San Francisco History

A Financier of the Early Fifties

by Walter J. Thompson

Individualism ran to strong extremes among the argonauts of ‘49 and their immediate followers of the early fifties. There was no general sameness, not cut-off-the-same-bolt-of-cloth proposition about them. Coming over the seven seas, from many lands, in playing their flirtatious game with Dame Fortune their heterogeneity was a conspicuous part of their efforts at amalgamation in their new Western home. It was in this process that their traits stood out.

Aside form the markedly freakish characters, such as Emperor Norton, whose royal pretensions were never separated from schemes looking to the annexation of a stray dollar or an overdue meal; Willie Coombs, who insisted he was George Washington; the Great Unknown, who was neither great, unknown or even unidentified, and others, there were certain picturesque figures that were prominent in the various activities, industrial and professional, of the lively and rapidly growing young city.

The names of many of these men are buried in oblivion with the passing of their contemporaries, who remembered and could tell of their doings, often odd, often audacious and chaperoned by original methods.

Whenever possible it is well to rescue one of these old-time originals from the spell of the silence of the ages and turn the limelight of the departed years upon them for the purpose of adding another chapter to the record of the early history of the city, which should be dear to all San Franciscans. Their ways were born of the rough times in which they lived, but through them all is that streak of achievement which is common to human nature and animates mankind everywhere.

Take the career of “Baron” John B. Steinberger as it was unfolded from his arrival here in February, 1849, on the steamer California. He brought the reputation of being a financier and no one denied him his title as such after ten minutes’ converse with him, however much time they might put in trying to find out where he got his title of “Baron.” The “Baron” was a financier of the airy kind. John Law and his Mississippi Bubble were insignificant atoms in the air in comparison with the fleet of Zeppelins that was ever maneuvering in the Baron’s financial empyrean; he was a financier with colossal ideas and a despiser of minor details; one to whom dollars, single and lone, were looked upon as the kernels of wheat that make up a grain king’s fortune. Numerous were the legends circulated as to the Baron’s antecedents and his characteristics.

The Baron was a Pennsylvania German, who before he came to California was engaged in financial transactions of various kinds in the East and was known as the “bank breaker,” having at one time had a catch-as-catch-can bout with Nicholas Biddle and the United States Bank.

The broad and liberal views of the Baron were exemplified upon one occasion when he met a prospective investor in one of his many land ventures which took in not only the peninsula but adjoining counties. The prospective investor threw out an apology for not being able to hand over his purchase money at once.

“You see,” he explained, “I am tied up with some land now and as soon as I get footloose I will be ready to join you in your venture.”

“Ah, indeed,” said the Baron, “and what is the nature of your investment?”

“It is a lot up on Rincon Hill, fifty by one hundred, that ——"

“What,” interrupted the Baron, his face flushing, “do you mean to say you’re engaged in such damnable insignificant deals as that? Huh! Fifty by one hundred!”

“Why, certainly, I ——"

“Enough!” cried the Baron, drawing himself up haughtily. “Continue your operations, but do not presume to try and get in on any of mine; fifty by one hundred, indeed, why, I wouldn’t buy that for a cemetery lot,” and away he strode. The idea was repellent that he should waste time with a man who talked of corner lots, while he sat on the edge of a cloud and surveyed the universe as it rolled on its axis, besprinkled, as it was with corner lots merged into cities and towns and with banks ten feet apart whose energetic cashiers whiled away the happy hours in directing the course of a stream of yellow minted gold that flowed through flowery fields like the Lydian River Pactolus that King Midas of the golden touch used to bathe in. When the Baron came to San Francisco he was bound by a contract with Howland & Aspinwall to furnish their Panama steamers with all supplies. It was a big contract and the Baron and his partners made much money. They controlled the beef supply of the city. Every one had to patronize the Baron’s markets, the United States war vessels in the harbor being among his customers.

Rufus Rowe was his chief executive, as the Baron would not descend to vulgar details. Soon the Baron was the possessor of much real estate, most of it of uncertain shotgun title variety, but it was all land to the Baron and it is certain he entertained dreams of a great San Francisco more stupendous than any that have been proposed by later generations.

It is not my purpose to enlarge upon these land speculations; they were large enough in themselves. They were of a magnitude and based upon methods that were peculiar to those days and possess no appealing element.

It was, however, as an entertainer that the Baron shone as a star of the first magnitude, and his princely style of living as the talk of the city and the gossip of the mines. He was somewhat handicapped by having no palatial baronial halls such as every Baron should have, but that fact cast no shadow across his pathway. The city was not strong in halls, anyway.

The Baron had an establishment near the head of a long Wharf which stretched out from Commercial street, which while not an Aladdin’s Palace in architectural beauty and interior appointments, served the purpose as well and was the scene of revels as gay as any ever pulled off in feudal mediaeval or any other good times.

