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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Building of Arachne

By Charles Howard Shinn (1852–1924)

[Born in Austin, Texas, 1852. Died, 1924. Contributed to The Argonaut. 1889.]


IN the year 2029 the leading Vanderbilt of his time came into his fortune. He had received a remarkable education, and one which the nineteenth century would have considered impossible. Without going into details, young Vanderbilt was evenly developed—physically, mentally and morally. He had been so educated that he found happiness in the full and constant use of his money and his brains for the good of humanity. But he was preëminently practical—a purified and perfected type of one of the industrial kings of the nineteenth century. He lived in a cottage in the hills, and he thought out his plans in long walks under his trees. He was the richest man in America, and yet he had as much freedom as any plain farmer. To sum it all up, he had become, without knowing it, the most unselfish, and at the same time the most patient and persistent of living men.

The friends he had were not numerous, but each one of them was capable of great things. And he and his wife understood each other in that complete way which happens once in a thousand or so. Remember, I am not trying to tell you how it all came about, because that would make a volume. Briefly, Vanderbilt wished to build a city, more pleasant and better to live in than any the world had yet seen. He wanted to see whether such a city could be established under new conditions of social and industrial life, and in such a way that the enormous capital he proposed to invest could be restored unimpaired at the end of a term of years.

The site which was chosen for the city of Arachne was in a sheltered and fertile part of the great valley-plain of California which extends from Shasta to Tehachapi. The floor of the valley at this point was a sloping plain, looking west, with tree-clad foothills east, and hundreds of great oaks scattered here and there, like the ancestral oaks in the heart of England. The region was chiefly occupied by large wheat farms. Vanderbilt was able to purchase, through agents, a tract of land nearly twenty miles square. Then he sent for his engineers.

“What I want,” he said, “is a city capable of indefinite extension. The plan is to be based on the web of the geometric spider. Streets, sewerage, water, light, transportation, and the other requirements of this Utopia are to be perfected as far as the science of the day will permit.”

The engineers made their report. It was a wonderful situation, they said. There was natural gas underlying the valley; water could be brought from the Sierras; railroads from all parts of the continent could centre in the heart of the city; commerce could occupy miles of wharves—if only people chose to come and live in Arachne.

Then Vanderbilt sent for several great landscape-gardeners to work with the engineers, and he and his wife went with them over the valley, the golden foothills, and the sea-green tule lowlands by the sloughs. As the work went on, so broad and beautiful were the plans developed, so magnificent the scale of operations, that the interest of the country was aroused, and many persons wished to buy and live in the as yet unbuilt city; but the reply sent out was: “Not yet; wait until we are ready.”

The landscape-gardeners said: “With this soil and climate every home can have its garden and every street can be an avenue of shade and fragrance. All the trees of the temperate zones, and many of the tropics, can thrive here, so we will have no street less than a hundred feet wide, and some of our great avenues shall even be a hundred and fifty feet across, and planted with date-palms and magnolias, for twenty miles into the country. We shall lay out public squares on every street, and two great parks, one on the lowlands by the river, another on the foothills which look down on the city. We shall so arrange our squares as to preserve the best of the oaks, sycamores, and other trees of the valley. And, when the city is built, one of its officers shall be a city forester, educated and efficient, to preserve and develop all this beauty of streets, squares, and parks.” And that winter they planted miles of avenues and hundreds of acres of forests. There were four hundred specimens of deciduous trees, forty-eight species of broad-leaved evergreens, and one hundred of conifers chosen to plant on the streets; some streets had one row of trees down the centre, others had two rows near the sidewalks. The great parks were to be not only pleasure-grounds, but also arboretums. A belt of forest, a mile wide, across the valley, was planted to protect the city from the occasional northers.

The engineers arranged to have all the sewers of the city unite at the edge of a tule marsh, by the river, five miles beyond the city’s possible extension, and there their contents were to be heated in vast furnaces, dried, ground to powder, and sold for fertilizers to farmers the world over. They arranged for water and natural gas for cooking and lighting, to be piped into every house, free to the consumer. They arranged for cable-cars up and down every street and avenue, all managed by one system. They laid out the city so that every lot, besides fronting on a street, ran back to a twenty-five-foot alley, and they arranged for a freight cable-system on all these alleyways. They arranged for telegraph, telephone, and phonograph connections throughout the entire system. Railroad men in those days had come to run cars without smoke or noise, by electricity, and it was easy to arrange for the approach of all trains by two broad, sunken avenues, one north, the other south, over which the streets crossed. These avenues led to the centre of the city, where a union depot, the great public buildings, and the offices of all the departments of public works were situated.

It would be too long a story to explain further the physical details of the system of organization, in which beauty and utility were joined in perfect union. When the time came, there appeared one morning in every newspaper in the United States an announcement:

“Lots for sale in Arachne, to actual settlers. Two hundred and fifty million dollars have already been invested here, and sales will be so conducted as merely to restore this capital intact, at the end of twenty years, to the original investor. The object of this experiment is not money-making. Those who cannot read and write had better not come to Arachne, as the charter which it is hoped will be adopted does not allow such to vote at city elections. Copies of the proposed charter mailed to all applicants.”

Within a year Arachne was a city. Vanderbilt and his friends succeeded in obtaining their charter, which could not be altered except by a three-fourths vote of the citizens. This charter was the most important part of Arachne, and so I will give a synopsis of some of its provisions. As Vanderbilt stated, at the public meetings of the twenty or thirty thousand voters who finally adopted it, almost as it was written: “It is intended, in this charter, to give intelligence, thrift, and honesty the controlling power in Arachne. Some things the people can do unitedly: some must forever be left to the individual. Arachne will probably contain both rich and poor, weak and strong, wise and foolish, to the end of time, but we hope it will contain less crime, less unhappiness, and fewer failures than any other city in the world. The charter of Arachne will suit neither nationalists nor Silurians, but it is worth trying, nevertheless.”

