Steve Cottrell: Samuel Shortridge — from National Hotel porter to U.S. senator
Special to The Union
On Nov. 2, 1920, when Nevada County women went to the polls for the first time to vote for the next United States senator from California, the major party candidates were Democrat James Phelan and Republican Samuel Shortridge — both from the Bay Area, but one with a local connection.
Shortridge, born in Iowa in 1861, arrived in Nevada City with his parents and brother Charles in 1874. The brothers became porters at the National Hotel, meeting stages, carrying luggage, and making sure lobby and saloon ashtrays were periodically emptied. But apparently tips weren’t all that great, so young Sam apprenticed as a blacksmith at the Cold Spring Mine — just beyond Manzanita Diggins, about two miles east of town.
Instead of pursuing a career in blacksmithing, however, Shortridge decided to move to San Jose with his parents and brother. He later became a school teacher in Napa County, then attended Hastings College of Law, and in 1884 was admitted to the San Francisco Bar. But his experience at the mine left a lasting impression.
Following the 1920 election, Shortridge wrote to Jo V. Snyder, general manager of The Union’s business office on Broad Street, (where Utopian Stone is now located), appreciative of support from his “old stomping ground, Nevada City.”
He told Snyder, “I made many speeches and never on any occasion failed to state that while I might not be much of a lawyer, I did claim to be a first-class blacksmith, having devoted some attention to that branch of industry at the old Cold Spring gravel mine. Perhaps my supposed ability as a blacksmith did as much to elect me as my reputation as a lawyer.”
Or maybe it was his extraordinary oratorical style?
Shortridge’s spellbinding courtroom presence was initially recognized in San Francisco, then throughout the state. His father, Elias, had been a minister, and it seems his dad’s fiery tempo influenced Samuel’s approach to public speaking. At a Memorial Day ceremony in Fresno in 1888, for example, the 26-year-old attorney delivered a rousing patriotic speech with a poem-like crescendo:
“Let the monument to our heroes be the land they saved, domed and canopied by the heavens that smile upon their cause,” he told his rapt audience. “For so long as flowers bloom and dewdrops sparkle on the breast of morn; so long as rivers seek the sea and mountains lift themselves above the plains; so long as man has aspirations for liberty and the American heart beats to the transports of a pure and lofty patriotism, our heroes’ fame will live and be an inspiration to the nation’s sons forever and ever.”
Fifteen years later, when President Roosevelt was on a tour of the West, Shortridge was chosen to welcome TR at a San Francisco banquet, but not actually introduce him; that honor fell to program chairman Michael de Young, publisher of the Chronicle newspaper.
But when Shortridge shouted, “There is but one Union, one Constitution, one flag, one president, Theodore Roosevelt!” and brought the audience to its collective feet, de Young, realizing there was no way to follow that kind of stemwinder, quickly introduced Roosevelt in as few words as possible.
In November 1920, on the heels of the 19th Amendment’s ratification — and with his wife, Laura, casting her first ballot — Shortridge defeated incumbent James Phelan. Two months later, a reporter from The Union met with the senator-elect, and Shortridge reminisced about his teenage years here and recounted a conversation a few years earlier with David Morgan, president of Citizens Bank.
Morgan had invited Shortridge to take a drive in his “machine” from the Broad Street bank to the Cold Spring Mine, but Shortridge declined the offer.
“I told him, ‘No, Dave, I want to walk; I want to walk again over that old lateral ditch, through the Milliken orchard where I walked to work, day after day, when I was a boy. I didn’t have a high-tone automobile to ride in, Dave. I walked out there where I was looking for work, and I want to walk over those same lateral ditches once again and through the chaparral, down to the mouth of the old shaft.’”
Samuel Shortridge served in the U. S. Senate from 1921 to 1933, then spent four years at the Justice Department before returning to the Atherton home he and Laura shared until her death in 1938. The former National Hotel porter and apprentice blacksmith died in Atherton on Jan. 15, 1952, heralded in an Associated Press tribute as ‘The Silver Tongued Orator of the Pacific.”
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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