The Wattis Brothers: Spanning Distances, Spanning Eras
a commemorative lecture presented at the
2007 Utah Construction/ Utah International Symposium
The Beginning of an Era
Dr. Stan Layton
Thursday, October 18, 2007 2
Well thank you Gene for that very gracious introduction and thanks to all of you for being here today. I’m particularly gratified to see so many of my students in the audience. I am teaching a class in Utah history this very hour. I gave my students an exam two days ago and I told them if they didn’t come here to listen to the old man they’d never get their exams back. Here they are.
Not long ago as I was walking towards parking lot A1 a nicely dressed middle aged couple hailed me asked me for directions to the Waters Building. I was pleased to correct their pronunciation and point them toward the Wattis Building. Once again I found myself asking why the Wattis name is not better know in our larger community. Why is it not as immediately recognized as a Huntsman, Matheson, Bamberger, Eccles or Sadler? I’ve got to tell you my research assistance Stephanie as she read this paper last week and we talked about it over the weekend, she read that sentence and she said, “ Wouldn’t say, Dee be a better name for this purpose?” I said, “ Stephanie, that’s a joke.”
Edmund O. and William H. Wattis are men of towering importance in twentieth century Utah history. They put together a construction company that in true Horatio Alger fashion expanded in size and stature to become one of the largest in the nation and left an indelible mark on the Utah, Western American, Mexican and Australian landscapes. They served as model citizens, family men, community servants and philanthropists. Their business acumen still serves as a model for today’s entrepreneurs and their eventful lives continue to fascinate historians. 3
I am sure that most of us in this room have had our lives impacted in some small way by the Wattis family. They influenced the place of my birth for example. For three generation on both sides of my family, as Gene intimated, all my forbearers had been born in Layton. All of the sudden there I was as a newborn in a hospital in Puyallup Washington. Condemn throughout my childhood to try to conceal my embarrassment at having entered the world at such an awful sounding place. That angst was not eased in the least by my mothers constant telling of a joke about two boys with the unlikely name of Atle and Allup who surprised a skunk as they were walking one day. “ See Atle,” yelled the one. “ Pew Allup,” replied the other. I even thought of having my dear old mom come and tell that joke for you, but unfortunately she passed away about three weeks ago.
My parents had been gone to Washington a few years earlier. Having a small child but no money or prospects they gathered up their meager belongings and headed for the construction site of the Grand Cooley Dam, where Utah Construction Company was a major subcontractor. My mother gave me this magazine just a few days before she died. I didn’t know that she had it, but she and my dad always, always treasured their time in Washington. Several other Davis County families in similar circumstances were already there and had gained work, maybe Stan and Viola Layton would be so lucky. They were. Ultimately the wielding skills my dad acquired on this job and others opened up greater opportunities, including employment at the Tacoma Ship Yard which was yet another Wattis related enterprise. It was then while he and my mother lived in 4
the neighboring community of Puyallup that I was born. I like to think that my dad was the man behind the wielding hood in this photo.
How might your lives have been touched by the Wattis brothers, William H. and Edmund O? Perhaps simply by taking a class over here in our Wattis Building, or maybe flipping on a light switch in a Las Vegas hotel room, or enjoying fresh apple grown in irrigated orchards of central Washington, or maybe boating on our Pineview Reservoir. Certainly as President Milliner said tens of millions of lives have been impacted, and will continued to be impacted everyday by the dams built, transportation systems constructed and mines developed by the Wattis brothers, and their Utah Construction Company, later named Utah International.
How delighted I am as a Utah historian to see William and Edmund Wattis begin to receive the recognition due them and what a special treat to have been selected for a research fund, fellowship funded by the heirs of their company and administered by the Stewart Library. Very, very much appreciated. Then to have these library administrators suggest that I focus specifically on the Wattis brothers was the perfect scenario for me. I had first run across W. H. in researching my master’s thesis forty years ago. These same people, Joan Hubbard and others were also generous in funding two research assistants to help me with this work. Janice LeFevre who is in class now and didn’t feel that she could be here, but her husband Steven is here and Steven we appreciate the sacrifices you and the rest of the family made in support of this fellowship this 5
summer. And Stephanie Combe who is here in right in front as is helping me with the visuals today. And they were just of immeasurable assistance all summer.
