The 1900 statewide election was a Republican sweep in Washington. With one exception. Governor Frink was not to be.
John Melancthan Frink was born January 21, 1845 in Montrose, Penn. Descended from Huguenots, Frink's father was a Baptist preacher. The family moved to Madison County, N.Y. when John was young. In 1858 the Frinks moved to Hiawatha, Kansas. After his father died in 1861, John found himself being the substitute patriarch as the oldest of eight children.
His subsequent struggle could be right out of Horatio Alger. He worked hard as a farm laborer to help support the family. He had a brief military stint in 1863, serving in the 22nd Regiment of Home Guards-- not to fight Confederates but to fight Indians. He managed to scrape up enough money and find time to attend college in Topeka for a year, gaining credentials for becoming a teacher. In 1874, leaving the family in the care of the next brother, John set out to see the West. His first stop in San Francisco did not last long. On his way to check out Alaska he stopped in Seattle. And stayed.
At first he performed odd jobs such as working in a coal bunker and carpentry. Eventually he started work in the public schools, "and for four years served as principal in the leading schools of North Seattle and Port Gamble."
Then, as now, the field of public service in general and education in particular was not a place to be if you liked wallowing in wealth. In 1880 John formed the Washington Iron Works, which quickly became a major employer in Seattle. He also started the Seattle Electric Company ("the first electric-light plant in the city, and was the first on the coast to use the Edison system") and constructed the Seattle Central Railway Company. In addition, he was the director of Seattle Savings Bank. By 1900 John was one of the wealthiest citizens of Seattle.
He did keep a hand in civic life. Frink served on the School Board, the City Council, and was elected as a Republican to the State Senate where he served through most of the 1890s. His humble origins and his rise to being a captain of industry played well with the voters, most of them pioneers themselves who had risked everything to start anew in a strange land. But by the turn of the century the demographics were changing.
In 1900, Gov. John Rogers was running for a 2nd term. The Populists had all but died by this time, and Rogers was running as a Democrat. The Governor was a master politician in the best sense, a very rare thing. He could tell where the voters were headed and made sure to position himself at the head of the parade so their needs would be met in an orderly way.
Even so, the Republicans smelled blood, and for good reason. McKinley was nationally popular and was expected to win re-election in a landslide. Locally, the King County faction was in complete control of the Washington State Republican convention, and the managers of Frink had their way.
Historian Richard Fisch observed, "The Republicans erred in 1900 when they nominated Senator J.M. Frink of King County for the governorship. John L. Wilson, former United States senator and owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, dictated Frink's nomination. According to the Seattle Times, in 1893 Frink had voted for a railroad rate increase and in 1897 against a bill for a railroad commission." This cost Frink valuable votes in Eastern Washington, where Republicans crossed over to vote for Rogers, who favored a Railroad Commission (which eventually came into being not too long after Gov. Rogers died).
Rogers was the only survivor of what was otherwise a McKinley-led sweep in the Washington statewide elections. Part of this was due to the Governor's personal popularity and a tribute to his ability as a power player, but, according to another writer, "This was not because of any personal unpopularity of Mr. Frink, but because he was supposed to be the candidate of a remnant of the cabal in Seattle which had made itself so utterly obnoxious to the Republicans of the state. Perhaps no combination ever banded together for political purposes ever came to grief more quickly or completely than did this one, but the disastrous consequences of its iniquitous acts could not be so easily disposed of." As you can see, King County political influence was as popular with the rest of the state back then as it is today.
Frink's 1900 campaign appears to have been fairly lackluster, yet he nearly won. The vote: Rogers 52,048 (48.86%), Frink 49,860 (46.81%), and the three minor party candidates became spoilers, having a combined total that could've changed the results.
By the end of 1901, both President McKinley and Gov. Rogers had died in office. Fate always has the final vote.
In biographies of John Frink after 1900, his role in this election is sometimes never mentioned. The statewide exposure did not seem to launch any sort of subsequent political career. He was appointed to the Seattle Park Board in 1906 and during his tenure Frink donated over 15 acres of land to Seattle, known today as Frink Park. Said Frink, "The desire to see the city of my adoption the most prosperous and beautiful in all things which make a city great has been my only incentive."
It is difficult to guess what sort of Governor John Frink would've been. He certainly was open to using new technology. He had a strong civic streak. He had overcome adversity. He knew both hardship and luxury, giving him a personal diversity of experience. But, he appears to have been ungifted in the area of political skill. His learning was practical, not conceptual. He was the candidate in an era when that status was given by a party convention, not by a primary election. If a primary system had existed back then, and if he had survived that ordeal by fire, then maybe he would've learned the craft of winning a general election, instead of having the honor bestowed upon him on a gold platter (the silver issue was still big back then, so I'll avoid the silver platter convention). And that might've been enough to have made a difference in this close election.
John M. Frink died Aug. 31, 1914 "at his country home on Cozy Cove, across Lake Washington." His Washington Iron Works remained in the Frink family until it was sold to out-of-state investors in 1969.