Bone, Homer Truett (1883-1970)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 12/28/2003
  • Essay 5628
See Additional Media

Homer T. Bone, a Democratic senator representing Washington in the United States Congress (1932-1944) and later a Judge in the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (1944-1956), has been dubbed the Pacific Northwest’s "father of public power." Bone was a pragmatic populist who vociferously championed public ownership of utilities while damning big business, especially the utility trusts. He was ousted from the Socialist Party in 1916 for being too moderate and later forayed into politics under the Republican and Farmer-Labor banners before alighting as a Democrat.  Among Democratic Party loyalists, suspicions of apostasy would dog him his entire career. As a senator, he pushed the bills to build the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams as well as that creating the National Cancer Institute. He was progenitor of a coterie of progressive politicians who would further nourish his vision and indelibly flavor Washington state’s socio-political character for decades. Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) was his most notable political descendent. 

Hardscrabble Childhood

Homer Bone was born in Franklin, Indiana, on January 25, 1883, to James M. and Margaret Bone, and he came by his populism and abhorrence of war naturally. His father had never really recovered from a brutal imprisonment during the Civil War and his mother’s first husband had died in battle. Homer’s middle name came from a prison mate of his father. His ancestors had served and suffered as well, he recalled, in wars going back to the American Revolution.

The Bones, left destitute by the Panic of 1893, moved to Tacoma in 1899 to seek a better life. The family survived on whatever young Homer could earn and his father’s $20 a month pension. Homer’s formal education had ended in the eighth grade and he worked variously in a grocery store, a furniture store, and for the postal service. But he was ambitious and came from a family of some accomplishment in Indiana politics. A cousin, Scott C. Bone, had been editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and was Alaska’s territorial governor from 1921 to 1925. (It was Governor Bone who ordered a relay of dog teams to transport diphtheria antitoxin to Nome in 1925 to thwart a threatened epidemic, a mission now memorialized by the Iditarod sled dog race.)

Self-educated Lawyer

Bone studied law at night and passed the bar in 1911, at age 28. Like many self-educated men, he remained a voracious reader all his life. He specialized in labor law, became a special deputy prosecuting attorney in 1912, served as corporation counsel for the Port of Tacoma from 1918 to 1932, and as attorney for Tacoma City Light.

On January 25, 1919, his birthday, he married Blanche Slye, a 1918 University of Washington journalism graduate whose first interview subject was the longshoremen’s union attorney, Homer T. Bone. A son, Homer T. Bone Jr., was born in 1922.

Homer Bone was a "Debsian socialist" -- a rather mainstream type of socialist not unusual for the day, a member of the Socialist Party led by Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926).   Bone first discovered the public-private power battle in 1908. He recalled later in a letter to a researcher: "I wonder what would have happened to me had I not been so vigorously stirred by the attacks on the patriotism of men whose only purpose was to have their city produce power for its own municipal system."

Bone became politically active, running unsuccessfully for prosecuting attorney and for mayor of Tacoma as a Socialist at a time when conservative Republicans firmly controlled the state. He ran for the Third District congressional seat as a Farmer-Labor candidate, but lost in the 1920 Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) landslide.

He was slight -- five feet, six inches tall and 135 pounds -- but his impassioned oratory and tart tongue quickly established him as the major Pacific Northwest voice for public power. He allied himself with other public-power visionaries of the time, among them Rufus Woods (1878-1950), publisher of The Wenatchee World who dreamed of harnessing the Columbia River, and James Delmage Ross (1872-1939), the "father of Seattle City Light." His opponents called him a radical, a demagogue, and a Bolshevik, among other epithets.

Stormy Start

He finally won his state House seat in 1922 as a Farmer-Labor candidate, though his district was strongly conservative. He immediately submitted the "Bone Bill," which would give municipal electrical utilities -- such as Seattle’s and Tacoma’s -- the power to sell their service beyond the city limits. The two-month session, one of the stormier in legislative history, escalated the simmering public vs. private power battle and catapulted Bone into the political spotlight. "The power lobbyists were as thick as bees around a hive," Bone recalled. The Bone Bill did not pass until 1933.

Bone also served as counsel for the state Grange ("a virile and progressive group," Bone said) and, in 1928, helped the organization draft the Grange Bill, which would give counties the power to create public utility districts. It also gave PUDs the right of eminent domain over private power properties. The 1929 Legislature declined to take action on the bill and it was submitted to voters at the November 4, 1930, state general election. It passed (with 152,487 votes in favor and 130,901 against), becoming Chapter 1, Laws of 1931, which is codified as RCW Title 54, Public Utility Districts.

