REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
JOSEPH C. TUCKER
By WILLIAM V. WELLS.
It is impossible to look back upon the history of California during the last twenty years, without recognizing the influence of the learned callings in the development of the State; and this has been particularly the case as regards members of the medical fraternity. Not only in an intense application to the details of the profession has this been seen, but men of classical education have been a potent element in the progress of communities—in their political, scientific and general advancement. This is owing, not more to the energy essential to the successful physician, than to the direction which the eventful circumstances of the early days gave to character, which, among less exciting surroundings, might not have produced the impatient, practical activity distinguishing men of scholarly attainments in this new field of adventure. Numbers of valuable institutions on the Pacific coast have originated in the sagacious counsels and well-directed efforts of physicians. A principal among these promoters has been the present surgeon of the U. S. Marine Hospital at San Francisco, Dr. J. C. Tucker, who, perhaps, more than most other men, has given an impulse to sanitary legislation in California, while, at the same time, his influence has been felt in a wide variety of useful public enterprises.
Dr. Tucker was born in 1828, in New York city, where the family name ranks among the oldest in the State. His grandfather, father, and only brother, the Hon. Gideon J. Tucker, late Secretary of State, and present. Probate (Surrogate) Judge of New York, have all been actively prominent men. He commenced the study of medicine under Doctors Robert M. Cairnes and Willard Parker, and graduated in 1848, taking the degree of M. D. in the old Crosby street Medical College in New York. He early excelled as a student in surgery, having a firm, bold hand, and inflexible nerve. About the time he obtained his majority, the famous suit (well remembered in legal annals) respecting the will of his grandfather, Hon. Gideon Tucker, and involving one of the largest properties in New York city, was decided against the grandchildren.
The hope of bettering his fortunes, together with the fascinations of the gold discovery, impelling him towards the newly-acquired California, he embarked in January, 1849, as surgeon in the ship Tarolinta, for San Francisco, where he arrived on the first of July following. The company in which he was interested sensibly following the then general rule, dissolved, and the Doctor visited the gold regions, leading the life of a miner, and working in the placers of the American river until the ensuing winter, when we find him practising (sic) his profession in Sacramento city. The "Gold Lake" excitement in the following spring carried him into the mountains, with innumerable other ardent young adventurers, in quest of alleged marvellous (sic) deposits of gold; but detained at the foot-hills of the Sierras by impassable snow fields, the party encamped at Bidwell's Bar, where the Doctor profitably occupied himself in surveying and running the present town limits with chain and compass, and erecting upon the most desirable site the first house—the Empire Hotel.
Returning to Sacramento, he organized a second expedition in search of the Gold Lake myth, which, after wearisome and perilous adventures among the pathless mountains, resulted in the dissolution of the company and the return of its members in great destitution. The existence of this fabulous mine of wealth, however chimerical it may now appear, was at that primitive time firmly believed in, and the search was prosecuted by hundreds from various points, lured by the charm of novelty, and the mystery that yet hung over the snowy solitudes, where, as the adventurers not unreasonably conceived, immense treasures might exist, which were the sources of the rich placers in the regions below. Returning, the Doctor found his way to Dobbin's Rancho, on the Yuba river, and located a large tract of land, with a log trading house, where the "Keystone Rancho House" now stands. Discovering through the Indians with whom he traded, the first dry gulch diggings known in that vicinity, he quietly employed them in obtaining a large amount of gold dust before their existence became known to other white men. Selling his fine estate, now worth a fortune, for $1,000, the Doctor, tired of his lonely mountain life, returned to Sacramento city, where he resumed the practice of his profession.
In 1851-2, he was elected to the Assembly. During both of these terms he took a leading part in various exciting issues, embracing most of the important questions of that period. He was identified with what was called the anti-Broderick wing of the Democracy, and was known as the friend of Gwin, Weller, Denver, and other leaders of that branch of politics. He was also an early friend and companion of Col. Fremont. By his persuasive eloquence and unobtrusive managing talent among his fellow-members, he was a recognized power in directing the course of legislation. During the memorable session of capital removals, he framed, introduced, supported in strong argument, and finally passed the first bill providing for the State care of insane persons.
