Friday, October 11, 2019

People: Fair, Flood, Davis, and Silent

Like in much of the United States in the 1870s, the Gilded Age hit California hard. Although the Gold Rush had officially ended twenty-five years earlier, the bonanza from the Comstock Lode and inspired entrepreneurs continued to invest in California infrastructure with dreams that far outpaced reality. Several of these investors were involved in the South Pacific Coast Railroad project, including James Graham Fair, James Cair Flood, Alfred Edwin Davis, and Charles G. Silent.

Alfred Davis of the South Pacific Coast Railroad, Lloyd Trevis of Wells Fargo, and a banker named Schroeder at the Great Court of the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco, c. 1876. Stereograph by Carleton Watkins. [Public domain]
"Slippery Jim" Fair was an Irish-born immigrant who came to Illinois in 1843 to become a farmer. But county life was not for him so he relocated to California in 1850 to hunt for gold. After several years prospecting and working as a mine superintendent, he got a job as superintendent of the Hale & Norcross Mine in Virginia City, Nevada, in 1867. It was here that Fair met a San Francisco saloon owner named James Flood.

A relatively young James Fair, c. 1870s. [Public domain]
Unlike Fair, Flood was born and raised on Staten Island, New York, although his parents were both Irish. But just like Fair, he tired of his life in the East and sailed for California in 1849. After several years prospecting with some success, Flood opened up a saloon in San Francisco in 1857 but soon sold the operation to become a stockbroker. The increasing potential of the Comstock mines in Virginia City caused Flood to switch his interests to mine investments, prompting him to enter into a partnership with Fair. Together, with William S. O'Brien and John William Mackay, Fair and Flood took over the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company in 1871. Two years later, one of the richest mixed gold and silver veins ever discovered was found within their mines and the four men became the wealthiest people on the West Coast.

James Flood at his height of power, c. 1880s. [Public domain]
By 1876, Fair and Flood had so much money that they didn't know what to do with it. But one thing they both understood was that the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads, under the control of the Big Four, had a vice grip on Bay Area commerce. As Flood became interested in banking and further investments, Fair began to look at the East Bay and and saw its potential for real estate investments. Meanwhile, the defunct Santa Clara Valley Railroad had begun a railroad line between Santa Clara and Dumbarton Point in the early 1870s near the proposed site of Newark, and Fair saw its potential as a part of something bigger.

Portrait of Fair in the 1890s. Photograph by Charles Lainer. [Public domain]

However, Fair would have gotten nowhere without the encouragement of Alfred Davis. "Hog" Davis, as he was rudely called by many of his critics, was a New Jersey-born Forty Niner who quickly decided that panning for gold was not his thing. Settling in the Santa Clara Valley, Davis became a farmer and visionary. As Fair became more interested in developing the lower East Bay, he and Davis became acquainted and Davis revealed to him his grand plans for a railroad line that would rival Southern Pacific. Fair, with all of his millions sitting in banks, was sold. He in turn convinced Flood of the potential of the scheme, who came on as a silent partner and effectively owned half of the company.

Trevis, Schroeder, and Davis on the balcony at the Palace Hotel, c. 1876.
Stereograph by Carleton Watkins. [Public domain]
The South Pacific Coast Railroad was incorporated in 1876 as a successor to the earlier Santa Clara Valley Railroad. However, its goal was both small and grand. In the short term, Davis and Fair planned to build a narrow-gauge railroad route between Alameda Point north of Oakland to Santa Cruz. One of Davis's ambitions in the project was to establish a new city midway between Oakland and San José named Newark, after his hometown in New Jersey. In the longer term, the two men hoped to expand the line into the San Joaquin Valley and south, where it would meet up with the Denver & Rio Grand Railroad, thereby forming the first and only narrow-gauge transcontinental railroad line.

Davis overlooking the balcony at the Palace Hotel, c. 1876. Stereograph by Carleton Watkins. [Public domain]
Davis became the public face of the company as president and treasurer while Fair and Flood faded more into the background. This was intentional. Davis was by far the better negotiator and the more congenial of the three, and he also had lived in the Bay Area for over twenty-five years whereas Fair and Flood were more recent and transient residents. As the railroad headed south, it was left to Davis to find a way through the Santa Cruz Mountains. And similarly, it was he who had to negotiate with the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad in order to annex their operation to the larger South Pacific Coast machine. His sparing partner in this task was Charles Silent.

Portrait of Charles Silent, 1916. [Public domain]
Silent was a German-born immigrant, younger than the other three men in this elite group, who arrived in California in 1856. Throughout the 1860s, Silent trained as a lawyer and educator, and achieved both goals in 1868 and 1872 respectively. It was while he worked for the San José legal firm of Moore, Laine & Silent that he became interested in the local railroad industries. As early as 1873, Silent was found in Santa Cruz County informally surveying and negotiating a proposed flume from King's Creek to the California Powder Works, from where a railroad line would run to the Monterey Bay. Unsurprisingly, Silent then became president of the San Lorenzo Valley Flume & Transportation Company and the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad the next year.

Paralleling Davis, Silent was a very hands-on manager and visited Santa Cruz regularly to ensure that his two projects were operating at peak efficiency. Railroad engineer Fowler Pope mentions him frequently in his journal in mostly positive terms while demonstrating how often Silent visited the railroad to ensure its ongoing success. Silent often assisted with the railroad operations or ran errands for the engine crews. When he wasn't in Santa Cruz, he was continuing his other profession as an attorney. And it is in this capacity that Silent first met the board of directors of the South Pacific Coast Railroad. By September 1876, Silent's firm represented the railroad company, linking Silent and the railroad financially.

