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James Scrugham

Updated February 7, 1999 - 5:37 pm

One-term politicians are rarely celebrated by history, unless they were comically inept or criminally inclined.
Col. James Scrugham, elected in 1923, was neither. But his insistence on being the first Nevada governor ever to pay any serious attention to Southern Nevada may have cost him his re-election.
To say that Nevada was a much different place in 1920 would be a titanic understatement. Mining and agriculture were the dominant industries, political power was based solidly in the north, and Clark County was viewed by most Nevadans as an overheated appendage on the state’s bottom. It was absurd, said his detractors, that a governor should become personally involved in something as frivolous as the Lost City archeological project, or in that pie-in-the-sky Boulder Canyon Project.
But before he died, he would see the pre-history of his state documented and his beloved dam constructed.
James Graves Scrugham was born Jan. 19, 1880, in Lexington, Ky. He attended the State University of Kentucky, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. He worked for engineering firms in Cincinnati, Chicago and San Francisco before coming to Nevada. One of the few biographies of Scrugham speculates that he may have come to Nevada seeking mineral wealth.
In 1903, he took a position at the University of Nevada as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. The following year, he felt sufficiently prosperous to go back to Kentucky and marry a Lexington girl, Julia McCann. The couple had two children, James Jr. and Martha.
In 1905, Scrugham was elevated to associate professor and a year later, full professor. In 1912, he became a professor in the electrical engineering department and, in 1914, became dean of the college of engineering, which today bears his name.
In 1917, Scrugham was offered the job of state engineer by Gov. Emmet Boyle, a Democrat. This was a position of considerable importance, since the state engineer was responsible for settling disputes over water rights. Scrugham took a leave of absence to accept the appointment, and never again returned to academia.
With World War I raging in Europe, Scrugham enlisted in the Army. He served only one year on active duty, but rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. He was thereafter known as “Col. Scrugham.” In 1919, he was one of the founding members of the American Legion, and was the national vice commander in 1920.
Upon his return to the office of state engineer, he embarked on what would be his life’s work — the construction of a high dam on the Colorado River. His quest would be to make sure that it was built on a section of the river bordering Nevada, and that the state reaped its benefits.
The U.S. Reclamation Service had been studying the feasibility of constructing such a dam as early as 1920. The agency had estimated the cost to be around $200 million, and Director Arthur Powell Davis said in 1921 that he was not optimistic about the chances of federal participation in such a costly venture.
Scrugham joked that the federal government’s answer to the West’s need for water was to suggest that farmers in desert states plant alternating rows of onions and potatoes. The onions would cause the potato eyes to cry, thus creating their own irrigation system.
Convinced that the future of the endeavor depended on private enterprise, in July of 1921, Scrugham, along with Las Vegans Ed W. Clark and Charles “Pop” Squires, met in El Monte, Calif., with officials of the Southern California Edison Co. The plan was to interest the utility in a dam project in Boulder Canyon. Nothing concrete came out of that meeting.
In late 1922, representatives of seven Western states and the federal government met at the Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, N.M. The assembly made up the original Colorado River Commission. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, himself an engineer, chaired the commission, and Scrugham headed the Nevada delegation. The commission’s task was to hammer out a pact among the states bordering the river. Among the issues to be addressed by the pact were flood control, water storage and electrical generation. The greater issue was how to allocate the water and power. The commission agreed on the general principles that would govern the interstate pact, but those greater issues would remain unresolved for some years to come. The state of Nevada also formed a Colorado River Commission, and named Scrugham to chair it.
By mid-1923, Scrugham had abandoned the idea that the dam might be built by private enterprise.
“It is my firm belief,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “that the government is the only agency that should build the dam. Afterward, state, municipal or private agencies can operate it. What we want is the dam built and built quickly.”
He might have gotten that last wish if not for Gov. George Hunt of Arizona, who had been elected on a “no dam” platform. Six of the seven states involved had immediately signed the Colorado River Compact. Arizona was the holdout, and the matter could not be put before Congress until it had.
Scrugham proposed that representatives of the three states of the lower Colorado River Basin — Nevada, California and Arizona — meet and work out the problems, but they would remain unresolved until 1928.
