HARRISBURG’S DEBT HISTORY CHAPTER 6: ‘Debt is not a disgrace’
‘Debt is not a disgrace’
On February 18, 1902, only nine months after the Harrisburg League for Municipal Improvements was formed, its president, city councilman Vance McCormick, placed two initiatives on the ballot for voter approval in the upcoming election.
The first was a referendum seeking public approval for the $1.1 bond issue for the proposed city improvements.
Eighty years later and onward, leading to Harrisburg’s present day bond fiasco and the inscrutable quandary of its city finances, there would be no referenda.
This would directly lead, among other oddities, to Harrisburg’s mayor spending millions of dollars in bond proceeds in the 1990s to procure collectables for a cowboy and Wild West museum — a years’-long project known only by a handful of people.
The same day in 1901 that he put the bond referendum on the ballot, city councilman McCormick also cheekily placed his own name on the ballot for mayor.
McCormick at the time was only 29 years old. He hailed from a Harrisburg patrician family, and was both a natural athlete and leader.
At Yale, McCormick was quarterback for an undefeated football team. Upon his graduation from Yale, he visited the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where he helped to organize that school’s first football team; Jim Thorpe would attend Carlisle in 1904.
McCormick would be mayor of Harrisburg for only three years, from 1902 to 1905. In those three short years Vance McCormick would become the greatest, most successful and effective mayor in Harrisburg history. He would not need, nor desire, thirty years as mayor — only three.
A few months later in 1902, Mayor McCormick would also purchase the Harrisburg Patriot newspaper from the Orr family, and become its editor and publisher. From this perch, McCormick would put to shame not only Harrisburg’s present-day politicians, but the present editorial board of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, today owned by the Newhouse clan.
Under McCormick’s editorship, the Harrisburg Patriot would become a lectern and broadside for public education and civic involvement. This was quite different from the distant and removed, know-nothing and pretty-much-do-nothing newspaper it would become for generations under the Newhouses at the end of the twentieth century.
In campaign literature Vance McCormick dubbed his 1902 campaign for mayor, coupled with the $1.1 bond issue plebiscite, the “Anti-Typhoid Ticket.”
At the same time McCormick was running for mayor, the Municipal League he chaired raised an additional $10,221.55 to campaign for the bond issue. The League distributed 200,000 circulars and campaign advertisements.
The League also opened a downtown office to distribute campaign material. Anyone could join the League for $1.
Professor Wilson, in his book, relates, “The league published and sent summaries of the experts’ reports to ‘each house.’ From early January to the election, it hired high school boys to distribute additional propaganda to every home. It isolated the ineffectual opposition to the improvements, stigmatizing the opponents as ‘clams,’ tightfisted landlords who refused to consider reasonable increases in their property taxes.”
Both city newspapers, the Telegraph and the Patriot, played a role in the propagandizing leading up to the bond referendum.
“The newspapers during this time carried such headlines as ‘Are You Helping to Boost the City,’ ‘Harrisburg Has No Use For the Clam,’ ‘Now Watch This Hustling City Grow,’” remembers Dr. Donehoo in his book.
Both newspapers competed with each other to boost the bond referendum of 1902.
“Both newspapers, the Telegraph of Edward J. Stackpole Sr. and the Patriot, which (Mayor) McCormick would purchase in six months, tried to outdo the other in enthusiasm for municipal improvements,” writes Beers in his book.
“One of the leaflets (distributed by the League before the referendum) contained a Patriot editorial entitled, ‘The Crisis – Prosperity a Brilliant Future, Or as Public Failure a Doomed City,’ Beers continues. “The editorial warned that if the river, creek and sewers weren’t modernized, ‘The people will continue to drink polluted water and the death rate from the dread typhoid will continue to increase, until each summer will come an epidemic that will carry off hundreds.’
“The Telegraph got Gov. William A. Stone to speak out: ‘Let your bathtub run full of city water any morning without filtering it and then look at it. You might as well go down to the tannery and bathe in a vat. It might take your hair off, but you would come out clean. Debt is not a disgrace nor is it a serious impediment. It has always been and always will be a forerunner of prosperity.’”
And, “To the tune of ‘Marching Through Georgia,’ the Telegraph printed a song: ‘When we stroll at the riverfront upon a summer’s day, the perfume that we must inhale is not like new-mown hay.’“
That election day, April 1, 1902, the bond referendum won 7,319 votes to 3,729.
That day young Vance McCormick also won election as mayor, 7,066 votes to 4,503.
“The tide has changed, for Harrisburg people are praising now instead of condemning, and the whole country is echoing with words of commendation for the Harrisburg Plan,” a Telegraph editorial trumpeted. “There is no doubt about Harrisburg being awake and there is no doubt concerning the future of the city.”
One hundred years later, in 2002, Harrisburg would still be asleep while its mayor and other officials drove the town over the cliff into deep unsustainable debt.
And the future of Harrisburg would be left very much in doubt.
To be continued…