Some of the early immigrants to San Francisco were criminals, hustlers and con artists. Some were men of great vision whose efforts transformed the landscape.
Henry Meiggs was both.
Born in the Catskills in New York state in 1811, Meiggs had already won and lost fortunes in his lumber business in Brooklyn by the 1840s. He came to the Gold Rush in 1849 with a ship full of lumber that he sold for a profit of $50,000. Meiggs realized real estate was more profitable than lumber and made large profits in the development of North Beach. Flush with money, he built San Francisco’s first music hall, was twice elected alderman and became a pillar of the community.
Meiggs was always looking for the big score. He noticed all the wharfs were around Market Street, which was in the middle of The City’s waterfront. So he came up with idea to build a wharf on the western end of The City, closer to the mouth of the Bay. When ships started coming there, he would build warehouses, develop the entire area and make a fortune.
He borrowed heavily and built Meiggs Wharf, a 2,000-foot pier that was the longest in The City. Unfortunately, his timing was off and when the wharf was finished in 1854, San Francisco was in a major recession.
Facing bankruptcy, Meiggs was desperate. Using his knowledge of The City’s government, he had another, more felonious idea.
At that time, street construction was paid for in warrants on the public treasury, signed by either San Francisco’s mayor or the controller. The controller had fallen into the dangerous habit of signing entire books of blank warrants. Meiggs got his hands on the book and sold $500,000 worth of counterfeit warrants. He hoped economic conditions would change and enable him to return the money before his crime was discovered. But upon learning he might soon be exposed, Meiggs took immediate action.
First, he took some of the money and paid off his employees and his poorer investors, leaving the more affluent lenders to take the loss. Then he took his family, boarded his yacht and headed for South America, owing $1.6 million to The City and his creditors.
Though his finances were a mess, Meiggs’ entrepreneurial zeal and confidence were unaffected. In Chile, he got a job as superintendant of bridges on the Santiago railroad. After successfully building three bridges, he learned the contractors were not able to complete the railroad. They estimated the completion would take six to eight years to complete at a cost of $25 million; Meiggs reviewed the situation and came to a very different conclusion.
Meiggs promised to complete the railroad in four years for $12 million and convinced one of the richest men in the country to back him. Using innovative techniques and brilliant management, he completed the railroad two years ahead of schedule and received $1.5 million in profit, becoming one of the richest men in Chile. He built a huge estate, threw magnificent parties and contributed generously to the poor.
Meiggs was a man of imposing appearance, 5-feet 10-inches tall with broad shoulders and, according to newspaper reports, “the biggest fists and the largest head in South America.”
Looking for more challenges, Meiggs moved to Peru to build the railroads, but found the political situation very unstable with revolutions occurring every few years. He needed political stability to succeed, which he accomplished by judicious bribery. Each month, he paid the revolutionaries $5,000 in gold in exchange for keeping the peace. This worked at first, but gradually the system became more and more corrupt.
As a builder, Meiggs was the consummate professional. But as a crook, he was a mere amateur. He was cheated by more talented swindlers, became overextended and began to lose his fortune.
It had been Meiggs’ dream to return to San Francisco, and by 1876, he paid off almost all his debts. He even managed to have the California State Legislature pass a bill making it illegal to try him for offenses occurring before 1855. But the situation in Peru became too much for him, his health declined and he died there in 1877.
In 1977, 100 years after Meiggs’ death, Judge Harry W. Low of the California Superior Court in San Francisco granted a motion to quash the indictment against Meiggs stemming from the fraud on the grounds that Meiggs had rehabilitated himself and had gone to a higher court.
What happened to Meiggs Wharf? It became a popular location for families to see unusual museums, enjoy clam chowder, crabs and sourdough bread. More than 150 years later, it is very much the same — and it’s now known as Fisherman’s Wharf.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.