Franklin Knight Lane

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Franklin Knight Lane : biography

15 July 1864 – 18 May 1921

Franklin Knight Lane (July 15, 1864 – May 18, 1921) was an American Democratic politician from California who served as United States Secretary of the Interior from 1913 to 1920. He also served as a commissioner of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and was the Democratic nominee for Governor of California in 1902, losing a narrow race in what was then a heavily Republican state.

Lane was born July 15, 1864, near Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in what was then a British colony but is now part of Canada, and in 1871, his family moved to California. After attending the University of California while working part-time as a reporter, Lane became a New York correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, and later became editor and part owner of a newspaper. Elected City Attorney of San Francisco in 1898, a post he held for five years, Lane ran in 1902 for governor and in 1903 for mayor of San Francisco, losing both races. In 1903, he received the support of the Democratic minority in the California State Legislature during the legislature’s vote to elect a United States Senator from California.

Appointed a commissioner of the Interstate Commerce Commission by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 and confirmed by the Senate the following year, Lane was reappointed in 1909 by President William Howard Taft. His fellow commissioners elected him as chairman in January 1913. The following month, Lane accepted President-elect Woodrow Wilson’s nomination to become Secretary of the Interior, a position in which he served almost seven years until his resignation in early 1920. Lane’s record on conservation was mixed: he supported the controversial Hetch Hetchy Reservoir project in Yosemite National Park, which flooded a valley esteemed by many conservationists, but also presided over the establishment of the National Park Service.

The former Secretary died of heart disease at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, on May 18, 1921. Because of two decades of poorly paid government service, and the expenses of his final illness, he left no estate, and a public fund was established to support his widow. Newspapers reported that it was often said of Lane that had he not been born in what is now Canada, he would have become president. In spite of that limitation, Lane was offered support for the Democratic nomination for Vice President, though he was constitutionally ineligible for that office as well.

Secretary of the Interior

Selection by Wilson

In the 1912 presidential election, Lane supported Democratic candidate and New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, though he declined to make campaign speeches on Wilson’s behalf, citing ICC policy that commissioners act in a nonpartisan manner. Wilson was elected on November 5, 1912, and on November 21 the commissioner spent much of the day with Colonel Edward House, the President-elect’s advisor, who would play a key role in selecting Cabinet appointees. The possibility of Lane becoming Secretary of the Interior was discussed, but he indicated he was happy in his present position. After the meeting, Lane had second thoughts, and asked House if he would have a free hand as Interior Secretary. House indicated that were he to prove capable in the position, Wilson would not interfere. Colonel House did not immediately recommend Lane for the job, but went on to consider other candidates, such as former San Francisco mayor James D. Phelan and Wilson friend Walter Page.

At the ICC meeting on January 8, 1913, the commissioners elected Lane as the new chairman, effective January 13. Wilson continued to keep his Cabinet intentions quiet, and Lane noted in January 1913 of those who met with the President-elect in New Jersey, "nobody comes back from Trenton knowing anything more than when he went". On February 16, House met again with him (on Wilson’s instructions) to get a better sense of the ICC chairman’s views on conservation. According to House’s diaries, Lane, while reluctant to leave his position as chairman, was willing to serve in the Interior position if offered. He considered the position the most difficult Cabinet post but was also willing to serve in any other capacity.