The Spirit of the West

NEHEMIAH appears to have been the first man in recorded history with the true spirit of the West. The fourth chapter of Nehemiah sums up his achievements in laying out a new city: ‘Now the city was large and great; but the people were few and the houses were not builded.’

Eloquent and adequate is this description, as applied to many a Pacific Coast city of to-day. Its builders are not greatly concerned over people and houses: they will come rapidly enough. The main point is that the city is large and great. And so the builders cannot be persuaded to stop their work in order to hear wise men of the East explain why it is impossible in such a place to construct a great city. Anyone crossing the deserts of Southern California a generation ago could see that few people would ever live where Los Angeles has since been doubling its population in every decade.

The Bible does not tell us that Nehemiah erected on the walls of his city-to-be a huge electric sign with the words, ‘Watch Tacoma Grow.’ He did well, however, with the advertising means at his disposal. When Sanballat urged him to stop building and come down from the city wall to the plain of Ono, he replied in words that may still be read, thanks to the Gideons, in any hotel room. ‘ I am doing a great work,’ said he, ‘so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease, whilst I leave it and come down to you ? ’ And when the people threatened him with dire consequences if he went on with

the work, he answered, ‘Should such a man as I flee? I will not go.’

Thus have the builders of Pacific Coast cities answered the calamityhowlers, while they sustained their courage with the vision of the future. And to the scoffing world they have declared: ‘ The city is large and great, though the people are, indeed, few therein, and the houses are not builded.’


If you go to Vancouver, British Columbia, over the Canadian Rockies, and thence by boat, via Victoria, to Seattle, you will find yourself caught by the spirit of the West — or ridiculing and resisting it—before you reach the dock. For there will be at least one returning citizen of Seattle on board who remembers the last sign he read before leaving his city: ‘Do not forget to boost Seattle while you are away.’

Seattle people do not forget. They have heard what is said of them in the Bible: ‘Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.’ And so they do not light a candle and put it under a bushel. They feel it their duty to set it up where it giveth light unto all those who are still in the darkness of the East. Besides, their bushels are all busy carrying food to the Orient.

Once you are actually in this city you feel the spirit of the West, whether you will or no. Possibly there is no place where the Western spirit of coöperation is more contagious. The whole sprightly, smiling, hand-clasping population seems engaged in one vast ‘Paul Jones’ — all hands round and swing together to the right, with no one sitting aloof in the corner, refusing to join the dance, and remarking how much better he could manage the affair if he wanted to. The ‘knocker’ finds the life of Seattle uncongenial. Somebody is sure to tell him that an automobile knocks going up-hill, and a man knocks going down. And a man going down-hill in Seattle is headed straight for the chilling waters of Puget Sound.

Seattle literally has the faith that moves mountains. When a mountain stood in the way of a business street, the mountain had n’t a chance. It was washed into the ocean; and on its site was erected the chief hotel of Seattle. Another opportunity for the city to quote Scripture to its purpose. A Seattle man of the true faith would not be surprised to find a mountain moved overnight.

Such a citizen of Seattle is said to have met some old friends one evening in that little city to the south that has such difficulty in pronouncing the name ‘Rainier.’

‘You should see how Seattle is growing,’ he cried.

‘ Yes, I was there only yesterday,’ replied one of his Tacoma friends.

‘Ah,’ said he, ‘you should have seen Seattle this morning! ’

This is youth — the overweening self-confidence of youth, if you like; or, if you prefer, youth with the courage of its emotions. The West still has the buoyant faith of the uncouth college Freshman from the farm. Some time it may enter the sophomoric stage, show signs of tired feelings, and convey the mature impression of having experienced all the joy of life and found there is nothing in it.

But is this faith, after all, different from the faith of many Eastern communities? Men who have lived on the Pacific Coast do not ask that question. They know what they mean by the spirit of the West. Elsewhere, they admit, that same spirit is a driving force in individuals. It is rarely found in entire groups. In the West, the man of boundless faith is typical: he feels at home: he enjoys a consciousness of kind. In the East, he may be lonesome: the crowd is not with him. He must overcome, not only his own inertia, but that of the community as well. Yes, he is sure there is a difference. An inveterate Westerner is a man from the East who has returned once to his old home to see whether that difference is really what it seems to be.

Once in a New England community I felt the spirit of the West; and that was in a section that New England would hardly recognize as itself — Aroostook County, New England’s ‘farthest east.’ Years ago I found everybody in Houlton and Caribou talking Aroostook potato-land as if it were the best in the world, and investing their money as if they believed what they said. Theirs was the eloquence of a Hood River man talking apples, a Fresno man talking raisins, a Redlands man talking oranges.