The bill, as drawn by him, proposed to locate the Asylum on the high lands near San Francisco, within the influence of the sea breezes; but political considerations, and swapping upon the then pending Senatorial contest, carried it to its present unsuitable and malarious location at Stockton. Prominent upon the Legislative State Hospital Committee, the Doctor then, as ever since, devoted himself almost exclusively to politico-medical subjects. He was elected at the close of the session to the position of State Quarantine officer. Immediately following his appointment came the first visitation of small pox to California, and although less fatal than the subsequent one of 1869, there were at one time upwards of two hundred cases of it in the Quarantine Hospital under his charge.
When the State hospitals were abolished, in 1854, and each county was required to provide for its own sick, Dr. Tucker was elected by the municipal government of San Francisco its city physician. He was a prominent and successful member of the profession, and was an intimate friend of, and adviser with the lamented Dr. H. M. Gray—the two young practitioners having commenced their professional career about the same time, in New York. They usually acted together in the meetings of the California State Medical Society, and of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of San Francisco, of both of which Dr. Tucker was Vice-President, as he was also of the State Medical Society of New York.
He became connected, in the spring of 1855, with an enterprise which, for a while, was to give a new direction to his energies. The writer of the present sketch had lately returned from Central America, where, during his sojourn in Honduras, he had secured from the government of that Republic important mining and commercial privileges, embracing the exclusive right to navigate certain rivers; to export and import goods free of duty, to establish trading posts along the coasts and mahogany-cuttings in the interior; together with valuable concessions of lands and gold and silver mines in the department of Olancho, which were exempted from the taxes and exactions customary in that country. There was a dash of romance and adventure in the affair that naturally attracted the attention of the Doctor, whose broad views and keen perceptions foresaw in this enterprise the possible extension of our institutions into the Spanish American Republic, and their eventual annexation to the United States. The grants which had been procured after long and patient negotiation, were taken to New York, and at once attracted the attention of capitalists by their extraordinary liberality and extent. Together with the Honduras Inter-oceanic Railroad grant made by the same government to Mr. E. G. Squier and his New York associates, it was seen that these concessions were virtually a transfer of the Republic, with its vast mineral and agricultural resources, to the two companies, thus establishing an association, resembling, in many respects, the English East India Company. Throwing his whole energies into the new channel. Dr. Tucker repaired to New York, and in the spring of 1856, in connection with this enterprise, he was appointed, by President Pierce, U. S. Consul General and Commissioner, with special powers, to the Government of Honduras.
In the meantime, General Walker, the afterwards celebrated filibuster, availing himself of information obtained from the writer hereof, had raised a party of adventurers, and landing in Nicaragua had espoused the cause of the Liberals there, and virtually obtained possession of the country. The adjoining Republics, alarmed at this irruption of Anglo-Saxons in their vicinity, were naturally suspicious of Americans. Dr. Tucker, albeit armed with the credentials of his diplomatic mission, was subjected to infinite annoyances and hostilities by petty officials on his route from San Juan del Norte among the secluded populations of Nicaragua and Honduras, to which were added the dangers and vicissitudes of a lonely journey through dense forests and uninhabited regions, across formidable rivers, swollen by tempests, and among the gloomy defiles of the Central American Cordilleras. On more than one occasion attempts were made to assassinate him, instigated by the jealousies of the local authorities in Chontales and Segovia, who had been apprised of the approach of his little cavalcade, and associated it with the Nicaragua filibusters. By the exercise of address and vigilance acquired by an early familiarity with mountain life in California he eluded these dangers, and reached the city of Tegucigalpa in May. Thence he proceeded to Comayagua, the capital of Honduras, where the newly-elected and reactionary Indian President Guardiola refused to recognize him under the pretense that his credentials were forged. Argument would have been useless and resistance foolish. To attempt to prove the authenticity of his papers would have been undignified. The commissioner, therefore, decided to leave the country, and reaching Omoa, a small port on the Caribbean Sea, he chartered a coasting vessel and embarked for Truxillo and Havana, whence he returned to New York, arriving in June, 1855, thus terminating a series of adventures of continuous excitement and peril. Although the mission was a failure as far as its legitimate objects were concerned, the Doctor obtained much interesting knowledge of the American tropics, one of the wildest and most unfrequented portions of which he had penetrated. The peculiarities of a strange and decadent race, living in the primitive simplicity of by-gone centuries; the majestic symmetry of the volcanoes, clothed to their summits with verdure; the mysterious solitude of the forest; the splendid plumage of its denizens, and the fantastic shapes and gaudy hues in which tropical Nature robes herself, indelibly impressed themselves upon a mind keenly sensitive to such influences.
