Inquirer Editorial: In Harrisburg, how the West was lost

A pistol said to be Wyatt Earp's displayed in former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed's office in 2003.
A pistol said to be Wyatt Earp's displayed in former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed's office in 2003. (CAROLYN KASTER / AP)
Posted: July 12, 2013

Many an elected official has left behind a mess. But longtime Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed provides a rare case in which the mess is not figurative.

No, Reed's mess is a real mess - a corporeal, chaotic conglomeration like the one you might find in your kid's room or your dad's garage, only more so. It encompasses a stuffed bison, eight tomahawks, a box of vintage ladies' undergarments, and much, much more.

It takes means and ends to make such a mess. Reed's ends were nothing less, and nothing less unlikely, than a museum of the American West in one of the first 13 colonies. His means, sadly, were the faith and credit of the people of Harrisburg, which stand significantly diminished in his wake.

Having defaulted on debts and teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, the state capital is selling off the never-built museum's collection, acquired at a cost of at least $8 million and perhaps $15 million in public funds. Even after earlier auctions shed thousands of items, an astonishing 8,000 or so more go on sale Monday.

The previous auctions, before Reed's 28-year reign ended in 2010, raised less than expected. Forecasts of next week's take vary, though few exceed what Reed spent. Guernsey's, which is handling the sell-off, isn't guessing.

It's easy to see why. The collection includes potentially valuable items, such as a letter apparently signed by the precocious outlaw William H. "Billy the Kid" Bonney, and a dentist's chair said to have belonged to O.K. Corral gunfighter John Henry "Doc" Holliday. But Guernsey's is making no guarantees of authenticity. And it's also offering wagon-wheel benches, scores of old bottles, and more than one lot described as "10 lamp shades." There are also non-Western items dating to World War II or hailing from Africa. To hear the auctioneers tell it, sorting it all out is about as easy as determining how many people Billy the Kid actually shot.

Reed said in a statement that the collection was part of his ambitious plan to boost the city's economy by bringing in tourists with, among other attractions, five museums, two of which were realized. He argues that the frontier was an appropriate chapter of the American story to be told by museums in Harrisburg, which was "a supply center and a ferry crossing for pioneers" headed to the West - "an ever-evolving geographic area."

Whatever its purported historical and economic rationale, the former mayor's vision was far from right for his city of 50,000, nearly a third of whom are poor. Harrisburg has been buffeted by recession and deindustrialization as much as by manifest destiny. But the lesson of Reed's picked-through pile is that it takes more than bad luck to break a city. It takes bad government.

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