For purposes of this research project the term the Wattis brothers means the two older brothers only. Edmund O. and William H. this is not to minimize the importance of younger brother Warren L. who also played a significant role in the company’s success. Rather it is simply a necessity of establishing realistic limits on the scope of this work. Let us begin with a short survey of Utah Construction/ Utah International. Just to get a feel for the scope, diversification and significance of its enterprises. And this will be short. You’ve all seen the photos, you’ve heard Tom Alexander’s excellent presentation, you have probably I see a number of you have some of the booklets published by the library and so you don’t need a long survey here of the scope of their work.
Utah Construction Company evolved from a twenty year affiliation with the four Corey Brothers. They were brothers to the Wattis mother. In a number of railroad and canal construction projects in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Oregon the Wattis brothers bought half the stock in the newly reorganized Corey Brothers incorporated in 1886. The company thrived for several years before collapsing in the financial crash of the mid 1890’ s. From its ruins Utah Construction emerged without the Coreys as you heard last hour.
Incorporated in the year 1900 Utah Construction Company first undertook small scale railroading projects in Idaho, then several larger ones in Nevada and California, which included that daunting 942 mile Feather River route and then in Utah which included a portion of the Denver and Rio Grande track between 6
Soldier Summit and Helper. Then in 1915 Utah Construction made its entry into dam building. Beginning with our own East Canyon Dam which is another way in which many of us have been impacted. Without East Canyon Dam and the irrigation water impounded there Davis County would never have enjoyed the prosperity it has. Gene mentioned our farm our 100 acre family farm. Every six days this summer I was there irrigating that farm and I took pride in the prosperity of the farm and green alpha and the corn that we produced and I couldn’t have done it without that East Canyon Dam. Railroad construction and dam building projects much too numerous to be detailed here were the companies bread and butter throughout the 1920’ s. Then came the granddaddy of all construction projects in 1931, Hoover Dam, began in 1931. Where in Utah Construction Company joined Morrison Knudson, Bechtel, Kaiser and others to form six companies, to form Six Companies the name of that conglomerate to span the mighty Colorado River. It is a measure of the reputation enjoyed by the Wattis brothers that William, and he according to the style of the day took to his initials W. H. and so I’m going to refer to him by that term throughout the remainder of the paper, he was named president of this huge conglomerate. And Edmund O., similarly went by his initials E. O., was named second vice president and they referred to each other by their respective initials and sign their names and other documents with those initials. As fate would have it both brothers died before the dam was completed in 1935.
However the reputation gained by Utah Construction during this time allowed the company to continue to shine for another generation. Gene Sessions 7
and Sterling Sessions in their outstanding business biography list eighteen major dam building projects completed during the period 1936 and 1959 after their deaths by Utah Construction, including Pineview and Wanship in our own backyard. The warriors brought contracts in ship building including at that aforementioned Tacoma Ship Yard and road construction including the famous Alcan Highway. They had an important contract for a portion of that highway. After World War II the company entered into an entirely new phase, emphasizing mining which dominated its operations into the modern era, revived its financial strength and turned it into a multinational corporation.
This paper advances the thesis that although E. O. and W. H. Wattis were not particularly well positioned by birth or education to achieve the remarkable success that they did, nevertheless we can identify certain character traits, experiences and opportunities that they took full advantage of in their quest for success. Pouring through hundreds of documents this summer my research assistance and I have identified six such factors of success we’ve called them, which I summarize in the following pages.
First, these brothers had a remarkable knack for recognizing opportunity when they saw it and making the most of it. A good example of this aptitude is visible in their very first construction experience. Grading portions of the Union Pacific track as the initial transcontinental line approached Utah in 1868 and headed right for the Wattis farm in Uintah. The younger brother William was only ten years old and too young to hire on, but he undoubtedly observed the activity with wide eyed interest knowing that his older brother was one of the workers. 8
Edmund was only thirteen and had to have help in yoking his oxen, but his diligence paid off. And at the end of several months he brought home $ 225. This seemed like a small fortune to that cash strapped family. Of the 5,000 local men, Leonard Arrington tells us 5,000 worked on that project, only a handful used the experience as a career path in heavy construction. But E. O. Wattis was one. Opportunity came right down the tracks for these brothers and they jumped aboard. I’m indebted to my research assistant Janice LeFevre for putting it that way, but I love the way she said it. Opportunities came right down the tracks for these brothers and they jumped aboard.