But when I think of the spirit of rural New England, I do not think of Aroostook: I think rather of the Maine farmer in another county, to whom I applied for a job at the confident age of eleven.

‘No,’ said he, ‘I reckon I won’t hire no help. I can’t tell how the crops are gonter turn out, and I guess I’d better jest putter along by myself.’

I explained to him that his crops would have much better chances with my help; but he was obdurate. He would not risk the ‘ten dollars a month and found’ for which I offered myself. Twenty years later, I found him still puttering along by himself, his apple orchards still overgrown with weeds and caterpillars. And there were fewer people in the whole county than on that fatal day when the putterer rejected my services.

‘The glories of the past!’ exclaims the man of the East.

‘The wonders of the future!’ cries the man of the West.

A college student, returning this year to the Pacific Coast, after having spent a year in Boston, summed up his impressions in this way:—

‘“Visit our forty-two story L. C. Smith Building and look down on our growing city,” urges Seattle, in a frenzy of enthusiasm.

‘ “Visit our three-story Fanueil Hall and look up its history,” replies Boston, with a deprecating smile.’

In the seventeenth century, a committee of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, appointed to investigate the agricultural possibilities of the country, reported that there was little cultivable land west of Newton, Massachusetts. In a later century, Senator Benton, in an eloquent speech in Congress, proved conclusively that there could never be any successful settlements beyond the Rocky Mountains. Even our universities have failed to see their future large enough. They have planned and located each building as if they thought it would be the last one. In 1820, the regents of the University of Indiana, having spent $2400 on a building to house the entire university, apologized for their extravagance. ‘ We are aware,’ they admitted, ‘that the plan proposed may be opposed on account of its magnitude.’ A generation ago, the regents of the University of Illinois, in dedicating one of those monstrosities of the ‘Late General Grant’ period of architecture, declared that it would meet all the needs of the university for a century to come.

Even west of Boston, it seems, men sometimes lack faith in the possibilities of their country. A Kansan farmer, they say, having ordered and received two windmills, sent one back, fearing that there might not be wind enough for two. And that was in Kansas, where — if Dr. Lindley can be trusted — a man does not run after his hat when the wind takes it away: he merely thrusts his hand into the air and takes another hat.

‘O ye of little faith,’ we cry, when we consider the failure of our forefathers to see the future ‘large and great.’ Little do we realize that our own vision may seem to our children’s children like the $2400 extravagance of the University of Indiana.


Though faith, in the West as elsewhere, is the substance of things hoped for, it is built in the West on the substance of things already lavishly bestowed by nature. A permanent impression of this abundance remains with anyone who has really seen the Far West. That impression was mine the first time I crossed the Sandy River, a stream that flows into the Columbia River where the Columbia Highway begins. There I saw a man, equipped only with the inverted top of a birdcage fastened to the end of a long pole, pull out about all the fish he could carry home in his ‘flivver.’

If I cannot expect you to believe this story, — which, being Western, a fish story, and a Ford story, is thrice suspect, — or to believe that I looked down, from the same bridge, upon a man in a large dory, who had piled up such a heap of glistening fish that the craft sank with the weight, how can I expect you to believe what is still less credible, that the sight did not seem to me extraordinary, but merely to typify Western abundance! It made me think of similar sights all the way from Vancouver to San Diego.

Faith in the boundless future greeted me, on my first Thanksgiving Day in the West, in a city-to-be of Southern California. Fate, aided and abetted by the Southern Pacific Railroad, deposited me, a descendant of Pilgrim fathers, in a community that seemed never, outside of a poultry-show, to have heard of Plymouth Rock.

Through the only open door on the only business street, I found my way to Carlos — cook, waiter, and proprietor of the only eating-house. And Carlos, strong in Mexican accent and Western hospitality, served me local color and sour bread. I could have forgiven him the sour bread; but then came a concoction rolled in corn-husks upon which I was sure he had lavished, with Western abandon, an entire bottle of Tabasco sauce.

While I was wondering how to dispose of this fire-brand without the risk of starting another Mexican War, a cowboy, bursting through the door as if rehearsing for a motion-picture, came to my rescue with a dramatic cut-in. No sooner had he whooped upon the scene, — arrayed in red bandanna, pistols and all the other stage properties, — than he noted the absence of Thanksgiving in my face. He took in the whole sad situation at a glance. Whiskey had loosened the strings of his imagination — and of his purse.

‘Give the young feller a genu-ine, I say genu-ine, Thanksgivin’ dinner,’ he cried, as he threw a roll of bank-notes around the room. ‘Give the young feller the genu-ine thing. Ye get me? Turkey and stuffin’ and cranb’ry sauce and all the fixin’s. I’ll pay the bills.’

After we had twice collected his scattered bank-notes and stuffed them into his pockets, we convinced him that the Carlos shack was no place in which to celebrate a New England holiday. He then proposed a personally conducted tour of the city.

