Alameda in history: The first families of Lincoln Park
Alameda in history: The first families of Lincoln Park
Historians and Alameda Sun publishers Eric J. Kos and Dennis Evanosky will share stories about the three families that once called Lincoln Park home at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 26, at the Alameda Museum, 2324 Alameda Avenue.
Vigilante James Farwell, consul Frederik O’Hara Taaffe, steamboat captain Robert R. Thompson and their families once lived on an estate that today’s Alamedans know as Lincoln Park.
Farwell arrived in San Francisco in the spring of 1850. He had safely captained the steamboat Tehama from Panama. He opened a chandlery on Clay Street, from which he supplied the ships in port with their wares.
Farwell was a vigilante who served on San Francisco’s First Vigilance Committee. As a member of the committee he was called to arms on June 10, 1851, when John Jenkins stood accused of stealing a safe. Farwell witnessed the trial and Jenkins’ hanging the next day. His signature appears on the document that supported a vigilance committee “jury” meting out “justice” in San Francisco.
Farwell played a key role in the vigilantes’ reorganization, in 1856. His fellow members called on him to “procure” a cannon for the committee. For this task, he teamed up with Richard M. Jessup. Author James Putman tells us that “in less than an hour they returned with a brass field piece that had once been in service with the First California Guard.”
The 1860 Census shows Farwell living in Alameda with his wife, Angelina, and a gardener, an Irishman named Jim Carroll. Census taker William Grove Deal listed Farwell as a “merchant.” He had purchased property in today’s Lincoln Park and built a home he called “Homebush.” Angelina bore Farwell a son in 1866 and died in 1868.
The 1870 census records show Farwell living at Homebush with his four-year-old son, Willie. Mary and Pat Galigan – who hailed from Ireland – were working for Farwell, Mary as a domestic servant and Pat as a driver. Ah Ming was also a member of the household. Census taker Stephen Burpee recorded him as a “waiter.”
Burpee also recorded James’ brother and his son’s namesake, William, living in Alameda with his wife, Sarah. The 1868 San Francisco Directory tells us that William and James were partners in a chandlery, likely the same one that James had started in 1850. William and Sarah had two children, Laura and John.
In 1872 James teamed up with a group of wealthy men that included John Parrott and Peter Donahue. They had put up $2 million to start the Pacific Cordage Company. These investors wanted to meet the demand for rope while competing with the only rope manufacturer in San Francisco.
Californians once imported all their rope. In 1852, for example, ships laden with 13,323 coils and 15,612 packages of cordage passed through the Golden Gate on their way to eager buyers in San Francisco and beyond. To meet the local demand for rope, Hiram Tubbs opened the San Francisco Cordage Company in 1862. Nine years later Tubbs got some competition across the bay, in the form of the Pacific Cordage Company.
The company built a 26-foot-wide and 1,800 foot-long ropewalk in the marshland just off Simson’s Switch, the Central Pacific Railroad stop near today’s High Street and Coliseum Way. They hired Farwell to manage operations there. Farwell hired 90 men, women and children to work in the shop, bragging that the cordage factory would be a “boon to the many poor families in the neighborhood who wish to earn a respectable living.”
The company manufactured its first rope in May 1873 and promised to spin up “500 tons of Kentucky hemp, providing parties would cultivate it on this coast.” The company offered “to pay a handsome premium for the first 10 tons of hemp grown on this coast.”
Farwell sold Homebush to O’Hara Taaffe the same year that Pacific Cordage produced its first rope and moved to a ranch in Hayward. The Pacific Cordage Company stayed in business for four years. For the first two years it offered Tubbs some lively competition; then it began to lose money. It closed its doors in 1877.
Farwell died at his ranch in Hayward on November 19, 1887 after a brief illness, The Daily Alta California reported.
O’Hara Taaffe was born on in Denmark on Dec. 1, 1825. He arrived in San Francisco in 1851 and worked at first as an agent for the Commercial Union Assurance Company. He later served as the consul for Denmark and the vice-consul for Sweden and Norway. Before coming to Alameda, he lived at 2114 Mason Street in San Francisco.
O’Hara Taaffe married Anna Södring on July 24, 1856, in Denmark. She was born there on July 11, 1838, and bore seven children before she and Gustav either separated or divorced. Seven of their children survived into adulthood: four sons — Christian, Teodor, Viggo and Gustav — and three daughters, Agnes Elizabeth and Catherine.
O’Hara Taaffe served as president of the Scandinavian Hall Association and played an important role in starting the newspaper California Scandinav. He worked as a trustee at Our Savior’s Scandinavian Evangelical-Lutheran Church. He was also an amateur sculptor. He traveled in important circles: In 1869, three years before purchasing the Farwell estate in Alameda, he affixed his signature to the papers that formed the California Immigrant Union.