Second, both of these men reflected traditional agrarian values of hard work and perseverance. Farm youngsters learned the importance of looking after details and of staying with a task to its completion regardless of weather conditions. They learned safety consciousness and patience with animals. And it was of no small benefit to these boys that they were skilled in working with oxen, mules and draft horses.
Both grew into large men who were strong and full of grit. Oh that’s an excellent photo. I could not find a single job that they ever quit on. And I was interested in that Tom Alexander pointed out that that was a trait of David Eccles as well. Particularly revealing was E. O.’ s involvement with the Coreys that is two uncles and three other men in the transportation of a wagon load of whiskey from Kelton, Utah to Boise, Idaho in the year 1868. Young Wattis was only thirteen years old but proved to be one of the steadiest of the group when bad weather 9
overtook them. All except him began nipping at that whiskey and all except him suffered frost bite.
Third, was the development of the self confidence to stride forward on their own. Quite likely the single most fortuitous business decision they ever made was to end their partnership with the Coreys. Even though the implosion of Corey Brothers was cause by the panic of 1893, the break up of that company must have been difficult for the Wattis’s on a personal level. The Coreys after all were family, uncles and cousins and the Wattis’s had worked with them or for them since childhood and incorporated with them since 1886. Nevertheless the Coreys did not have the acumen or stability to thrive as a modern company. I’m convinced that they didn’t, but that was only an intuitive and deductive conclusion and I was gratified as I listened to Tom’s paper last hour that he apparently moved toward that same conclusion and he had the benefit of some primary source documentations to draw his conclusions from. But I know that numerous Corey cousins plugged in and out of the company.
The elder Coreys insisted on dominating the decision making even though the Wattis brothers owned fifty- one percent of the stock and were better decision makers. And the elder uncle, Warren Corey, could be petty and vindictive and I was a little worried about advancing that point of view in those words, but I’m much reassured by Tom’s paper. On of the truly remarkable document in twentieth century Utah political history is Warren Corey’s open letter to his nephew W. H. Wattis published in the Salt Lake Tribune in August of 1928 reeking of spite this letter chides W. H. for being an unsuccessful candidate on 10
several previous occasions. Labels him a lame duck, obviously not understanding the meaning of that term and accuses him of being a disloyal party member and I know that that was not true based on a lot of years of research and so I wondered what was the cause of that animosity. There was something else there that I was not able to see from my research and again much indebted to Tom Alexander for having enlightened me and all of the audience this morning on that. The bitter animosity of this letter speaks volumes as to the Wattis’ good fortune in being rid of the irascible man. By the same token the Wattis alignment with the Ogden financiers Thomas D. Dee, David Eccles and others following the breakup of the Coreys was undoubtedly the single most fortunate occurrence in their business lives.
Fourth, was a commitment to a hands- on management style. No wonder they fit so well with David Eccles. Don’t you agree? These were men who maximized their time on the construction site and minimized their time in the board room, especially during their early and middling years. They were comfortable with dust in their nose, blisters on their feet, calluses on their hands and dirt under their fingernails. In 1893 on one of his last jobs with Corey Brothers W. H. Wattis then 34 and a full partner was operating a slip plow on the Portland- Astoria job site when he received a surprise visit from his new financiers David Eccles, Thomas Dee and others and on that occasion one of them gave him a cigar. “ I wish it had been a twenty- five cent piece,” he later recalled, “ Since I hadn’t eaten food for a day and a half.” This was a full partner. 11
The older brother held the same commitment to tenacity and detail the Wattis brothers were managers yes, and they grasped the big picture yes, but they were also detail men who understood the need to worry about on site activity. Incidentally this was no doubt the safety record of the company was so good even though their work involved blasting, working at great heights, spanning raging rivers, operating heavy equipment and sometimes supervising hundreds of men at a time. And while Tom could tell us of some dozen or so fatalities on that Feather River job that was nothing as compared to the hundreds, maybe as many as a thousand Chinese workers who were killed on the Central Pacific construction job in those two years of building the transcontinental railroad.