At the next street corner, he began to point out the objects of local interest. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is Thirty-Second Street.’

‘Then where,’ I asked, ‘can First Street be?’

‘Oh, that,’ he replied, with a sweep of his arm and a far-away look in his eyes, ‘that is way out yonder on the prairie. That ain’t been laid out yet.’

Equally amusing is every pioneer settlement where the people are few and the houses not yet builded: the little box of a railroad station, with its plot of ‘self-conscious geraniums’; behind it, stretched out on Main Street, the General Emporium with its false front and its Post-Office attachment, the two-story hotel, the three empty saloons, the four real-estate offices; and, beyond these monuments of failure and of hope, regiments of houselots staked out as far as One Hundred and Thirty-Ninth Street.

‘The great West,’ exclaimed the incredulous traveler, ‘ where every hill is a mountain, every cat is a mountain lion, every crik is a river, and every man is a liar!’ Some liars have come from the East, no doubt; but while we laugh at the city that is large and great only in imagination, we do well to recall that Portland was such a city only half a century ago. And the surviving pioneers have found that the ‘boosters’ of those days who told the biggest lies about its future told the most truth. Westerners do not exaggerate their future possibilities. Perhaps, in spite of their modesty, they would lie about the future if they could: they lack sufficient imagination.

On a street corner in the heart of Portland is the Church of Our Father, Unitarian. On the other three corners of that intersection are one of the chief office buildings, one of the chief theatres, and one of the chief hotels. When the church was located there, the people had to go through the woods to reach it. And there were scoffers even in those days. They laughed at the unpractical young minister, fresh from the Harvard Divinity School, who builded his first meeting-house in the wilderness. But Thomas Lamb Eliot, a worthy descendant of the pioneer apostle to the Indians, and Henrietta Eliot, his wife, with a babe in her arms, had managed to cross the Isthmus of Panama, had found their way, in various ships, from port to port, up to the Columbia River, and had shown at once that truly Western faith in the city that was not yet builded.

Dr. Eliot sometimes tells of a pioneer experience in driving from Olympia to Tenino, in western Washington, to visit an Indian reservation. His guide was Hazard Stevens. Before they got into the buggy, he asked Mr. Stevens about the road.

‘Oh, it’s good road,’ answered Mr. Stevens.

On their journey they frequently had to lift the wagon out of holes and cutaway logs that had fallen across the road. The way was so narrow that, when they met a wagon at one place, they could pass it only by taking their buggy apart, lifting it piece by piece over the wagon, and then putting it together again.

When, after various other struggles, they actually reached Tenino, Dr. Eliot said,—

‘There is one question I would like to ask, Mr. Stevens. What is your definition of a good road ? ’

‘Oh,’ came the quick reply, ‘any road you can get through.’

There you have the spirit of the West. Had men insisted on any other definition of a good road, they would not have crossed the Rockies.


Men who have known the pioneers need not be told that Hazard Stevens enjoyed the humor of his remark. Indeed, the characteristic ability of the Westerner to go down in defeat and bob up with his cheerful confidence unshaken is due in part to this sense of humor. It prompts him to publish the following advertisement in his local paper: ‘For exchange, two lots in University Park, for anything on earth, except more lots in University Park.’ His neighbors do not resent this reference to a blighted land boom. They laugh with him, even though they, too, have lots in University Park that yield nothing but weeds, taxes, and reproaches.

It was the city of Salem, in the state of Oregon, that proposed to a venerable city in the East that, since it is confusing to have two cities of the same name, it might be well for Salem, Massachusetts, to change its name. Shades of all the witches! This bumptious young upstart proposes that the dignified home of Nathaniel Hawthorne should give up its tradition-hallowed name. How preposterous! How like the West! And at once come protests from the affronted East. Whereupon, the City Fathers of Salem, Oregon, chuckle and look again at the motto on the council chamber walls: ‘ Never mind what people say, as long as they talk about you.’

Having thus attracted attention to their own little spot in the Willamette Valley, the people of Salem proceed to cash in their free publicity and their loganberries and the prohibition movement by selling several million dollars worth of ‘Loju’ to the affronted cities of the East.

Mistake not the spirit of the West. It is revealed in much more than ridiculous bragging: it is revealed to the initiated in a sense of humor all its own. The comic supplements of its daily papers do cast a lurid glow, as Dr. Crothers says, upon our boasted sense of humor. They are often as barren as the sage-brush prairies of Nevada. But they are only one of the many mistakes the frontiersmen have taken from the East, when their own genius would have served them far better.