Davis from a print publication,
c. 1880s. [Public domain]
It seems certain that Silent was involved in the early negotiations for the South Pacific Coast Railroad to acquire the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad. Davis had already finished his survey of the route by early 1877 and concluded that leasing the short-line railroad would be the cheapest option. Around this time, Silent founded the Felton & San Lorenzo Valley Railroad as a potential rival to the South Pacific Coast, although it was undoubtedly just a bluff to increase the value of the existing line. Throughout 1877, Silent oversaw the upgrading of the trackage to higher-quality steel with gentler curves. This was likely to support an eventual buyout by the South Pacific Coast. While negotiations were still ongoing, however, Silent was appointed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the Territory of Arizona in February 1878. His sudden departure may have been a primary reason for the delay in the signing of the lease agreement with the South Pacific Coast in early 1879 through the assistance of Silent's former partners in San José. Under this agreement, Davis became the new president of the railroad and, over the next few years, became president of all of the subsidiary railroads that were built or operated by the South Pacific Coast in Oakland, the San Lorenzo Valley, and the Almaden Valley.

The success of the South Pacific Coast Railroad was significant but short-lived. The primary route was completed in 1880 while subsequent branches were built over the next seven years. The ferry service between Alameda Point and San Francisco proved very popular through these years, while picnic and summery excursions to the Santa Cruz Beach and Big Trees were a treat for Bay Area residents. By 1887, the South Pacific Coast had proven the value and potential of a narrow-gauge railroad network, but the planned expansion to the south and a meetup with the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad never materialized. Frederick Delger, an Oakland business owner, owned the right-of-way for Telegraph Avenue, which proved to be a vital road that was needed in order to continue the railroad into the Central Valley. Delger refused to sell or lease the land, and the planned transcontinental line died an inglorious death.

Official portrait of Fair during his time in Washington, DC, c. 1880s. Photograph by Brady-Handy.
[Library of Congress]
Flood later in life, c. 1880s.
[Public domain]
However, the real reason it was short-lived was not because the scheme failed, but because the investors had lost interest in the project. At the end of 1880, Fair was elected to the United States Senate representing Nevada, where he spent six years doing little other than advocating to retain the silver standard. Meanwhile, Flood founded the Nevada Bank in order to fight the Bank of California for control of Western banking. Both men also began heavily investing in real estate at a time when the Homestead Act was giving away land for free to eligible settlers. Flood's bubble burst in early 1887 when he failed to corner the global wheat market, although through strategic stock manipulation, he was able to keep a significant fortune. Nonetheless, he had tired of the Bay Area and demanded the returns on his investment from Fair, eventually suing his former partner for misrepresenting the financial potential of the South Pacific Coast Railroad. Meanwhile, Fair was jaded from his six year Senate term and had used his final year in office to open up negotiations with his long-time rival, the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Silent's beautiful Rancho Los Alisas in Glendora, c. 1910s. [Paul Spitzzeri]
In May 1887, Fair bought out Flood and consolidated the various companies under his control into the South Pacific Coast Railway, which he promptly sold to Southern Pacific in July. Davis remained president of all of the companies and the combined company until Southern Pacific took control. At this point, the three men parted ways. Fair remained at his home in San Francisco until his new home was finished in 1890. He died in 1894 leaving $40 million dollars to his two daughters (a son had been disinherited). Flood moved to Heidelberg, Germany and died there in 1889, leaving behind two children and a large fortune. Davis retired to San Francisco and lived there for twenty more years, losing his house in the fires following the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. He moved into his daughter's home and died on January 6, 1907. Lastly, Silent left Arizona in 1883 and moved to Los Angeles, where he became involved in the beautification of local parks. He died on December 14, 1918 in Glendora.

The Flood Mansion (right) next to the Huntington Mansion and the Crocker Mansion in San Francisco, 1902. The Crocker and Huntington mansions burned down in the 1906 Earthquake. The Fairmont Hotel is located to the right of the Flood Mansion (of camera). [Joseph Greco]
The legacy of all four men lives on in various ways. Silent's primary impact on the present is the railroad route that still operates between Felton and Santa Cruz along San Lorenzo Gorge. Had it not been for his sometimes heavy-handed oversight, that operation may have had the same fate as so many similar schemes. His son died in 1907 and Silent founded the Chester Place subdivision, one of the first gated communities in Los Angeles, in his memory. Similarly, Davis directed all of the company's day-to-day operations, including surveying and building the routes, and portions of these routes still operate today in various ways, from tourist railroads and horsecar lines to formal Union Pacific Railroad operations. Fair's legacy, besides his railroad, is the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Francisco, built in his memory by his daughters Theresa and Virginia, and his 1890 home, which is now run as the Queen Anne Hotel, also in San Francisco. He is also the namesake of several Fair Avenues found throughout the Bay Area and in Santa Cruz. Flood's home, the James C. Flood Mansion on Nob Hill, is a National Historic Landmark and remains one of the most prominent buildings in San Francisco. It was the first brownstone building west of the Mississippi and was the only mansion to almost completely survive the 1906 earthquake and fires. His son also had the Flood Building erected in his honor, and it remains a commercial building in San Francisco that continues to be owned by the Flood family.

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