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Origins of Fairmount Heights: Foundations in Railroad, Civil War, and Real Estate Histories

A truncated version of this article was originally published in the Glen Park News, Winter 2019/2020.

As defined by Merriam-Webster, history is a “a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events” [emphasis added]. Yet, our reckoning of American history appears to be in the midst of transformation. We rightfully strive to highlight and remember our best and most positive histories, yet the removal or replacement of monuments and art depicting our most hateful and objectional histories, while done with good cause, also takes away opportunities to identify, recall, and explain why those particular histories should never be repeated. This conundrum leaves us vulnerable to succumbing to the repetition of those histories in the future.

Fairmount Heights has been undergoing a transformation in recent years through loss of name recognition. As one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco, realtors and others seem determined to erase it from maps by inferring it is part and parcel of Glen Park. Yet, ongoing research is revealing a link between Fairmount not only to railroad and real estate histories, but also to a divided America, a time that today’s polarization harkens back to, that may have enough positive historical significance to encourage retention of Fairmount as its own entity.

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Fairmount as Homestead

A short 4 to 5 miles from the bustling business center of San Francisco, the hilly region immediately south of Twin Peaks and east of Mt. Davidson was once considered rural farmland, both beautiful and idyllic. Yet, in the decades before the San Francisco Earthquake and Conflagration of 1906, it was populated by only a few. Fairmount Heights (also referred to as the Fairmount Tract) has the distinction of being the oldest residential district in the region covered by the Glen Park Neighborhood History Project, predating Glen Park and Sunnyside by about 30 years, and Diamond Heights by nearly a century.

"There is one thing about the Fairmount district a lad would remember and that was the sound of cowbells in the spring evenings when the grass was high and the cows wouldn't want to come home. Then the herders would listen for the bells and follow them across the fields in the dusk, and that way find the cows and drive them back to the barn."      

-- From Riptides, A Glen Park Boy Looks Back, Part I. San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 1947.


For over 12,000 years, permanent villages of indigenous Yelamu Ohlone could be found scattered along the coastal borders of the Northern Peninsula. At least three seasonal Ohlone villages were located in the wetlands of San Francisco Bay at the mouth of Islais Creek that flowed along the southern slope of Fairmount Hill. The rolling landscape of San Francisco north of San Bruno Mountain was their hunting and gathering domain. Yet, every aspect of their world would begin to shatter in 1776 when members of the Anza expedition became the first Europeans to travel through the region. After selecting the locations for the San Francisco Presidio and Mission Dolores, the Anza party followed what may have been a well-worn southerly route, established and used by the Ohlone for thousands of years, between today's Fairmount and Bernal Hills. The trail soon became known as the El Camino Real, and later, variously as the Old Mission Road and Old San Jose Road.


During the Mexican period, the region that would later become Fairmount Heights was personally selected by José de Jesús Noé. In 1845 he petitioned Governor Pío Pico and, in 1846, received the grant totaling 4,444 acres, one-sixth the size of San Francisco. In 1854, John Horner, originally of Monmouth, New Jersey and who had sailed with Samuel Brannan and other Mormons to San Francisco on the Brooklyn in 1846, purchased from Noé a swath of acreage along the eastern border of the rancho. After laying out $200,000 (equivalent to $5.6 million today) for the purchase, he mapped out his vision for a new district he called Horner's Addition. While Horner is considered to be the father of Noe Valley, his gridiron street plan running along the eastern slope of Fairmount Hill failed to take into consideration the undulating landscape. This, in addition to a poor economic outlook, forced Horner to sell most of these lands by the close of the 1850s. 

The Pacific Railroad Homestead

The vision for constructing a railroad, the Pacific Railroad that would span the continent was first conceived by John Plumbe of Dubuque, Iowa. Building on the concept he first revealed as early as 1836, by 1859 he was proposing a route along the emigrant route, over Wyoming's South Pass and through the Sierra-Nevada Mountains to California's gold regions. It was an idea supported in January 1859 by President James Buchanan, who declared it would be constructed most expediently by private companies rather than governmental agencies. In September of that year, the Pacific Railroad Convention was held in San Francisco, attended by officials from up and down the Pacific coast. It was here that Theodore Judah, engineer for the Sacramento Valley Railroad - the first in California - was able to share his vision for a transcontinental route and convince attendees to form a company to build it. On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, approving both the construction and subsidies for construction - fees that would in short order make Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, and Mark Hopkins (ie, "The Big Four") so fabulously wealthy.


With the terminus of the Transcontinental Route slated for Sacramento, the Port of San Francisco was out of the picture. Without a bridge spanning San Francisco Bay, the only land route from San Francisco to Sacramento was south through San Jose. Three plans for a San Francisco-San Jose Railroad had been bandied about since 1851, but it would be the railroad company organized by industrialist Peter Donahue of the Union Iron Works and the railroad's president, Judge Timothy Dame, that was able to convert plans into action.

