I recently finished reading Towers of Gold: How One Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California by Frances Dinkelspiel, and I have to say I’m a bit jealous. Isaias Hellman is the great-great grandfather of Ms. Dinkelspiel. It’s not just anyone who can claim ancestory to a man who almost single-handedly birthed the state of California. While I’ll admit that it took many, many people to birth the great state of California….Isaias Hellman’s contributions cannot be denied.
The book is well written. It kept my interest with stagecoach robberies, an assassination attempt, bank runs, the 1906 earthquake, and is the final product of eight years of research during which Ms. Dinkelspiel poured over more than 50,000 archival documents.
Isaias Hellman isn’t just an American who should be taught about in a course including California history, but he should be included in courses that include early immigration, growth of the west, growth of early cities and towns, Jewish contributions to the making of America, and 19th century financial American History.
So, just who was Isaias Hellman? Well, you really need to read the book for a clear picture, but here are a few facts:
1. Isaias Hellman was a Jewish immigrant from Reckendorf, Bavaria. He immigrated to Los Angeles in 1859, a few years after California being admitted to the Union.
2. In fact, at the time Hellman reached California the U.S. territory was still heavily entrenched in Mexican culture…..Pueblo type buildings and the rules of Spanish society were the norm.
3. Today, Hellman is thought to be one of the greatest Pacific Coast financiers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Library Journal advises [Hellman] is attributed with stabilizing the financial panic of 1893 in Los Angeles by stacking $500,000 worth of gold coins on the counter of the Farmers and Merchants Bank in plain public view, hence the title of [Ms. Dinkelspiel’s] book.
4. He founded one of the territory’s first banks which later became the Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank. Ms. Dinkelspiel advises at the height of his power in the early 20th century, he controlled more than $100 million in capital and served as president of 14 other banks.
5. Because of his financial backing Hellman was instrumental in developing at least seven other industries that shaped California: transportation, oil, electricity, land development, water, wine, and education.
6. He controlled the California wine industry for almost twenty years, and helped develop the famous Pacific Electric red cars that crisscrossed the Los Angeles region. Hellman was also involved in agriculture raising oranges, walnuts, and lemons at Rosemeade…the Hellman Ranch.
7. Hellman was the president of the first synogogue in Los Angeles.
8. He was very involved in the founding of the University of Southern California by donating land the college sits on today, and he served as Regent for many years for the University of California.
9. Following a move to San Francisco, Hellman opened Union Trust Company, the first trust company in California. He also was involved with the Nevada Bank which later became Wells Fargo Bank.
10. During tough times it was Hellman that kept Californians moving ahead. Following the 1906 earthquake Hellman ran the Wells Fargo Bank out of home when the building that housed the bank was damaged.
11. Sugar Pine Point State Park at Lake Tahoe was originally a Hellman home before it was donated to the state.
12. San Francisco Magazine states visionary financier Isaias Hellman was the Warren Buffet and Alan Greenspan of early California rolled into one. He arrived in Los Angeles as a practically penniless, 16-year-old German Jew when there were only 300 other Europeans in town. Three decades later, he controlled much of the booming city’s capital, land, and public works….Hellman starred in so many aspects of the state’s phoenixlike rise between the Civil War and the Depression that he became our Zelig, only with a really thick portfolio.
13. The San Francisco Gate states the book is a carefully researched and superbly written memoir…Dinkelspiel’s biography not only brings to life the transformation of California into the state with the strongest economy in the nation, and the outside personalities that forged it, but rescues from the proverbial dustbin of history the remarkable life and achievements of a man whose energy, creativity, resourcefulness and love for his adopted country had been all but forgotten.
If you are looking for a great biography to read then I suggest you give Towers of Gold a try.
Other bloggers are posting their 13 lists today as well. You can locate them here.