Fifth, both men had the good fortune to marry talented, devoted and stable wives who liked each other and got on well together. The fact that both these women were well poised and possessed of good lucks would also be counted an advantage, especially in the 1920’ s as the newspaper society pages found a growing audience of readers with and insatiable curiosity for news of the upper crust. Additionally such a spouse was essential to someone like W. H. who had developed political aspirations and began a series of campaigns for election to public office. W. H. married the striking Anna Maria Dorothea Sophie Standard and she went by Marie Dee, in 1889. He was nearly thirty she was twenty- three, her senior year report card from the Sacred Heart Academy reveals that she was as talented and sophisticated as she was beautiful. And isn’t she something? 12
When I first met Stephanie as a student in my 1700 class three or four years ago, I was able to learn before the semester was over that her maiden name was Standard because her brother was also in the class and his name was Standard. When I got to know Marie Dee, I asked Stephanie about the relationship and she said yes, she’s my great- great- grandmother and I was able to assure Stephanie that there is enough good looks represented in that woman to serve the Standard family for a hundred generations. She received a perfect score, 100, in all categories of citizenship that Sacred Heart Academy report card. Her academic achievement was equally impressive with scores ranging from ninety to ninety- eight in the nine subjects graded. She and W. H. had four children, two of whom died in childhood with in six months of each other. But I was pleased to learn that we have a great granddaughter of his. Say again? Okay Granddaughter and a great- great, oh how about? That’s wonderful.
E. O. on the other hand married the petite Martha Ann Bybee from nearby Riverdale in June 1879. When he was twenty- four and she was just sixteen, sixteen and a half. Martha was described by a grandson as a little on the plump side in her later years, though Stephanie and I wonder about that. The photos we have seen of her in her later years do not suggest that at all, including this one. But the grandson described her as full of energy and quote, “ Very interested in civic activities.” She was active in a local charity, the Martha Society that assisted the needy. And incidentally I have concluded that the Martha Society did not bear relationship to her name, but if somebody knows differently about that I would appreciate hearing the details. She also served as president of the Utah 13
Federation of Women’s Clubs and she participated in countless other civic activities and municipal clubs. Having recovered from a serious illness through the healing hand of Christen Science she became an ardent convert to that faith. She and E. O. raised eight children, although one, a son Earl preceded him in death, the victim of an automobile accident.
So is this the family? Oh the Child Culture Society that she was active in. Say it out loud Stephanie, she is where? The third one from the left? From my left as I’m looking at it? This one? Over here? Okay alright. Oh, that beautiful house, oh wow. 1915 Stephanie says.
In looking at the personalities and lives of these men as individuals we can not improve on Linda Sillito’s insightful taxonomy of W. H. as Mr. Outside and E. O. as Mr. Inside. William was gregarious, smiling, athletics and always at ease in the glare of the public spotlight. Edmund was comfortable with people, but somewhat more reserved more paperwork and detail oriented and a bit more inclined to worry.
W. H. first came to my attention when I began researching my master’s thesis as I mentioned. And I peaked in on that state republican convention of 1920. There he was front runner for the gubernatorial nomination moving easily among the delegates shaking hands smiling and asking for support. By the second vote he had begun to slip and by the third he had lost by a decisive margin to the nominee Charles Mabey.
Newspaper accounts of the day pointed to W. H.’ s recent indictment under the Lever Act as the likely reason for his fade. The Lever Act was a war time 14
measure that sought to prevent price gouging in the marketing of food and fuel. And W. H. as an executive of the U& I Sugar Company had been targeted by federal prosecutors. The act its self was poorly drawn and ill advised and was in fact declared unconstitutional in 1921 at which time all indictments were dismissed, but the damage had been done. The fact that W. H. was a Weber County man would not have worked in his favor. The Utah Republican Party was firmly controlled by a nepotistic Salt Lake City clique during that era and they played political hardball.
