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The Namesake of Wilder Street: Hyrum Wilder of Massachusetts

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Along the border of Glen Park and the Fairmount Tract (also known as Fairmount Heights), you’ll find a short street called Wilder. Stretching less than 700 feet between its bustling intersection at Diamond Street and its eastern terminus at Natick and Arlington Streets near San Jose Avenue, many local residents have long wondered about its origin. As it turns out, it is named for a man who, though not a California pioneer in the purest sense (ie, those who arrived in 1849-1850), arrived early in the history of San Francisco and became a well-known and respected citizen.

Not much is known about Hyrum (various spellings of Hiram, Hirum, and Hyram) before his arrival in San Francisco. We do know from genealogical records that his lineage can be traced to a New England family so prominent that a book documenting their history was published over a century ago.

As the Book of the Wilders explains, the first Wilder was a military chieftain named Nicholas who served in the army of the Earl of Richmond and helped defeat King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. The first Tudor king, Henry VII, honored Nicholas for his services by granting him a coat of arms and the Sulham Estate in County Berkshire, England. The estate is still held in trust by the Wilder family today.

Religious persecution that was so prevalent during the 1600s forced many of its victims to make the dangerous trip to the New World. A descendant of Nicholas, John Wilder (1597-1634), was one of the many who wished to find religious freedom. Sadly, he died before his dream could come true but his wife, Martha, and children Thomas, Elizabeth, Mary, John, and Edward pushed on, departing Southampton for the Colonies onboard the ship Confidence. They arrived at Massachusetts Bay in May 1638.

Several generations later, a descendant of Thomas’, Hyrum Wilder, would be born on August 11, 1803 in Ware, Massachusetts, about 50 miles east of Boston. He was the eldest son of Benjamin Wilder, a farmer on the Swift River. As a teenager, Hyrum would work as a tavern-keeper in Ware, then in Sudbury (about 20 miles east of Boston), and later in Boston. He married Sarah Page in 1828 and had three children: Mary (born 1830), Waldo Hyrum Wilder (born 1832), and William P. Wilder (born 1834).

Hyrum Wilder and his son Waldo appear to have arrived in San Francisco on the steamer Republic from Panama on January 23, 1851, based on a passenger list in the Daily Alta California that included “W.H. Wilder and father.” The earliest documentation of their residence is found in the San Francisco Directory for the Year 1852-53, noting that H. Wilder was working as a ship store clerk and residing at 153 Kearney Street. [Note: A ship store sold all of the essentials for long voyages, from pickles to sardines, pitch and rosin to hemp rope, and Java coffee to whiskey.] His son, Waldo, is living at the same address with the occupation of “actor.” Just a couple of years earlier in the 1850 U.S. Federal Census, Waldo was running an "eating house" in New York City.

The management of eateries and taverns would soon come in handy for the Wilder duo. On April 21, 1853, Hyrum Wilder and an H. H. Perkell were reported to have purchased the entire interest of the historic Portsmouth House located on Clay Street at Dupont (today’s Grant Street), the first hotel in California. The original wooden structure had been built in 1840 to 1841 by Jean Jacques Vioget, the first surveyor of the village of Yerba Buena. One year earlier, he had platted the first streets of the future City between Pacific, California, Montgomery, and Dupont. [Note: at this time, Montgomery was the street closest to the shores of Yerba Buena Cove]. Vioget lived in the building and ran a bar and billiard saloon. He soon rented the operation to John T. Ridley, who also acted as captain of the port.

After the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 and because of his role as port captain, Ridley was arrested for being a “Mexican official” and was carted off to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. In his absence, barkeeper John Henry Brown converted the establishment into a hotel, hiring an English sailor as cook and steward, and three women from Samuel Brannan’s company of Mormons to serve as housekeeper, cook, and waitress. Mormon carpenters made “… tables, benches, and bedsteads; the beds were made of Sandwich Island [Hawaii] moss; blankets of heavy flannel; and quilts of calico. The carpenter and sail-maker of the sloop-of-war [U.S.S.] Portsmouth, commanded by Captain John B. Montgomery, made him a sign.” In return for their work, Brown named the hotel for the ship. [Note: California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft states the City Hotel, erected in 1846 by William Leidesdorff, was “the first entitled to the name …,” implying that the Portsmouth House had not been erected to the standards of first-rate hotels of that day, so, in his mind, did not qualify as a hotel.] The Portsmouth House would also be the site of the first wedding in San Francisco under American rule, a Mormon ceremony officiated by Samuel Brannan himself.

