Wallgren, Monrad Charles (1891-1961)

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 12/23/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9246

Monrad Charles "Mon" Wallgren (1891-1961) served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and four years in the U.S. Senate before becoming Washington's 13th governor in 1944. Swept into office in 1932 as a Democrat riding on the coattails of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), Wallgren was a New Deal politician. He supported public ownership of electric power, established state unemployment compensation, and developed state recreation and tourism, in particular authoring the bill to create Olympic National Park. Wallgren served in the Coast Guard and Washington National Guard from 1917 to 1922.  At home in Everett, he was regarded as a likeable optometrist and jeweler, a member of many fraternal organizations, a low-handicap golfer, and a stellar billiards player who won the National Amateur Balkline Billiards Championship in 1929. Despite his strong support of Harry Truman (1884-1972) for president in 1949, Wallgren was not elected to a second term as governor. President Truman assigned him to the Federal Power Commission where he served from 1950 to 1951. Wallgren then retired and began growing citrus in the Coachella Valley in California, while still maintaining residences in Olympia and Everett. He died on September 18, 1961, at age 70 from injuries suffered in an automobile accident. Mon Wallgren is buried in Everett's Evergreen Cemetery.

Growing Up In Everett

Monrad Charles Wallgren was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on April 17, 1891, the second child of Swan O. and Carrie Wallgren. The family -- Mom, Dad, Mon, and older sister Maude -- moved to Galveston, Texas, and were survivors of the historic Galveston Hurricane of 1900 that destroyed the town and killed more than 8,000 residents. By 1901 the Wallgrens had moved to Everett, Washington. The family’s Scandinavian roots may have led them to the Pacific Northwest, since a large number of immigrants, many of them Scandinavian, were swelling city populations in the region at that time. From 1900 to 1910 Everett’s population tripled. 

Swan Wallgren set up a jewelry business at 1416 Hewitt Avenue and the family lived at 2124 Wetmore Avenue. Another son, Lloyd, was born in Everett. Mon attended Everett schools, including three years at Everett High School, and then attended an Everett business college for a year while helping his father in the jewelry store. He enrolled in the Washington State School of Optometry in Spokane, graduated in 1914, and was married that year to Mabel C. Liberty.  The couple took up residence in Everett where Mon began his optometry and jewelry business, which continued from 1915 to 1932. He would later say, when running for office, that his chosen profession made him well-qualified to see the short-sightedness of his opponents.

Wallgren served in the Coast Artillery Corps of the Washington National Guard (1917-1919) and was adjutant of the Third Battalion of the Washington National Guard (1921-1922). He was stationed at Fort Monroe, Fort Casey, and Fort Worden and rose to the position of lieutenant.

Mon Wallgren was a well-liked social figure around Everett and held membership in many organizations, including the Elks, the Eagles, the Freemasons, the Knights Templar, Rotary International, and the American Legion. He excelled at sports and the Everett Elks Club on Rucker Avenue gave him ample practice to polish his billiards game. Playing pool at the Elks was a true class leveler -- workers from the city’s mills played the game alongside Everett’s wealthier elite. In 1929 the Everett Elks Club hosted a three-day match in which Wallgren defeated Percy Collin of the Illinois Athletic Club of Chicago for the National Amateur 18.2 Balkline Billiards Championship.

Wallgren's New Deal

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought a different kind of class leveling as both workers and owners struggled to survive. Washington state’s District 2 had always gone Republican, but in 1932 the times demanded change, and the country moved to embrace New Deal politics. That year Wallgren was persuaded to run as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives and was elected -- the first Democrat to represent the state’s Second Congressional District. 

In his campaign, Wallgren promised farmers lower freight rates, the timber industry protective tariffs on forest goods, and mainly supported solid New Deal politics. He also advocated establishing a Puget Sound navy base. Riding on the strong coattails of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Wallgren won the election by 18,000 votes and was re-elected to the U.S. House again in 1934, 1936, and 1938.   

Olympic National Park 

One of Wallgren’s most memorable contributions came in the creation of Olympic National Park. President Grover Cleveland established the Olympic Forest Reserve in 1897, setting aside 2,188,800 acres -- nearly two thirds of the Olympic peninsula -- for protection under government control. Washington Governor Clarence Martin (1886-1955) worked with the timber industry and the National Park Service to create a 440,000-acre park on the peninsula, but Mon Wallgren introduced a bill in Congress to create a 634,000 acre park.