By decades end W. H.’ s sterling reputation as a business man hammered down all such barriers and won him the gubernatorial nomination. By then he was a man of such status that LDS Church President Heber Grant could write him saying, “ I tried to get you on the phone all night last night until ten p. m.” and then apologizing to him that he had to leave town for a week quote, “ Before we had arrived on a decision on what do to in the affairs of the Utah- Idaho Sugar Company.” W. H. was so popular with the local press that the press even reported on his fishing and hunting trips. He was a person so esteemed by his peers around the nation that he was named director of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce and entrepreneur so successful that he stood as president of one of the half dozen largest construction companies in the nation, a businessman so esteemed that the president of the United States sought his feed back on speeches. The nomination simply could not be denied him. But facing a very popular incumbent George Dern in the general election of 1928 W. H. was to garner only forty- one percent of the vote. 15
After that W. H. turned back to business and did not again seek public office. After all he had been defeated twice at the polls first in the congressional race on 1918 and now in the gubernatorial race 1928 and he had been frustrated three times in the nominating convention seeking the gubernatorial nomination in 1920, as previously mentioned, and in 1924 in seeking the U. S. senatorial nomination in 1922.
By 1929 he had started to develop health problems nevertheless his natural charm and good humor continued on and served him well until death in 1931. Oft quoted, I’m sure many of you have heard this before but I can’t resist repeating it here, it’s a capsule that comes from the hospital room upon hearing of Six Companies successful bid on the Hoover Dam project. He’s quoted by Linda Sillito in one of the Stewart Library booklets, comes from Joseph Lee Stevenson and goes as follows, “ At St. Frances Hospital the press core found William H. sitting up wrapped in a silk bathrobe puffing on a long black stogy. His bushy white hair had been carefully brushed in to place by his wife and he was eager to talk. News of the winning bid had lifted his spirits. He grinned broadly for the photographers then said “ Now this dam is just a dam, but it’s a damn big dam,” and his eyes twinkling. “ Otherwise it was no different that others we’ve thrown up in a dozen place,” end of that quote.
Unlike his younger brother E. O. on the other hand had no political aspirations. Out side of business his constituency was his family. The only babies he kissed were his own and when he shook hands it was often for the purpose of slipping a dollar to his grandchildren. They call it the silver dollar handshake. 16
Unlike W. H. who loved golf, played it often and was photographed in golfing attire along with such celebrities as Heber J. Grant and Reed Smoot and Tom isn’t Charles Nibley in there? Does that look like Nibley? Ya second from the right, ya. But unlike W. H. in this kind of environment and W. H. is second from the left E. O. played golf mostly as a social necessity. Simply taking off a suit coat he turned his suspenders the other way around and played in his business attire.
E. O.’ s idea of leisure time fun was being at home with his family riding scooters with the children, romping with the family dog, picking fruit and vegetables from his orchard and garden and joining in the many socials hosted at his beautiful home on Eccles Street or in the immediate neighborhood. Due to the press of business however E. O. was denied the time at home that he coveted. Christmas time was the exception. He always made it a point to be home for the holidays.
Incidentally I should tell you that the E. O. Wattis family put together a wonderful twenty minute DVD featuring a number of clips from home videos shot by E. O.’ s family when he was still alive and in that beautiful home on Eccles Avenue and I have watched that DVD its available here, its just wonderfully revealing and you can just feel how important it was to him to be home when ever he could be, which wasn’t often. In fact that point is made in that DVD by one of his granddaughters that there was a time, almost a year when he was gone the entire time. 17
E. O. was quite tall for that day, standing a full six feet. Unlike his younger brother W. H. he never took on that middle age spread but remained slender. His curly hair, rosy cheeks, spectacles and pipe all fit the image of a dignified business man. E. O. was a bulldog, albeit a gentle one. His hallmark was tenacity and his genius was energy. One of his grandsons noted quote “ My grandfather’s education consisted of two or three years of formal schooling,” unquote. He said that E. O. could write, but made a lot of grammatical mistakes and that he quote, “ came up through the process with a long construction history of being on the site and doing the work,” end of this quote. In today’s vernacular he would probably be described as a workaholic.
