San Francisco History

‘Lord’ George Gordon and South Park

by Walter J. Thompson

To the stroller down Third street as far as Bryant and Brannan, where the business signs are made up of strange characters and the air is charged with the jargon of foreign tongues to a bewildering degree, the sight of a street running eastward along decidedly curved lines and enveloping the remains of a delapidated park-like garden, may not appeal to the newcomer in town, except to cause him to wonder if it really was intended for a street or if it is only the homely vestige of grounds once attached to some big mansion that had graced the neighborhood. To the old San Franciscan, though, there is a pathetic appeal to his sympathy in the sight of what is left of pretty South Park as he remembers it when it was in its prime. It is indeed a landmark that is in the sere and yellow, and one can almost wish that it might have been obliterated when so many others were swept away in 1906. Rincon Hill, of which it was once a fair and fashionable annex, has gone. Why not it? In the days when the handsome homes of San Francisco shone among the gardens set out on the hill there was connection with the park and the carriages of the elite rolled back and forth on calling days.

South Park had an individuality of its own. It smacked of some of the exclusive residence sections of London, such being the purpose of the designer. Its residences were in close block formation, with areas fore and aft, and with their brownstone or brick bodies decorated with iron railings here and there, making them appear just like the pictures one has seen showing the house where Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in 1836 or the home Thackeray occupied when he was penning “Vanity Fair.” And the fronts of these houses were kept polished and shining and the sidewalks and streets were speckless. And what a captivating scene of beauty that oval garden presented of an afternoon, when the green grass was a field for the gambols of youngsters of all ages and sizes, with pretty nursegirls sprinkled in between, dressed in white aprons and caps and gossiping as they watched their charges?

But back of all this fashionable front, the pretty surroundings and the scenes of childhood in its happiest mood, is a series of pictures of the olden days, the golden days upon which the dust of years has accumulated, completely hiding their features and making them as insignificant looking as is the old park today. It is worthwhile to brush away this dust and bring out the hidden hues for the edification of those who like to hear the old and fast fading stories of the past and which stir the memory at the retelling and the entertainment of others to whom they are new. South Park, besides being a landmark full of the traditions of the life and conditions of the city’s early history, is also the only memorial left of a man who cut quite a swath in the rough-and-tumble construction days of the early fifties. I refer to George Gordon, sometimes called “Lord” George Gordon, a title to which, as far as ever was known, he was no more entitled than was John B. Steinberger, a contemporary spirit in community activity, to be called “Baron.” But, Gordon accepted the title as bestowed, and as “Lord” George carried out a series of schemes that stirred local commercial circles for several years. Gordon was no visionary like Steinberger with his real estate deals and other Utopian schemes. There was a practical stability to Gordon’s ventures that usually carried them through to a successful climax. And if his methods of operating his affairs did not always savor of strict principle and straight-forward business dealing, one could not help admitting their boldness and originality. And Gordon did not profit excessively by his schemings. He was described as being “smarter than chain lightning and as sharp as a lynx.” His brain was always active in hatching out ideas and applying them to existing conditions. Long before he had planned South Park, he had proposed to Harry Meiggs, the banker, to terrace Telegraph Hill and make a superb residence section of it. Meiggs lived that up that way and the idea appealed to him, and perhaps it would have been carried out, premature as it seemed in the rough little town, but Meiggs had other business on hand, and shortly afterward his affairs reached such a pitch that he went away one day in the mist of a gray dawn and never came back.

It was said that Gordon was the inspiration of several of Meiggs’ enterprises, including Meiggs’ wharf. The first sugar refinery here was built by Gordon, and it was a never-realized part of his plan to use some of the many idle craft in the bay as a line of traders to Honolulu, the South seas and the west coast as far as Valparaiso. That sugar business developed into the San Francisco Refinery, that later was housed in a large brick home on Eighth street, near Harrison.

All of his little strokes of business enterprise were appreciated by Gordon’s pioneer contemporaries and did much to raise him to a pinnacle of esteem which many had at one time denied him. They forgave him and admired his talents and spoke well of his planting of a bit of his old home town, London, in this roughly-hewn burg by the Western sea, but they did not forget his record as the originator of the famous California Association through which they reached California and the hardships and perils they went through. Gordon was directly responsible for the coming of over 200 enthusiastic gold seekers in the first big rush of 1849. Most of this party afterward became prominent in the business and public affairs of the city. The whole business is redolent of rough adventure and should be perpetuated in type.

Gordon was in Philadelphia when the first copies of Sam Brannan’s California Star extra announcing the immensity of the gold discoveries on the Sacramento, which had been carried overland, arrived in the East. Gordon had lost what money he had brought from England in speculating in Pennsylvania coal properties and the call of the new El Dorado was irresistible. With nothing to go on but his boundless energy, he organized the California Association, and so strong was the gold fever that by November, 1848, Gordon had over 200 signed up to go to California under his leadership. The contract was a pretentious-looking document. Under it Gordon agreed to give each member a passage to San Francisco from New York in a “good, fast sailing” vessel commanded by an experienced captain. Besides first-class rations, they were to have tents, and for every company of ten two of Gordon’s own make gold washing machines and gearing for applying horse-power, as well as a mining plant with tools. Gordon was to be president of the association and was to receive $160 from each member. The adventurers also bound themselves in consideration of services to be hereafter rendered by Gordon to give him one-fifth of all gold obtained, and various other privileges, which almost amounted to the members becoming his voluntary peons.