Bone again ran for Congress in 1928, as a Republican, and again lost.

Senator Homer T. Bone

For the third time, Bone ran for Congress in 1932, now as a Democrat, and easily won a U.S. Senate seat in the Democratic landslide led by President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt (1881-1945). Bone’s campaign was managed by Saul Haas (1896-1972), who became a power in state Democratic Party politics, a key member of the Bone-Magnuson circle, and a broadcast magnate with KIRO, Inc.

At this time the Depression was approaching bottom and Bone easily ousted Wesley Jones, who had held the seat since 1908. During the campaign, Bone hammered away at the numbers, particularly Tacoma’s, which boasted the lowest electricity rates in the nation. He told a Wenatchee audience on October 10 that Tacoma "sells electricity for less than any other city in America and yet makes a profit." If Tacoma charged as much as the private utilities, he said, "there would be no need for taxes" (Seattle P-I).

The global arms race also was an issue and Bone flashed his isolationist credentials early. "Keep to America but Keep America Safe" was a slogan he offered during an October 1932 campaign speech in Port Angeles. He charged that the Olympic Peninsula was "glaringly unprotected" in the event of war in the Pacific.

Newspapers of that day made no pretense of fairness or balance and most of the state’s papers, including The Seattle Times, viewed public power as Socialist nonsense and Bone as a radical or worse. The Hearst-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Scripps papers, including the Seattle Star, however, were Bone champions. Two weeks before the election, the P-I ran a gushing, five-part series, "Life Story of Homer T. Bone, Career Marked By Battles for People," accompanied by sidebars liberally quoting the candidate on the campaign issues.

Saul Haas was 34 when he managed Bone’s campaign, but already had established a controversial reputation, particularly as managing editor of the Seattle Union Record. Haas spent 18 months in Washington, D.C., as Bone’s administrative assistant, but made time to explore the Federal Radio Commission, further grounding himself for a future in broadcasting. Both Bone and Magnuson quickly learned to use radio, the new communications phenomenon.

Roosevelt, with an overwhelming mandate and a compliant Congress, immediately launched his New Deal, a massive, progressive effort to lift the country out of the worst Depression in its history. The package included banking reform, agricultural reform, jobless pay, Social Security, and huge public works projects such as the Columbia River dams and the Tennessee Valley Authority to create jobs and wealth.

Bone became chair of the Senate Committee on Patents, a low-profile post, but easily shifted his public power fight to the national stage, with the enthusiastic support of Roosevelt. Bone saw the Columbia River as a mighty public resource and was instrumental in promoting construction of Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams.  Bone introduced the Bonneville bill soon after he took office and construction on Bonneville Dam, as well as the Grand Coulee Dam, began in 1933. 

While acknowledging his role in public power, he was most proud of his bill creating the National Cancer Institute, first introduced in 1937 and another revolutionary direction for government.

Bone and Boeing

Bone was an isolationist, though not a pacifist. He began exercising his anti-military muscle on the Senate floor in 1934, lambasting early manifestations of the military-industrial complex and citing Boeing by name.

Boeing had yet to become a local sacred cow, but was the state’s largest employer, with 1,000 on its payroll. Consistent with his position on public power, Bone wanted military wares produced by government-owned facilities to thwart profiteering. He charged that Boeing had made 68 percent profit on Navy business and 90 percent on Army contracts. He also railed against Boeing’s new $25,000-a-year executive hired to hustle federal business. The Seattle press, however, was now supporting military preparedness and ignored Bone’s polemics.

Bone also supported an amendment proposed by Rep. Louis L. Ludlow (1873-1950), D-Ind., that mandated a popular referendum before the United States could go to war, but it was opposed by Roosevelt and defeated in 1938 (Kirkendall).

Bone's convictions earned him a seat on the Senate Munitions Investigating Committee, chaired by Gerald Nye (1892-1971), a progressive North Dakota Republican and an America First supporter. (The America First Committee -- now the America First Party --  was generally nationalist, anti-war, anti-imperialist, populist, and isolationist.) The munitions committee accused the nation's bankers (mostly Morgan) and munitions industry (mostly DuPont) of war profiteering and lobbying the United States into World War I. But after a two-year investigation, the committee's conclusions about profiteering were lost in the growing war fever as World War II approached.

A curious footnote: The committee’s legal assistant was Alger Hiss (1904-1996), a bureaucrat who would rise through the ranks and become one of the Cold War’s more controversial figures, accused of spying for the Soviet Union.

