Biography of John G. Downey of Los Angeles

John G. Downey
John G. Downey

Wherever men go forth to build cities and states, wherever they achieve greatness and honor in the vast empire of human industry, there is the necessity of leadership. Particularly is this true of the Golden West and of all states where the early struggles of the pathfinders were more or less hindered by lax morals and chaotic social conditions.

California is a pre-eminent example of the righting of social delinquencies after an era of disorder such as caused the organizing of vigilance committees and the administration of justice by the rough processes of mining camps and public-square meetings.

But California was peculiarly fortunate during her troublous eras, for she seemed to produce sturdy men of action and honor who grasped the situation with firmness and directed the affairs of state with wisdom. Not only did such men as the immortal Thomas Starr King thunder the lessons of right living from the pulpit, not only did such editors as James King of William rouse the people to action by the power of pen and type, but men like Governor Downey held back the cohorts of corruption by giving the people strong and honest administrations in the hour of need.

The particular charm that dwells in the story of Governor John G. Downey’s life is the fact that he came to America a young Irish lad, descended from scholarly ancestors, carved his fortune from the opportunities at hand, crossed the isthmus in the days of the Argonauts and helped to the utmost of his superb abilities to build California into a great state. Beginning his career as a young man amid the excitement and temptations of speculation, he ever preserved that coolness of judgment and those Christian virtues that make his name revered by the younger generation, for he was beloved of the people, who knew his worth and have preserved the story of his life.

John G. Downey, the fourth governor of California, was born in Castle Sampson, County Roscommon, Ireland, on June 24, 1827. His parents were Dennis and Bridget Downey, whose ancestors were distinguished leaders of their fellows not only in the higher fields of human endeavor, but on the field of contest as well. The early youth of the man that afterward had an important part to play far from the scenes of his birth lay amid the inspiring natural scenery immortalized by the masters. The fields and brooks where the lad played were the same made famous in song and story by Burns, Moore, and Goldsmith, and by such orators as the illustrious Henry Grattan. He started in life amid influences that stirred patriotism and chivalry.

In the national schools of his native land, he got a fair rudimentary education, and what was probably of more importance in the end, he learned to work with his hands, familiarizing himself with agriculture and the industries common to his people. At the age of fourteen, he came to America, whither the other members of his family had preceded him. In Charles County, Maryland, he studied Latin under John Corcoran, an illustrious teacher. The lad applied himself with marked industry and made great progress in his work, learning, also, the habit of application under the tutelage and example of the eminent instructor. At the age of sixteen years, young Downey was forced to abandon his school and go forth to battle for his livelihood. This was a grave disappointment to his family, who had hoped he would finish his studies and become a priest, as many of his family had taken up that calling. It is doubtful, however, whether so robust and ambitious a nature, endowed with rare gifts of business management and the genius of organizing and directing men, would ever have been satisfied with the more circumscribed lines of the priesthood. After leaving school, the young man soon found employment at the nation’s capital, where he studied pharmacy with John F. Callan, one of the greatest apothecaries of Washington. Young Downey remained with Callan until 1846. He next went to Cincinnati, where he soon became a partner in the drug business of John Darling, a Scotchman and a leading apothecary of Ohio’s metropolis. He was not destined to remain long in the older settlements, however, for his adventurous spirit longed to seek new fields of large opportunities. When the lure of gold led men to follow the star of empire in its westward course Downey was one of the sturdy groups that made the tour to better his fortunes. Unlike many others, whose ambition was to make quick fortunes in the mines, Downey made the trip with a view to making his money from the soil and the people. He had faith that California was destined to be a stable commonwealth, and his knowledge of agricultural values stood him in hand when he reached the west. He was in no particular hurry to reach his destination, so he stopped for a time in Vicksburg, where he was connected in business with Oliver Woodman, a gentleman of culture and business attainments.

Fortunately for the young man all his associate’s in business and in life had been men of good character and attainments. Every influence that surrounded him was uplifting and helpful. This fact, together with his innate desire for square dealing, developed his character along strong lines, so that when he came into the excitement and turmoil of the Golden West where many men fell, temptation did not lure him from the path of rectitude.

Leaving Vicksburg he crossed the isthmus, remaining at Havana and New Orleans for some time before he ventured farther. In 1849 he landed in California with ten dollars. He was not idle long, for he knew the drug business thoroughly and was hired at once by Henry Johnson & Company, who were on Dupont Street, San Francisco. Observing an opportunity to better himself, by a stroke of good luck he made the purchase of a stock of drugs at about twenty percent below cost, and took his purchase to Los Angeles, going by schooner and consuming three weeks in the voyage. At Los Angeles he went into partnership with Dr. McFarland, of Tennessee, was successful, and at the end of three years, young Downey found himself worth about thirty thousand dollars. From that time forward his fortunes prospered. In 1856 Downey was elected to the legislature, having endeared himself to the people of his vicinity by his ambition, his patriotism, and honesty. He had already served as councilman, superintendent of lighthouses, and later as distributing agent of the United States treasury. So well did his political fortunes prosper that in 1859 he was nominated for lieutenant governor by the Democrats and was elected by a handsome majority. Soon after this election Governor Latham resigned to become a United States senator. This left Downey at the helm as governor of the state. His record was brilliant in the trying era of the Civil War. As commander-in-chief of the forces of the state, he did much, in conjunction with public-spirited citizens in private life, to keep California in the column of states that were for the Union. He was instrumental in raising a regiment from California and Arizona, and that regiment went forth and fought gallantly for the Union.

It was the inflexible honesty of Governor Downey that prevented a band of corruptionists from looting the treasury and stealing from San Francisco her waterfront. He promptly vetoed the “Bulkhead” bill that would have plundered the commerce of the port, routing every sign of corruption wherever he got a chance to deal it a killing blow. So delighted were the people that the supervisors of San Francisco adopted resolutions of confidence and respect, paying a high tribute to the honesty and ability of their governor. Prominent citizens and leading merchants presented the governor with resolutions that praised him in the highest terms for his unswerving fidelity to duty in the hour of trial. When the governor arrived in San Francisco soon after his famous veto the entire population was at the ferry to meet and salute him. When he arrived, the cheering was thunderous. His carriage awaited him, but the crowd unhitched the horses and drew the carriage in triumph through the streets of the city. Never in the history of California has there since been, nor had there been before, so tumultuous a tribute to manly worth and fidelity to duty.

After his term had expired Governor Downey retired full of honor to his home in Los Angeles, where he was loved and respected during his remaining days and where his memory is revered today. He died March 1, 1894, in Los Angeles. In 1869 he built the Downey Block, one of the great buildings in Los Angeles. He had meantime started the first bank in Los Angeles and had established a large ranch, with Downey City, named in his honor, as its marketplace. In those early times, there were few small tracts of land. Governor Downey was the first to set the example of cutting up large tracts into small farms for the men of small means. Anaheim colony was the fruit of his plans.

Governor Downey married the daughter of Don Rafael Guirado, a Spanish gentleman of Sonora. She was killed in the Tehachapi disaster in 1883. Some years later he was married to Miss Rosa V. Kelly, a well-known Los Angeles lady. In his domestic and social relations, as well as in his public life, he was ever a kind Christian gentleman.

Source: Leigh H. Irvine; A History of the New California Its Resources and People, 2 Volumes; New York and Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903.

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