REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
THOMAS H. SELBY
By WILLIAM V. WELLS.
Experience has shown that municipal affairs are never so faithful administered as when removed from the control of professed politicians. A familiarity with party tactics, which has generally been deemed the stepping stone to National as well as State official preferment, is not essential to the well-being of a city which requires especially the exercise of common sense, economy, and executive ability. The qualities indispensable to the management of a large commercial firm are not less demanded in the governing head of a community, and the most successful rulers of American cities have been those who were chosen from among business men, irrespective of politics, and solely with reference to honesty and capability. Elected by the right influences, such men have usually been popular while in office, and, retiring, have carried with them the confidence and esteem of their fellow-citizens.
An illustration of this is found in the present Mayor of San Francisco, who has been for twenty years the head of one of her first commercial houses. Mr. Selby was born and educated in New York city. He was for some time a clerk with A. T. Stewart, having entered that establishment at the same time with the afterwards celebrated Cyrus W. Field. At the age of nineteen he was elected, after an exciting campaign, a director of the Mercantile Library Association, of which he and his young friend Field were members.
On attaining his majority he commenced business for himself, in New York, and at twenty-five was a partner in an establishment with upwards of forty employés. After a few years the house, yielding to the financial pressure of that period, suspended; and its affairs having been temporarily arranged, Mr. Selby, taking upon himself the entire burthen of its debts, joined the tide of humanity then setting towards the Pacific Coast, with the sole and avowed object of paying off the liabilities of the firm.
Animated by this laudable purpose, the young man landed in San Francisco in August, 1849, and true to his resolve he devoted the proceeds of his business to settling up the indebtedness. The profits of three years of lucrative speculation and trade were thus consumed. Like thousands of others, he had originally intended to return as soon as this obligation had been fulfilled; but, as it became evident that San Francisco was destined to be one of the world’s emporiums—a grand commercial centre, with every inducement for a permanent location—he decided to cast his lot in California. In the summer of 1850 he erected a substantial brick building—still standing—on the north side of California street, near Montgomery, which was one of the earliest of its kind in the city and attracted much attention at that time as a costly novelty in architecture. Here he established the present house of Thomas H. Selby & Co., and commenced the importation of metals and merchandise, which he has followed until the present time, under the same name and style, in connection with his New York partner, Mr. P. Naylor. One of the most active members of the First Presbyterian Society of San Francisco, he was especially influential in building their church on Stockton street, near Broadway, which was commenced in the fall of 1850. Services had originally been held in a tent, the Rev. Albert Williams officiating. The edifice, completed early in 1851, was destroyed by the great fire of that year, and was rebuilt in the same place. Many of the leading members, Mr. Selby among them, withdrew subsequently and built the well known Calvary Church, on Bush street, which in turn has disappeared before the march of improvement. His one building was in the desolating track of the fire of 1851, but was saved by the exertions of Mr. Selby, who, with a few others, shut himself up there, and fought the destroyer with water obtained from a well dug in the basement for just such an emergency. For some time the iron shutters were red hot, and the party would fain have escaped from their perilous position had it been possible; but by the courage of desperation the building was preserved, and the whirlwind of flames passed on.
The preferences of Mr. Selby have usually been averse to politics; but nevertheless, his great personal popularity and evident availability have repeatedly been made use of to draw him into public life, though always against his own earnest protest. In each instance he has been triumphantly elected, and has filled the requirements of the position with the same conscientious fidelity that has ever characterized his actions. The one objection that his friends could name was, that prior to election, he invariably retired from active participation in the contest, and left the issue with the public, shunning all contact with politicians, and failing to exert even the legitimate amount of electioneering influence sanctioned by political usage. His tastes, avoiding the thankless turmoil of public office, leaned rather to the quiet of private life, and the rivalries of trade and commercial pursuits.
In April, 1851, he was elected Assisant Alderman of the Fifth Ward, and took his seat in the Board a few days after the conflagration above mentioned. As a member of the Common Council, his name appears on many committees, and the record shows that he was one of the most industrious members of the Board. By the terms of the new City Charter, then lately gone into operation, the officers chosen at the annual election in September of that year, were installed soon after; Mayor Brenham giving place to Dr. Harris, and the old Board vacating for the newly elected one, by decision of the Supreme Court, thus limiting their official term to about six months.
Released from public duties, Mr. Selby gladly returned to his more legitimate business; from which retirement he was again brought forth in the fall of the following year; when, against his strongest protestations, he was nominated as Alderman of the Fifth Ward, and was, of course, elected by a great majority. He was at that time an “Old Line Whig,” belonging to a party of glorious memories, including in its numbers the most illustrious men of America, but destined, after the defeat of Scott and the death of Clay and Webster, to decline and disappear; many of its adherents, like Mr. Selby, eventually joining the Democracy and imparting a leaven of strength and patriotism to that organization. Mr. Selby’s name appeared on nearly all the tickets in the campaign of 1852—the “Regular Whig,” the “Independent Whig,” the “People’s Favorite,” the “Independent,” and the “Union,” (the latter composed about equally of Whigs and Democrats.) National, State, county and city candidates, from President and Vice-President down to the smallest local officers, were on the same ticket, and were voted for together. In San Francisco, alone there were eighty-seven offices to be filled, and for these there were one hundred and eighty candidates in the field. Seven out of eight wards returned Whig Aldermen—a noteworthy fact, considering that the State and county went Democratic—the incoming Legislature having a majority for that party of thirty-four on joint ballot. This result in the election of local officers was due to the great number who voted the Independent ticket; and when, years afterwards, a similar influence elected Mr. Selby to the Mayoralty, it furnished the second instance of his having been chosen to office by a spontaneous popular movement.
