Sarah Kidder She ran the Narrow Gauge Railroad for ‘Twelve Golden Years’
By Maria E. Brower
Special to The Union
She had big shoes to fill. Her husband was was a prominent businessman and community leader – a mine owner, land developer, a leader in the Republican party, member of the Yosemite Commission, California Debris Commission, Exalted Ruler of the Grass Valley Elks, and the president of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad.
At his burial service he was eulogized as “the most important man to the welfare and progress of Nevada County…” Before his death on April 10, 1901, John Flint Kidder, Sarah’s husband of 27 years, signed over his 1,844 shares of stock by deed of gift, leaving her three-fourths of the capital stock in the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Not quite a month later, May 7, at the annual meeting, Sarah was elected president by a majority vote of 2,345 shares voting out of a possible 2,502.
The first few years were rocky ones, and one of the first issues Sarah had to deal with was a claim against the railroad by the son of John Kidder’s former mining partner and friend, George Fletcher, who became secretary and treasurer of the railroad and kept sole custody of the books.
Ironically, both Fletcher and John Kidder died within a few weeks of each other.Fletcher’s son claimed that on his father’s deathbed, he had told his son that he and Kidder jointly owned the stock.
The case did not go to court until 1904, and in testimony, John C. Coleman, friend and prominent Grass Valley mine owner, furnished proof of payments and letters he had saved from John Kidder. Thus, Fletcher was unable to prove the allegations.
In the late 1880s, Kidder had built a new house for his family on Bennett Street. Sarah and John, not being blessed with children of their own, adopted Beatrice, a niece of Sarah’s, who lived in the house along with their servants. The residence was at the corner of Bennett Street and Kidder Avenue overlooking the works and offices of the Narrow Gauge Railroad in Grass Valley.
The three-story home had 18 rooms and rare woods, marbles and metals were imported from around the world. The home was said to be the finest of its kind in the city at the time, costing about $10,000.
The grounds contained cement walkways and arbors, and the orchard was planted with all varieties of fruits, many of them rare, along with beautiful flower gardens.
Kidder had developed a piece of land known as the Townsend tract into the Kidder tract and turned it into a residential neighborhood where many of the finest homes in Grass Valley would be built in.
Sarah was known throughout the county as a gracious hostess, and the Kidders frequently entertained friends as well as dignitaries from around the country in their home on Bennett Street.
It would become known as the Kidder Mansion. and Sarah’s stylish home was one of the last of the Victorian queens of that era of elegance to be torn down in Grass Valley after falling into disrepair due to many years of neglect.
Overnight, Sarah’s daily duties changed from housewife and hostess to being the only women in the U.S., possibly the world, to ever run a railroad.
Although her tenure may have been rocky in the beginning, the years that Sarah Kidder was running the railroad were known as the “Twelve Golden Years.”
She was able to pay off $79,000 in funded debt, paid $184,122 interest on that debt and declared $117,000 in dividends on the stock, and added $180,000 to the undivided surplus.
She had steadily improved the railroad until it was said to be a showpiece of its kind, and her years of management led the railroad into its greatest prosperity.
Financial men in San Francisco gave her unreserved admiration for her ability and success as a competent and professional businesswomen. In contrast, her husband (who was a brilliant businessman) had paid off $14,000 in debt and paid no dividends while he served as president for 18 years. Sarah gave her resignation as president on May 6, 1913.
The following day at a special meeting, all the directors resigned. Sarah Kidder was one of the most notable women in Nevada County history. She came to California as a bride and died at age 94 in September 1933 in San Francisco.
Maria E. Brower is a local researcher and is a member of both the Nevada County Genealogical Society and Nevada County Historical Society and works at the Doris Foley Historical Research Library in Nevada City. The Nevada County Historical Society normally meets the last Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at the transportation museum in Nevada City. On Sunday, May 18, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., the public is invited to attend the grand opening of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad & Transportation Museum, #5 Kidder Court. Call (530)470-0902 for more information.
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