Just before the famous Vigilance Committee abandoned its organization a number of public-spirited citizens, many of whom had been a part of the Vigilance Committee, decided to organize an independent political party. Their purpose was, as they said, to “rescue the city of San Francisco from the clutch of irresponsible men.” The result of their deliberations was the People’s Reform Party.
The opponents of the original Vigilance Committee have always maintained that the new reform party was really organized for the protection of those who had participated in the affairs of the Vigilance Committee.
In August, 1856, at a spontaneous public meeting in front of the American Exchange, in San Francisco, Ira P. Rankin was elected chairman. Resolutions declaring the unfitness of the old parties were adopted without delay. To the old parties and their greed for spoils were attributed many of the evils that had called for summary methods.
Twenty-one men, among whom were J. B. Thomas, E. H. Washburn, Louis McLean, Frederick Billings, A. B. Forbes and T. O. Larkin, were appointed a committee to draw up resolutions recommending the election of legislators pledged to reform. It was also part of their duty to see to the nomination of city and county officers.
A strange event occurred about an hour after the organization of the meeting that meant the birth of the People’s Reform Party, and that was the fact that the Republicans gained control, and the purpose of the organization was almost frustrated. To the masterful eloquence of E. H. Washburn is attributed the fact that the committee was permitted to carry out its work. In due time it submitted a reform ticket which triumphed at the polls.
The newly elected city and county officers are said to have been efficient and patriotic. To this fact and the great watchfulness of the awakened public may be attributed the infrequency of corruption and the reign of economy that followed. So strict was the desire to save the public funds that the judges of the nisi prius courts were reminded, when they asked for stoves for their court rooms, that fuel was not needed in the land of perpetual summer.
An immediate result of the new regime was the swift and certain administration of justice, and a decrease of crime. There were not many police, but they were efficient and were well backed u by public sentiment and by judges not afraid to sentence criminals.
Under the reform movement almost every expense connected with the administration of the city government was less than under the sparser population of the Vigilance Committee.
As the city of San Francisco prospered and set a good example to the state, showing a remarkable recovery from the heat and excitement of earlier years, so, too, the state itself prospered and the world beheld the spectacle of “a might empire of pioneers” righting the ship of state at a time when many critics feared that California and chaos were one.
Royce has aptly said that the race that has grown up in California as the outcome of these early struggles, is characterized by peculiar qualities of strength and weakness. The genesis of society accounts for much of the free Americanism, the disregard of old social custom, and the free-hearted generosity of the native Californian.
Within ten years after the conclusion of the work of the Vigilance Committee the gold fever had greatly abated so that men other than miners and adventurers began to people the state. Even in the mines the demand was for capital, inventors, skillful scientists to unlock the hidden treasures of the mountains. Speaking of the mere fortune hunter, a writer in the San Francisco Chronicle aptly said some years ago:
“With the disappearance of the migratory element the population of the state tended to become fixed, and California was now a home for her people and not merely a treasure chamber to be rifled. The settlement of land titles was a labor of immense complexity, and its gradual completion gave rise to many heart burnings. The survey of the state went on apace, and men began to recognize that gold was by no means the greatest of California’s products and that her true and permanent wealth was to be found in her climate, of which the like was not upon earth, in the phenomenal fertility of her soil, and in the royal guerdon which she offered to those who would call her mother, and who would place within her guardianship their own future and the future of their families.
“It was not until the gold fever began to wane that California’s permanent resources become recognized, and even then the process of recognition was a slow one. California was believed to be a land in which to get rich, but not in which to reside. Upon the very floor of the United States Senate, California’s representative had placed his ignorance upon record by saying, ‘I would not give six bits an acre for the best agricultural land in California.’ The immigration which eventually set in was of men and women who came with peace and contentment in their hearts to a new land, where seed time and harvest do not fail, and where a man shall certainly reap whatsoever he has sowed.”
When the Civil war broke out California’s geographical position made it impossible for her to be a battlefield. Even if there had been an attempt to lead her out of the Union, however, it must have failed for her people were with the cause that won. Though many citizens left California to enter one side or the other of the great conflict, there was tranquility at home, and the close of the war found the state prosperous. A careful student of the situation has put the case clearly, as follows:
“Although the conclusion of the Civil war with the tragedies which accompanied it was two thousand miles from her frontiers, California was not unmindful of her pledge to freedom, the pledges which had sanctified the hour of her statehood’s birth, and in the election of 1860 she upheld the hands of Lincoln, and added her godspeed to the northern cause. “From the commercial point of view the Civil war, which was so disastrous to the Atlantic shore, enhanced the prosperity of the Pacific. Farm produce from the west found a ready sale, and the foundations of California agriculture were firmly laid. The necessity for communication between east and west became pressingly manifest under the exigencies of the war, and congress passed a bill to facilitate the building of a railroad from Missouri to the Sacramento. Large numbers of people emigrated to California in order to escape the miseries of the struggle, and as these were largely of the moneyed class a strong impetus was given to building speculation and to all real estate transactions. Hotels of unprecedented dimensions were erected in San Francisco and elsewhere, and the water supply of the city was extended and improved.