To one who misses the humor, it seems that our Californians talk about their scenery as if they had made it all. In the high Sierras, an Oxford graduate and his Californian guide gazed on the snow-capped peaks at sunset. ‘A beautiful view,’exclaimed the Californian, ‘if I do say it myself.’ Both men are still chuckling over the remark, each because he thinks the other missed the humor.


To most of us, these are mere incidents, more or less amusing. To the sociologist, they are the stuff the history of human progress is made of. For the Pacific West, to the sociologist, is the last frontier. To him human progress is one long story of the more virile and adventurous members of an older civilization establishing themselves in a new land — the frontier. Thus, driven by drought and famine, the hardiest and most hopeful remnants of Asiatic tribes, centuries before Christ, found their way westward — ever westward — to the Mediterranean, and there built wonderful cities. They were the ‘boosters’ of their day. Later, in the declining days of Egypt and Babylon, Crete became the new frontier. The eloquent evidence of its flourishing leadership we are now digging up, after it has been buried for thousands of years. ‘Watch Crete Grow’ — or its classical equivalent — was no doubt the slogan of the time.

To the ancient cities that bordered the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece became the Far West in the days when the islands of the Ægean were flowering into a higher type of civilization than the wise men of the East had ever conceived. Westward — ever westward — the course of empire took its way: across the continent to the coast of Europe, across the Channel to the British Isles, across the Atlantic to the New World, across the border states to the Valley of the Mississippi, and finally — by means of ‘good roads’ — across the Rockies to the Pacific Coast. It is the last frontier. The march of progress has circled the globe!

By the roadside, most of the marchers have stopped to rest and have never taken the road again. Others, like Kipling’s ‘Explorer,’ have stopped only

Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting whisper, day and night repeated — so:
‘Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges —
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!’

Men who heard that voice, men of energy and courage, ready to take a chance, left old towns that seemed socially stagnant and sought the freer spirit of border communities.

In Texas they say the best steers are found on the outside of the herd. Natural selection has everywhere done its work. It has sorted out and sent westward some of the most enterprising youth of communities that were growing old, and has left behind most of those averse to change. The left-behinds have frowned upon the new because it is new. They have fallen down and worshiped the God-of-things-as-they-are, and inscribed upon the altar a slogan which the pioneers of all ages have repudiated: ‘Whatever has been should continue to be.’

That slogan renounces originality, adaptability, and variability. But change is the immutable law of progress. Whatever resists change is dying; whatever does not change is dead.

From the study of this westward march of civilization, the sociologist believes that he has discovered a law of progress. He believes, with the philosopher Comte, that the preponderating influence of youth in any community is a true cause of progress. He believes that he can arrange communities in the order of their possibilities of progress, if he but knows what proportion of the people of each group is old and rigid, and what proportion is new and flexible. Thus he can determine the degree of success of a city in adjusting itself to the new conditions with which the War has confronted the world.

This is the chief significance of the growth in population of the large cities on the Pacific Coast. Ten years ago more than half the people in these cities had arrived within the previous decade. More than half the people in these cities to-day were not there ten years ago. The great vitality of these cities — shown by the coincidence of a high birth-rate and a low death-rate, by the large numbers of comparatively young people coming from the East, and by the heterogeneity of the population — is a mark of identity of the last frontier with those which, throughout the ages, have led the westward march of civilization.

Yes, it is the younger people as a rule who respond to the call of the West. But that is not all. No sooner are they actually living in the West than they feel younger still. For natural selection not only operates to send the younger people westward, but it also has the effect of stimulating newcomers to larger capacities for living and loving — and this is youth!

Have you heard from your middleaged acquaintance who lately left your Eastern city? He has already become one of the older residents of a city beyond the Rockies. Yet he is a boy again. He has taken again to dancing and to camping and to out-of-door games. He is eager to climb every snow-capped peak in sight. He has found out what Dr. Hall meant when he said we do not stop playing because we grow old, but grow old because we stop playing. The rosy visions of boyhood are his again. Romance beckons to him. Nothing seems impossible. He is like the boy who, when asked whether he could play a violin, said he did not know: he had never tried it. The Westerner to-day, like the miner of ’49, is ever on the brink of great, success. He is thrilled with the adventure, and he looks upon his new discoveries with the big-eyed wonder of a boy at his first circus.

Do not laugh at him: imitate him. He is the Ponce de León of an age of Science. He seeks no magical fountain. He knows that youth is the spirit of youth. And he has found it in the West.

Must you laugh at him still? Very well, he will laugh, too. You cannot discourage him. Nehemiah will not come down from his high wall. He has caught the spirit of the West. Flood and fire, earthquake and panic, war and anarchists, the high cost of living and the scoffer from the East — each is sure to find him smiling, resourceful, confident. He sees his future large and great, though the people who share his visions are few and the castles of his dreams are not yet builded.