Thursday, March 21, 2024

People: The Porter Family

There are a surprising number of tributes to members of the Porter family in Santa Cruz County. Donald T. Clark in his book, Santa Cruz County Place Names, includes the Porter Family Picnic Area, Porter Gulch, Porter Gulch Road, Porter Memorial Library, and Porters Landing. To that could be added Porter Street, Porter College at UC Santa Cruz, and the Porter Trail in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Just across the Pajaro River, there is also Porter Drive and the Porter–Vallejo Mansion. In Los Angeles County, there is even a suburb named them. Indeed, the Porter family may be one of the most attributed early American families in the county, if not the state, but who were they and what did they have to do with local railroading?

Portraits of George K. Porter, Benjamin F. Porter, John T. Porter, and Warren R. Porter.

The Porter family did not all arrive in California at once, but they were all lured to the state by the prospect of gold. George Keating Porter, son of Dr. John Thomas and Ann Thomas Porter of Duxbury, Massachusetts, was the first to arrive, reaching San Francisco in late 1849 aboard the Acadian. He almost immediately failed at mining, so he tried his hand at farming, lumbering, and freight hauling. Eventually, he found his way to Santa Cruz County, where he found his cousins already setting up shop.

Early View of Soquel from the top of the Soquel Creek railroad bridge, ca 1880 [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Benjamin Franklin Porter and his brother, Edward, had travelled to California from Vermont in 1854 for the same reason as George. Like George, they quickly tired of the hunt for mineral riches and moved to farms on Aptos Creek. On July 5, 1857, Ned set up the first general store and post office in Soquel. Meanwhile, Benjamin began negotiating the purchase of Jean Richard Fourcade's tannery near Aptos. Benjamin agreed to buy the facility for $600, which included five acres of land and all of the vats, flumes, aqueducts, worker housing, mules, and machinery required to run the tannery. The sale was finalized on January 1, 1858, but the transfer of land was not made until June 11. In 1861, Benjamin was elected to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, serving one term until 1863.

Stereograph of the main plaza in Monterey, ca 1875. Photo by Romanzo E. Wood. [Chico State – colorized using MyHeritage]

Last on the scene but the most important to local history was George's brother John Thomas Porter. He arrived in California aboard the Herculaneum in the early 1850s and headed to the Gold Country, where he eventually amassed $10,000. He took these funds to Stockton where he worked as a buying agent for several San Francisco stores, but this proved uninteresting. He finally moved to Santa Cruz in 1854, where he opened a general store. While there, he was elected county sheriff on October 5, 1857, serving almost two terms until resigning in disgrace just before the end of his second term. Immediately after reigning, he was appointed Collector of the Port of Monterey and remained in that position until 1865, when he moved to the Pajaro Valley.

Looking northwest toward Soquel, ca 1890 [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

It was shortly after John's election as sheriff when his brother George arrived in the county seeking land. Fortunately, the late William Andrews had left an unpaid debt to the Catholic Church so his land was being auctioned off in a sheriff's sale. George placed the winning bid of $740 and acquired disputed property in both Rancho Soquel and Shoquel Augmentation. Through later purchases, transfers, winning auction bids, and judicial decisions, the Porters amassed extensive holdings in the Soquel, Aptos, and Pajaro areas. Within the Soquel ranch land alone, George and Benjamin jointly owned 750 acres of contiguous land running from the Monterey Bay along the west side of Borregas Gulch to Tannery (Porter) Gulch.

Lithograph of the G. K. and B. F. Porter tannery in Soquel, 1878.

George joined his cousins in running the tannery, which quickly grew into the second-highest-producing tannery in the county, with 25,000 hides processed annually. Soquel Wharf had been erected in the mid-1850s by Frederick Hihn, who owned the surrounding land, but it was the Porters who used it the most during these years, earning it the common nickname "Porters' Wharf." In 1863, George used his leverage as the State Senator for Santa Cruz County to hire 100 convicts from San Quentin to make boots and shoes from the tannery's leather. By 1865, they were producing 3,000 shoes a year. When the plant burned in 1870, the brothers built a new factory in San Francisco, operating under the name Porter, Schlesinger & Company. When the Santa Cruz Railroad arrived around 1875, a spur was purportedly extended to the tannery, which if true would probably have split off from the main track in the vicinity of Borregas Drive. Meanwhile, George and Benjamin built homes near the tannery. Yet the allure of profits elsewhere ultimately led George away from Santa Cruz.

Colorized postcard of the Porter Hotel in San Fernando, ca 1915.

In 1874, George partnered with Charles Maclay to buy 56,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley from Eulogio de Celis. Benjamin soon joined in on the scheme and bought the western third of the valley, where he established Porter Ranch. George, meanwhile, kept 19,000 acres in the middle and eastern valley, establishing the village of San Fernando at the same time. After farming the land for a decade, George founded the Porter Land & Water Company in 1883 and began subdividing his property. He kept 2,000 acres for himself, under the name Mission Ranch, and also established the three-story, sixty-room Mission Hotel, later the Porter Hotel. George reincorporated the company in 1903 as the San Fernando Mission Land Company, but died three years later on November 16, 1906 before realizing much gain from the real estate firm. The Porter Hotel remained a fixture in San Fernando until a fire destroyed it on July 21, 1964.