President Roosevelt gave his official approval to the bill when he visited the Olympic peninsula in October 1937. Despite heavy and constant rain, the presidential entourage stopped along the way to speak to crowds of supporters, visited a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) reforestation project, and watched firefighting demonstrations at the Snyder ranger station. The group dined at Lake Quinault with Washington Governor Clarence Martin and his son, Frank. Olympic National Park was created in 1938.

Senator Wallgren

In 1940 Wallgren gave up his House seat to run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Senator Lewis B. Schwellenbach (1894-1948), who had been appointed to a federal judgeship. Wallgren defeated Republican Stephen Chadwick. He began his time in the Senate early, on December 19, 1940, when he was appointed to fill out Schwellenbach’s remaining term before beginning his own in January. 

Mon’s move to the Senate opened the door of the U.S. House of Representatives for a young Democrat, Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983), also of Everett. Jackson was able to beat five opponents in the primary and then won in the general election, becoming the youngest member of the House.

As a new Senator, Wallgren was appointed to the Truman Committee (the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program) and began a long friendship with Senator Harry Truman. Wins for the Committee came in stopping production of defective military airplane engines and poor-quality Liberty ships, saving the nation $15 billion. 

Senator Harry Truman visited Everett several times during the years when he and Mon were senators, possibly staying with the Wallgrens in their residence at 1725 Grand, a home that is presently known as the Fratt Mansion, one of Everett’s Local Register properties. A newspaper article noted that Wallgren and Truman had lunch at the Lighthouse Inn in the 3500 block of Rucker Avenue during one of Truman’s visits.   

Wallgren’s friendship with Harry Truman continued after Truman became president. In the summer of 1945, Truman visited Washington state. He and Wallgren toured local sites and were photographed for a Life magazine feature that showed the president playing piano at Mount Rainier’s Paradise Inn, with a jovial Mon Wallgren looking on.

Governor Wallgren

Washington state Democrats looked for a candidate to defeat Republican Governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) and they chose Monrad Wallgren, whose personality and politics were in sharp contrast to the governor’s.  Wallgren defeated Langlie in November 1944 to become Washington state’s 13th governor. To date, Monrad Wallgren is Washington state’s only politician to have served as a U.S. Representative, a U. S. Senator, and as governor.

During his administration, the Legislature established the state teachers' retirement program; adopted the most liberal welfare program in the nation; increased unemployment benefits to the highest in the nation; set up the Governor's Development Board, which stepped up state  participation in school building programs and adopted a highway-safety program. 

Wallgren was perhaps a better legislator than an administrator, and Arthur Langlie -- anxious for a comeback -- was ready to point out his opponent’s shortcoming when, in 1948, Wallgren ran for a second term as governor. Certainly Wallgren and Langlie were extreme opposites, giving the public a clear choice. Wallgren was a solid liberal Democrat, supporting his friend Harry Truman in his campaign for the presidency. Langlie was a Republican backing Thomas Dewey. Wallgren was most comfortable playing cards or billiards and schmoozing with his drinking buddies; Langlie was a teetotaler. Wallgren was extravagant whereas Langlie was frugal. Langlie was quick to point out that during his first term as governor, Wallgren was driving two state-owned Cadillacs, had two bars in the governor’s mansion, and had encouraged the state Department of Fisheries to buy a $15,000 yacht, which Wallgren personally used. The governor had also appointed controversial union leader Dave Beck (1894-1993) to a seat on the University of Washington Board of Regents.
Quite possibly Mon Wallgren’s style was wearing thin with the public, but his biggest undoing came from problems with the auto-ferry system. Puget Sound Navigation Company -- operated by the Black Ball Line -- managed the auto-ferry system in Washington at that time. In 1947 Black Ball requested a 30 percent fare increase, which was denied by state Transportation Director Paul Revelle. The following year, Black Ball president Captain Alexander Peabody (1895-1980) shut down the ferries. Public pressure now was high to have the state step in and manage the system.   

Wallgren agreed and made this a campaign issue, promising to establish a state-run ferry system. But the timing was bad and he was not able to deliver: Peabody refused a state purchase order and the state would not issue state bonds to purchase the line. Understanding the winds of change, Langlie -- usually a supporter of private enterprise -- also backed a state-run ferry system.
Campaigning Without Coattails

In 1948 Wallgren campaigned both for a second term as governor and also for his friend Harry Truman's presidential campaign. In June of that year he spoke to a crowd of between 7,000 and 10,000 people.  “You aren’t fooling me,” Truman said as he pointed to Governor Wallgren standing beside him, “I know you turned out for the home-town boy” (Everett Daily Herald, June 9, 1948).

