Home -> James H. Barry Press -> The Great Diamond Hoax - Chapter XV

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Chapter XV.

First Speculator to Figure that Market Street Had Future Buys Several Choice Lots For A Pittance.

Earthquake Plays Important Part in Big Deal, Timid Citizen Sells Out in Hurry and Loses $350,000.

In the early 60's no one thought of Market street except as a disfigurement to the city and a broad impediment to its progress. It began almost nowhere, at an unfrequented section of the waterfront, where the dullness was relieved only by the arrival and departure four or five times a day of a ferryboat owned by Charles Minturn, which transported a few straggling passengers between San Francisco and the small village of Oakland, across the bay. If I recollect aright, the fare was 50 cents each way. It terminated - so far as traffic and settlement were concerned - exactly nowhere, in the desolate sand hills beyond where the Flood Building now stands. The "gore" streets, like Post, Geary and O'Farrell, that now pour a human tide into the city's big artery, were settled only for a few blocks westward; beyond that there was solitude. The roadway of Market street was an abomination even in the old days before "good roads" became a slogan. The sidewalks, if any, were wooden, and mighty poor at that.

I was about the first real estate investor, to which business I turned my attention, who realized in a sort of vague way that Market street had a future. I had a shrewd idea that the insistent plan for "Montgomery straight," on which so many based their hopes, was doomed to disappointment, but as I said in the last chapter, I saw a way out of the dilemma. With this in view, I began to pick up Market street frontage from First street west till I owned 800 feet. I also bought the Sutter-street gore, where the skyscraper has since gone up, at a public auction, paying $86,000 for the same in hard cash, which was considered a top price.

Meanwhile I was quietly buying a solid block of land straight through from Howard street to Market. It was broad enough to allow a wide street to be laid out in a line directly opposite to the ending of Montgomery, and thus change so many backyards into frontages on a fine thoroughfare - an extension of the city's crowded mart. I wasn't a prophet or the son of a prophet, but the enterprise looked good. Not only that, but it seemed certain to me that the extension of Montgomery street, once begun, either "straight" or at an angle, would be pushed ahead by the force of public opinion to its proper terminal, the waterfront of the bay.

Most of this immense property, outside of the Sutter-street gore, was gathered in at prices so pitifully small that they would test the credulity of the reader. Excepting one other piece of property, the total investment was less than $500,000, and the wretched buildings on it yielded a net income of 1 1/2 per cent, per month on this amount. However, this was looked on as a very poor return in those days when 2 1/2 per cent, per month, compounded with the regularity of fate, could be obtained on well-secured loans. The money market was considered easy when borrowers could be accommodated on those terms. It all seems like some Monte Cristo story, but let me tell the young, ambitious reader that there are just as splendid opportunities staring him in the face to-day just waiting to be taken into camp. The region around the Bay of San Francisco is destined, beyond a doubt, to become one of the greatest world centers of population, commerce, business and production. The possibilities have barely been touched. Take it as the judgment of a close observer, with wide experience, that now is the time to get on board-using, of course, sound common sense and intelligent foresight. If I were 25 instead of 76, I would like to give the public an object lesson of how to make money.

But I was a long time securing the Market-street frontage necessary to carry out my plans. How I finally succeeded is quite an incident, well worth recalling, although it is ahead of my story.

On the south side of Market street, exactly opposite the terminus of Montgomery street, stood a vacant fifty-vara lot, owned by a well-known old pioneer by the name of Selim Woodworth. I had bought sixty feet adjoining the church property where the Palace Hotel now corners. The Selim Woodworth lot was next to that. Now the owner had a very hard head and a rather topheavy idea of the value of anything he possessed. Off and on I was negotiating with Woodworth for more than a year and a half, sometimes personally, sometimes through a broker, but always ran abruptly against the same proposition. "If you want that property it will cost you precisely half a million. There is nothing further to be said on the subject. Let's turn the conversation to something else." Nobody could have been more courteous or more firm.

I had been bumping up against this brick wall so often and was so helpless to carry out my plans without the land in question, that I was on the very point of paying what was then a price out of all reason or proportion to existing values, when something happened to change Mr. Woodworth's estimates in a way quite novel and picturesque, from a business standpoint.

The earthquake of 1868 wasn't much alongside of its successor of 1906, nevertheless, it was quite a jolt. Some rattletrap buildings collapsed, many others were cracked from roof to foundation, an immense number of chimneys were overthrown and a few people killed. The most disquieting feature was that the earthquake didn't know when to stop. There was the first big damaging shock, but after that every ten minutes the earth gave a jolt quite hard enough to send multitudes scurrying into the streets. There was not an interval long enough to allow the average man to gather his wits. After a night of agony and suspense, most people were weak as kittens and speechless.

I went down town in the morning after the quake from my home on Rincon Hill. I really was not much disturbed after the first lurch, for I had read somewhere that the minor tremors succeeding the initial shock never need be apprehended. One of the first men I met in the business section was Selim Woodworth. He was carrying a handbag and his face showed evidence of mental strain. I asked him where he was going.

"Where am I going?" said Woodworth. "What a question to ask! Why, I am getting out of here before the earth swallows me up. When do you leave?"

I told him I didn't intend to leave at all, whereat a look of deep craft came over Woodworth's face. "Look here, Harpending," he said, "how about that Market street lot? Do you still want to buy?"

I laughed as if in scorn. "Who on earth," I said, "would want to buy a lot that may be a hole in the ground by night, reaching through to China. Besides, you have always been so unreasonable that no human being could deal with you."

"Well, make me an offer, anyway," he replied, "you will find me reasonable enough."

I pondered for a moment before I answered, "Well, I was thinking of offering you $150,000," I said, "but that's too much. Still, just to help you out in a neighborly way I might strain a point and give you - "

I never had time to finish the sentence. "Oh, for God's sake," yelled Woodworth, "don't screw me down at a time like this. Make it $150,000 and we'll close the bargain here."

We shook hands on the spot. Together we went to the Bank of California, where a formal contract for a deed to the property was drawn, and this, at Mr. Woodworth's request, was guaranteed by a high official at the bank. I deposited $150,000 in escrow. In due season the deed was sent on to Mr. Woodworth in Europe, was returned properly executed and the famous 50 vara lot passed into my hands.

This is the veritable story of how I acquired the frontage on Market street which enabled me to open New Montgomery street through my property to Howard. I was certain it would soon be extended to the bay and solve the problem of the 60's - "Montgomery South," At the Market street corners of the street I opened, the Palace Hotel and the Merchants' Bank, two of the finest buildings in San Francisco, now stand.

I made New Montgomery street, as it stands to-day, a free gift to the city of San Francisco, and it must remain a permanent record of my existence. I may add that I had to scatter numerous shekels among the "boys" before the gift was finally accepted.

Also, the earthquake literally shook $350,000 out of Selim Woodworth, which he would have received otherwise in a few days.

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