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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.

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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Ship Passengers, VIPs, Sea Captains, Ships, Merchants, Merchandise into San Francisco during the 1800s.


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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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