Before sailing it was found necessary to make two divisions. The first band sailed from New York February 6, 1849, on the ship Clarissa Perkins, Captain J. W. Goodrich, and the second, under the command of Gordon himself, took the new and unexplored route—subsequently known as the Nicaragua—and, after enduring unheard-of hardships, arrived in San Francisco in October, 1849, a month after the Clarissa Perkins had reached port, bearing a party of angry, worn-out adventurers, who openly vowed that if Gordon had been there upon their arrival they would have hanged him. Long ago I had a first-hand description from the late Atkins Massey of the voyage of the 132 bold spirits that left New York for the trip around the Horn on a foul and leaky craft that could only properly accommodate fifty persons. How they escaped the fate of that trio of ancient mariners who once put to sea in a tub that proved to be scandalously unseaworthy was never understood by one of them.

“For the first day or so out none of us cared a picayune what was going on around us, we were all so seasick. But when we came to with yawning appetites and found that there were only six men in the crew and that there were was no one to cook for us and that the ship was filthy enough to breed a pestilence,” said Massey,  “you can imagine the state of our feelings. We got a scornful look from the captain and a hint that we could cook our own grub or leave it. Well, an indignation meeting was called on the quarter deck, the captain being driven below. It was at first proposed to hang the captain off the yardarm. Better counsels prevailed, however, and I, being used to the sea, aided by the Darlington boys, of whom there were five brothers from Westchester county, N. Y., was elected as a sort of ship’s major-domo. I told off the passengers into messes of thirteen, and members of each mess were to take turns in cooking and cleaning the ship, for we realized that it was a case of working our passage. Even the crew snickered at our plight. There was a lot of grumbling in the association, but by a few of us holding things with a firm hand we managed to suppress murmurs and threats of mutiny and to lighten the hardships, which told heavily upon some of the young fellows who were not used to roughing it.

“One of the toughest experiences was near Cape St. Roque, where the captain lost his reckoning, and we lay becalmed for thirty days, with the pitch liquefying in the deck seams under the burning sun. Every one turned ugly again and a committee was appointed to hang the captain forthwith, but he had retired to his cabin, and there remained, armed to the teeth. The crew waited on him, cooking his meals and taking his orders. At Rio Janeiro we lost thirteen of our number, they deciding to stay there. We also lost another member, George Little, a confectioner of Bridgeton, N. J., who fell overboard while endeavoring to catch a Cape pigeon.

“We arrived in San Francisco, luckily having encountered no stormy weather, on September 9, 1849, and expected to find on our arrival our second division, that had gone overland, as it was understood they were to prepare for our reception—have ground located for digging, so that we might immediately begin taking out gold. Such was our dream. They did not arrive until the following month, and it turned out their experiences had been rougher than ours. Smythe Clarke and James Stillman came with Gordon’s party, and the men composing it were so incensed against the speculator that about the time we fellows were hunting Captain Goodrich to hang him the overlanders were selecting lariats strong enough to swing Gordon from a tree.”

Such, in brief, is an outline of the history of Gordon’s famous California Association, which stands out in unique relief among the many records of peril and adventure through which the gold seekers of forty-nine passed in their voyaging to the new El Dorado. The ill-feeling against Gordon for what they considered the shameless way in which they had been deceived and betrayed was not long sustained by his associates. The voluminous, signed contract turned out to be as worthless as a handful of sand, yet the adventurers felt that the release worked two ways, as they realized after reflection how they had tied themselves up to a foolish and decidedly bad bargain. They were freed to pursue their own course in gathering the yellow metal. Again, when they learned from others of their experiences in unseaworthy tubs, and in scrambling for rotten food and of other hardships endured in that Horn passage, they forgave “Lord” George, and some of them invested in the South Park scheme, buying a home there and raising a family that rolled and frolicked in play on the grass behind the iron railing surrounding the oval park garden, which was so carefully kept from intruders that its gate was locked at curfew of an evening. And as “Lord” George prospered for some years they were pleased to meet him in a social way, and all was well between them.

In a later year an effort was made to revive the old association, as the members looked back upon their adventurers and hardships with that mellow feeling of fondness which time brings to one who can sit in a big easy chair secure in the reflection that the grip of hardship is not likely to be felt by him again. The Gordon adventurers rounded each other up, as do old college classmates, and they took to holding reunions. In 1874 there were but nine of that adventerous band out here—seven in San Francisco and two in the Santa Clara valley. The late Jerome B. Painter, the pioneer type foundry man, promoted these friendly gatherings. With his death many years ago they ceased and the few scattered members kept in touch with each other by letter.

In the meantime, “Lord” George Gordon, with his active brain, his money-winning plans and his high-flying ideas had passed on. The others have since followed, and all that remains remindful of their time and activities are one yellow dog-eared contract with a list of names attached filed away among a lot of musty relics, and that poor, wretched, fire-swept and haunted remnant of old South Park, looking so dismal and forlorn among the strange and unpleasing surroundings of a later day, beside the strewn fragments of once proud Rincon Hill.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 25 February 1917. 26.

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