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Monday, April 12, 2021



William Chapman Ralston, Tycoon

One of the first men to build a major financial empire in the Far West, Ralston was born in Ohio in 1826. In 1854, he immigrated to the booming town of San Francisco, a once sleepy Spanish missionary village that had become the center of the California Gold Rush five years earlier. There he became a partner in a steamship company, and 10 years later he used his profits to organize the Bank of California.

The Bank Established by William Ralston

Ralston’s bank quickly became one of the most important financial institutions in the West. Starved for capital, western businessmen were happy to deal with a reliable bank in their own region instead of the New York and Boston banks. Ralston committed his own funds as well as those of the bank to a wide array of western businesses. Many were unexciting but essential enterprises like water companies. Ralston also had an adventurous side, though, and used his money to support lavish hotels and theaters in San Francisco as well as the hugely profitable Comstock Lode silver mine in Nevada.

William Ralston's "Summer Home" In Belmont, CA Where His Wife And Children Lived Year Round

The always-treacherous world of mining, however, eventually proved to be Ralston’s undoing. Having made millions in the Comstock Lode, Ralston gambled on several silver mines that proved busts. News of the failed mining investments sparked a run on the bank, forcing the bank to close its doors on August 26, 1875.

The next day, a somber board of directors asked for and received Ralston’s resignation as bank president. A few hours later, after Ralston had gone for his usual morning swim in San Francisco Bay, his body was discovered. Whether Ralston had accidentally drowned or deliberately killed himself remains a mystery.

In Recent Culture

Ralston was portrayed by Ronald W. Reagan in a 1965 episode of Death Valley Days, "Raid on the San Francisco Mint." The episode dramatizes an 1869 event in which Ralston gets the head of the mint drunk in order to persuade him to authorize an exchange of bullion for coins. Vaughn Taylor was cast as financier and adventurer Asbury Harpending.

*Images from PeoplePill and Wikipedia

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  1. Oh, love a mystery. I don't suppose we'll ever know the truth, but he wouldn't be the first man to end it all when facing ruin.

  2. You're right, Christine, there has been many people who have found great financial success, but took their own lives when they lost their money. In the case of William Ralston, the first thing that came to my mind was murder. Since he routinely went swimming, perhaps someone who had lost a bundle of money either hired someone to drown Ralston or did it personally in revenge.
    Thank you for your comment and for visiting my post. I appreciate it.

  3. Sarah,

    Back then it seems that so many fortunes were made/lost, made/lost, rinse-repeat. In my middle class world, I can't fathom what that was like to be riding high on the hog one minute and out on the street the next. These were a special breed of pioneer.

    The possibilities surrounding his death are fascinating to contemplate in a morbid sort of way. Suicide? Murder? Accident? Hmmm..... ;-)

  4. Kaye, it truly is hard to imagine how people made it to such wealth and lost it over and over again. It's a wild, risky ride that my middle class mind cannot wrap itself around. I feel the same way about inventers who come up with these simple things and make millions leaving me to wonder, why didn't I think of that?
    Thank you so much for coming to read and comment on my blog. You are so supportive of everyone. Thank You!

  5. Amazing story. I lived next door to a "robber baron" who killed himself, too. I believe not only was finances failing, but they told him he had cancer. He was the head of building the Panama Canal, and the house he built next to where I lived, built head to floor with red mahogany wood -- ceilings, walls, windows, doors, staircase etc, that was cleared to make way for the canal. He has it shipped back to build his home in a tudor style. I wonder if he haunts the place. The second owner after his death painted all that beautiful mahogany PINK!!!

  6. OMG, Deborah, what a horrendous thing to do--paint over mahogany! Mahogany is extremely expensive in the US. It kinda sounds self-serving to mow down mahogany and send it home--even though it was for a major water access like the Panama Canal.
    As much as I don't believe in ghosts, I do think people have a certain energy, and since energy cannot be lost, only changed in form, their energy can continue in their absence. Suicide is such an intense act I have to think his energy still exists in that house. Hope it doesn't come visiting your house.
    Thank you so much for coming to my blog and leaving a comment.

  7. What a sad riches to rags story, Sarah.

    1. Better to be a rags to riches than this way, but a person should pull up their strength and courage to face the loss. I wonder what happened to his wife and kids after he was gone. I was nervous about the money in my 401K when stocks dropped years back, so I can't imagine the stress of losing everything. And no one else lost money because of my failures. I would hate to think I did that to others.
      Thank you so much for coming, Lindsay. I love your blogs about castles and ancestors.

  8. So many possibilities, but murder or suicide are my guesses. When people lose their life savings, they can become suicidal or want revenge on the wealthy person they think caused their misfortune. Definitely cause for motive. I can't help but think that very rich people may have the world by the shoulders, but aren't they also a prisoner of their own wealth in trying to keep it? An interesting blog about an ambitious man.

  9. Elizabeth, I agree with murder or suicide. I can't imagine a person swimming every day in the same place "accidentally drowning. Yes, there was plenty of motive for murder, and, of course, I am certainly he must have been completely devastated to have lost all that money. That's an interesting concept about being "a prisoner of their own wealth." Their wealth also keeps them apart from regular society and I'm certain there must be a certain amount of feelings of power that make people do foolish things. Famous people can't just blend into society and shop at the local super market, and we've seen how the rich and famous try to bypass the law believing they can get away with it because of their money and position. You have a good point.
    Thank you so much for coming and commenting. I always look forward to what you have to say.