feud erupted with Major General Nelson A. Niles. Niles had gained fame for suppression of Indian tribes and victories over chiefs such as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe in the Northwest. Niles was Commanding General of the U.S. Army and he was upset that the Navy was getting the glory and the Army was beset with problems. He personally led the invasion of Puerto Rico, beginning in GuŠnica. The press did not dwell as much on the fact that McKinley chose to ignore both General Miles and Secretary Alger when making crucial strategic decisions. Burton W. Folsom of the Macinac Center for Public Policy recently summed up how Alger's cabinet career resembled the state of the Spanish navy:

      How well did Alger—a Detroit lumber baron and former governor of Michigan—do his job as Secretary of War? Most historians of the Spanish-American War believe that Alger turned in a poor performance. At one level, he was weak and unprepared for war. On March 9, 1898, six weeks before the U. S. declared war on Spain, Congress allocated $50 million "for national defense and for each and every purpose connected therewith." But Alger never insisted that any of the money be used to prepare an army to fight.
      In April, when the war began, Alger desperately struggled to equip the army for battles in Cuba. Unfortunately, disaster followed disaster. For example, the soldiers received wool uniforms for a summer war in a tropical climate. The mess pans were leftovers from the Civil War. Few soldiers received modern rifles; most ended up with outdated Springfields, and some, like Michiganís 32nd regiment, had no rifles at all and never made it overseas. Those who did make it to Cuba ate food so sickening that soldiers called it "embalmed beef," and a special war commission later studied it to find out what was in it. . . .
      Alger, of course, blamed the slow-moving bureaucracy, including the legions of political appointees in the War Department, for his problems. But Alger himself had to take full responsibility for appointing William R. Shafter as chief general for the Cuban campaign. Shafter, from Galesburg, Michigan, was 62 years old when the war broke out and he moved slowly because he weighed almost 300 pounds. He was ill during most of the fighting and many questioned his abilities. Teddy Roosevelt, who led the charge up San Juan Hill, said that "not since the campaign of Crassus against the Parthians [over 2,000 years ago] has there been so criminally incompetent a general as Shafter." . . .
      Within four months and one week after Congress declared war, over 274,000 men had volunteered to put on wool uniforms, endure a disease-ridden tropical climate, eat embalmed beef, and risk their lives shooting antique guns at menacing Spanish soldiers. Not all of these men made it to Cuba, but M. B. Stewart, one who did, said it best this way: "We were doing the best we knew and our lack of knowledge was more than outweighed by the magnificent spirit and discipline of both officers and men."

See this fine website for the full remarks. And see this website for one of the more satirical Alger political cartoons of the time, "McKinley: Better Hurry that Job, Alger." In those days before photographs dominated U.S. newspapers, cartoonists were king.

Alger resigns and goes on to become Senator
(Senator Russell A. Alger)
Senator Russell A. Alger, painted by Gari (Julius Garibaldi) Melchers (1860-1932) from Detroit,

      We are not sure if that was the time that soldiers coined the colorful acronym, SNAFU, but in spite of the snafus and bungling, the U.S. won the war and the Navy forced Spain to back down. But the Army was not making any headway in the Philippines in the summer of 1899 under General E.S. Otis. When journalists at the war front rebelled against inaccurate reports on that front, the New York Herald blamed Alger and called for his resignation. McKinley grew exasperated and decided that Alger must go, so he sent private word to the secretary that his resignation would be welcome. Alger complied on August 1. In the long run, Alger may have gotten the last laugh when he published his own book, The Spanish American War (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1901), but in most historical accounts, his name is associated with the word, "timid," a killer for anyone in a war leadership position. For decades later, "Algerism" became a synonym for venality and incompetence in government bureaucracy.
      We know that Alger's Washington partner, R.K. Hawley, died in that time period and the company sold out their Skagit county interests to a Bloedel-Donovan partnership, the Lake Whatcom Logging Company. Coincidentally, the unincorporated village of Lookout became known as Alger at the turn of the century. We discovered that Alger did not divest his Michigan logging interests, however, because two of his sons remained as officers of those companies into the 1920s. Alger did form a new logging partnership. Jerry Simmons of the Alger-Sullivan Historic Society points out that Martin Sullivan bought up large tracts of pine timber in south Alabama in the 1880s and 1890s and owned a mill in Florida. The two men formed the Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company in 1900 and named their company town, Century, for the turn of the 20th century. That company lasted well into the second half of the century, the longest-lived of any of the Alger entities and there are two websites there that supply much background on Alger: here and here
      Alger was able to save political face somewhat when Michigan Senator James McMillan died in 1902 and the Michigan governor appointed Alger to fill McMillan's unexpired term, starting on September 27 that year. Back then the state legislatures still elected U.S. Senators; in 1903 the Michigan legislature elected him for a term ending in 1907. In the Senate, he served as chairman of the Committee on Coast Defenses and the Committee on the Pacific Railroads. He died in office on Jan. 24, 1907.


Here are more websites that will supply details of Russell A. Alger's life

Stories about the towns of Lookout and Alger and the pioneers
      This is one of a series of stories about the town of Lookout, which began as a market for nearby settlers and loggers around Lake Samish in the 1880s and then was named Alger at the turn of the century. And we include links about future Judge Fred G. Abbey, one of the most important settlers. Both the books quoted from above are still for sale at the Historical Museum in LaConner.

Story posted on June 25, 2003
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