Gov. Boyle completed his second term in 1923, and he urged Scrugham to run for the office. His opponent, Republican John H. Miller, blasted his record as state engineer, noting that he had nearly doubled the budget of his predecessor, spending an incredible $77,500 over two years. “Isn’t it a fact,” asked a Republican campaign advertisement, “that in two years your office expended $11,000 for `traveling expenses,’ almost one half what it cost to conduct this entire department under your predecessors?”
Scrugham beat Miller by 2,222 votes, but the latter’s criticism of the man who would become known variously as “The Governor on Wheels” and “Gasoline Jimmy” was well-founded. The Colonel liked to get around the state, and he usually drove.
The problem was, Nevada roads of the time were primitive or nonexistent. The intrepid motorist who dared drive between Reno and Las Vegas could not expect to find gasoline or spare parts on the route, and so was obliged to carry both.
If it rained, the road washed out; if it snowed, a search party would eventually be dispatched. In fact, 120 miles of north-south road, between Beatty and Las Vegas, was the abandoned, railroad bed of the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad
At Scrugham’s urging, the 1923 Legislature imposed a 2-cent-per-gallon fuel tax to be used for road improvements. In 1924, Scrugham reported to the Legislature that the tax had resulted in the completion of 769 miles of improved roads, 510 of which were gravel.
Scrugham was the first Nevada governor to propose setting aside public lands for recreational purposes. In his message to the Legislature in 1923, he said, “It appears entirely practicable to segregate areas within the forest reserves as state recreation grounds or game refuges.”
In response, the Legislature enacted a bill allowing the governor to designate 25 such areas, to be administered by the State Fish and Game Commission. This was the beginning of the modern Nevada Division of State Parks. Although Scrugham wanted the Valley of Fire to become a national park, it would become the first Nevada State Park.
“He had a statewide view of Nevada and its resources,” says Dr. James Hulse, professor emeritus of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. “He was probably the most active governor in developing the state’s resources up to that time. And he recognized the importance of Southern Nevada far sooner than did most politicians.”
The political complexion of the Legislature changed abruptly in 1924, when Republicans gained control, but Scrugham did not enhance his chances of re-election by becoming directly involved in an archeological project in a remote part of the state.
Sometime in 1924, Scrugham received a package from Fay Perkins, a member of pioneer Mormon clan of the Moapa Valley. It contained some Indian artifacts Perkins had found along the Muddy River. Scrugham was fascinated, and contacted Mark. R. Harrington, who was then excavating the Lovelock Cave, 90 miles east of Reno. Harrington was likewise intrigued, and agreed to take a closer look. Perkins took the archeologist to where he had found the relics, and Harrington became very excited, talking about a lost city beneath the riverside dunes.
Scrugham walked up in time to catch the last of the conversation.
“A buried city, hey?” he said. “How old do you think it might be.”
“It’s hard to tell right off the bat,” Harrington replied. “But this black on white pottery is pretty old stuff. A thousand years maybe, or even two thousand.”
“This will jolt some of those smart Easterners,” chuckled the governor, “the fellows who say Nevada is so raw and new. They think we have no past, no background of antiquity.”
Harrington was in Nevada under the auspices of the Museum of the American Indian, headed by George Gustav Heye. Scrugham asked Heye to put Harrington in charge of the excavation, which he was. The governor also obtained funding from the Smithsonian and Carnegie institutions. And he dispatched state trucks, equipment and workers to aid the effort.
In 1926, Scrugham stood for re-election, but was defeated by GOP challenger Fred Balzar.
The Reno Evening Gazette, characterized him as a spendthrift and added, “No Nevada governor has shown less ability as an executive.”
The Gazette editors also took a rather condescending tone regarding his interest in the Lost City excavation.
“It is impossible to discern the grounds upon which Governor Scrugham can base any serious claims to a second term … He takes much interest in archeology, lectures on ancient civilizations, has conducted a considerable amount of research in old Indian graveyards, and for fours years has actively canvassed the state for re-election. But these qualifications and matters have nothing to do with the administration of government … he seems more interested in tourist roads than in highways that will serve the farms, the stockmen and the mining industry.”
