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Ephraim W. Morse (1823-1906)

ephraimmorseThis sterling pioneer is deserving of more space than the limits of this work allow: He was not only one of the earliest American settlers, but one of the most public spirited and active workers for the building of the new city.

Mr. Morse was born October 16, 1823, in Amesbury, Massachusetts. He was a farmer and school teacher until the discovery of gold in California, when he caught the fever and joined a company formed for the purpose of emigrating to the coast. “This company,” he said, “was intended to be, and was, a select company. No one could join without presenting satisfactory recommendations from the selectmen of the town, the mayor of their city, or some prominent preacher.” There were 100 of these associates. With their joint funds they bought the ship Leonore and freighted her with such goods as they thought would be salable. The constitution of the company was dated December 28, 1848, and stated that the organization was “for the purpose of buying and chartering a ship, and freighting her as the directors shall see fit, for the coast of California, and engaging in such trading and mining operations as shall be deemed most advisable. ” The capital stock was $30,000, divided into 100 shares of $300 each. Each member undertook to give his personal time and attention to the interests of the company, not to engage in speculation on his own account, nor to assume any pecuniary liability without the company’s consent, nor to engage in any game of chance or skill by which money might be lost or won, nor to use any intoxicating liquors unless prescribed by a physician, all under penalty of a fine. Members were to be sustained and protected in sickness and interred at the company’s expense in case of death. No stockholder was to be allowed or required to perform any labor on the Sabbath, “except works of necessity and mercy.”

This company of highly proper young men were chiefly friends and neighbors of Mr. Morse’s. Among their occupations were the following: Farmers, teachers, carpenters, clerks, bookkeepers, bookbinders, masons, seamen, hatters, blacksmiths, geologists, sail-makers, joiners, stair-builders, traders, moulders, brass finishers, machinists, soap-makers, truckmen, laborers, curriers, civil engineers, shoemakers, tailors, chemists, harness-makers, saddlers, and weavers. (This reminds one of the days of the Híjar colony.) Before sailing, they attended a special religious service at Tremont Temple, in Boston, where the Rev. Edward Beecher delivered an address full of solemn admonitions; he seemed to regard them as the leaven of a moral reformation, of which California stood particularly in need. Mr. Morse’s papers include a copy of a pamphlet containing this address, with a list of the passengers, and much other curious information.

The Leonora sailed February 4, 1849, and, after an uneventful voyage, reached San Francisco on July 5th. Here the ship and cargo were sold and the company dispersed to the mines, on the Yuba River. Mr. Morse had for a partner a man named Levi Slack. They found the hot weather and other climatic conditions trying, and after four or five months returned to San Francisco to recuperate. They had read Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, and also met a man who had lived in San Diego and told them something about its climate. The partners therefore concluded to come to San Diego, and to bring with them a “venture,” consisting of a stock of goods for a general store, a ready-framed house, etc. They came on the bark Fremont and arrived in April, 1850. Liking the place, they put up their house at Davistown and opened their store. The building was 20 x 30 feet, with an upstairs room, where they slept. Within a month after his arrival, Mr. Morse found his health completely restored. In 1851, he returned to Massachusetts by way of the Nicaragua route, having a stormy and adventurous trip, but arrived safely. He married Miss Lydia A. Gray, of Amesbury, and while preparing to return to California with his wife received news of the death of Mr. Slack and therefore hurried back to California, alone, leaving his wife to follow. He was absent all together six months, and returned in May, 1852. Mrs. Morse came out with Thomas Whaley and wife, the following year.

By April, 1853, the new town had begun to dwindle and, having an opportunity to become a partner with Mr. Whaley at Old Town, Mr. Morse removed to that place. They kept a general merchandise store in one of the adobe buildings on the plaza. In 1856 this partnership was dissolved and Morse kept his store alone for three years. He then disposed of his stock and went to Palomar to engage in stock raising and farming. In 1861 he returned to San Diego and again engaged in business as a merchant, in the old Rose House, beneath the Herald office, and was also agent for Wells, Fargo & Co.’s express. In June, 1869. he sold out his stock at Old Town to Philip Crosthwaite and removed to Horton ‘s Addition, taking the express office with him, much to the disgust of his old neighbors. From this time onward he was a resident and active worker for the new city.

In 1852, he was elected and served as associate justice of the court of sessions. He also became secretary of the board of trade and held the office twelve years. April 21, 1856, he was admitted to the practice of law. In 1858-9 heserved as county treasurer, and again in 1861-2-3. In 1866-7 he was city trustee and in the latter year was instrumental in selling the city’s lands to A. E. Horton. He had shown his faith in the new town by settling there upon his first arrival; and he now stood by Horton and did everything in his power to aid in building up the new addition.

From the time of his removal to Horton’s Addition he began to prosper and became a vital element in the life of the new town. In 1870 he was a leading spirit in the organization of the first bank in San Diego, the Bank of San Diego, which later was merged in the Consolidated National Bank, in both of which, as well as in the San Diego Savings Bank, he was continuously a director and officer. In 1871, he went to Washington city to represent San Diego in the matter of its pueblo lands, and argued the case with skill and ability. In company with James M. Pierce he built the handsome and substantial Pierce-Morse block on the northwest corner of Sixth and F Streets, and, in company with Messrs. Whaley and Dalton, the Morse, Whaley & Dalton block. At one time he was quite wealthy, but the collapse of the great boom hit him very hard, and he never fully recovered.

He was one of the prime movers in the organization of the San Diego & Gila Railroad and acted as a director and officer as long as the organization continued. He was also prominently connected with all other railroad projects from that time until his death, and probably knew the story of San Diego’s struggle for railroad facilities better than any other man. At the time the representatives of the Santa Fe came to San Diego, in October, 1879, he was secretary of the Citizens’ Committee, charged with the duty of furnishing the visitors with information. This duty he performed in a remarkably efficient manner, promptly producing everything called for, and answering all questions clearly and accurately. His associates testify that his great knowledge and untiring energy on this occasion were among the strongest elements contributing to the bringing of the railroad.

Among other activities, he was a member of the real estate firm of Morse, Noell & Whaley from 1880 to 1886, and for about a year longer of the firm of Morse, Whaley & Dalton. He was also connected with the San Diego Flume Company and made a considerable investment in it. He was public administrator in 1876-7. He had little taste for office, however, and only served when he felt it to be a duty. One of his greatest services was in connection with the park, which he was instrumental in having set aside. With characteristic steadfastness, he was a friend of the park to the end and stood up for its preservation and improvement, even when others weakened. He was a truly public spirited citizen, to whom no worthy enterprise or charity appealed in vain. He was an old and active Freemason and a member and officer of the first lodge formed in San Diego. He early learned the Spanish language and was regarded as a friend by the native population. Personally he was one of the most lovable of men, full of unaffected kindness and so unassuming that his real worth and the true value of his services were often not appreciated. He passed away on January 17, 1906, retaining his faculties in a remarkable degree to the last.

His first wife died at Old Town, in 1856. In 1865, while acting as school trustee (an office which he filled for several terms), he was instrumental in bringing here Miss Mary C. Walker, of Manchester, New Hampshire, to teach the Old Town school. The story of her troubles, and final resignation, has been told. On December 20, 1866, Mr. Morse and Miss Walker were married. By his first wife, he had one son, Edward W. Morse, who is resident of Merrimac, Mass.

[from Smythe, William Ellsworth. History of San Diego, 1542-1908. San Diego: History Co., 1907. (pages 280-284)]

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