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.
Mark Hopkins mansion: bigger than your house [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]
The Central Pacific Railroad, the western portion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the United States, was constructed between 1863 and 1869. By crossing the burly Sierra Nevadas and connecting California to the rest of the country, it literally changed the face of the state from a wild frontier to an urbanized powerhouse. It was financed and built through "The Big Four": Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, who all used to live literally next door to each other at the top of Nob Hill (though all four mansions burned to the ground during the 1906 Earthquake and Fire). They all also owned ridiculous mansions and estates all over the Bay Area, making today's Tahoe vacation cabin look like chump change.
Leland Stanford: President of Central Pacific Railroad, Leland Stanford was the epitome of an American tycoon - industrialist, baron, governor, senator, and founder of a little school down in Palo Alto. Relocating to California from New York during the Gold Rush, he built a merchant empire, and eventually served as governor and senator of California. Leland's brother Josiah made his own mark, establishing commercial production of petroleum. The wealth of the Stanford family during the late nineteenth century is estimated at approximately $50M ($1.3B today).
Collis P. Huntington: Vice President of Central Pacific Railroad, Huntington established himself as a merchant in Sacramento with fellow whale Mark Hopkins during the Gold Rush. He had the reputation for being the most ruthless of the Big Four, and later went on to expand railroad links on the east coast. His investing chops were pretty sharp, and his worth in today's dollars is estimated at $33B. Collis' son Henry donated the entire family fortune to charitable causes predominantly in Southern California.
Mark Hopkins: Treasurer of Central Pacific Railroad, Hopkins operated a store in Sacramento with Huntington. He was known amongst the Big Four as the most frugal and thrifty, but it was his wife who convinced him to built an ornate mansion on Nob Hill. He died without any children, and most of the $20M estate (that's about $460M today) went to his wife's second husband (ouch).
Charles Crocker: Chief of construction of Central Pacific Railroad, Crocker was an iron forger in Indiana who also opened a store in California during the Gold Rush. He built his mansion on Nob Hill for a reported $1.5M (that's $34M today), and his whole estate has been valued at between $300-400 million at the time of his death in 1888 (that's $7-10B today). His son William H. Crocker went on to be president of Crocker National Bank, expanding the family fortune. His brother Edwin Crocker served as legal counsel for the Central Pacific Railroad and as a Justice of the California Supreme Court, and his family home in Sacramento became the Crocker Art Museum after his death.Read More