He and his associates started the organization to encourage immigration from Europe to California. The union appointed O’Hara Taaffe one of its first trustees, and he sat at the table with such luminaries as railroad baron Charles Crocker, cattle tycoon Charles Lux and sugar magnate Claus Spreckels.
In 1869, the same year the California Immigrant Union set to work, O’Hara Taaffe wrote a 40-page document that he called “Californien som det er,” (California As It Is). He had this published in his native county’s capital city of Copenhagen.
“This pamphlet is, on the whole, a sober and seemingly accurate account of conditions in the state, which he knew intimately through travel and business,” a reviewer wrote. He aimed his treatise specifically at Scandinavian farmers, people he felt would help California thrive.
In 1872, three years after he penned “Californien son det er” he purchased Homebush, renamed the place Rosebush, and live long enough to enjoy the place for just two years.
He died in Alameda on April 16, 1874. He was only 48 years old. His obituary described him as “the most distinguished Dane in the city of San Francisco.” He was buried in San Francisco, but his body was later disinterred and moved to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, where a small stone marks where O’Hara Taaffe rests today.
Before coming to Alameda, Thompson made his fortune first in the California gold fields, and then as a principal shareholder of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. He and his partners sold their interests in the steam company to a railroad. Each man received a tidy sum.
In 1877 Thompson decided to return to the state where he made his fortune in gold. He headed for San Francisco, where he began investing the proceeds from the sale of his steamboat company in real estate. While shopping for property, he discovered that Rosebush, O’Hara Taaffe’s 12-acre estate in Alameda, was on the market and purchased it.
In 1879 Thompson decided to start a project that would supply his new hometown with water. After some testing he bore four wells on his property. The spot he chose for this enterprise bears his name, Thompson Avenue. He found an abundance of fresh water and obtained a license from the city to lay down the pipe necessary to supply Alameda with water.
Thompson found O’Hara Taaffe’s Gothic Revival cottage too small to suit his needs. So in 1880 he hired local architect William Patton to design a mansion. Thompson and Patton struck up a relationship that held them both in good stead. In 1887 Patton would design the First National Bank at 1400 Park Street, now home to Capone’s Speakeasy.
The Alta California newspaper called Thompson’s three-story home "the handsomest and most costly residence in Alameda County." According to the newspaper, "the lights over all the doors were of stained glass specially ordered for the mansion in Munich, Bavaria — each one of them in itself a work of art and done by the best artists."
"The carpets were woven in Europe to fit the rooms of the house and cost fabulous sums. The mantelpieces in the rooms were all of onyx, and everything in the house was of an equally luxurious and costly nature," the newspaper told its readers.
On October 19, 1880, while his mansion was rising up on High Street, the city of Alameda founded its fire department. On November 17, three firefighting companies were formed. One bore Thompson’s name, the Thompson Hose Company No. 1. The following month, the city arranged for Thompson to supply the department with water. He also obtained the license from the city to use his water to flush the sewers in town. He allowed the city to use his "pressure engine" for all fire purposes.
In a touch of irony, the man who did so much to supply the town and its fire department with water watched his palatial mansion burn to the ground. The fire started just after 2 p.m. on August 18, 1884, in a room above the kitchen. "The firemen did all they could, but the water pressure was too low for quick and effective work," the Alta California reported.
Like other wealthy residents in Alameda, Thompson opposed tax levies, including those to pay for the city’s fire department. He told everyone who would listen that he had no need for the fire department to ever visit his property because he had his staff drilled to put out any fire that might start there.
The newspaper reported another bit in irony in the case of man who did not want to pay for fire services. "A curious and unlucky coincidence to be noted in connection with the fire (at Thompson’s home) is the fact that the building occupied by the Schmidt Lithographing Company on Main Street in San Francisco, recently destroyed by fire, was also owned by Captain Thompson.”
The fire did not discourage Thompson in the least. In 1887 he and one of his partners in the Oregon Steamboat Navigation Company, J. C. Ainsworth, purchased a large tract of land on Santa Monica Bay. The pair moved south and established the city of Redondo Beach.
Thompson and his wife, Harriet, never returned to Alameda. They both died in 1908. That same year, a portion of the land they called home became city property. The following year, the city created Lincoln Park on the land. The decorative iron fence along High Street that Charles H. Foster crafted in 1879 remains to remind us of the Thompsons.
Dennis Evanosky is the publisher of the Alameda Sun and president of the Alameda Museum.