In a letter to his sister Mary Jane written from Oroville California in 1909 he mentioned that he had lost weight was down to 155 pounds, remember that’s on a six foot frame. He said. “ I am getting very tired of railroad work and I don’t know whether I will ever take another job or not. It is very monotonous for me to always be away from home and I think that I am needed at home about as bad as anybody. Besides that I am fifty- four years old and have always worked very hard and have never had but very little pleasure in life. I don’t think I have hardly had my share. My young life was spent in poverty and hard work and I am not in the best of health. W. H. left here a few days go and should reach Ogden tonight. I want to make a trip home very bad but am so badly crowded with the part of business that it is my duty to look after that I can not get away now,” end of his quote. E. O. Worries in this letter that he will become even less happy as he 18
grows older, that he did or didn’t, cannot be discerned from the historical record, but his health problems continued.
In a letter written as early as 1914 he commented on his rheumatism. In 1927 he described his bladder infection and pending surgery which promised a ninety- five percent success probability. Two years later in 1929 he mentioned his cough, eczema, insomnia and urinary infection, puss in the urine. So he obviously did not enjoy that ninety- five percent probability success rate, but he was rather in the five percent. And in 1932 he complained of swollen feet, swollen feet and inner ear problems. What the historical record also reveals is that E. O. never did relax his work schedule to any significant degree. At the time of his death in 1934 he was president of six companies and Hoover Dam was in the final phase of construction and as always he was busy with on site visits production schedules, costs, press relations and dozens of other executive level tasks. The heart attack that took his like was sudden and massive.
In approaching the conclusion of this paper I return to the thesis and advance the sixth factor of success, you thought I’d forgotten it. It’s not a factor that can be offered for general applicability in a business management class for its unique to the Wattis brothers. Simply stated they had each other. E. O. and W. H. were a perfect match as business partners. Their individual personalities, aptitudes, likes and dislikes complemented the others to a consummate degree. Equally important they like and trusted each, a family trait. “ There are very few families that have as strong as long a love for each other as ours have and none have any stronger,” wrote E. O. in a 1909 letter noting that quote, “ there have 19
never been any quarrels between any of us nor any hard feelings,” unquote. Those are truly remarkable statements aren’t they?
As close as these two brothers were however they usually did not work in pairs. They were not joined at the hip to use that contemporary phrase. Indeed their trust was so implicit that they were frequently apart and engaged in different types of tasks. A revealing snap shot in time comes from the summer of 1922. I had hoped in pouring through those hundreds and hundreds of pages of documents I could I find them writing letters on the same day. And I could then share with you what different kinds of tasks and different approaches they were taking. I never was able quite to do that, but I see them close together here in the summer of 1922. W. H. who was then preparing his run for the U. S. Senate was participating in number of activities at Lagoon. They included umpiring a softball game between a Salt Lake and Ogden young men’s republican clubs and attending several wrestling and boxing matches. In the distinctive newspaper style of the day that were topped off by a battle royal between five members of the Ethiopian race all in the ring at the same time.
Contrast this with E. O. who’s hectic travel schedule had made him almost invisible even to his wife, “ I was surprise your father was in Kansas City,” she wrote to a daughter June 15th after spending that anniversary alone. This is not to imply that E. O. worked while W. H. played. W. H. was just a little more extroverted, more readily given to conduction business on the golf course or in other recreational settings. And who can doubt that how important that is in the modern corporate world. E. O. took a quieter but more direct approach to 20
business. Again we see Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside in perfect compliment. The brothers used that friendship and bond to span distances over four thousand miles of track alone, plus many more of road, tunnels, canals, etc. and to span eras from the pre- railroad era, from the pre- railroad frontier to the industrial era when they died.
Again going back to the comment President Millner made the monuments to industry they created would span many more eras and serve the purposes of society long into the indefinite future and you can take that from a historian who’s maternity bill was paid by a father whose pay check was back in part by Wattis money long ago and far away in Puyallup Washington. Thank you.
© 2007 WSU Stewart Library, All rights reserved.
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