By the summer of 1861, construction of the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad had begun in earnest. The new road would carve out the Bernal Cut (today’s San Jose Avenue) between Bernal and Fairmount Hills. Likely in anticipation that the new route would begin service in 1863, a new homestead was planned just west of and a short distance from a planned stop near what is today Randall Street and San Jose Avenue. 

The land appears to have been acquired through the services of Jerome Rice, an auctioneer whose notary and conveyancer was Albert G. Randall. The organization of the Pacific Railroad Homestead Association was announced on December 13, 1862, with Gold Rush pioneers Richard Chenery as president, James Laidley as vice president, James P. Flint as treasurer, and Charles Cook Bemis, Cyrus Palmer, F.E.B. Whitney, and others as directors. According to the announcement, 120 to 130 acres on the eastern edge of the Old Rancho San Miguel, only 4 miles from downtown and directly on the line of the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad, would be subdivided into as many as 600 lots. The Civil War likely delayed further development of the project, as there is no further mention of the Pacific Railroad Association after the initial announcement. During the war, President Abraham Lincoln would appoint Chenery as U.S. Navy Agent for the Pacific Coast, and Bemis as Boiler Inspector for the District of San Francisco. By 1865, Laidley would be elected as a San Francisco Harbor Commissioner. 

On February 27, 1864, only six weeks after the Grand Celebration of the opening of the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad, called "the first link of the Great Central Railway," the Pacific Railroad Homestead appears to re-emerge as Fairmount. Offered by real estate agents Cobb and Sinton, they were likely fronting for Chenery et al. Reporting initial capital stock of $16,000 ($235,000 today), the incorporation was announced on the same day that San Francisco was jolted by two “severe” earthquake shocks occurring only a few seconds apart, "... strong enough to ring doorbells and break glass."


While the 1862 Pacific Railroad Homestead map has not yet been located, the 1864 Fairmount map submitted by Cobb and Sinton states it was originally surveyed in November 1862, just one month before the announcement of the Pacific Railroad Homestead Association. Therefore, it is likely that the 1864 map replicates the original 1862 map, particularly since it includes streets named for the original Pacific Railroad Homestead founders, including Chenery, Laidley, Bemis, Whitney, Palmer (today, Palmer Street is comprised of Harper and Randall Streets), as well as Judge Thomas Dame (Dame Street was later renamed as an extension of Church Street). 

Cobb & Sinton offered the first Fairmount lots for sale on March 19, 1864, “... on credit for 1 to 2 years” and “Title, United States patent.” In their words, “The land is beautifully situated, commanding a fine view of the city, and is laid out so as to avoid the heavy grading which has proven so great a charge on city property.” Cobb & Sinton sold $57,000 (about $837,000 today) worth of property on the first day, postponing the remainder of the auction for a week while General H.A. Cobb recovered from a cold.“ The salerooms were densely packed with earnest bidders, showing conclusively that when good property, with perfect titles is offered, our people appreciate the importance of safe and good investment.” A follow-up to the second auction was not reported.


Cobb & Sinton continued to promote the "fine garden land" and the convenience of its location, "situated opposite of the Four-mile House.” [The Four-mile House was variously described as being located near Cortland and Mission Streets (from the Bernal Heights perspective), or just across the road at San Jose Road and Randall (from the Fairmount Tract perspective). Learn more about the Mile Houses along the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad (later the Southern Pacific).] The Fairmount Tract was also only, "... about 8-minutes walk beyond the horse railroad on Valencia Street." Or,


"In 1864, if you took a buggy ride over the dirt roads of San Francisco from downtown to Fairmount Heights, you go out the country road or Mission Street. You would pass Park Street (24th Street), Yolo (25th Street) and Navy (26th Street). At New Market (Army), you would cross a wooden toll bridge that crossed Serpentine Creek and then proceed on to Vale (28th Street), Dale (29th Street), and Grove (30th Street) and end at Palmer (Randall) Streets."


Cobb & Sinton later held a “Grand Credit Sale” by orders of the Fairmount Homestead Association in February 1866.  They announced the properties were for, “Parties in search of a snug homestead, within easy reach of the business centres, … These lots are situated on the sunny slope of the hills just beyond the WILLOWS [located on 19th Street between Valencia and Guerrero], perfectly protected from the prevailing winds, and having a soil of unsurpassed fertility. The approach by vehicles is over the finest roads and easiest grades, and the view from the premises is one of the best in the city." 


