Last Bonanza Kings: The Bourns of San Francisco.
By Ferol Egan. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998. Photos, notes, sources, and index. 289 pp. $37.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Michael Magliari, Associate Professor of History, California State University, Chico, author of two articles on California Populism in the Pacific Historical Review (Nov. 1989 and Aug. 1995), and author of a forthcoming biography of San Diego County pioneer Cave Couts, the owner of Rancho Guajome near Mission San Luis Rey.
Best known for his books on John C. Fremont and the El Dorado Trail, western historian Ferol Egan’s latest work is a dual biography of San Francisco mining magnates William Bowers Bourn I (1813-1874) and William Bowers Bourn II (1857-1936). Drawing heavily from the Bourn family papers and related manuscript collections at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, Egan offers a detailed glimpse at two of the more prominent but lesser known financiers of the nineteenth century American West.
William Bourn I was already a successful merchant when he left New York in 1850 for gold rush California. A shrewd businessman, Bourn did not waste any time toiling in the diggings. Instead, he remained in San Francisco and commenced mining the miners as a store owner, banker, and investor. By 1866, Bourn was president of both the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company and the Imperial Silver Mining Company of Gold Hill, Nevada. Over the next three years, he added to his growing fortune with a series of lucrative investments in eastern Nevada’s White Pine mining district. Finally, in 1869, Bourn capped his career by gaining control of the fabulous Empire Mine in Grass Valley, California.
Bourn’s charmed life came to an unexpected and tragic end in 1874 when, whether by accident or design, he shot himself to death in his San Francisco mansion. Five years later, his son and successor, William Bowers II, assumed command of the Empire Mine and vigorously set about restoring the “Bourn Luck.” This he did by installing his capable cousin George Starr as superintendent of the Empire, while he concentrated on buying up and consolidating San Francisco utilities. By 1902, Bourn was president of the San Francisco Gas and Electric Company which, three years later, merged with its last remaining rival to become Pacific Gas and Electric.
Having helped create one monopoly, Bourn moved quickly to capture another. In 1908 he secured a majority interest in the Spring Valley Water Company. A huge firm with dams, reservoirs, and pipelines scattered throughout five Bay Area counties, Spring Valley controlled San Francisco’s water supply for nearly seventy years.
To break its hold, progressive reformers led by mayor James D. Phelan hatched the controversial Hetch Hetchy plan in 1901 to tap the waters of the Sierra and build a publicly owned reservoir in Yosemite National Park. An epic struggle ensued that pitted city officials against environmentalist John Muir and plutocrat William Bourn. The city eventually prevailed, and Hetch Hetchy water began flowing to San Francisco in 1934. Meanwhile, Spring Valley had already capitulated and sold out to the city for $41 million.
Bourn was largely out of the picture by then. A massive stroke in 1921 left him incapacitated and he spent most of his final years quietly confined at Filoli, the extravagant country estate built for him in San Mateo County by the celebrated architect Willis Jefferson Polk. Like the Empire Mine “Cottage,” the Sunol Water Temple, and the other Polk structures commissioned by Bourn, Filoli stands today as a monument to this “Last Bonanza King.”
Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Ferol Egan’s new book. Readers expecting the quality of Egan’s previous works will be disappointed and dismayed by Last Bonanza Kings, which reads like a very rough draft. Excessive use of the passive voice makes for extremely dull prose, as does the constant repetition of facts, phrases, and trivial details. To cite just two typical examples: readers are told three separate times that William Bourn I was a “tall, handsome” man (pp. 9, 24, 69) and are informed on three more occasions that the headframe of the Empire Mine stood ninety-four feet tall (once on p. 62 and twice on p. 135).
A much more serious problem is the nearly complete lack of historical analysis, which is reflected in the book’s very title. While the sobriquet “Last Bonanza King” is a fair description of the junior Bourn, it does not fit Bourn senior at all. Had Egan consulted Richard Peterson’s The Bonanza Kings, he would have realized that the elder Bourn was hardly the last of the great western mining moguls. Peterson’s book, however, never appears in Egan’s endnotes (and Egan provides no bibliography–yet another problem).
Egan’s repeated failure to consult other historians and to properly develop relevant historical contexts causes him to accept at face value almost everything he finds in the Bourn papers. The absence of critical perspective is most striking in his one-sided account of Hetch Hetchy. Here, Egan actually argues that Bourn’s opposition to the project was based on his desire to protect “his beloved Yosemite” and to “halt this desecration of Yosemite National Park”! (p. 179)
While Bourn may well have had some genuine feelings for Yosemite, his coupling with John Muir was much more an affair of strange bedfellows than like minds. One would never understand this from Egan, however, since he never discusses the Progressive era or the motives of urban reformers who condemned monopolists like Bourn. Unfortunately, such a discussion might require removing the halo from around William Bourn’s head, something Egan is reluctant to do since, in the final analysis, he seems more interested here in hagiography than biography.