Pioneer Profiles – July 2015
Cornelius C. Beekman was arguably the wealthiest and most prominent of the pioneers who settled Jacksonville in the mid-1800s. From humble beginnings as a carpenter and express rider, he built a business empire of banking, mining, and real estate interests.
Like many young men, Beekman was lured west by the promise of gold. He arrived in San Francisco in the fall of 1850, an eager and fearless 22-year-old with only enough money remaining from his trip to pay for a day’s board and lodging. But he did have three important assets: carpentry skills, carpentry tools, and a strong work ethic. Beekman quickly found employment, earning an ounce of gold a day for his efforts.
Although miners returning from the gold fields complained of few paying claims, Beekman wanted to see for himself. He obtained a position as a ship’s carpenter on a boat plying between San Francisco and Sacramento, where he learned that an exodus from the gold fields had begun. Miners reported that all desirable claims had been staked and that many claims were played-out.
After a few months on the riverboat, Beekman returned to San Francisco, again earning $18 a day as a carpenter. He purchased a silent partnership in two restaurants with some of the proceeds. But Beekman still had gold fever.
Having accumulated a grub stake, he headed for the Northern California mines, eventually arriving at Scott’s Bar where a claim he staked with a partner yielded $8,000 in gold dust. Hoping to leverage his earnings, Beekman joined several associates in constructing a wing dam on the Klamath River to divert the water flow, giving access to riverbed gold deposits. Early fall rains followed by flooding wiped out the dam along with all of Beekman’s mining profits.
Beekman fell back on his carpentry skills. In nearby Yreka he was able to earn $20 a day building cabins for miners. He also became acquainted with Captain Wadsworth, the Yreka agent for Cram Rogers Express Company. When Cram Rogers extended its express service to Jacksonville in the fall of 1852, Wadsworth recommended Beekman for the Jacksonville service.
So Beekman became a Cram Rogers express rider between Jacksonville and Yreka, with occasional trips to Crescent City to meet docking vessels. When the company failed in 1856, Beekman immediately bought their Jacksonville stables and stock for $100 and established Beekman’s Express.
For the next few years Beekman made the 65 mile trip over the Siskiyou Mountains between Jacksonville and Yreka two or three times a week carrying gold, letters, and newspapers. According to a 1928 biography¸ “He secured the best horses obtainable, one favorite mount, a thoroughbred Spanish horse, costing him a thousand dollars. During the periods of Indian hostilities, he made the trips at night and used mules… finding them more sure-footed, less noisy and better able to keep the trail.” For his services, he received five percent of the value of any gold transported and one dollar for a newspaper or a letter.
In 1860, when the California & Oregon Stage Company began regular operations between Sacramento and Portland, Beekman became their agent. After that he probably used the stages for his express shipments. When Wells Fargo began operating over the C&O lines in 1863, Beekman became the Wells Fargo agent, ending his own express business.
That was the same year that Beekman constructed the historic Beekman Bank building, although his banking services predated it. Beekman himself was not actually sure when he became “a banker.”
The transition began when Beekman agreed to store gold dust for miners accumulating shipments for the San Francisco mint. As early as 1856 he opened an office in Jacksonville and hired U.S. Hayden to run it. He bought a large safe and charged one percent of the gold dust value per month for storage. Beekman soon found himself buying the dust from the miners and shipping it to the mint on his own account. He recalled in an interview, “Almost without any intention of doing so, I was operating a private bank.”
The Beekman Bank was a unique institution, more of a safe deposit box than a bank. Beekman considered every deposit separate and inviolable. He never made loans from depositor’s money, only from his own funds. His nephew, Fletcher Linn, described Beekman’s banking operations:
“When a person came in to make a deposit…, he’d merely hand him a little bag with a name tag attached to it, and request the depositor to sign his name and address on the tag, then put his money or gold dust into it, and tie up the bag. There was no book-keeping, no check to be issued or bothered with….Had there been a run on the bank, every depositor would have received his own little bag, with his name and address written by himself upon it, and with no loss to anybody.”
The earliest account Beekman himself wrote of his banking operations is found in an 1865 letter:
“As for business, I am…banking on my own hook, the only Banker in this section. I do a business of about $300,000-per year. You perhaps would call the business that of a Broker. It consists principally in selling Exchanges on San Francisco, buying & selling of Gold Dust and [Legal Tender] Notes, loaning money, etc. We do not do a discount and deposit business nor issue bills…. We do all kinds of business upon a coin basis.”
Bank records indicate an extensive business in shipping gold to the San Francisco mint, primarily through Wells Fargo. The stage stopped at his door, so no one knew when he was going to make a shipment. And he never used the Wells Fargo Express box, knowing that would be the first thing bandits would take. Instead, he would use a candle box, put in $1,500 to $3,000 in gold, and pack the rest of it with straw or excelsior. This he would ship, confident that no highway men would bother with an old tallow box.
The Beekman Bank, preserved intact as a museum since Beekman closed the doors in 1915, is arguably the oldest bank in the Pacific Northwest…depending on how you define a bank. Join Historic Jacksonville for unique “Behind the Counter” bank tours from 11:15 am to 2:15 pm on the second Saturday of each month, May through September, as part of Jacksonville History Saturday.
Next month: Beekman at His Prime
Pioneer Profiles is a project of Historic Jacksonville, Inc. Visit us at www.historicjacksonville.org and follow us on Facebook (historicjville) for upcoming events and more Jacksonville history.
Featured image above: HC151-Beekman-in-front-of-Bank-1900s