What: The brand-spankin' new Minnesota Legislature considered the "Five Million Loan" bill — a huge expenditure to build railroads. The pitch was that the government would issue bonds to pay for railway construction, and prosperity would follow.

When: Feb. 24, 1858.

Minnesota meme: Many a Minnesotan wondered why industrial tycoons needed a loan at all. If building railroads in the state was such a good idea, why wouldn't the tycoons pay for it themselves? Could it be that the deal lined the pockets of a few pols with silver on the sly?

It took a St. Paul cartoonist named R.O. Sweeney to sum up the skepticism and outrage over the loan in one sprawling cartoon, which turned out to be a broadside and, possibly, Minnesota's first meme. The cartoon was passed around to great amusement. In fact, it went viral, in an 1850s way.

Of mice and men: Sweeney's cartoon featured the rich and powerful railroad bosses portrayed as rodents with human heads, pulling a train full of easily bought lawmakers. The cartoon also included insets that echo the theme of the evil men as rodents. In one, a rodent-man threatens a farmer: "You must pay this Tax it is for the RailRoads $5000000 loan."

Name that rodent: Of course, the cartoon train wasn't pulled by any old rodents. They were gophers. In case you couldn't tell, there was a flag proclaiming the coming of the Gopher Train. And that's how we got the name the Gopher State — from a famous cartoon ridiculing the Legislature.

BTW: By the way, Sweeney was right to scoff: The railroad-building plan went bust in 1860.

James Lileks