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Kearns Saw Value of an Independent Voice, Working for the Common Good
Will Bagley
Published: 06/16/2002  Edition: Final  Section: Utah  Page: B2

In June 1883, a young roustabout from Nebraska jumped off a freight train near Park City. The son of Irish immigrants, Thomas Kearns left home at age 17, already having pursued fortune from the Black Hills of North Dakota to Tombstone, Arizona.

Salt Lake first noticed Kearns when he battled a variety-show wrestler who offered $100 to anyone he could not pin. Kearns tossed the wrestler onto the bass drum in the orchestra pit and sent the prize money to his mother.               

At a Catholic social on Kearns' first Saturday night in Park City, Father Galligan chose the newcomer to count the votes in a contest between David Keith and John Judge to pick Park City's most popular mine foreman. Judge won, but Keith gave Kearns a job as a mucker--the lowest paying job at the Ontario Mine. Although he only had a grammar-school education, his burning ambition led him to study geology in his time off. He won a contract to drive a tunnel near the undeveloped Mayflower claim. Kearns recognized the quality of the ore and he found partners and leased the Mayflower.   

In April 1889, his men struck ore that produced 100 ounces of silver per ton. The first shipment earned him $20,000. Kearns bought the Silver King mine and soon built one of the greatest mining fortunes in the West. By age 28, Kearns was a millionaire and had married the most popular young woman in Park City, Jennie Judge.               

Kearns never lost his sympathy for the working man. He entered politics as a Park City alderman and served as a delegate to the 1895 state constitutional convention, where he pushed for an eight-hour workday. He also hired Carl Neuhausen to build a French Chateauesque mansion on Brigham Street, today's South Temple. The 28-room palace, now the Governor's Mansion, had six baths, 10 fireplaces, two parlors and dining rooms, a billiard room, a ballroom on the third floor and a bowling alley in the basement.               

Kearns sought a U.S. Senate seat in 1900 as a progressive Republican. The Salt Lake Tribune charged that his candidacy was a plot by the LDS Church to appoint a sympathetic non-Mormon to the seat. When the Deseret News denied the story, The Tribune charged that the paper, always "adept at lying," was a graduate of the "university of perjury." Deal or no, the Legislature sent Kearns to the Senate. That same year, Kearns and his partners quietly bought The Tribune.           

Ironically, when the LDS establishment refused to support his re-election, Kearns bitterly denounced the church's political power in his farewell speech to the Senate. For the next five years, The Tribune returned to the "give 'em hell" politics of its youth, fighting Mormon power and losing most of its advertisers.               

By 1910 Kearns had realized the futility of being an anti-Mormon paper in a mostly Mormon state. When a reporter asked why he had made peace, Kearns called for his paper's account books and said, "Show them to my young friend here." But as a public-spirited patriot, Kearns also saw The Tribune could do more good for Salt Lake City and Utah by ending a destructive newspaper war that had no winners.               

In 1918, a Ford ran down Kearns at the foot of the Brigham Young Monument on Main Street. Kearns died of a stroke eight days later, but his contributions to his adopted state still endure.

Bagley is a Utah author and historian.

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