Hulse, however, believes that Scrugham’s defeat had more to do with the national and statewide trend toward Republicanism, than with any north-south rivalry.
Scrugham’s knowledge of the issues surrounding the Boulder Canyon Project earned him a post of special adviser to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work in 1927.
That year, Scrugham also purchased The Nevada State Journal in Reno for just over $100,000. He followed the example of the previous governor, Boyle, who bought the newspaper after he left office in 1922. The acquisition did not really represent a new career for Scrugham, since Nevada newspapers of the day usually aligned themselves with one political party or the other, bellowed the party line and rarely made any pretense of objectivity. The Las Vegas Age acknowledged this, saying, “The purchase by Governor Scrugham is taken to mean that he will continue actively in state politics.”
During this time, he also acquired an interest in, and was president of the Las Vegas Office Supply Co. at 508 Fremont St.
With the onset of the Great Depression, the Democrats were again in ascendancy, and Scrugham ran for Nevada’s lone congressional seat in 1932. He beat Republican Sam Arentz by a large margin, riding comfortably on the coattails of Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with the legendary Patrick A. McCarran, who was elected to the Senate.
Although it is today a pejorative term, “pork barrel” politics, in earlier times, was viewed differently by the American public. Senators and congressmen were expected to use any and all of their clout to obtain federal works projects and funds for their home state. It is an especially proud tradition in Nevada. Scrugham proved a prodigious pork procurer, and FDR set a bountiful barrel in front of the solons.
In April of 1933, he sliced off his first slab, asking Roosevelt to increase from 200 to 1,000, the number of youths assigned to Nevada as part of the proposed “Reforestation Army.” (This became the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the Works Progress Administration.)
“The reason for asking for the extra allotment,” Scrugham wrote, “is the distressing condition of thousands of able-bodied men … drawn to Las Vegas through hopes of obtaining employment on the Boulder Canyon Project … they cannot be allowed to starve.”
By 1934, Southern Nevada had two CCC camps, one at Boulder City, the other at Mount Charleston. Scrugham also obtained $5,900 and the manpower needed to finally build a museum at Overton to house the artifacts unearthed at the Lost City excavation. A camp also was established at Panaca, in Lincoln County, and the CCC boys did extensive work on developing Cathedral Gorge, Kershaw-Ryan and Beaver Dam state parks.
With the completion of Hoover Dam in 1935, Scrugham went to work to develop “Boulder Lake” into a first-rate recreational center. He obtained an appropriation of $60,000 to build the first fish hatchery, and badgered federal fish and wildlife authorities to install it posthaste.
The question of how the huge lake would be administered had not yet been resolved in 1935. In late fall, Scrugham conducted one of his many excursions on the lake and the river, taking with him several federal officials. The idea of incorporating the lake and dam into Grand Canyon National Park had been advanced, but Scrugham opposed it. He was concerned that park status would do harm to adjacent mining and ranching operations, and limit public recreational access. He favored an entirely new concept, a national recreation area, and Lake Mead became the first such unit in the federal system.
In 1942, Scrugham sought the senate seat vacated by the death of veteran Democrat Key Pittman.
Scrugham had been instrumental in establishing Basic Magnesium in 1941, but it was as U.S. senator that he tried to assure the plant would continue to operate after the war. (The plant is today owned by Basic Investments Inc., and houses four industrial firms.)
Scrugham did not live to see the magnitude of Southern Nevada’s postwar prosperity, although he did see the birth of the resort row that would become the Strip. Shortly after his election to the Senate, his health had begun to fail, and he spent the last two years of his life in and out of hospitals. On June 6, 1945, he died at the Naval Hospital in San Diego.
Al Cahlan of the Las Vegas Review-Journal had first met Scrugham when he went to the University of Nevada to study engineering. He was amazed at the pace Scrugham set for himself then, and later in public office.
“He didn’t know what it meant to relax,” eulogized Cahlan. “He regarded an hour lost when he wasn’t doing something for Nevada.
“No man could last forever at that pace, even though he possessed the qualities of a human dynamo. Jim Scrugham gave his life to the people of Nevada.”

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