Sea Captains: San Francisco 1800s

William Chapman Ralston

Captain Ralston died in San Francisco August 27, 1875.

William Chapman Ralston was a Scots-Irishman born at Wellsville, Ohio on January 12, 1826. He captained Gold Rush steamers ferrying gold-seekers up the Coast from Panama.

Settling in San Francisco in 1854, he opened the Bank of California, which offered tempting low-interest loans to Nevada's newly formed mining companies. As owners defaulted, he kept the mines and became a Bonanza King.

He also became a transportation giant, establishing dominion over Pacific shipping lanes and inland waterways.

In the 1860s, Captain Ralston tied in with Asbury Harpending. They were arrested on March 15, 1863, as they prepared for their first voyage. "Scattered among the boxes and barrels" on board their ship, the Daily Alta California reported, "were large quantities of pieces of paper, torn to bits and chewed up, evidently with the design of destroying all written evidence." SFPD captain John Lees carefully collected the spitballs and reassembled them for use in court.

San Francisco Bay. 1899.

Topographic Map. San Francisco Bay. 1899.

Convicted of treason, Harpending and his companions received $10,000 fines and ten-year prison sentences. They were out on the streets again in months, perhaps because the courts found it difficult to take these youthful schemers seriously, perhaps because the wannabe privateers had powerful friends.

By the summer of 1875 Captain Ralston, who had an early career as a cabinet maker, was a hero in the eyes of the ordinary people. He was a bank president, backer of great and small business enterprises, builder of a vast, unfinished hotel, confidante of little men to whom he loaned money on character alone.

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Until the early nineteenth century, "risk" was a specialized term: it was the commodity exchanged in a marine insurance contract. Here is a story of how the modern concept of risk emerged in the United States. Born on the high seas, risk migrated inland and became essential to the financial management of an inherently uncertain capitalist future. Focusing on the hopes and anxieties of ordinary people, Levy shows how risk developed through extraordinary growth of new financial institutions - insurance corporations, savings banks, mortgage-backed securities markets, commodities futures markets, securities markets - while posing moral questions. To be a free individual, whether an emancipated slave, a plains farmer, or a Wall Street financier, was to take, assume, and manage one's own personal risk. Yet this often meant offloading that same risk onto a series of new financial institutions. Levy traces the fate of personal freedom as it unfolded in the new economic reality created by the American financial system.

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin
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Gray Brechin
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The acclaimed author vividly brings the men and their times to life. The ruthlessly competitive Carnegie, the imperial Rockefeller, and the provocateur Gould were obsessed with progress, experiment, and speed. They were balanced by Morgan, the gentleman businessman, who fought for a global trust in American business. Through antagonism and their verve, they built an industrial behemoth — and a country of middle-class consumers. These four determined men wrenched the economy into the modern age, inventing a nation of full economic participation not imagined a few decades earlier.

 

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; Maritime Library, San Francisco, California.

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