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Honest Harry Meiggs

by Gail MacGowan

Of the many dreamers, promoters, and con men who built Gold Rush San Francisco, perhaps none was as hard-working and well-liked as Henry “Honest Harry” Meiggs. Born in 1811 in New York, by his mid-twenties Harry had managed, through his own energy and abilities, to purchase a lumber mill in present-day Brooklyn.

Caught by a business downturn in the 1840s, Meiggs joined the throngs heading West. But before departing, the resourceful lumberman used his remaining funds to purchase a sailing vessel and load it up with lumber to ship around the Horn. Arriving in San Francisco in January 1849, he fetched a fabulous price for his cargo. With his profits he built a sawmill and a small wharf in North Beach. Then he traveled north and established a lumber company with a sawmill in present-day Mendocino. His regular shipments of lumber supported San Francisco’s overnight growth.

Meiggs soon married and built a home on Telegraph Hill. A handsome man well-liked and trusted by all, Harry Meiggs had a reputation for generosity to anyone down on his luck. Meiggs loved his adopted city, and in 1850 he was made an alderman. In 1854 he joined concert pianist Rudolph Herold in founding the Philharmonic Society of San Francisco and built the Music Hall at Bush and Montgomery Streets where the Society’s concerts and lectures elevated local cultural life.

Meiggs could not understand why the rapidly-growing city was expanding every direction but north. A wharf in North Beach would be closer for ships arriving through the Golden Gate than their current landing at the Montgomery Street pier. Buying up the inexpensive land in North Beach, he soon was the area’s largest landowner. He tried to interest engineers in digging a tunnel under Stockton Street to encourage traffic to North Beach. When the city fathers rejected that idea, Meiggs used his own money to grade Stockton and Powell Streets, extending them through the sand dunes all the way to North Beach. The cemetery at Powell and Lombard threatened to discourage North Beach development, so Meiggs had the bones removed to the new burial ground at present-day Civic Center. He also built a road from Montgomery around the foot of Telegraph Hill to the beach, using the dirt removed from that cut to fill in the North Beach tidelands.

Meiggs then built his North Beach pier, pushing it out from Powell Street a third of a mile into the bay until it reached into water deep enough for seafaring ships to dock. He christened his pier Meiggs’ Wharf and convinced saloon keeper Abe Warner to build an amusement establishment there called the Cobweb Palace to increase street traffic to the wharf. Then Meiggs subdivided his extensive North Beach landholdings and waited for buyers to help him recoup his investment.

At this point, the summer of 1854, the city suffered one of its frequent economic depressions. Few North Beach lots were sold. How was Meiggs to pay his high interest payments, property taxes, and street assessments? Trusted by all, “Honest Harry” got hold of blank city promissory notes, many already signed by the mayor. He began paying his debts with these notes, forging signatures when necessary and hoping that his North Beach lots would start selling before he got caught. Needing still more money, he began forging notes of private companies.

Finally, realizing he could not continue his shell game much longer, Meiggs bought a small brig, filled it with fine provisions, and announced he was taking his family on a pleasure cruise of the bay. On October 6, 1854, they sailed out of the Golden Gate – and on that same day the City learned he had left behind $1,000,000 in personal debts and embezzled $800,000 in city funds. This spelled disaster for numerous SF businessmen – by February of 1855, 20 of the 42 banks in San Francisco had been forced to close.

And Henry Meiggs? After stopping in Tahiti, he traveled on to Chile. There, through hard work and daring, he again parlayed a modest nest egg into a multi-million dollar fortune. He built the first railroad from Valparaiso to Santiago. That incredible engineering feat led to an invitation from Peru to build its railroad system, a spectacular accomplishment involving 800 miles of track, much of it still in use today. Meiggs once again became renowned for his generosity, and even began paying off his old San Francisco debts.

For Meiggs missed San Francisco. In 1873, near-ly twenty years after his abrupt departure, his friends persuaded both houses of the California legislature to pass a bill pardoning Meiggs and permitting him to return. However, when it arrived at the governor’s desk for his signature, the governor’s banker friend William Ralston recommended against the pardon. The bill remained unsigned, and Meiggs never again saw San Francisco. He died in Lima in 1877, rich and famous, but exiled from the city he loved.

Sources: The Magnificent Rogues of San Francisco by Charles F. Adams (1998) San Francisco Kaleidoscope by Samuel Dickson (1949) San Francisco Street Scenes by David B. Eames (1995)

Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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By 1865 when this photo of Meigg’s Wharf was taken, the City had grown north as Meiggs had envisioned.

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