William T. Jeter serving customers at the County Bank of Santa Cruz, 1906. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Unlike his brother, Benjamin remained based out of Santa Cruz County, even if he dabbled in ventures across the state. By the time of his death on June 9, 1905, he had acquired land in Oregon, as well as Contra Costa County, Monterey County, and his vast holdings in Los Angeles County. His earliest claim to fame came in the early 1860s, when telegraph poles cut from his timberland were used to connect San Francisco and San José. In 1870, he became a founding director of the County Bank of Santa Cruz, and he was also a director of the State Loan & Trust Company. In 1873, he became a founding director of the Santa Cruz Railroad, which would connect his Soquel tannery and timberlands with the outside world. He was less involved in Central Coast affairs later in life, focusing instead on his vast property empire in Southern California. However, he served as vice president of the Bank of Santa Cruz County from 1902 until his death.

Pino Alto, now the Porter–Sesnon House on the Cabrillo College campus, ca 1935. [UC Santa Cruz – Colorized using MyHeritage]

Benjamin only left one surviving daughter, Mary Sophia Porter, who had married William T. Sesnon in 1896. The Sesnons became the heirs not only to Benjamin's vast real estate empire, but also to Mary's uncle Edward, who had left no children. In 1912, the Sesnons were approached by the Soquel Ladies' Improvement Club, who asked them to help fund a public library. The next year, the Porter Memorial Public Library opened on Porter Street, dedicated to the memory of Mary's parents, Benjamin and Kate Porter. Throughout their lives, William and Mary retained most of the Porter property, but after their deaths in 1929 and 1930 respectively it was sold off. Their family estate, Pino Alto, was eventually acquired by Cabrillo College and is now a core part of the community college's main Aptos campus. Meanwhile, their daughter Barbara Sesnon Cartan donated funds to establish the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at UC Santa Cruz in 1968. The next year, she and two siblings, Porter, and William, donated nearly 70 acres of land to establish Fifth College at the new university. On November 21, 1981, the campus was renamed Benjamin F. Porter College.

Benjamin F. Porter College at the University of California, Santa Cruz, campus, 2003. [UC Santa Cruz]

In hindsight, it is strange to think of John Porter as the least successful of the clan, but he was indeed the least successful when compared to his brother, cousins, or eldest son. Yes, he resigned from his post as county sheriff in disgrace in 1861, but this had little impact on his long-term reputation and he quickly grew in prominence within Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. Near the end of his stint as collector, in 1864, John purchased 820 acres of Rancho Bolsa de San Cayetano on the east bank of the Pajaro River. It took several years to settle the transaction, but from this base John began his Pajaro Valley empire.

Pajaro depot with many waiting passengers, ca 1900. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

In 1871, the Southern Pacific Railroad reached John's land and stopped there for a number of years. The station, located directly across the Pajaro River from Watsonville, was named Pajaro by the railroad. John took the opportunity to found a township there in 1872, which primarily catered to the railroad as a transloading station for goods arriving from Santa Cruz County. When the Santa Cruz Railroad reached Pajaro in early 1876—and especially after 1883 when the Southern Pacific Railroad standard-gauged the tracks—the importance of Pajaro only increased as it was now the junction point for an important branch line. The railroad attracted new industries, such as sugar beets, and John dedicated 400 acres to the growing of the crop in 1879, selling the produce to the California Beet Sugar Company in Soquel. When that company collapsed in late 1879, John acquired the Soquel property as repayment for unpaid debts.

Pajaro Valley Bank, ca 1895. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Indeed, John was heavily involved in several local businesses. In May 1874, he co-founded the Bank of Watsonville. Fourteen years later, in 1888, he co-founded the Pajaro Valley Bank. In November 1883, he joined with several other lumber barons to incorporate the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, which set out to harvest timber within the Aptos Forest and would continue in operation into the 1920s. And in 1888, when Claus Spreckels arrived in the Pajaro Valley looking to build a beet sugar refinery, John was there by his side as an original director of the Wester Beet Sugar Company. As before, he sectioned off large areas of his land for sugar beet production, and he also convinced the Chinese population of Watsonville to move onto his land in Pajaro, which soon became known as the Brooklyn Chinatown. Most of the Chinese would end up working at the refinery or on John's beet fields. The next year, John again helped Spreckels in building the Pajaro Valley Railroad, which passed directly through his property and included a freight stop, which was also named Pajaro. A few years later, in the Salinas Valley, a stop named Porter was established to cater to a beet-growing property he owned there.

