By Mark Gutglueck
Relatively little of David Colton’s 47-year-long life was spent in San Bernardino County. Nevertheless, he left an indelible impression here, as he was responsible for bringing the railroad through the area and it was essentially his decision to lay the original regional rail line at the south end of the city of San Bernardino rather than into its downtown. That decision gave rise to the city that bears his name.
David Douty Colton was born July 17, 1831 in Monson, Maine to Isaac Watts Colton and Abigail (Douty) Colton. He had no brothers, but did have two sisters, Angela and Martha. His father was a farmer in north central Maine. In 1836 his family moved to Illinois, settling in Galesburg in Knox County.
He attended Knox Manual Labor College, now known as Knox College. During his freshman year, Colton proposed marriage to Ellen Mason White, the daughter of Dr. Chauncey and Maria S. (Brownson) White and a student in the women’s seminary on the campus of Knox. Ellen White turned down David’s proposal because, as he later said, her father considered him to be a young man without prospects.
Talked into it by a classmate, Hiram G. Ferris, David dropped out of college and left Galesburg in the Spring of 1850 and headed for the gold fields of California in a light wagon with three horses that Colton had purchased with a loan of a few hundred dollars from his father. The pair traveled to Council Bluffs, Iowa, then a Mormon settlement known as Kanesville, near the Missouri River. Kanesville was a popular outfitting point for those traveling westward by wagon train. Wanting to get to the gold fields as quickly as possible, and wanting to avoid the risk of cholera, a common and fatal disease among wagon trains, they decided to take their chances and crossed the remaining 1,500 miles on their own to California.
Leaving Kanesville on April 25, 1850, Colton and Ferris arrived at Placerville, nicknamed Hangtown, in El Dorado County, California on July 9. The following day they sold two of the horses for $190 and used the money to outfit themselves with mining gear. They did not immediately fare well. Eventually, however, their claim produced enough gold for Colton to repay the loan his father had made to him. Shortly thereafter, Colton contracted typhoid fever, which lasted six weeks and left him too fatigued to mine. He went to San Francisco and from there took passage to Portland in the Oregon Territory. There Colton joined a group of miners in an expedition into northern California that arrived at Yreka Flats in present day Siskiyou County, California.
Yreka Flats had its county seat in Shasta City. There was an absence of formal law enforcement, and miners gravitated toward their own method of summary justice that involved whippings and lynchings. The miners of the area initiated a county incorporation effort in the spring of 1851. That movement ultimately led to the election of David Colton as Siskiyou County sheriff.
An incident that led to his eventual selection as sheriff involved a group of Klamath Indians, who under the leadership of Chief Chinook, killed two miners. Colton later related to a newspaper reporter that he and a companion, not yet knowing of the murders, entered Klamath village and noticed Chief Chinook was wearing clothing and carrying firearms belonging to the miners. Colton and his companion surmised the miners must have been killed by the Indians, but they kept their silence and returned to camp. They informed the rest of the camp and a group of miners, including Colton, went in search of Chief Chinook and his band of Indians. They were found and a gun battle ensued. Several Indians were killed, but Chief Chinook escaped. Colton led two volunteers in pursuit and after a lengthy search, the chief was captured. While returning the chief to the miners’ Camp they came across a group of squawmen – white men cohabitating with Indian women. One of the men was a dangerous character by the name of Vail, who would later serve a term in prison. The squawmen threatened to free Chief Chinook, but under the cover of darkness later that night, Colton and his companions were able to skulk away with their captive. When they finally reached their camp, Chief Chinook was tried by a miners’ court for the murders, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
The hanging of Chief Chinook was riddled with miscues. A butcher’s gallows was used for the hanging. When none of the miners was willing to place the noose around the chief’s neck, another Indian was chosen to do so. Because he was somewhat shorter than the chief, to place the noose properly he had to climb on the chief’s back. The chief resisted by taking hold of the noose with his teeth. To assist, one of the miners braced his knee against the chief’s chest, and pulled the noose from his teeth, breaking some of the chief’s teeth. Upon the removal of the plank upon which the chief was standing, his foot caught on a rope supporting the plank. After much difficulty, the rope was cut and the execution was completed.
Siskiyou County was incorporated in 1852, at which time Ferris had joined his friend Colton at Yreka Flats. Together, Colton and Ferris would play important roles in the new government. The first county elections were held in May 1852. Ferris was elected county clerk and Colton, who had distinguished himself in the capture of Chief Chinook, was the choice for sheriff. At the age of twenty, however, he was too young to hold office. Charles McDermott was elected sheriff and Colton was made undersheriff. McDermott had little interest in being sheriff and David Colton performed most of the duties. At the next general election, Sept. 7, 1853, Colton, now old enough, was elected sheriff over two other candidates, receiving 827 out of 1,457 votes cast.