New Deal Woes

By 1937, Roosevelt’s New Deal juggernaut was slowed by conservative courts and an increasingly recalcitrant Congress, including some isolationist Democrats. Homer T. Bone was among them and Harold Ickes (1874-1952), Roosevelt’s interior secretary, had lost faith in him. Bone did not fully support the president’s controversial effort to reorganize the federal government and the Supreme Court.  Ickes and Bone also disagreed over management of Bonneville Dam, but it was the failure of "[c]ertain so-called liberals" to fully support Roosevelt’s government reorganization bill -- what the critics were calling his "court-packing" bill -- that really angered Ickes. He singled out Bone for particular scorn, calling him "a liberal of the very soft variety" (Ickes, 349).

Ickes "was glad to hear" that Roosevelt’s White House also was "looking for a candidate to run against Senator Bone," in the 1938 election, because "he abjectly follows Senator [Burton K.] Wheeler (1882-1975)," one of the most outspoken America Firsters in Congress (Ickes, 416).

The White House apparently didn’t find a challenger because in 1938 Bone won re-election easily. Nationally syndicated columnist Drew Pearson praised Bone’s campaign, especially the "astute organization work of Saul Haas," and noted that Haas and Bone were inseparable.

Power Struggles

The public vs. private power battle, meanwhile, had not abated. In 1937, the offices of Bone and Rep. Martin Smith, D-Wa., had submitted bills that would create a permanent Columbia Power Authority. Both bills gave the organization the authority to buy private power companies.  In 1940, private power forces in Washington state offered Initiative 139, which sought a citizen vote whenever a public utility district offered revenue bonds under the Grange Bill, on the assumption that such bonds were evidence of public debt which must be repaid by taxes.

The campaign was fronted by the "Let the People Vote League," but in a letter to a constituent, Bone said, "This league is a sham front for private power companies -- nothing else." On May 22, 1940, Bone even interrupted Senate debate on the defense program to declare that, "At this very moment, the federal power program in Washington state was confronted with a cold and deliberate attack."

The initiative lost, but another battle followed in late 1940 over purchase of Puget Sound Power & Light’s Seattle territory under condemnation proceedings allowed in the Bonneville bill. PSP&L (now part of Puget Sound Energy) admitted spending more than $670,000 fighting the effort and the tug of war lasted until 1951, when Seattle City Light bought out the private utility’s Seattle service for $27.8 million. At one point in the debate, Bone asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate the "remarkable rise" in the value of Puget preferred stock.

Judge Bone

In 1944, another election was looming, but Bone had broken a hip in 1939 and, despite two operations, was virtually crippled. He was 61, had lost some of his fire, and was considering retirement and returning to Tacoma to practice law. But Roosevelt, despite whatever residual animosity remained from earlier skirmishes, nominated Bone on April 1, 1944, to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Senate unanimously approved the nomination the same day, but Bone delayed resigning from the Senate until November 13 to prevent Republican governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) from appointing a Republican to the seat. Bone’s heir-apparent, popular, four-term Rep. Warren G. Magnuson, ran for the seat, defeating Harry P. Cain (1906-1979). Langlie was forced to name Magnuson to the seat, which gave him a seniority advantage over Arkansas’ William Fulbright.

Blanche Bone died in San Francisco in 1955.  Bone retired from the bench as a full-time judge in 1956, but served intermittently until 1968, when he returned to Tacoma. He died on April 12, 1970, a day when University of Washington students rioted against the Vietnam War. The public-private power battle was no longer front-page news, but war was still making headlines.

Bone was cremated and his ashes interred at Oakwood Cemetery, beside the remains of his father and mother. The Seattle Times, one-time Bone nemesis, noted with regret in a eulogistic editorial on March 13, 1970, that "No public power dam in this country ever was named for Homer Truett Bone."


Harold Ickes, The Secret Diaries of Harold Ickes, Vol. II, The Inside Struggle (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953-54); Shelby Scates, Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Homer T. Bone Papers, Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Richard S. Kirkendall, “Two Senators & The Boeing Company,” Columbia, Winter 1997-98; Terry Slatten, "Homer T. Bone, Public Power, and Washington State Progressive Politics in the Mid-1920s," Master’s thesis, University of Washington, 1980; Frank Chesley, Saul Haas (1896-1972) (Seattle: Saul & Dayee G. Haas Foundation, 2001); Kit Oldham, “Magnuson, Warren G. (1905-1989),” HistoryLink Cyberpedia Library (; Archives of The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Note: This essay was corrected on September 29, 2009.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You