If you thought the Silicon Valley folks were rolling in dough, those guys have nothing on the original Bay Area whales. From railroads to mining to merchants, the historic money makers of yore dominated the west, and had the luxurious spreads to prove it.
Adolph and Alma Spreckels mansion: the house that sugar built [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]
It wasn't necessarily gold mining that made people rich whales back in the day, it was selling stuff to the miners. There were loads of folks who needed supplies, and San Francisco was just a little village when they all arrived. These merchant millionaires used their money to buy lots of real estate.
Levi Strauss: Perhaps you've heard of him? The world's most famous jeans company started out selling dry goods throughout the west in the 1850s - they didn't get a patent for the pants until 1873. He never married, and left the company to his four nephews, Jacob, Louis, Abraham, and Sigmund Stern (of Stern Grove). It's still run by their descendents.
James Lick: James Lick started his career building pianos, establishing a successful piano manufacturing fortune in South America. He travelled to California in 1848, just before the discovery of gold, and bought up 50 lots in San Francisco, as well as large tracts in Santa Clara County, near Lake Tahoe, in Napa County, in Virginia City, Nevada, in present-day Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and the entire Catalina Island. At the time of his death, he was the wealthiest man in California, but left the majority of his $60M estate to charities, including the Lick Observatory, Lick Public Baths, University Mound Old Ladies Home.
Domingo Ghirardelli: Born in Italy, Ghirardelli opened a confectionery shop in Lima, Peru next to James Lick's piano business. After opening a tent store in Stockton for the miners, he opened stores in San Francisco, and 1852 started new confectionery company called Ghirardely & Girard. Needing more space, the company purchased Ghirardelli Square in 1893.
Faxon Atherton: You have to be a pretty big deal to have a whole town named after you. Originally from Massachusetts, Atherton became a shipping merchant and lived in Valparaiso, Chile for many years. He moved his family to San Francisco in 1834, and got super rich with his shipping business and the import and export of goods during the Gold Rush.
Claus Spreckels: Claus Spreckels first started a brewery when he brought his family to San Francisco, but soon got into the sugar industry. Claus had his built sugar fortune by allegedly acquiring the Island of Lanai for $1 in poker game with King of Hawaii. His son Adolph ran the company after he died, and along with his wife Alma, founded and paid for the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. His other son John went on to establish a transportation and real estate empire in San Diego.Read More