The Portsmouth House would go through a few owners before being acquired by Wilder, including Dr. Elbert P. Jones, the editor of San Francisco’s first newspaper, Samuel Brannan’s California Star, and for whom Jones Street is named. In an 1853 advertisement, Wilder and Perkell promised “… strict attention to the wants of their patrons.” It is unknown how long Hyrum Wilder maintained interest in the historic establishment, but he did so at least through March 31, 1855, according to a report of Wilder being a witness in some legal proceedings.

Not long after, Wilder became involved in the boiling hot real estate market in San Francisco, an occupation he would retain off and on through most of his life. On April 8, 1855, Hiram Wilder was reported to be a plaintiff in a case against defendants Samuel C. Evilith and Kimball C Eldridge. Evilith and Eldridge seem to have squatted on land Wilder owned during this chaotic period of land grabbing. In the report, the sheriff had seized the property in question: near Front and Sacramento Streets; a water lot (ie, a lot underwater but soon to be filled with landfill) bounded by Mission, Spear, Howard, and Steuart (today this block holds the historic Rincon Center); and a 100-vara [Note: one vara is a Spanish yard, about 33-1/3 inches] block on the northwest corner of Clay and Front, with “all completed improvements.” The sheriff auctioned off the lots at the door of the courthouse, accepting “cash only.” Whether Wilder made any profits from this sale is unknown.

Both Hyrum and Waldo were selected to serve on the Grand Jury of San Francisco in 1856. Then, in the fall of that year, the Daily Alta California reported that the Hawaiian Theatre in Honolulu had been recently taken over by “Messrs. Graves and Wilder.” The theatre opened to “… a good house, with Colman’s play of ‘The Iron Chest’ and the comedy of ‘Perfection.’ Mr. W. H. Wilder, Miss Luisa Graves, and Mr. C. Kingsland – the two former being old favorites in Honolulu – were warmly received by the audience.” Based on this announcement, it seems that one or both of the Wilders may have been traveling between the islands and San Francisco as Waldo pursued acting opportunities.

Waldo also performed in San Francisco. As early as 1853, Waldo shared the stage with Edwin Booth, brother of the future Lincoln assassin, at least twice: once at the Metropolitan Theatre in Shakespeare’s Richard the Third, and later at the San Francisco Hall in Belle’s Stratagem. In January 1856, he appeared in a play at the Union Theatre called Bear Hunters; or the Fatal Ravine. At the American Theatre, he would play the love interest in The Lady of Lyons, and in June 1857 at the Metropolitan Theatre, Waldo would take on the role of Malcom in MacBeth for a benefit performance.

In the U.S. Federal Census of 1860, William P. Wilder, Hyrum’s younger son, is listed as a “milk rancher” in District 11 of San Francisco - today's Glen Park. The Non-Population Agricultural Census Schedule in the same year finds William adjacent to Glen Park’s other pioneer milk-ranchers: George Ulshofer, Henry Wilson, Robert Clarke, Abel Wade, and John Gardner, all located along Islais Creek between Glen Canyon and today’s San Jose Avenue. According to the record, Wilder occupied 15 acres of improved land worth $1,000 (about $26,000 today) and owned two horses, 35 “milch” cows, 12 “other” types of cattle, and 10 swine, with all livestock valued at an additional $1,000.

Otherwise, there is little public record of the Wilders between 1860 and 1866. When Hyrum became a registered voter in San Francisco in 1866, he is noted to be a farmer living at Rock Ranch. We can confirm the approximate location of Rock Ranch with contemporary reports of the Giant Powder Company explosion in 1869 as being, “… in the quarter whence the sound [explosion] was heard, in the San Miguel Valley, near the old county road to San Jose”; and from an 1891 homestead map entitled Salomon’s Map of a Portion of the Rock Ranche that highlights the intersection of Bosworth with Rotteck and Lyell. Why “Rock Ranch?” It may be due to the fact that on some older maps, a large rock is noted to be along the San Jose Railroad near what would be today’s intersection of Bosworth with Lyell.

During this interim, one of the oldest homesteads in San Francisco, the Fairmount Tract (Fairmount Heights), was being established. Fairmount is first mentioned in November 1862, followed by the incorporation of the Fairmount Tract Homestead Association on February 27, 1864 with initial capital of $16,000 – about $235,000 today. Three weeks later, Cobb & Sinton offered the first lots at auction, selling a total of $57,000 (about $837,000 today) on their first day. This would be the first appearance of Chenery Street, beginning at Grove Street (today’s 30th Street) and running to Castro Street. Other familiar street names also appeared at this time: Fairmount, Laidley, Miguel, Mateo, Roanoke, Arlington, Beacon, and Bemis, among others.