The charter provided for the absolute equality of men and women before the law, and for non-sectarian free schools in a chain from the primary grades through the university, with schools of the arts and industries.

Then came the qualifications for voters: “City elections shall be conducted separately from all other elections. Voters at city elections must be able to read and write, and must be freeholders owning one ‘unit of real estate.’

“The ‘unit of real estate’ is a lot of fifty feet frontage and not less than one hundred feet in depth, extending to a rear alley. This unit cannot be subdivided, though it may be held in several undivided interests. If used for residence, only one house can be built on such a lot, and it must have at least five full feet of space left on each side, ten feet in front, and twenty-five feet in the rear. If used for business, the plans of the building must conform to the general ordinances of the board of building commissioners.”

The sections relating to “qualifications of officers” were remarkably simple: “All candidates for offices in the gift of the people shall have passed through at least the grammar grade of the public-school system. Heads of departments shall have passed through at least the high-school grade.”

The system of voting provided for was unique. Voters were registered by residence. Besides telephonic and phonographic apparatus, and pneumatic tubes for receiving and sending mail, every house contained a “voting-tube,” connected with the city hall. At night, between the hours of 6 and 9, every voter sent from his own house or room, to the central voting-office, his vote, recorded on a phonographic piece of metal, which passed at once without any human agency into a mechanical contrivance which counted and recorded the entire vote, and preserved the cylinders and tallies intact for twenty-five years. This gigantic machine was mathematically perfect, and had been tested in every possible way. The entire vote of the city was announced within an hour after the closing of the polls. The introduction of a single unregistered vote, or of a vote from the wrong place, would cause the machine to throw out the entire vote of that house or room. Any voter could give his number at any time within twenty-five years, and hear his own vote read off by the machine. The city had printed on its ballots the names of all persons nominated by fifty or more freeholders. The voter merely read off the names of those he wished to vote for, and his phonograph recorded it. The voting-tubes and the machine were securely closed at all other times of the year except during the three voting-hours. The register of the city was posted, page by page, in many prominent places, for weeks before the election, and the city had a standing offer of a reward for the discovery of any fraudulent entry.

After a few years it became evident that machinery had triumphed and hopelessly broken up all the political machines. Voters staid at home, after dinner, long enough to vote, and then went to the theatres, libraries, or art galleries, returning in time to hear their phonographs report the results of the election.

The organization of the city was said by the charter “to be for the purpose of carrying on, as cheaply and efficiently as possible, the business of the city.” The officers were expected to give their entire time to the city’s service, and all were salaried.

The head of the government was called “the city president,” answering in some respects to the mayor, but with greater powers. He sent all nominations for heads of certain departments to the legislative body, which consisted of twenty-seven members, nine of whom were chosen once in every two years. They were elected not from districts, but at large, and were termed “the city legislature.”

The officials nominated by the president, and elected by the legislature, were those belonging to what was termed the “industrial group of the city departments”—the chief forester, the sanitary engineer, the city architect, the chief railroad engineer, and the heads of the water supplies, the gas wells, and the sewage furnaces. These were all trained and educated specialists, for each department worked up to within certain test limits of error, just as the United States mints now do.

The heads of the “governing group” of officers—the city attorney, the school superintendent and directors, the chief librarian, the head of the art schools, the insurance, banking, and fire commissioners, head of the tax department, chief of police, and similar officers—were elected by the people.

The judiciary were twice elected, once by the people and once by the president, legislature, and other elected officers assembled in council on the following day. Usually they ratified the choice of the people, but there were many notable instances where they had reversed that decision. This being a veto power required a two-thirds vote. In that case the people presented new candidates.

Taxes were arranged on the basis of the “unit of real estate.” This unit was taxed at a fixed rate, whether improved or unimproved. A fixed amount of water and gas was furnished free to each house, this amount being rated as “sufficient for the use of one family”; everything above this amount was charged at cost of production. The sewage furnaces turned in a large annua revenue to the city. The transportation department, which included all the freight and passenger traffic, had rates of charges fixed from time to time by the city legislature. The income from this source, added to the revenues of the sewage department and the small fixed tax on the unit of real estate, was sufficient to pay all the expenses of the city government. The city had enabled its citizens to escape most of the indirect taxes of the cities of the nineteenth century, and the result was most astonishing in the tax department. It was not necessary to put a dollar of tax on the great buildings, for, as the city grew, the added transportation, at rates that lessened each year, paid all the expenses.

The legislature had the right to raise the tax-rate on the unit of real estate, and even to levy a graduated tax on all buildings which cost more than five thousand dollars, but this was a right which it never exercised. The other sources of income were sufficient.

As Arachne grew from a population of fifty thousand to one of half a million, and, before the close of its first century, to more than two millions, the wisdom of its founders became more and more manifest. It was a city of homes, of health, of happiness. Individuality had its proper play, competition had healthful activity, but the sense of brotherhood was cultivated, and, as the powers and duties of the city grew, the service of the city increased in honor and responsibility, and the organization of public life became more perfect.

The evils of cities like London and New York never existed in Arachne; there were no slums, no tenement-houses, no pestilence-haunted rookeries, no dives and dance-cellars and saloons, for the spirit of the community did not tolerate these things.