On the 12th of November, 1852, the new government was duly installed, with C. J. Brenham—elected for the second time—as Mayor. The previous City Council had the summer before purchased the Jenny Lind theatre (the present City Hall) in defiance of the wishes of the people and the veto of Mayor Harris; and the incoming administration held their first session there. The county of San Francisco at that time extended to San Francisquito Creek, its southern boundary—the present county of San Mateo having been subsequently created. The municipal government proper consisted of the Boards of Aldermen and Assistant Aldermen, while the affairs of the county were especially managed by a Board of Supervisors, (composed partly of the Board of Aldermen) of whom the Mayor was the presiding officer. The newly elected Common Council entered upon their duties with a curious array of complications to contend against. A wide range of local business and city improvements, some beneficial and others concealing corrupt jobs, demanded prompt action to aid or defeat. Venal legislation at Sacramento, to an alarming extent, threatened the prosperity of the city. The gigantic State Prison appropriation; the City Slip Bill; the infamous Extension Project, including a raid upon the whole tidal front of the city, and a change in the grading from the highlands to the bay; the State printing expenditures, in the payment of which San Francisco was largely interested; the Stamp Act and Notary Public bills—all designed as exactions upon the property-holders of that city, required clear-headed ability and the devotion of time to counteract their baneful tendency. Other perplexing subjects were soon to arise, such as an amended or new city charter, and the removal of the State Capitol. The outgoing City Council had left affairs in the worst possible condition, and the press teemed with denunciations of their acts. Gas and wharf contracts, originating in barefaced favoritism, and a wasteful use of the public money, both by needless contracts and appropriations, formed the burthen of the articles.
“There can be no doubt,” said a writer of that time, “that during the three years past, there has been more corruption, fraud, and dishonesty in the municipal affairs of this city than in any other city in the world. Ignorance, fraud, and corruption. More wicked schemes for personal advancement, without the flimsiest pretext of desire for the public good, have passed our City Council than any other modern legislature body in Christendom. City hospital—Merchant Street—grading and planking operations—old city hall—funding scheme—water lot legislation—Colton grants—Jenny Lind theatre—each and every one calls to the mind of our old citizens entire chapters of scheming iniquity. * * A city entering upon its career with a richer patrimony than any other of modern times, having, under the Mexican law, a landed property that would have enriched a State, is not only destitute of ornaments and conveniences, but is saddled with a debt of one million six hundred thousand dollars, to anticipate our revenues and grind us with taxes for twenty years to come.” The ingenious Peter Smith and Limantour swindles, alarming the community by their magnitude, and involving the titles to most of the valuable real estate in San Francisco, were rearing their menacing heads in the courts. Property was insecure, and the public mind harassed by doubts, uncertainties, and conflicting interests.
Upon the organization of the Board of Aldermen, Mr. Selby was placed on most of the hard-working committees, of some of which he was chairman, and his business talent and industry were manifest throughout his official term. At that time the Board of Education was composed of the Mayor, one member from each branch of the Common Council, and two citizens at large. Mr. Selby represented this body from the Board of Aldermen, and found ample scope for the advancement of his favorite subject of free public schools. The Board of Education had the appointing of a Superintendent of Public Instruction. Mr. Selby was also especially active in reorganizing the Police Department, a work to which he applied himself at once upon taking his seat. When the Extension Bill was passed by the Assembly in April, 1853, and the five Whig members of the San Francisco delegation resigned their seats, he supported them in their appeal to the people, and gave all his energies to reëlecting them as an expression of the public sentiment. And the record of those early days point to him invariably as a steadfast and watchful friend of the best interests of the city, as he was ever the uncompromising opponent of all schemes for depleting the public treasury.
