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

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Chapter XVI.

Montgomery South Deal Comes to Notice of Ralston, Who Buys Quarter Interest in Real Estate Project.

Long before the events narrated in the last chapter a most important person became a character in this narrative. In one way or another, I had become quite a figure in the business world of San Francisco; I took a flyer at several things in a speculative line, always made money at my ventures, and was generally looked on as what we now call "a comer."

But it was entirely because of my large and peculiar real estate investments that I attracted the notice of the great central figure of California of that day - one who always wished to be associated with any of the large movements of his time.

Almost from the date when I first had money enough to make it inconvenient to carry it on my person I kept my account at the Pacific Bank, of which Governor Burnett was president. But I had watched the ascendant star of William C. Ralston as it put out of sight all the lesser luminaries. I had a young man's admiration for his dash, energy and success and I was pleased when I received a letter from the gentleman, saying that he would like to see me, at my convenience, at the Bank of California.

We met by appointment. I had known Mr. Ralston before in a purely casual way. This was the first time we had touched in business. He had a swift, offhand fashion of saying pleasant things - not flatteries, but things that put a man in good humor with himself; and thus he spoke to me of his desire to be abreast with the active men of the city, to be able to aid and co-operate with them. Then he had a word to say about my real estate ventures and in a very natural course led up to a general conversation on the subject.

Mr. Ralston's manner entirely won my confidence. Besides, we had a direct way of doing business then, quite different from the dark-lantern methods of today. I simply laid down my cards on the table, face up. I told Mr. Ralston exactly what I had in mind; that my purpose was to solve the great problem of "Montgomery South" in a new way; that I considered it a matter of vast importance for the city's future and one certain to bring fortune to the successful promoter.

Mr. Ralston listened with deep attention, with an occasional word or nod of approval. When I concluded he leaned back in his chair in a meditative way and thought a minute. "It looks like a noble game," he said at length. "Now, how would you like me for a partner?"

I was just a bit astonished at the proposition, but I was gratified that the financial autocrat of the Pacific Coast wanted to climb into my band wagon. The arrangements were made with less "jockeying" than now takes place over a thousand-dollar transaction. I made a complete statement of my investments, which Mr. Ralston accepted, and made me an, offer based on cost, plus a very handsome profit, for a quarter interest. I accepted also in an offhand way and deeds passed to correspond covering all my real estate involved in "Montgomery South." It was understood that we would stand together to push the new street through to the bay, and that in this project I should have the practically unlimited support of the Bank of California. Our holdings were merged into a corporation, known as the Montgomery Street Land Company.

Thus I became associated with this strange character, who has been dead almost forty years, yet whose name is still a household word to thousands and bids fair to be remembered long after those who pose as the truly great are asleep in forgotten tombs.

I spoke of Ralston as a "strange" character. But the adjective doesn't fit the case at all. There was just one Ralston in California. Perhaps his counterpart never lived before. It would be far beyond my powers to draw a sketch of a man so many-sided, but here and there some traits cropped out so prominent that they could scarcely miss the observation of a child.

Ralston had a marvelous head for business. The most difficult problems of finance were as simple to him as the alphabet and his mind cut through all perplexities and obstructions straight to the truth. Had he possessed a few less red corpuscles in his blood - been a plain, down-right financier, I am certain that he would have grown beyond the narrow environment of the Pacific Coast and become one of the world's money kings. But he had an odd supplement to the cold-blooded faculty of making money, a sort of richly Oriental imagination that looked far beyond the mere acquisition of a pile of cash.

For one thing, he had a passionate, almost pathetic love for California. He wanted to see his State and city great, prosperous, progressive, conspicuous throughout the world for enterprise and big things. I think it was this imagination, this ambition, that kept hurrying him into one big undertaking after another, many of which were way ahead of time. While he was stacking up money in one direction, with the skill of a great native-born financier, it was leaking out in various other ways for rolling mills, vast hotels, watch factories, woolen mills, furniture factories, and what not. It was only an ambition to say that San Francisco had the grandest and largest hostelry in the world that prompted him to build the Palace Hotel. And so on down the line. He tried to do everything, and, like others, failed in the end.

With all of his tremendous business activities, I could never think of Ralston except as a big over-grown boy. He had an elasticity and buoyancy of spirits very seldom seen beyond the teens and a youth's eagerness in the pursuit of pleasure. Nothing seemed to disturb his imperturbable good humor. He was at once the best winner or loser in the world-could pick up or drop a million with equal gaiety and nonchalance. He always smiled in conversation, but in moments of repose his features settled into an expression that was half thoughtful, half sad.

Where he shone most perhaps was as a "mixer." He had wonderful manners, frank, cordial, magnetic, and handed out the same quality to everyone alike. He avoided, either by design or inclination, all the pomposity and circumstance of greatness, even went out of his way to be extra gracious to those who seemed a trifle embarrassed in his presence. In this way he endeared himself to a small army of young men and to some of the still more youthful highbinders who used to visit the Bank of California and stand up the smiling financier for baseball club uniforms and other all-important incidentials upon which the fame and glory of California hung. As to the industrial classes, they simply worshiped Ralston. He was their constant provider, philosopher and friend. It seemed to me that he knew half of the working population by their first name, and he was known among them familiarly and affectionately as "Bill" Ralston. It is a sad commentary on human nature that in the hour of his misfortune the men he had enriched took to the tall timber. Only his humble friends proved true.

This only gives the faintest glimpse of Ralston. For years I was his intimate associate. He was a man of many friends and many business connections, but I think he gave his entire confidence to only two men, Maurice Dore and myself. In all our relations I always found him punctiliously honorable and truthful, and though the acquaintance was a costly one to me, I hold his memory in affectionate remembrance - as I did when I last saw him forty years ago.

And even admitting all that his traducers charge, after death had silenced his voice forever, I would still say that he deserved a statue in Golden Gate Park as the most effective friend the State of California ever had. But before I close this story I hope to make it plain that a cruel wrong was done his memory and let the truth come out at last.

President of Bank of California, the first dupe in diamond fraud.
William C. Ralston
President of Bank of California, the first dupe in diamond fraud.

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