Sales of lots in the Fairmount Tract continued to increase over the next several years. Residents were mainly blue collar workers, who, "... cleaned, built, and supported the folks in the 'fancy' neighborhoods in town. They supplied the workhorse behind the wheel that drove downtown San Francisco." Occupations in 1868, according to neighborhood research by Fairmount and Noe Valley residents in 1959, included "carriage makers, stablers, bakers, civil service workers, painters, and men working in the building trades."


As such, for the next few decades, residents' demands to receive the same City benefits as the more well-to-do neighborhoods in San Francisco enjoyed would often fall on deaf ears in the chambers of City supervisors, as the residents of Glen Park, Sunnyside, and other neighborhoods in the Outside Lands could also attest. The Fairmount Improvement Club often joined forces with other local associations to make their voices heard for the addition of street lights and sewers, better water connections, bigger schools, improved roads, and easier access to main routes leading both downtown and south out of San Francisco.


Roughly triangular in shape, Fairmount Heights today is bordered by San Jose Avenue to the east, 30th street (originally Grove Street) to the north, and Castro street to the west. Chenery Street, along the route of the Old Mission Road and likely the original El Camino Real, continues to serve as the backbone for not only Fairmount Heights but for Glen Park, as well. 

Origins of the Name "Fairmount"

If an opportunity to name a few streets in San Francisco ever presented itself, it was often done to commemorate one’s self, their colleagues and associates, as well as the ancestral home they had left behind. While the true origins of the name “Fairmount” in San Francisco may never be known, some interesting associations of the Fairmount Homestead with Massachusetts appear to exist. 


The Massachusetts Connection
Chenery*, Laidley, and Bemis were all from the region surrounding Boston, Massachusetts. Chenery was born in Montague, Franklin County (formerly a part of Hampshire County) in 1817, and Bemis was born in Waltham, Middlesex County in 1830. In 1630, Chenery’s fourth-great-grandfather, Lambert, and Bemis’ third-great-grandfather, Joseph, were both founders of Watertown in Middlesex County. Over time, both lines became recognized as prominent New England families. Laidley was born in 1821 in Ayrshire, Scotland but by the age of 12 is living in Northampton, Hampshire County, about 8 miles from Montague. In 1845, he and Chenery are both listed as members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. All three men may have already been friends or, at least knew of each other, before departing for the California gold fields. 

Chenery, Bemis, and Laidley appear to have emigrated to California separately. Chenery was captain of the Northampton-Holyoke Overland Mining Company. Despite the company’s name, they sailed from Boston on the S. L. Crowell on February 3, 1849 with Panama as their destination. After crossing the isthmus, they arrived in San Francisco on the Copiapo in August that same year. The route taken by Laidley and Bemis is not yet known. However, Laidley is first mentioned in local newspapers in 1851 when it is announced both he and Chenery had arrived at the same Benicia hotel on the same day, which seems more than coincidental. Bemis, the youngest of the three, arrived in 1858 to set up a flour mill. All three men would eventually become involved with steamship operations: Chenery owned several steamships running between San Francisco and Sacramento; Bemis became an assistant engineer with the Pacific Mail Steamship company; and Laidley operated a laundry that catered to steamships and hotels.


The California One Hundred - The California Contingent in the Massachusetts Second Cavalry

As the Civil War began, many Californians wanted to join the fight against slavery and secession. However, President Lincoln had called for California volunteers to remain in the west to replace troops being transferred back east, and also to be available to help protect from a potential threat posed by French and English navy forces cruising up and down the Pacific coast. Undeterred, prominent pioneers in San Francisco hailing from the "Old Bay State" of Massachusetts came up with the idea of raising a local contingent in the summer of 1862. A letter written by Ira P. Rankin, also a native of Hampshire, Massachusetts and the federally appointed Collector of the Port of San Francisco, was sent to the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts. In the letter, Rankin offered a California contingent that could help fulfill the Massachusetts state quota of troops, which the governor accepted. 

What became famously known as the California Hundred, comprised of 100 experienced horsemen, was formed in San Francisco and soon departed for the East. Arriving in January 1863 at Camp Meigs in Readville (today part of Hyde Park, the southernmost neighborhood of Boston), they were assigned to the Second Massachusetts Cavalry as Company A. Four more California cavalry companies soon followed. During much of their war service, the Second Massachusetts was assigned to protect the Capitol in Washington, DC, served under Sheridan during the Shenandoah Valley campaign, and was present at Appomattox when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. Of note, Camp Meigs is also the site where the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry was assembled in May 1863, the first African American unit in the Civil War that became the subject of the movie, Glory


Boston's Fairmount as an Experiment in Real Estate Speculation
The link between the California Hundred and Boston’s Hyde Park generates some interesting parallels. Camp Meigs is located immediately west of an area known as Fairmount Hill, part of the town of Milton and about 7 miles from downtown Boston. It is from this land that the town of Hyde Park evolved. The area up to the 1850s was described in a reminiscence of the landscape as being, “…somewhat diversified by hill and plain; enough so to please the eye, without causing much inconvenience to road-makers or builders. None of the hills are so high that they can’t be surmounted; none of the valleys so low that good drainage can’t be maintained.” The Neponset River, a tributary of the Charles River, bisected the district populated by three farms of about 200 acres each. The Boston and Providence Railroad also ran through the area, traveling into Boston three times daily.