One of his first acts in the Board of Alderman was in defence of the city to the lands covered by the Peter Smith claim. Soon after the induction of the new Common Council into office, the Supreme Court rendered its famous decision adverse to the city in the above-named suit. Public feeling was wrought up to the highest pitch. Mayor Brenham called an extraordinary meeting of the Council, and in a brief message set forth the danger and recommended immediate action. Aldermen Selby submitted a series of resolutions, which were published in all the newspapers, warning innocent parties against purchasing titles to property under the Peter Smith sales, and giving notice that all titles acquired under them would be contested by the city government. The City Attorney was also empowered to act in conjunction with the attorney of the Board of Commissioners of the Funded Debt, in adopting measures for contesting the validity of the title acquired under the sale. This was the commencement of the memorable Peter Smith contest, which, after several years of costly litigation, resulted in favor of the municipality. Aldermen Selby was the first to strike officially at the ordinance imposing a tax upon every passenger arriving at San Francisco, and introduced a resolution for its repeal. He was also instrumental in procuring the donation by the city, in 1853, of a lot at Rincon Point to the United States Government, as a site for a Marine Hospital, and was the originator of the idea of establishing “fire limits,” within which wooden buildings could not be erected. His influence against bad legislation was not confined to local affairs, but numerous iniquitous schemes; among them, the deep-laid plot for dividing the State, found in him a powerful and persistent enemy. Had that measure been successful, slavery would have been introduced into the proposed new State of “Southern California,” and the evil effects experienced during the late civil war. In short, Mr. Selby brought to the management of public affairs the same shrewdness, sound judgment, and economy that he exerted in his own; and his official record bears the closest examination for the vigor and administration ability which distinguished it throughout. As at that time he consented with reluctance to engage in politics, so in 1869, it was only after repeated solicitation, by the various nominating conventions, to which were added the urgent appeals of personal friends, that that he was finally induced to become a candidate for the mayoralty, it being generally conceded that no other citizen combined so completely the elements of success. The result was in keeping with the past, and showed that his personal popularity was not overestimated. He was elected in the face of a combination of paritzan engineering and moneyed influence such as has rarely been concentrated against a political candidate. Never defeated before the people, the stamp of success seems to be inevitably affixed to every thing with which he is associated. Seventeen years before, when he was elected Aldermen, the city contained about 45,000 inhabitants, and polled 8,023 votes; in 1869, with a population estimated at about 160,000, the vote was 21,600, a falling off of 4,000 from the Presidential vote of the previous year.
The positions of honor and trust which Mr. Selby has filled in mercantile and social life, it would be difficult to enumerate. President of the Merchants’ Exchange, and the first President of the Industrial School Association, he was foremost in organizing those bodies, and was an active member of the committees that superintended the erection of the buildings for both. President of the Board of Trustees of Cavalry Church, and of the City College, a life director of the Mercantile Library Association, and an establisher and liberal supporter of two seminaries of learning in San Mateo county, his name is honorably connected with the progress of enlightenment and education in California. In a number of instances, he has been appointed executor of valuable estates, and always without bonds.
With an activity and healthy vigor of mind and body which honors the most exacting demands on their power of endurance, Mr. Selby systematises his time so as to transact a surprising amount of business. No accumulation of labor seems to embarrass or annoy him, while a habit of directing the efforts of others enables him to keep every part of the complicated machinery in motion without hurry or confusion. Besides the establishment on California street, which is his financial headquarters, Mr. Selby has branch stores at Marysville and Stockton, with their ramifications extending to all parts of the State. His Silver and Lead Smelting Works at North Beach, San Francisco, which cost $100,000 to erect, are the means of keeping not less than twenty mines in operation in California, Nevada, and Arizona, this being their only market. Ores and crude metal, worth $150,000, may at any time be seen piled up, awaiting reduction at the works, which give constant occupation to about seventy-five men; while, indirectly, several hundred miners are kept employed by this ready consumer of the product of their labor. Add to this another branch of industry, his San Francisco Shot Tower, and some idea may be formed of the extent and variety of his engagements. This establishment employs a large number of men, both at the works, and in the mines supplying it with lead. The manufacture of shot in California is due to the energy and persistency of purpose of Mr. Selby, who commenced it amid manifold discouragements, and the general prediction of his failure to compete with the Eastern States. It has proved successful, however, and nearly the whole Pacific coast is supplied from this source, while a powerful impetus is given to California industry.
About thirty miles from San Francisco—an hour and a quarter by rail—is the county seat of Mr. Selby—a place of about five hundred acres, and a model of rural attractiveness and high cultivation. The eye is never wearied admiring the landscape of broad fields waving with fertility, blending the richest foliage, tropical in its luxuriance, with a pleasing diversity of grain and pasture land, and the view bounded in the distance by picturesque, wood-crowned hills. The estate produces annually from five to ten thousand bushels of the cereals, and an orchard—the largest in San Mateo county—yields two thousand bushels of choice fruits. Amid the continuance demands upon his time, Mr. Selby finds leisure for a personal supervision of this extensive property, which, for its genial climate and quiet pastoral beauty, is a favorite resort after the cares of the day, in preference to his city residence. Adorned with every appliance that art and refined taste can suggest, this mansion is the summer retreat of the family, and while its fortunate proprietor may felicitate himself in the contemplation of a successful and honorable business career, he is equally happy in the companionship of that personal loveliness and amiability which, when they grace the social circle, hallow and endear the sacred name of home. Under Mr. Selby, San Francisco entered upon a new era of prosperity. Conciliatory and popular in manners, liberal alike in theory and practice, with a record for integrity that has always stood above the breath of suspicion, and thoroughly conversant with the requirements of the city where he has spent his best years, he commenced his official duties under the most favorable auspices, and his term as Mayor when reviewed hereafter, will exhibit the same beneficent motives and practical intelligence that have hitherto guided his actions in the walks of private and public life.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 411-420.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.