When a blast from the railroad hurled a large rock through the roof of his ramshackle house in Spokane, Franz Klepsch was having dinner. The rock landed on him, and he died from his injuries two weeks later.
Franz was my great-great-grandfather, a man from Františkov nad Ploučnicí, Bohemia, who went to America with his wife, Theresa, in 1866, settling first in Wisconsin, then in Sioux City, Iowa, where he built the Iowa House hotel.
Fortune was fickle with Franz: The Sioux City Journal called him an “unlucky rattler” after his hotel burned down in 1884, while fervent Protestant prohibitionist newspapers (see 17 Feb. 1887 Milwaukee Sentinel) dismissed him as a member of the “rebellious German saloon element.” So the Roman Catholic Franz and Theresa headed west, hoping for better times that were not to come.
In Spokane in 1891, Franz was working as a plasterer. His accident was the direct consequence of Daniel Chase Corbin’s decision to build a new railroad near the Klepsch’s home, without placing trees and other heavy materials on top of the blast area to save time and money, safety measures be damned.
Corbin could well have jumped out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s titans of American industry sprang entirely from her imagination as superior beings who created most of society’s value with their business skills. Flouting conventional social mores, they sometimes broke marital vows to couple with other titans, for such social conventions, like government regulations, were more appropriate for the little people. Almost single-handedly they moved the economy forward, building new railroad lines with new types of steel. The novel describes how America’s Lilliputians, government bureaucrats and crowds of ordinary slackers, tried to ensnare Taggart Transcontinental railroad and other businesses in a regulatory morass or mooch off of their owners’ hard work.
As one Corbin biographer notes, his company “built the Spokane Falls & Idaho Railroad and the Coeur d'Alene Railway & Navigation Company,” connected them to nearby Idaho’s lead and silver mining districts and established Spokane as a railroad center in the Inland Northwest. After selling that line to the Northern Pacific in 1888, his company built new railroads and in 1899 created the Spokane Valley Land and Water Company, the Spokane Valley’s first irrigation project. The Spokane Chamber of Commerce elected him its first honorary member in 1915. (See Laura Arksey’s Essay On Corbin.)
Like many of Rand’s titans, Daniel Chase Corbin found conventional social mores constraining. His wife decamped from Spokane in her late 30s to live with their children in Europe for almost twenty years. After she died, Corbin married his much younger Swedish house maid.
Of course, Corbin actually walked the earth. Census counters found him, registered his vital statistics, enumerated his children and listed him among the citizens of the United States, each one equal before the law. Unlike Rand’s self-made, independent business titans, the flesh and blood Corbin basked in his children’s ability to climb the social ladder, with his daughters marrying British nobility and his son attending Harvard Law School.
”Be polite to your equals, kind to your inferiors, and always honest and true,” he inscribed in his daughter’s commonplace book, a collection of notes and jottings.
Franz and Theresa, my great-great grandparents, were clearly Corbin’s inferiors. What had they, after all, achieved? What did they do to create Washington’s Inland Empire?
As far as Corbin was concerned, kindness to his inferiors didn’t include compensating Theresa for the loss of her husband and sole family breadwinner: handouts, after all, only undermine the desire of little people to work for their living. The Social Security system didn’t exist yet, either, so Theresa couldn’t claim any survivor’s benefits. In January 1891, widowed with three minor children in her care, she filed suit in the Spokane court for compensation for her husband’s death.
Being sued by a nobody upset Spokane’s wealthiest citizen, and he had his lawyers doggedly fought the case. First, they claimed that Corbin’s company hadn’t caused Franz’s death, for it had outsourced the work to private contractors. The court rejected that argument, noting that it would be too easy for companies to avoid financial responsibility by using contractors for their most dangerous work. Second, Corbin’s lawyers argued that Franz was living on railroad land illegally as a squatter. After considerable testimony, this, too, was rejected, and in July 1891 the jury sided with Theresa.
Corbin’s lawyers appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, claiming no negligence was shown, and that court ordered the lower court to address negligence. The lower court advised the jury that the fact that the rocks were thrown such a great distance was prima facie evidence of negligence, but they should nonetheless consider any evidence to the contrary. In July 1893 the jury once again decided for Franz, and awarded Theresa $6,500.
After that decision, Corbin, who was busy building Spokane’s most luxurious house, began legal maneuvers to avoid paying Theresa. Only after being threatened with jail and after losing yet another appeal to Washington’s Supreme Court did he finally compensate my great-great grandmother for the death of her husband.
The entire legal saga lasted about seven years; how Theresa survived and cared for her children during that period remains a mystery.
What’s clear is that Daniel Chase Corbin miscalculated: Theresa, a destitute “inferior,”” was his equal before the law.