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Grass Valley’s William Bourn helped to rebuild San Francisco

Gage McKinney
Special to The Union

In the depths of the crisis provoked by the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, William Bourn of the Empire mine found new depths within himself.

Their wealth as owners of the richest gold mine in California put William and Agnes Bourn in the class of Americans depicted in Henry James’ novels. They traveled regularly to Europe, refined their tastes in Paris and Rome and restored their energies in Alpine resorts. When the seismic upheaval struck the Pacific Coast in the early morning of April 18, 1906, the Bourns were in Monte Carlo, France.

The following day Agnes Bourn noted: “We learn the news of the earthquake and fire at home.” William Bourn cabled the money he had won at a casino to family members in San Francisco. He bought tickets for the next train to Paris and then the next ship to New York.

As they traveled west, the Bourns read of the disaster in newspapers and began to comprehend the fury of the earthquake, which left a path of destruction from Santa Cruz to Fort Bragg, 20 to 40 miles wide and 400 miles long. They learned fire had obliterated four square miles of San Francisco.

After docking in New York, the Bourns traveled overland four days by train. They rode a chartered Nevada County Narrow Gauge train from Colfax to Grass Valley, and finally arrived at their country house, the Empire Cottage.

Though they traveled as speedily as possible, the Bourns didn’t get to the ferry pier in Oakland until nearly three weeks after the earthquake. “One does not realize the awful calamity from the Bay,” Agnes wrote. The full devastation appeared after they disembarked at the Ferry Building, which stood reinforced by scaffolding, and looked up Market Street, where landmarks had fallen into rubble. The Bourns’ home on Webster Street had survived, but it was little consolation. Agnes Bourn would never be comfortable there again.

With workers and horse-drawn wagons clearing debris, carpenters hammering as long as daylight and necessities in short supply, San Francisco wasn’t livable. The Bourns spent most of 1906 in Grass Valley. The Empire Clubhouse, recently completed, provided an outlet for William’s pent-up energies. He played ferocious tennis and learned to play billiards with the goal of whipping his teacher, his cousin and mine manager George Starr. All the while he was preoccupied with San Francisco.

Bourn’s guests that summer included business leaders and architects. He helped rally support for “the Burnham Plan,” a proposal for rebuilding San Francisco into a city of broad boulevards and civic plazas. He was determined to defeat what he considered the petty interests who wanted nothing more than to return to business as quickly as possible.

“He dreamed only grand dreams,” wrote Ferol Egan, Bourn’s biographer, “for to him small dreams were the nightmares of small minds and the currency of corruption.”

Bourn found his personal role in rebuilding the Spring Valley Water Company, which supplied water to the city. Previously he had merely invested in the company, but he now sought to control it. He recognized some of the firm’s infrastructure had been damaged by the quake and needed rebuilding. But after inspecting the company’s facilities, including its reservoir at Crystal Springs, he believed he had found both a business opportunity and a way to contribute to a new, imperial city.

Another opportunity arose after Bourn was elected president of the Pacific Union Club. He spearheaded the building of the elite organization’s headquarters on Nob Hill. He also helped to rebuild an Episcopal Church. Bourn’s efforts depended on the Empire mine, which generated substantial profits throughout the decade of rebuilding.

During that decade, Bourn became a controversial figure after a newspaper accused his water company of profiteering. His views of society were controversial, too, and would never prevail. He believed in a meritocracy, led by men like himself, though not merely wealthy men. He believed in men of character who thought of the commonweal.

In Bourn’s view hardship shaped men and women. “It is not the joys of life that upbuild character,” he wrote. “Sorrow, or the appreciation of responsibility, chastens characters and lifts human nature to higher levels of thought and emotion.”

As San Francisco overcame its hardships, Bourn wanted to celebrate the city’s rise from the ashes. He was an early contributor and helped to plan the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. As financial chair, he wrested donations from the wealthiest San Franciscans. The great exhibit opened in 1915.

When his world plunged into crisis, Bourn found opportunity. The earthquake and fire propelled William Bourn to become more than a wealthy mine owner. He became a great man by helping to rebuild a great city.

Writer and historian Gage McKinney volunteers at the Empire Mine State Historic Park. For information on his books visit http://www.gagemckinney.com.


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