“The fever which had attended upon the discovery of gold was reproduced upon a smaller scale when the output of the Comstock silver mines reached very large dimensions in 1863. The fever was, of course, followed by corresponding chills and collapse when the limits of the lode were reported to be within sight, and in the ensuing panic a very large amount of wealth took unto itself wings and flew away. The winter of that year produced only ten inches of rain, and the grain crop of 1864 was, therefore, the poorest upon record. Over a quarter of the farm animals throughout the state died of starvation, and California agriculture received its first severe check. None the less the treasure exports from San Francisco amounted to $55,000,000, representing an increase of $15,000,000 since 1860. New arrivals into the state numbered 9,500, and over 1,000 new houses made their appearance in San Francisco.
“During this time, and although so far removed from the theater of war, California never relaxed her interest in the vital issues that were being decided, never waned nor grew cold in the northern cause. In his last message to the legislature, which met at Sacramento on December 7, 1863, Governor Stanford reviewed the situation existing in the state and in the country at large, and declared that the illumination of education shone upon the banner of the northern states:
“‘At the north the principle of education is the governing law and binds into a solid phalanx that proud array of free communities. * * * The north is united in battling for a principle which education has taught them to be the very life of their institutions. Had the system of common-school education that prevails in our northern states found an early entrance and been nourished into life in those states that are now at war with the Union, the civilization of the nineteenth century would never have been shocked by the rebellion that now disgraces its annals.’
“The clergy of California were almost unanimous in support of the Union, but the Reverend Thomas Starr King surpassed them all–not, perhaps, in the earnestness of his conviction, but certainly in the beauty and force of its expression.
“Arriving in California in 1860, the lectures which he at once proceeded to deliver on a great range of subjects attracted widespread attention for the erudition which they displayed, as well as for the oratory and grace of diction which distinguished them. He acquired at once a power over the popular mind, which he exercised to the utmost, not only in support of the northern cause, but to increase the ardor of public enthusiasm for its success. Wielding an equal power over the learned and the unlearned, it would be hard to overestimate the extent of his sway or the measure of his services to the Union.
“Upon those who were politically undecided the effect of his oratory was immediate and permanent, and there were certainly many who, through lack of knowledge and information, were in need of the intellectual and moral leadership which he was so brilliantly qualified to give. Traveling through the state, the latent fires of patriotism sprang into a hot flame behind him, and the intensity of the feeling which he aroused was magnificently proved by the immense sums of money which, in answer to his appeals, were poured out for the beneficent work of the Sanitary Commission.
“His labors were, however, beyond his strength, and the efforts which he poured forth so prodigally proved a fatal drain upon a physical constitution which was never robust. In March, 1864, Rev. Thomas Starr King died of a throat affection, at less than forty years of age, and the state has rarely witnessed so great an outburst of popular grief. During the four years of warfare the national flag had never been lowered from the walls of his church, and he lived long enough to see that flag raised to the position which it will occupy forever over the destinies of his country.”
Following the early years of the great Civil war California’s progress became one of the great commercial facts of the age. The building of the transcontinental road that scaled the high Sierras and was the engineering feat of the age assured the future of the Golden State. That marvelous monument of human industry and foresight united the far-away west with the civilization of the world. Its influence on the Pacific coast cannot be calculated for the results have not yet borne their complete harvest. The story of the railroad is told elsewhere in this volume in an eloquent chapter contributed by one of the most charming writers on the coast.
It should be said that there was a second gold excitement in California following the building of the transcontinental railroad.
In 1875, during Pacheco’s administration, reports of fabulous wealth in the Consolidated Virginia mine, on the Comstock lode, produced a frenzy of speculation that made California famous again, led to quick and vast fortunes, followed often by pauperism and distress. The speculations of 1875 and 1876 were even more intense than those of previous years. The new bonanza was expected to yield $1,500,000,000 to $2,000,000,000 a year, and popular excitement ran so high that credence would have been given to far more fabulous figures.
A writer who knew much of the distress as well as much of the success of the times–Mr. Horace Hudson–thus describes the situation:
“The chief organizers of the Consolidated Virginia were Flood, O’Brien, Mackay and Fair, and their manipulations raised the speculative mania to a point where it became uncontrollable. Crimes were committed to obtain the money necessary for gambling in shares, and a fresh chapter was added to the record of brutality which has so often constituted the story of mining. General ruin followed the inevitable crash. The stocks fell like lead, and only the manipulators escaped and those few who had been sufficiently astute to foresee the end. The fiasco was not, however, without its redeeming features, nor entirely calamitous to California. Capital and energy were attracted in no small measure, of which San Francisco was ultimately to feel the benefit, both in its financial and in its commercial life.”