What if strong drafts sometimes crept through the cracks of rough wooden sides of the castle of pleasure and swayed with an undulating motion the whitewashed canvas ceiling of the banquet hall? The wax lights shone brightly over the board, covered with the whitest of linen, the daintiest of china and the sparkinglingest of cut glass and shiniest of silverware in profusion with other paraphernalia of luxury, all of which the Baron had imported from the East by way of the Isthmus.

Merrily rolled the hours away, each one growing more exciting, as playing for high stakes usually followed the dinner. All was merry along the water front and old Diablo’s brow as often mottled with the gray dawn’s dimples before the parties broke up.

Steinberger likewise had a baronial hall of no mean pretensions and his landed estate in San Mateo county. It was known as the Rancho de las Pulgas, which translated means “the farm of the fleas,” a title for which the Baron disclaimed responsibility and which he said was a misnomer of the time, as no fleas enjoyed boarding and lodging privileges on the place. The guests never disputed this point and a marked restlessness among them while seated at the table was easily attributed to the exhilaration caused by the variety and richness of the service.

A departing guest is reported to have been overheard remarking to the Baron that his resort was intended by nature as more of an abiding place for Stoics than Sybarites, but no Delphian oracle ever passed upon the mysticism contained in these words and the Baron never explained them.

The hospitality displayed by the Baron at the ranch was hearty and broad to guests and casual visitors. The portion of the ranch where the Baron held his state affairs was owned jointly by himself and Rufus Rowe. The whole body of the land bounded by Redwood creek, San Francisquito creek, the San Mateo county road and the bay shore, had been originally leased by them and parts of it sold off to Hale Haskell, I. C. Woods and others. Redwood City, which is located on this tract, was then represented by a few rickety shacks.

After two or three years of this imperial splendor envy of the Baron’s high position as a financier began to assert itself in the community. Small-souled creatures there were who disputed the Baron’s theory that the more millions a man spent the happier he was. They would not spend it themselves to find out and they didn’t want to see the Baron spend it. They went so far as to intimate the Baron owed them money and they wanted it. Couldn’t even wait until payment might be arranged to suit the Baron’s convenience.

It was now that the melancholy days came to town and pitched a tent under the Baron’s front room window. The Baron’s suavity and affability were put to severe tests by unfeeling persons.

On a pleasant afternoon as the Baron was about to enter Barry & Patten’s home of art and rare vintages to enjoy a cooling sherry cobbler he met one of these creatures and his geniality overflowed. Sherry cobblers for two were ordered. Ah, what Olympian nectar equaled a sherry cobbler on a rare June day? There was only one thing to equal it and that was another. The creature positively refused, and to the Baron’s amazement and surprise he burst out: “I don’t want your sherry cobblers. I want that money I have been waiting six months for. Do I get it?”

“But, my dear sir—“

“No dear sir about it. Either I get the money or you get this," and the fellow threw open his coat and tapped significantly the handle of a huge bowie knife that hung suspended in the interior of his vest from the armhole...

Happily, the Baron was able to [satisfy?] the greed of this ravenous creature who violated all the laws of hospitality and the code of business usages between gentlemen.

But hardest of all is it where the blossoms of friendship begin to decay. Owing to a complication of circumstances which might happen in the career of any monarch of finance, the Baron was obliged to sequester a large band of cattle to baffle attachment proceedings by parties of the creature class. He gave a deed of trust to a supposed friend who was enjoying his hospitality at Las Pulgas. The trust was violated, the cattle were sold, the false friend vanished with the proceeds and thus the tale ended.

The melancholy days passed swiftly through the sere and yellow leaf stages. Fluctuations of fortune and spasmodic efforts at financial retrieval sunk the Baron deeper and deeper into financial quicksands and he gradually withdrew from public life.

One friend remained true to the last. That was Abe Warner, the keeper of the North Beach Zoo on Francisco street and proprietor of the Cobweb Palace that adjoined it and which was a popular rendezvous for convivial spirits. “Monkey” Warner was his title in “Kiddom.” Warner had been one of the Baron’s business satraps and a confidential agent. With him the Baron lived for some time, his spirit unbroken, but shackled with the chain of poverty.

At the entrance of Cobweb Palace would he sit in the golden forenoons, watching the half-hearted and clumsy gambols of the dispirited and rather mangy bears and the movements of the monkeys as they skipped from one mischievous prank to another, and saw in the bright beach sunshine glorious bubbles of iridescent hues that hovered over inviting paths that led through Elysian fields of financial achievement.

“Abe,” said the Baron one morning after peering at the world through an amber focus at the Cobweb Palace bar, “I wish I had been born one of your monkeys. They’re more popular in this town than I am, who planned to make it a glorious metropolis—a London of the West. I did not run away like Meiggs, but I am the victim of unappreciative boors and plotters, who do not appreciate studious effort and hard labor along the groove of originality and the development of forces on a high plane and of a magnitude such as keeps the universe in action. It is hard, Abe.”

Warner sighed, too, and said he guessed he was right, and then joined the Baron in again focusing the ungrateful world through amber beads.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 6 August 1916. 28.

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