By Edward Mackie, Daily Nexus, November 13, 1975
This article is the second in a series of six chapters reviewing the life and times of Thomas Storke.
Thomas Storke was the greenest of green cub reporters. In 1899 at age 23, he landed a position with the Santa Barbara Morning Press for $6 a week. Months later, upon the death of the night editor, he was promoted and advanced to twice his previous salary.
But Storke yearned for a paper of his own — free of the vested interests that ruled the newspapers of the day. Faith and obsession were not enough, however. Thus, when the Daily Independent, clap trap false-front, outdated machinery and all, went on the block the next year, Storke negotiated a $2,000 unsecured loan for its purchase.
Newspapers in those days were not easy to come by. Yet on January 1, 1901, Storke assumed the editorship of the Independent — for him the beginning of a 70 year career in journalism.
His exultation was equaled only by his shock and dismay when his partner, a professional in the field, suddenly announced he was ready to resign. “We might as well face facts, Tom; our paper is doomed to failure,” and he departed.
Storke, too had counted upon six generations of family connections to lure subscribers away from the competition. Instantly he was confronted with the resounding elaboration of competition: There is no sentiment in business!
“Left all to myself to sink or swim, I vowed to pull out of the distressing abyss into which his withdrawal had plunged me. My task was formidable!” he wrote, almost in tears.
Brushing aside the feeble dictates of human frailty, Storke, literally living hand to mouth, slaved for the patronage which slowly accrued day by day. Tragedy struck. The bank refused the checks of two new workmen on the grounds of insufficient funds. In desperation, Storke flew to an old banker friend of the family, hat in hand.
“Tom, why didn’t you come here before? I know you will make a success of your paper,” he confided. The young editor walked out of his office with a new lease on life. It was the turning point in Thomas Storke’s career!
The First Fight
The Daily Independent was seldom affected by the immense influence of the Southern Pacific Railroad. A most interested witness to the stirring events of state, Storke’s attention was primarily riveted to the vested interests of the community utilities, which imitated and abetted the state-wide political machinery of the Southern Pacific. Nicknamed “The Octopus” by Hearst’s reporter Ambrose Bierce, the Southern Pacific ruled California for nearly 40 years under an absolute despotism.
It is true that the railroad contributed immeasurably to the growth and progress of California. But behind and beyond its eminence lay the sordid chasm of an impoverished electorate, political bosses, a whole system of privilege, corruption and exploitation down to the lowest county official.
Times were tough. The railroad monopoly was bleeding California dry: It refused its annual taxes, flaunted its stranglehold over state-wide politics and soon became smug and self-confident.
In Santa Barbara this conduct courted disaster. For in 1882 C.A. Storke, rode into office on a wave of anti-railroad sentiment. Once entrenched, Assemblyman Storke launched an all-out investigation into the State Railroad Commission immediately exposing the preferential tariff system of the time.
Of the three selective tariffs the “blue contract” known as the “S.O.B. contract,” was perennially conferred upon the enemies of the railroad.
Amid a flurry of stormy scenes, the “Wallace Constitutional Amendment,” clipping the tentacles of the railroad, came to the floor for debate. Northern California delegate, wooed by a $5,000 bribe, complained to Storke of his dilemma. On the following morning in chambers, the same member whispered to Storke, “They have raised it to $6,500. I have a wife and 6 children and not a dollar in the bank.” Another legislator had returned to his hotel room one evening only to discover a $1,000 bill sandwiched between the pages of his Bible — for once an offer spurned. It is estimated that $20,000 in railroad bribes alone succeeded in defeating the Amendment — by a single vote.
Despite this superficial defeat, C.A. Storke happily confided to the pages of his diary: “I think I may safely say that I am… the only Assemblyman from Santa Barbara who was met by a brass band on his return home from a session.”
It was not merely in the legislature, however, that revolt was manifest; the whole tenor of life, in all its details, took on the stern, dignified tone of accountability; it was impossible the courts could escape this infection.
Thus began in 1906 the infamous San Francisco graft trials and the inevitable downfall of the Octopus.