In December 1853 David Colton returned to Galesburg in Illinois at taxpayers’ expense, ostensibly to apprehend a fugitive and return him to California. Having established himself as a leading citizen of Siskiyou County, he again proposed to Ellen White and she consented. Their wedding was performed by the Reverend George Washington Gale at the local church, March 1, 1854. They returned to California by way of Panama in April 1854, but without the fugitive Colton was supposed to be pursuing. The fugitive had been in Sacramento all the time, it turned out. Nevertheless, Colton billed the state for $1,723 for expenses that were paid by an act of the state legislature.
David and Ellen Colton had two daughters, Helen, born in 1854, and Carrie, born eighteen months later in 1856. Helen would marry Crittenden Thornton, an attorney, who later became a justice on the state Supreme Court. Carrie married Daniel Cook, a prosperous mining engineer but died childless a few years after the marriage.
In 1855, Colton and Ferris, in partnership with three other men, purchased the first newspaper in Yreka, renaming it the Yreka Union. Initially it was agreed the paper would be politically independent but Colton and Ferris, being ardent Democrats, deviated from their stated ideal and the paper took on a decidedly pro-Democrat slant.
David Colton at that point acquired the rank of brigadier general in the Siskiyou Co. branch of the California State Militia. That brigade was organized in 1855, being composed of 75 men and staff officers. The most significant duty as a brigade occurred during the Modoc War of 1856 when several more miners were killed by Indians. The militia was activated and initiated a campaign of pacification. The total force amounted to about 200 men and included Colton’s 2nd Brigade. The war, consisting of a series of skirmishes in which the men provided their own horses, food and weapons, resulted in the death of three militiamen, the death of a Modoc woman during the destruction of a Modoc village and the wounding of several Modoc men. Peace was secured after Chief Schonchin agreed to restrain his people.
Toward the end of his term as sheriff in 1857, Colton ran for state Senate as the Democratic candidate, losing when his questionable journey to Illinois to get married at taxpayer expense became a campaign issue.
Colton was involved as a principal in three duels or near duels. The first arose from rivalry between local Democrats and Whigs. Colton and a southern Whig almost shot it out when Colton accepted the offer to duel. Hiram Ferris intervened, and the duel was called off. The second near duel had Colton as the challenger with his opponent for the state Senate in 1857. Whether the duel was ever fought or not is not known. The last duel occurred in early 1858 between the local coroner and Colton over an article that appeared in Colton’s Yreka Union. Because dueling was illegal in California, arrangements were made for the two men to face off in Oregon, just north of the California border, at forty paces with Mississippi Yager rifles. On the afternoon of February 9, 1858 their seconds and a host of spectators gathered but before shots were fired, friends of the combatants urged a reconciliation. His opponent withdrew and there is yet a dispute over who made the first peace offer.
In November, 1856, Hiram Ferris returned to Illinois. Having lost his bid for state Senate, Colton in 1858 departed to Albany, New York, where he studied law, reading the state’s civil and penal codes in the office of an already practicing attorney, a common form of legal education at the time. He struck up a partnership with another law student, Ralph C. Harrison, who had served in the Connecticut Legislature. After the completion of his legal studies, Colton, his family and Harrison moved to San Francisco. Colton brought a law library he had purchased in Albany and was authorized to practice law in California by the state Supreme Court on October 3, 1859. Shortly thereafter, he and Harrison entered into a joint law practice in San Francisco. Harrison handled most of the legal work while Colton devoted his energies to politics and business dealings. “Why sit around waiting for a $50 fee when a smart trader can go out and make $500 in half the time?” Colton said.
Through many transactions, David Colton ultimately became a wealthy man. At the same time, the Democratic Party in California, of which he was a part, lost much of its power and backing as a result of the Civil War. In the gubernatorial campaign of 1863, the party split into two wings, the Colton Party, so called because of a movement to endorse David Colton for governor or as a US Senator, and the Buchanan/Breckenridge faction. Slavery was a big issue dividing the party. When Colton called for a state convention, only a dozen supporters showed up. Three hundred had been expected. Recognizing that the Democratic Party had dwindled away to next to nothing in the political atmosphere of slavery and the Civil War, David Colton withdrew from active involvement in state politics, but remained a Democrat until he died.
In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, the Colton family left San Francisco for a two year vacation, traveling through England, Europe, Turkey, Egypt and the Holy Land. While Colton had experienced political disappointment during the Civil War years, his mining and real estate investments proved to be highly profitable. He was president and major owner of the Amador gold mine, which yielded a half-million dollars annually and his San Francisco properties brought in rents totaling $3,000 monthly.
In 1872 Colton built a stately mansion on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Located on the northwest corner of California and Taylor Streets, it was built on a half city block at a cost of $75,000, it was constructed of wood and painted white, patterned after a white marble palace in Italy. The interior was decorated with works of art and antique furniture acquired during his two year travels and contained a large library stocked with works of English literature. The house became something of a showplace and several architects and artists considered it to be one of the most artistic dwellings in San Francisco. It was recognized as “the second grandest” dwelling in San Francisco, the nicest being that of his neighbor, Charles Crocker, the banker who had been one of the Big Four – himself, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington. The Big Four had built the Central Pacific Railroad, which when it jointed the Union Pacific in Promontory, Utah in 1869 formed the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. They became fabulously wealthy in the process. Colton and Crocker became acquainted and, in time, friends and business associates.
