David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Nothing Seemed Impossible: William C. Ralston and Early San Francisco. By David Lavender. Palo Alto: American West, 1975. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 415 pages. $12.95.
Reviewed by Dr. Norman E. Tutorow, Owner, Golden State Realty, Los Altos, California. Author of Leland Stanford: Man of Many Careers (1971); coauthor with Don E. Fehrenbacher of California: An Illustrated History (1968); author of numerous articles on California history, Leland Stanford, and the Mexican War.
In his inimitable style, at once recognized by the readers of his dozen and a half earlier books, David Lavender here tells the life story of one of nineteenth-century San Francisco’s most legendary characters, William C. Ralston, one of the Golden State’s financial wizards to whom “Nothing Seemed Impossible.”
Even before twenty-five year old Billy Ralston-Toppie, as he was known in those days-sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1851 as captain of the New Orleans, he had acquired an extraordinary education in high finance in Panama, where he worked for Cornelius Vanderbilt. Once in California, he struck out in all directions to find avenues for expressing his many talents and boundless energies. At one time or another he had his hands in shipping, railroading, mining, the telegraph business, steamships, woolen mills, sugar refineries, furniture factories, and banking. It was in this last enterprise, capped off by his founding of the Bank of California, that Ralson finally found his niche. But his detractors were quick to point out everytime the Bank had to weather another of its frequent storms that he failed to give it his undivided attention. As Lavender observes, spreading himself too thin was one of Ralston’s greatest faults.
At times, Ralston seems only peripherally involved in his many enterprises, moving about as a phantomlike figure in the background. But for the sake of being comprehensive, his biographer must delineate his role in the Chivalry wing of the Democratic party, the discovery and development of the Comstock Lode, the management of the California Steamship Company, and the great diamond hoax, to point up but a few of the topics sometimes skimmed, sometimes scrutinized in agonizing detail.
Lavender spares no pains in probing Ralston’s private life, particularly as it involved his marital relations, which, at best, were seldom ever more than cordial. The Ralston couple was never really happy together and consequently found countless reasons for spending considerable time apart. Mrs. Ralston traveled extensively and often, but even while at home was never short on excuses for being absent from their Belmont and San Francisco mansions. On several occasions separation or even divorce seemed imminent.
In 1875, with his financial empire lying in ruin, Ralston was forced to admit to being nearly $10,000,000 in debt and that the Bank, largely as a result of his mismanagement, owed almost half that amount. Lavender says that Ralston was blinded by his inordinate desires and that he frequently overdrew funds for his own use; on at least one occasion, he engineered in the midnight hours an illegal gold transfer between the Bank and the United States Mint to present to government auditors a favorable picture of solvency. At a time when he sorely needed only a modicum of success to restore his sagging self-confidence, though it would have taken little short of a miracle to shore up his crumbling fortunes, everything he touched turned to ruin. Had death not claimed him when it did, his biographer says, he probably would have faced criminal prosecution. Ralston’s accidental drowning in 1875 when he was forty-nine years of age could not have come at a more propitious time, leading many gossips to whisper “suicide,” though, as the author shows, there was nothing to the rumor. But propitious it was, following immediately upon the heels of financial ruin that was almost certain to end in public disgrace.
David Lavender is one of America’s most widely-read popularizers of history, a talent little appreciated and generally resented by historians. Despite his frequent use of qualifiers — “probably,” “likely,” “possibly” — intended to plug gaps in our knowledge of Ralston’s life, this reviewer is most favorably impressed by the author’s sound judgment, his bibliography of two hundred entries, which reflects the thoroughness of his research, and his judicious use of almost six hundred footnotes. Lavender does not try to prove bizarre theses or offer new, scholarship-shaking interpretations; rather, he tells a story, and that, after all, is what the craft of history is all about.
Despite Lavender’s witty style and his ability to turn an expression to its greatest advantage, this is not an easy book to read. His use of one hundred forty illustrations lends some visual interest and diversity to what could very easily have become a tedious book, laden as it is with hundreds of statistics and colorless facts, but the reader must still be a serious student of California history. He must study the book — not merely peruse it — if he wants to appreciate the man Ralston and the remarkable job done here to immortalize him. I can say without hesitation that the journey from cover to cover is well worth the effort.