An account of the times would be incomplete without some mention of the social discontent that culminated in the labor movement of 1877, when the dissatisfaction of the laboring classes, led by Dennis Kearney, culminated in the so-called Sand Lot riots. In July, 1877, William T. Coleman, leader of the famous second Vigilance Committee was once more called to the leadership of the friends of good order. On the 25th of the month there was a sharp conflict between the rioters and the citizens. In an attempt to prevent the destruction of property a number of men were killed and wounded. The turbulent element was driven off and the Committee of Safety retired from its labors. The weapons used by the members of the committee were borrowed from the government, an incident that shows the confidence that existed in the character of the opponents of the rioters.
Dennis Kearney, a working man of brains, force, and native eloquence became the leader of the dissatisfied. He had been in the state ever since 1868 and he became the orator of the Workingman’s party, which became known as the Sand Lot party, however, and was seldom called by its real name.
Kearney was fierce in the denunciation of the existing conditions. His campaign was, in truth, a forerunner of such socialist movements as now characterize many industrial centers. At a meeting on September 21, 1877, he declared that every workingman should bear a musket and use it in the assertion of his rights. Kearney is still living, having been up and down in finances since those years. He does not interfere actively in politics, and the years have made him conservative. He has little faith in the stability of the workingmen’s views.
Despite these troubles and some earlier ones, the prosperity of San Francisco and the state were for the most part uninterrupted after the completion of the great railroad connecting the two oceans. Barring a slight real estate panic and a set back here and there progress was the order of the age. By glancing at the following from the San Francisco Chronicle’s history one will see how matters fared with the wonderful state in early days:
“Governor Low’s message to the legislature of 1867-68 shows the financial condition of the state to be highly favorable. While the total debt was over $5,000,000, there was every prospect that it would be wiped off within ten years. The governor signalized his speech by a courageous recommendation that Mongolian and Indian testimony be received in courts of justice, and that juries be allowed to exercise their own discretion in estimating its value. He congratulated the people of California on the marked advance in the moral and intellectual life of the state, which had so strikingly accompanied its commercial and agricultural progress. Steam communication was now established with Hawaii, as well as with China and Japan, and California had become an important link in the traffic chain of the world.
“The real estate market, which had been becoming more and more excited with the approach of the railway, showed symptoms of delirium in 1868. The sales in San Francisco increased to $27,000,000, and speculation became irresponsible and unrestrained. The railway would certainly be finished before 1870, and the impetus to immigration was so strong that the gain to the state within the year was no less than 35,000. The railway was already completed between Vallejo and Sacramento, from Adelaide to Suscol, and from Sacramento to Marysville, and this rapid work and the prospect of many further extensions added materially to the real estate boom.
“Agriculture was now becoming an ever more vital factor in the progress of the state. A succession of abundant rains had not only produced phenomenal crops upon the lands already under cultivation, but the area of tillage had enormously increased, as the permanent wealth of the land became continually better understood. The arid lands in the San Joaquin valley, which had hitherto been accounted nearly worthless, were now found to be extraordinarily prolific, and ground which had hitherto failed to find a purchaser at $1.25 per acre could now hardly be bought at $20 per acre. Within two years Stanislaus county had risen from the position of the seventeenth to that of the first wheat-producing county in the state, with a harvest of 2,300,000 bushels.
“Governor Haight’s message of December, 1868, once more reflects the general prosperity of the state. Crops were abundant and labor was well paid. Means of communication were increasing, and commerce and manufactures were healthy. The geological survey was going on apace, and charitable and educational institutions were doing well their appointed work. With regard to immigration, the governor believed that the state should set aside an appropriation for the purpose of making known what California had to offer to farmers, mechanics and laborers in order that her resources might no longer remain undeveloped for lack of human brains and human hands. In a subsequent message we find the governor referring in laudatory terms to the efforts of the California Immigrant Union to promote immigration to the state, efforts which were undertaken in a spirit of patriotism and without other reward than the sense of accomplished duty. The work thus begun has been continued with constant, unselfish and patriotic devotion, not only by those who have specially devoted themselves to so laudable a labor, but also by every resident of the state who realizes and endeavors to make known the prodigal bounty with which nature has surrounded him.”
Today social order is well established throughout California, her industries are going forward on a large scale, and the fruits of the early struggles of the sturdy pioneers are within reach of the present generation. The fullness of the harvest, however, lies far beyond the grasp of persons now living and is to be the reward of posterity.
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.