By Mark Gutglueck
Richard Gird once owned a significant amount of acreage in western San Bernardino County, and his activities in his capacity as a land baron had a significant impact on the development of the Inland Empire in the late 1800s.
Born on March 29, 1836 in Litchfield, New York, Gird was the son of John Gird and Laura King. His paternal grandfather, Henry Gird, had migrated to New York from Wexford, at the southeastern coastline of Ireland. In New York, Henry Gird had operated a newspaper and also served as a colonel in the British army. Richard’s father, John, was born in Trenton, New Jersey. With his mother, Mary Smith, John left New York City and move to Herkimer County in 1812, where they inherited Cedar Lake Farm from Mary Smith’s family. Thereafter, John married Laura King, the daughter of Sylvanus King of Massachusetts, who claimed lineage from the Mayflower and whose line also included the first governor of the state of Maine.
John and Laura Gird had nine children who were raised on an estate that in 1850 was valued at $11,000. Their eldest son and Richard’s brother, Henry S. Gird, was among those who went to California during the Gold Rush, though he was likely not an actual 49er in that he did not depart until 1850. By early 1851, Henry Gird was living at Greenwood Valley in El Dorado County, not far from where James Marshall had discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma.
In 1853, Richard, then seventeen-years old, took a steamer from New York to the Isthmus of Panama, crossed to the Pacific side, contracting malaria en route, and caught another steamer to California, where he met up with his older brother in El Dorado County. Less than successful in the gold fields, the brothers moved to Sonoma County where they took up farming along the Russian River. Subsequently, Richard’s younger brother, Levi, sojourned to California. After Henry obtained property in the Alexander Valley northwest of Healdsburg and established the Gird Ranch there, Richard and Levi set up a farm in Geyserville, a little south of Henry’s spread, where they were joined by two of their sisters, Mary and Ellen.
When he was 21, Richard went to Chile, where in 1858 he engaged in the supervision of mining and railroad projects for Henry “Harry” Meiggs, a shipbuilder from New York, who had come to California where he captured a corner on the lumber market in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Meiggs invested his fortune in North Beach real estate. He was elected city alderman and, presuming on his brother’s status as San Francisco’s controller, utilized his official position to endorse some unissued city warrants, which he proffered as collateral on some loans to keep his real estate ventures from collapsing when the debt he had accrued outran the value of his holdings. After the forgery was discovered, Meiggs in 1854 departed, abandoning in the process his not insubstantial lumber interests in Mendocino, next turning up in Chile. Meiggs spent more than two decades there in the personage of a Chilean and Peruvian railroad baron, constructing rail lines financed with government bonds and loans, a portion of the proceeds from which Meiggs managed to siphon off to repay nearly all of the debt he had left behind him in San Francisco. Meiggs made intense efforts to rehabilitate himself in California, including prevailing upon the legislature to take up and pass Senate Bill 183, an act stating that “any court having jurisdiction… is hereby authorized and directed to order to be dismissed… any indictment that may have been heretofore or which may hereafter be found against Henry Meiggs.” The bill, passed in 1874, was vetoed by Governor Newton Booth. Still vulnerable to being prosecuted for embezzlement, Meiggs died in Peru in 1877.
Despite his affiliation and work with Meiggs, the young Richard Gird was under no such prohibition and he left Chile for New York in 1859. A short time later, he returned to Geyserville.
By 1863, Gird, having avoided conscription into the Union Army, was in the Arizona Territory, where there was intense speculation in mining. The first territorial census, taken in 1864, listed the 28-year-old Gird living in Olive City, one of among 19 residents in the La Paz Mining District, which is now a ghost town along the Colorado River across from Blythe, California. Gird worked as a surveyor, and was hired by the territorial government in that capacity. He is credited with drawing the first professional map of Arizona, which he completed in 1864. Gird then moved to San Francisco and established himself, in conjunction with his sister Ellen’s husband, Horace Martin, as a manufacturer of mining equipment, such as machinery and engines. Gird remained in San Francisco until 1872, returning thereafter to Arizona.
It was during his second residency in Arizona that Gird prospered spectacularly. He first worked in assaying, weighing gold ore and evaluating its purity, and engaged in superintending mining mills and furnaces, along with surveying, principally at the Signal Mining and Milling Company. In 1878, while prospecting in an unproven mining area in conjunction with two brothers, Al and Ed Schieffelin, the trio came across a fabulous lode of silver ore and ushered in the creation of the famed Tombstone mining district. Running the Tombstone Mining and Milling Company with East Coast funds obtained by former Arizona governor Anson Safford, Gird became fabulously wealthy. At the forefront of the mining operations there, he designed and built the first mill in the district and extruded the first bullion. Gird was the first postmaster and was elected the first mayor of the boomtown Tombstone. He was a man of peace, having nothing to do with the infamous violence associated with Earps and the Clantons. In 1880, Gird ran as a Republican for the Arizona Territorial Assembly, unsuccessfully. That year, he married Maine native Nellie McCarthy.
In 1881, Gird sold out his Tombstone mining interests for $800,000. He then went to Southern California in an effort to emulate the success of his landholding cousin, Henry H. Gird, a New York native transplanted and raised first in Louisiana and then Illinois, who went further west to California during the Gold Rush. Henry Gird acquired Rancho La Cienega, near Los Angeles, prospering there from about 1860 until the mid-1870s. In 1876, Henry H. Gird bought a ranch near Fallbrook and Bonsall in northern San Diego County and did quite well there.
