By Mark Gutglueck
Byron Waters was born at Canton, Cherokee County, Georgia, on the 19th day of June, 1849, the youngest son of the three children of Henry H. Waters, who was born in Renssalaer County, New York, near the City of Albany, in the year 1819, and Frances (Brewster) Waters. His uncle, James W. Waters, was both a Second District and Third District supervisor in the early days of San Bernardino County.
Byron’s father, Henry Hawley Waters, was essentially self taught and at the age of twenty years went to Georgia, where he polished his education and taught school and gained an excellent knowledge of law, achieving admission to the bar of Georgia. In 1858 Henry Waters was appointed executive secretary to Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown, who whose son, Joseph M. Brown, afterward became governor. During the Civil War, Henry Waters retained the office of executive secretary to the governor and in that capacity, was loyal to the cause of the Confederacy despite his Yankee birth. He directed in large measure the military affairs of Georgia, holding the rank of colonel on the staff of the governor. He proved instrumental in mustering in thirty regiments for the Confederate service. In 1865, with the fall of the Confederacy, Governor Brown was deposed from office by the federal authorities and Henry Waters retired to a plantation in Coweta County, Georgia as the carpetbag political machine of the North was installed in the Peach State and the Ku Klux Klan rose from the underground.
Byron Waters, who was reared to the age of sixteen years in his native state and was afforded the advantages of its best private schools, in which he continued his attendance until the close of the war. The Waters family experienced serious financial reverses, as did nearly all others in the South at this time, and after leaving school young Byron worked for nearly three years in the cotton field on his father’s plantation. As a child and in his young manhood he had associates who were charter members of Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan. At that point, Byron’s father intervened, suggesting that Byron take a large store of cotton to market and utilize the proceeds to get the hell out of Georgia, leave the troubles and difficulties of Reconstruction behind him and sojourn to California, where Henry’s brother and Byron’s uncle was prospering.
Byron Waters came to California in 1867, at the age of eighteen years, where he began work in San Bernardino County as a cowboy on his uncle’s ranch in Yucaipa.
Punching cows was not what young Waters wanted to spend his life doing, and in April, 1869, he began the study of law in the office of Judge Horace C. Rolfe of San Bernardino. Later he continued his technical reading under the direction of Judge Henry M. Willis, also of San Bernardino. He was admitted to the bar in January 1871, and for the next fifty some years he was active in the practice of law in the various courts of the state of California but most predominantly in San Bernardino, retaining high prestige and distinction as one of the ablest members of the California bar as well as one of the most successful.
On December 31, 1872, he married Miss Louisa Brown, born on July 23, 1852, a native daughter of San Bernardino and one of the daughters of John Brown,
Sr. and Louisa Sandoval Brown, his wife. John Brown was the noted hunter and trapper from the Rocky Mountains who later established a toll road at the Cajon Pass. Louisa Sandoval Brown was a member of one of the distinguished families of Taos, New Mexico. They had nine children: Florence, Clara, Brewster, Sylvia, Frances, Helen, Emmett, Byron, Jr., and Elizabeth.
Byron Waters made his home and professional headquarters in San Bernardino. In 1881 he created and organized the Farmers Exchange Bank of San Bernardino, one of the leading financial institutions in the state. He was its first president, and held that office for several years.
In their 1922 book, history of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, John Brown, Jr. and James Boyd wrote, “During the formative period of the bank, he guided its affairs with a firm hand and with the utmost discrimination and progressiveness — showing the same characteristic energy and integrity that have marked his career in all its relations.”
An unwavering Democrat, Byron Waters remained loyal to the party even while California and San Bernardino County were dominated by a Republican majority. In San Bernardino County, at the age 28, he was elected in 1877 to the state legislature. At the ensuing session he became a recognized leader of his party in the Assembly, and before the close of the session he stood at the head of the lower house as a member of that body. “His reputation for talent and personal and official integrity brought about the following year, 1878, his election as a delegate at large to the State Constitutional Convention, and he had the distinction in this connection of receiving a larger majority than any other candidate for such representation
in the state,” according to Brown and Boyd. “Though he was one of the youngest members of that convention, Mr. Waters’ thorough knowledge of constitutional law, his exceptional power in debate, and his prescience as to future growth and demands won for him a commanding influence in the deliberations of that convention.”
In 1886, Waters was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the office of justice of the Supreme Court of the State of California. He was unable to overcome the far greater strength of the Republican party and was defeated by a small majority.
Waters was affiliated with the Masonic fraternity beginning in 1873. He was characterized as a liberal in his religious views.
Together with his uncle James W. Waters, Byron Waters was one of the early major developers in San Bernardino. The Waters family built both homes and business structures in and around the city. James W. Waters was in some fashion wholly or partially responsible for a large brick building on the northeast corner of Third Street and Arrowhead Avenue, a brick building on Third Street once used as a courthouse, a residence at Second and F Street and an Opera House on D Street. Byron Waters built two structures for his law offices and three residences, first a cottage on West Fifth Street early in life, later the large brick residence on Fourth Street opposite what was the Elks Club, and later a residence on Bunker Hill, where with his family he was residing in the 1920s.
Byron Waters established a splendid cabin on a 160-acre patch of ground at Seeley Flat, located at an elevation of one mile above sea level, twelve miles north of San Bernardino in the San Bernardino Mountains. The cabin was built on a knoll above a meadow nestled among the surrounding pine-clad hills. He took his family to the cabin during summer retreats, often inviting relatives and friends to join with them, providing a full measure of old fashioned Southern and California hospitality.
By the time of his retirement, Byron Waters’ list of cases presented before the Supreme Court of the state was one of the largest claimed by any member of the bar then active. Brown and Boyd said of Waters, that at the San Bernardino Superior Court “and other tribunals there stands to his lasting honor many noteworthy victories as an advocate of great strength and versatility. More than fifty-one years of consecutive devotion to the work of his profession have made Byron Waters one of its peers in the
state and the bar has been honored and dignified alike by his character and his services.”
Waters died in 1932 at the age of 83.
By Mark Gutglueck