Another map entitled the Fairmount Homestead Association was filed with the City in May 1865 by George Mearns and Edward Barry. However, it only included the streets between Grove (30th), Chenery, Randall, Palmer, and Warren. It is not yet clear if the Fairmount Homestead Association had any relationship with the earlier Fairmount Tract Homestead Association.

Then, on May 15, 1869, the Fairmount Extension Homestead of San Francisco was incorporated with initial capital of $19,800 – about $350,000 today. Trustees included HE Green, AB Winegar, Hiram Wilder, Charles F Webster, Thaddeus Wiswell, SP Kimball, and John H Wohlers. A homestead map filed with the City on June 29, 1872 shows a relatively small parcel of land that likely included some or all of Hyrum’s “Rock Ranch.” The parcel was bordered by the Fairmount on the northeast; the Southern Pacific Railroad to the southeast; along its southern edge by the new Mission and Thirtieth Street Extension that created the first plat in Glen Park along Berkshire (today’s Bosworth) between Croton (Diamond) and Kingston (Burnside); the Wilson Tract (likely belonging to Henry Wilson, one of Glen Park’s pioneer milk ranchers) to the west, and Chenery Street to the north. In addition to Chenery and Croton, we see for the first time Carrie Street as well as the street many of us have often wondered about, Wilder.

In other real estate business and just one month before filing the Fairmount Extension with the City, Hyrum along with James Mears, Edward Franklin, and others sold land to the City in the “Outside Land Reservations” that was labeled as the “Academy of Sciences lot” on the northeast corner of First and Point Lobos Avenues, valued at $3,200 (about $56,000 now). Nearly 20 years later in 1888, the Board of Supervisors would deed the lot to the Board of Education to construct a public school. Today, that same lot at Geary and Arguello contains Roosevelt Middle School and a branch of Wells Fargo.

In the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, Hyrum is listed as a farmer. Langley’s San Francisco Directory for the Year 1871 lists him as a milk farmer at Old San Jose Road, near the Old St. Mary’s College. [Note: St. Mary’s College was established in 1863 by the Most Reverend Joseph S. Alemany and located in what is today’s St. Mary’s Playground in Bernal Heights. Today, the college is located in Moraga in the hills above Oakland.] So, it seems Hyrum continued to reside at Rock Ranch after filing the homestead extension.

In the San Francisco Directory for 1875, Hyrum is listed as a real estate agent at 626 Montgomery Street and living in the Fairmount Homestead. However, just two years later he is back to farming and living at what is called Rock Ranch on the west side of Old San Jose Road near Bernal Station. A news report stated hired assassins had invaded Hyrum’s home in the Fairmount on May 24, 1876, though he wasn’t home at the time of the intrusion. It is believed the crime was related to Hyrum’s involvement in a dispute over a large tract of unnamed land. The culprits of the crime were never identified.

By 1877, Hyrum is a member of the board of directors of the Cosmopolitan Dime and Exchange Bank, an institution “… encouraging habits of thrift and economy” to the person of “small means” who may have “some delicacy in patronizing a larger institution.” During the Panic of 1876-1877, the Cosmopolitan was the only bank in San Francisco to keep its doors open to patrons. Then, in the 1883 Directory, Hyrum is back to the occupation of real estate agent and living in what is now called the Fairmount Extension Ranch. By 1883, he continues to pursue real estate at 302 Montgomery, but has left Rock Ranch and is living on the northwest corner of New Montgomery and Howard. He would move one more time in his lifetime to 1126 Market Street, which today is the entrance to United Nations Plaza.

Sadly, his son, Waldo Hyrum Wilder, noted to be the “well known actor” of the Theatre at Union Square in New York City, would die of heart failure on August 9, 1882 while being held at a police station. He had been found by police slumped against a doorway in a drunken stupor the night before. Hyrum would outlive his son by five years, passing away on December 30, 1887 in San Francisco and interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery. When cemeteries in San Francisco were being removed from the City, Hyrum and some 35,000 other decedents at Laurel Hill were transferred to Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma. The closing story of his other son, William P., is yet to be discovered.

With a little bit of lucky sleuthing, we now have more clarity over the origins of Wilder Street. Clearly, the length of the street is by no means a measure of the stature of the man for whom the street is named.

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