Conceived by Alpheus P. Blake, now considered the founder of Hyde Park, Boston’s Fairmount Hill is considered by some to be the first speculative suburban housing development in the United States (ie, a planned development with no specific buyer in mind at the start of construction, but with confidence of having buyers and large profits when complete). In 1855, he and 19 other investors formed a trust called the Fairmount Land Company and Twenty Associates and purchased 100 acres of Fairmount Hill. Development of their planned residential district began in 1856 with the construction of 20 identical wood-framed residences representative of middle-class homes in downtown Boston.

In 1892, the Hyde Park Historical Society described the topography of Fairmount in Boston at the time of its development as follows:


"The Fairmount section was first built. It was laid out on a rectangular system, the direction of the longitudinal streets being parallel to that of the original grants. This system is most usually adopted in a level country, as it is the one of the greatest simplicity and economy of land. Fairmount, however, as the name signifies, is hilly. Some of the streets have very steep grades. The rectangular system was departed from in the case of Williams avenue and Pond street, these being curved and more in keeping with the contour of the land." 


We now know the intended meaning of "Fairmount." This same description can also be applied to both the landscape and the street system that circumnavigates San Francisco's Fairmount Hill.

Soon, the growth of commerce in the new district stimulated population growth and construction of more homes, making Fairmount Hill a rapidly growing commuter suburb of Boston. After the Civil War, more Bostonians seeking to leave cramped conditions in the city were drawn to the open-space district that in 1868 would be incorporated as Hyde Park.

These connections of San Francisco’s “Fairmount” to those in the Boston area and the Civil War are certainly intriguing. The three prominent San Francisco pioneers who established the Pacific Railroad Homestead Association – Chenery, Laidley, and Bemis – were from the Boston region. When considering the Fairmount streets they named, some were for themselves, some streets for their colleagues (eg, Dame [now Church], Palmer [now Randall], and Whitney), and some streets for their ancestral lands of the Boston region (eg, Fairmount, Beacon, Arlington; however, while Natick is also in the Boston area, the original name of Natick Street on the San Francisco Fairmount map was actually Rose).


We now know that Randall Street is named for Jerome Rice’s associate, notary Albert G. Randall. And while Rice has no street named for him, we learn from a newspaper article written by no less than Mark Twain that Rice’s favorite and most faithful horse was named Roanoke. Miguel likely refers to the Rancho San Miguel on which the land sits, and Mateo may refer to the initial terminus of the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad at Menlo Park, at the southern boundary of San Mateo County. In addition to Rose Street, the namesakes for Charles and Harry Streets have yet to be discovered.

With ancestral connections to the Boston region, the local natives of the Old Bay State likely knew of the success of the country’s first speculative suburban development at Boston’s Fairmount Hill and recognized the similarities to San Francisco’s Fairmount – hilly land that like its Boston counterpart was in the country, connected by a railroad, and within easy commuting distance to downtown. Chenery et al may have hoped their suburban residential project would achieve the same success as that founded by Alpheus P. Blake. Moreover, these Union anti-slavery men may have also been honoring the connection of San Francisco with the California Hundred at Camp Meigs, having been assembled and dispatched in the same few months as the organization of the Pacific Railroad Homestead Association in late 1862. 

If correct, Fairmount Heights has significant connections to the American Civil War and the fight against slavery and secession, not to mention the history of real estate and speculative housing development in the United States. Our society is in the process of removing monuments commemorating objectionable histories. While done for good cause, it also removes teachable opportunities of why those histories should never be repeated. With its link to one of the most noble causes in the history of the United States, why erase the name Fairmount? 

*(In a surprising genealogical link to Chenery Street, Richard Chenery is the great-grand-uncle of Christopher Chenery, a founder of the New York Racing Association who in 1930 purchased Meadow Stables in Ashland, Virginia. His daughter, Richard’s great-great-grand-niece, Helen Bates “Penny” Chenery, would take over operations of the stables in 1968. Two years later, a young foal was born at Meadow Stables, one that would be named one of the top 50 athletes of the 20th century: 1973 Triple Crown winner, Secretariat.) 

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