Longtime Democratic lobbyist Joe Miller was a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer during this election.  In Joe’s words:

“Election night, I was down at the P-I.  Of course the owners of the P-I were Republicans at that time but all of us writers were Democrats.  We watched the vote tally as it came in and it was obvious Truman was winning so we were having quite a wild party. By morning, however, it was clear that Wallgren wasn’t winning -- he was behind about 28,000 votes. I covered the story and broke the news to Mon in his hotel room. He was in his dressing gown when I arrived.  Mabel, his wife, was very gracious and greeted me.  I gave Mon the bad news and he said, ‘Well the boss won, that’s the important thing.’” (Miller)

Wallgren waited for a Truman appointment. It came in the form of National Security Resources Board chairman, a position charged with coordinating the nation’s resources in time of war.  But before Senate confirmation, his appointment was blocked by opponents, chiefly Washington’s Republican Representative Harry P. Cain (1906-1979), who charged in both spoken (a six and three-quarter-hour speech) and written words (a 261-page book) that Wallgren was unfit for the position. The struggle continued for three months, and on May 14, 1949, Wallgren withdrew his name, with President Truman officially accepting his withdrawal three days later. The president then appointed Wallgren to the Federal Power Commission and he was quickly confirmed. A year later he was named commission chairman, a position he kept until retirement in 1951 at age 60.

Retirement Years

The Wallgrens retired to the Coachella Valley in California, where Mon grew citrus and also invested in uranium claims at Twenty-nine Palms. The couple retained residences in Olympia and Everett and frequently traveled to Washington state. 

Illness hospitalized Mabel in Olympia in 1961. Driving to visit her, Mon Wallgren’s car stalled on the Nisqually Bridge outside Olympia on July 8, 1961. National Guardsman Gerhard Schock stopped to help and a drunk driver slammed into them, killing Schock immediately. Wallgren appeared to be recovering but unexpectedly died of injuries two months later, September 18, 1961, at age 70.  He is buried in Everett’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Sources: Thomas M. Gaskin, "Mon. C. Wallgren," Snohomish County: An Illustrated History (Index:  Kelcema Press, 2005), 282-283; William Mason, "Wallgren, Lieut. Monrad C.," Snohomish County in the War (Everett:  Mason Publishing Co., 1926), 223; David Dilgard and Margaret Riddle, Shoreline Historical Survey Report (Everett:  City of Everett, 1973); "Huge Throng On Hand To Meet President Here," Everett Daily Herald, June 10, 1948, pp. 1, 7; "Everett in Readiness To Greet President," Everett Daily Herald, June 9, 1948, p. 1; "Injuries Prove Fatal; Ex-Gov. Wallgren Taken by Death, Everett Daily Herald, September 19, 1961, pp. 1, 3; HistoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "President Franklin Roosevelt tours the Olympic Peninsula on October 1, 1937’" (by Kit Oldham), "Langlie, Arthur B. (1900-1966)" (by Kit Oldham), and "State Department of Transportation cuts ferry rates from 30 to 10 percent on July 4, 1947" (by Alan J. Stein)  http://www.historylink.org (accessed December 3, 2009); "WALLGREN, Monrad Charles, (1891-1961)" Biographical Directory of the United States Congress website accessed November 3, 2009 (http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=W000088); "Washington Governor Monrad Charles Wallgren," National Governors Association website accessed November 3, 2009 (http://www.nga.org/portal/site/nga/menuitem.29fab9fb4add37305ddcbeeb501010a0/?vgnextoid=2db0d9b96bd55010VgnVCM1000001a01010aRCRD); "Governor Appoints Mon C. Wallgren to Seat in Senate," Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 17, 1940, p. 1; "Wallgren, Monrad Charles (1891-1961)," The Political Graveyard website accessed November 20, 2009 (http://politicalgraveyard.com/bio/wallach-walser.html#R9M0JGHSU); Margaret Riddle telephone conversation with Joe Miller November 29, 2009; Margaret Riddle email correspondence with Jack O’Donnell, December 4, 2009.

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