In 1870, Colton accompanied Crocker to the Rocky Mountain Coal & Iron Co. in Colorado. Crocker’s intent was to get Colton to invest in the yet undeveloped company. Colton recognized the potential, with trains needing coal for fuel, and he told Crocker he would invest in its development. Crocker offered him the presidency and general managership if he bought 1,000 shares of stock. Colton accepted and became president and general manager in January, 1871. Over the next few years Colton developed the company into an efficient and profitable source of coal for the railroads.
In 1874 Colton joined a group of Nob Hill residents securing a franchise from the city to construct and operate a cable car up California St. to the top of Nob Hill.. The project was completed in April, 1878 and the cable car proved to be one of the most successful ventures in the city.
Based upon his dialogues with Crocker and his success with the San Francisco cable car line and the coal mining venture, Colton thought he could himself become a railroad magnate and that the Big Four would become the Big Five, with him as the fifth member.
In 1874, after the panic of 1873, Colton became associated with the directors and principal stockholders of the Central Pacific R.R. He signed a promissory note for $1,000,000 payable in gold coin, and in exchange was made a co-director of the most powerful corporation in the American West and gained the opportunity to share in the financial profits. On August 30, 1875, he was elected a director of Central Pacific R.R. and the following day he was appointed the company’s financial director. Eventually he was detailed to work on projects related to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had been purchased by the Big Four in 1868 and merged with the Central Pacific in 1870. Colton worked tirelessly in his capacity with the newly-formed company, overseeing the effort to build a second transcontinental railroad, one that converted the track from the railroad once controlled by the Confederacy and which would represent a southern route into the lower part of California with a dual terminus in Los Angeles and San Diego. Meanwhile, the Big Four reaped the rewards of his efforts without engaging in anywhere near the level of effort he was making.
As vice president of the Southern Pacific R.R., in October 1874 Colton attended a meeting in San Bernardino, with Crocker. Residents there wanted the railroad to pass through the city but a line through the county seat would have been off the most direct route and prohibitively expensive to maintain. A stretch of land southwest of San Bernardino was the most likely site for the location of a Southern Pacific train station and so it was the town of Colton came to be. The townsite is said to have been named Colton by officials of the railroad in honor of David Douty Colton.
On August 1, 1875, a Southern Pacific train, the first to enter the San Bernardino basin, arrived at the new station house at the foot of present day 9th Street in the city of Colton, and as a town, the place was in business.
In August 1878, David Colton, then in residence at his Mount Diablo Ranch, sustained an injury while riding a young, unruly horse, which rolled over on him. At first, the injury was thought to be minor and his wife and daughter Carrie left for a planned trip to New York. The injury, however, involved ruptured blood vessels which eventually produced abscesses. Doctors opened three of the abscesses hoping they would heal, but the operation resulted in blood poisoning. During the next few hours his condition deteriorated. Mrs. Colton and Carrie were advised by telegram to return to San Francisco as quickly as possible. Ralph Harrison, Colton’s former law partner, was summoned to draft a will. Colton hung on for several weeks, and at one point seemed to rally, but he took a turn for the worse and it became apparent to his doctors that recovery was hopeless. Several of his closest friends kept vigil around his deathbed in the second floor bedroom of the Colton Mansion in San Francisco.
He lapsed into unconsciousness. In October his vital signs were so weak the doctors had difficulty determining if he still lived. On Wednesday, October 9, 1878 he was pronounced dead.
In death, Colton would have almost as much of an impact on California history as he did in life. The Big Four had outmaneuvered him, holding out the promise of riches and a place at the table for him as a full partner, but ultimately withholding that prize. The Big Four never became the Big Five. Instead, his legacy was that Colton, one of Southern California’s railroad towns, would be named after him. To this day, Colton remains a railroad town, with numerous railroad overpasses that would require a billion dollars or more in today’s dollars to replicate. After his death, his wife, attempting to extract from the Southern Pacific Railroad that portion of her husband’s holding she felt were due her, ended up in a protracted legal battle against the Big Four and their heirs. Ultimately, she failed in her effort to obtain one fifth of the company and its profits. In the course of the litigation, she had entered into evidence letters sent to her husband from Collis Huntington. Many of those letters revealed the degree to which Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington and Stanford routinely used bribery as a tool, particularly with regard to the California and Arizona Territorial legislatures to achieve their ends. An enterprising newspaper publisher – William Randolph Hearst – gave the letters prominent play in the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Journal. The result was that the Big Four’s reputations – particularly those of Stanford and Huntington – were trashed. In response, Stanford and his wife founded Stanford University, ostensibly named after their deceased son, as a ploy to rehabilitate the Stanford name. And Henry Huntington, Collis Huntington’s nephew and heir, established the Huntington Library, likewise to resurrect positive associations, rather than negative ones, with the Huntington name.
By Mark Gutglueck