Brooklyn Chinatown in Pajaro, ca 1910. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

As John reached the final years of his life, he shifted into politics. In 1890, he was appointed County Supervisor for northern Monterey County, winning election in 1893 and serving until 1897. He also consolidated all of his ongoing real estate and financial concerns into the family-owned John T. Porter Company in 1891, though he remained in charge of most of his empire until the end of his life. In 1892, he found himself appointed manager of The Great Asylum for the Insane at Agnew's Village near Santa Clara, a post that he held until 1895. These busy years of politicking, managing, and everyday life took its toll on John and he died suddenly of a heart attack on February 13, 1900.

Loma Prieta Lumber Company office at Opal, ca 1890. [UC Santa Cruz – colorized using MyHeritage]

Though John had several children, his eldest son, Warren Reynolds Porter, benefitted the most from his family's empire. At the age of 19—in 1880—he began working as a bookkeeper for the Bank of Watsonville. In 1884, he was hired as secretary of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, and on April 10, 1886, he became general manager and moved into the secretary's house—now the Porter House—in the village of Loma Prieta, where he and his family would live each summer until 1899. In August 1893, Warren married Mary Easton. These were likely the best days of his life, managing everyday operations at the Loma Prieta mill and enjoying time with his children and wife.

Graniterock workers on the back of a flatcar at Logan, 1903. [Graniterock – colorized using MyHeritage]

With the closure of the mill, Warren set out to do greater things. In January 1900, he became co-owner alongside Arthur R. Wilson of Oakland of the Granite Rock Company, which ran an aggregate quarry outside of Aromas. Shortly afterwards, in February, he became a member of a state legislation committee for public schools. And on March 12, he became the president of the Pajaro Valley Bank and the Pajaro Valley Savings and Loan Society. In September, he received a special honor when he was named an elector in the November 1900 presidential election of William McKinley, the first person ever chosen from Santa Cruz County. Unsurprisingly, all of this led him to resign from his role at the Loma Prieta Lumber Company and enter politics.

William Hamilton and  Warren Porter aboard the tug Slocum, 1910. [California State Library – colorized using MyHeritage]

Like his father, Warren began seeking high profile ventures locally. From 1902 to 1904, he served as a director and treasurer of the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway Company, an ambitious predecessor to the Ocean Shore Railway that sought to build an electric railroad between the named locations and beyond. He also expanded the John T. Porter Company into Monterey County in 1908, consolidating all of his and his siblings' holdings in both counties. More broadly, Warren became a member of the board of the State Prison system in 1901, which brought him into contact with state politicians in Sacramento. This eventually gained him enough notoriety to be elected Lieutenant Governor of California in 1907, serving a single term as a Republican alongside Governor James Gillett until 1911.

St. Luke's Hospital in San Francisco, 1930. [San Francisco Public Library – colorized using MyHeritage]

After his term was over, Warren settled in Berkeley and became involved in many projects throughout the Bay Area. In Santa Cruz, he briefly resumed his position on the board of directors of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, championing the proposal of several employees to form the Molino Timber Company and harvest the uncut timber in Hinckley Gulch and along China Ridge. He also remained president and general manager of Granite Rock Company until resigning in 1924. In Berkeley, he became involved with St. Luke's Hospital, becoming a director in 1923, and he also was involved with several social clubs including the Order of Free Masons. He eventually made his way back to Watsonville in 1920, where he was elected chairman of the Pajaro Valley Bank, a position he retained for the rest of his life. He died at his home in Watsonville on August 27, 1927, survived by his widow and three children.

The Porter House at the Loma Prieta mill, ca 1895. [Aptos History Museum – colorized using MyHeritage]

Warren Porter's legacy mostly lives on in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. After he resigned from the Loma Prieta Lumber Company in 1901, he and his family refused to give up the Porter House on Aptos Creek, even though it should have reverted to Timothy Hopkins, the property's original owner. Instead, the Porter family continued to use the home as a summer retreat until it fell into such a state of disrepair that it was uninhabitable. When The Forest of Nisene Marks was formed in 1965, the matter of the Porters' property had to be resolved. After long negotiations, it was agreed that the larger parcel would be donated in exchange for the creation of the Mary Easton Picnic Area. Further negotiations were required to acquire a smaller parcel held by another Porter descendant. She eventually agreed to donate the land in exchange for creating the Porter Family Picnic Area. Both picnic areas can be accessed along the Aptos Creek Fire Road.

The Porter Memorial Public Library on Porter Street in Soquel, 2018. [Times Publishing Group]

The legacy of the Porter family in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties cannot be overstated. Members of the families essentially established the towns of Soquel and Pajaro, contributed greatly to the creation of Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz, and established several local institutions and businesses that were focal points for industry and commerce for decades. They were also directly involved in the construction of the Santa Cruz Railroad, the Pajaro Valley Railroad, and the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway electric streetcar system, and indirectly involved in the expansion of the Southern Pacific Railroad to Pajaro and its branch line to Loma Prieta, as well as the narrow-gauge trackage of the Molino Timber Company. Quite simply, where the Porters went, railroads followed.

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