In 1881, Richard Gird purchased the 37,000-acre Rancho Santa Ana del Chino and the “Addition to Santa Ana del Chino” from Francisca Williams Carlisle McDougal. Gird purchased an additional 9,000 acres, until his holdings included 47,000 acres, or 73.35 square miles. He and his wife moved into the Joseph Bridger residence, an adobe that later formed part of the clubhouse of Los Serranos Country Club, founded in 1925 in present Chino Hills and which was later briefly known as the Pomona Valley Country Club. For a number of years he utilized the rancho for the raising of livestock. He fenced a large portion of the rancho, and raised eight hundred horses and eight thousand head of cattle. He served on the California Board of Agriculture, experimented with many crops previously untried in Southern California and held fourth on farming in published articles and essays. He founded the Chino Champion newspaper.
Gird had energetic plans for the Chino area, including a sugar beet farm and sugar factory and a railroad, as well as a refinery for oil pumped from the ground near La Puente by the Puente Oil Company.
The sugar beet plantation, a cooperative which involved the Oxnard Brothers, Henry, Robert and Benjamin, at one point ranged to 2,500 acres. He put in the narrow gauge Chino Valley Railroad, which connected to the Southern Pacific’s transcontinental line at Ontario. He also set aside a forty-acre site for a University of California agricultural station branch.
The completion of a direct transcontinental railroad line to Los Angeles in 1885 led to heavy speculation in real estate during the following few years. In the midst of this regional financial upturn, Gird subdivided 23,000 acres of his ranch land, 35.9 square miles, into small ranches, and 640 acres, one square mile, into the townsite of Chino, assisted by his brother-in-law Horace Martin, his one-time San Francisco mining equipment company partner who subsequently had gone to Chicago where he was involved in civil engineering. Gird opened a bank and built a school. He indulged a passion for acquiring prize horses.
The Boom of the Eighties fizzled out in 1890. The Panic of 1893 created a national depression, which severely impacted Gird financially. This was exacerbated by a drought that hit the region.
Overextended financially, Gird was obliged to take out a $525,000 loan from the San Francisco Savings Union, which received a trust deed to the Chino Rancho. Gird, hoping for a quick national recovery from the depression, was looking forward to generating money from his vast holdings relatively quickly. When the recovery stalled, Gird was forced into the unthinkable to service the debt. In October 1894, Gird began to sell off the ranch land, but was able to raise just $75,000 in the sluggish and faltering economy.
In November 1894, Gird closed a deal with an entity known as the Chino Rancho Company to sell off 41,000 acres of the ranch for $1.5 million, payable in installments. The Chino Rancho Company was unable to generate sales to raise the capital it was committed to paying Gird, and that enterprise failed by the end of 1895. Ownership of the property reverted to Gird, who was still indebted to the San Francisco Savings Union.
In April 1896, a British syndicate functioning under the corporate guise of the Chino Beet Sugar Estate and Land Company, tendered a $1.6 million offer for the land. While this venture held much promise, like the one before it there was difficulty marketing the property and it collapsed. Once again, the Chino Rancho reverted back to Gird.
Because of his financial travails, Grid’s reputation was taking a hit. In a show of resentment toward him, Chino residents effaced his name from the cornerstone of the school he founded.
In time, prominent and well-fixed personages from the San Francisco Bay Area – Richard A. Clark; Henry A. Whitley; Samuel M. Samter; George A. Rankin; Arthur F. Allen; J. B. Reinstein; Jesse W. Lilienthal; I. J. Wiel; C. S. Benedict; and Phoebe Apperson Hearst – formed the Chino Land and Water Company. Hearst, the widow of Nevada silver mining magnate and U. S. Senator George Hearst as well as the mother of publisher William Randolph Hearst, was the major stockholder. She took it upon herself to pay off the San Francisco Savings Union. In a parallel action, the Chino Estate Company sold off Gird’s ranch assets. Having made his creditors whole and out from under the onus that the Chino Valley represented to him, Gird moved into semi-retirement to a home on West Eighteenth Street in Los Angeles, where he lived with his wife and younger brother, William. He dabbled, for a time, in mining speculation in Mexico.
In 1890, the Lewis Publishing Company of Chicago Illinois published An Illustrated History of Southern California, “embracing the counties of San Diego San Bernardino Los Angeles and Orange and the peninsula of lower California.” Richard Gird was among those profiled.
“The subject of this sketch was of studious habits and disposition, and made the best of his advantages,” the book states. “He devoted considerable attention to the study of mechanics and other scientific studies. Of an ambitious disposition and desirous of a more extended field of operations, he sought the far West, and when less than seventeen years of age, in 1852, he came by steamer to California.” After reciting Gird’s travels and accomplishments as a young man and his rise to riches in Arizona thereafter, the book states, “Upon his taking possession of his ranch, Mr. Gird began the extensive operations of developing and building up the Chino Valley. That has made the Chino ranch and Richard Gird household words in Southern California.”
The narrative continues, “Mr. Gird is a man of broad views, marked ability and sound business principles. His name is synonymous with honesty and straightforward dealing with all who know him, and his friends are legion. Aside from his enterprises at Chino, he has been connected with other industries and interests in the county. He is one of the original incorporators of the Farmers’ Exchange Bank of San Bernardino, and is vice-president of the same. He is also director in the San Bernardino National Bank. He is a strong supporter of churches and schools, and his purse is ever open to any call that advances the interests of either. In political matters he is a staunch Republican, taking a prominent part in the councils of his party. He has for years been a member of the county central committee, and was chairman of the same in 1884. In 1888 he was a member of the State Central Committee, and in the same year was elected alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention.”
Among Gird’s writings were articles authored on Tombstone for Out West magazine in 1907 and on sugar beet raising in the Land of Sunshine magazine in 1894 and the pamphlet Resources of California, produced for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
In 1910, at the age of 74, Richard Gird died in Los Angeles and was buried at Rosedale Cemetery.
By Mark Gutglueck