Mr. Marcy, then Secretary of State, already sufficiently embarrassed with the Walker raid in Nicaragua, found it convenient to overlook the insult to the American flag implied by the non-recognition of his special commissioner, and the latter had the good sense not to weary the Secretary with pertinacious applications for redress, although he had been a heavy sufferer pecuniarily. The important commercial results which had been anticipated from the Olancho enterprise were never realized, owing to the fears engendered by the devastations committed by Walker's filibusters; and a government which had been on the ever of placing itself permanently as a protectorate under the United States, with a view to ultimate absorption by us, withdrew into its customary seclusion imbued with a deep-seated distrust of American faith.
Dr. Tucker returned to California in 1857, having been appointed by the secretary of the Treasury U. S. Examiner of Drugs and Medicines in San Francisco. While holding this official position, he imported at his own expense a magnificent laboratory, and applied himself closely to his favorite study of analytical chemistry. His attention being called to the advantages of a cheap and efficient substitute for bone-black in discoloring sugar liquids, he after many experiments perfected and patented the process now universally used in sugar refineries, of hydrated alumina. In connection with the sale and employment of this patent he visited the principal sugar refineries in the United States and Cuba.
Visiting New York the following year, on official business from California, he resigned his position in Washington, and accepted that of Deputy Secretary of State of New York, which in turn he resigned in December, 1859, and returned by the Southern Overland Route to San Francisco to carry out an enterprise which he had long had in contemplation—building street railroads. At the session of the Legislature of 1861, the bill incorporating the "North Beach and Mission Railroad," which he had proposed, was introduced; and at once encountered the venomous opposition of rival companies, lobby members and interested parties in San Francisco. The war was virulent and bitter. The progress of the bill was fought at every step, its passage impeded in each branch of the Legislature, and the most strenuous efforts made to obtain the Executive veto. It was urged that the project was a mere swindling job, and would be no accommodation to the traveling public. Signatures to petitions against the railroad, were industriously hunted up by agents hired to manufacture opinion hostile to the "infamous Tucker Bill." To meet objections raised against the road through so narrow a street as Kearny, he drew up, and caused to be offered, a bill providing for the widening of that street. This proposition, now so successfully consummated, brought upon his head anew the anathema's of the property holders along the route. Although opposed and discouraged by those who should have aided him, he persevered, finally organizing and building the now most prosperous railroad in the city—its passenger traffic far exceeding that of any other, thus proving it to have been a work of the first public utility.
About this time his health failing him, Dr. Tucker took the position of Surgeon on the Nicaragua Steamship line. Visiting New York again in 1863, he married the lady to whom he had become engaged while in Havana, three years before—the daughter of Albert Havemeyer Esq., of New York, and returned to California. Having some mining interests on the Comstock vein, he went to Virginia City, Nevada, and being offered the care of the hospital at that place, remained and entered into a large and lucrative practice, holding at different times the positions of Physician to the State Insane Asylum, Coroner of Storey County, and City and County Physician of Virginia. Here, when cutting and shooting were daily occurrences, he performed many bold and successful surgical operations. During the war, as Commissioned Assistant Surgeon U. S. A., at that post, he had charge of the Barrack hospital and examination of recruits, and always has been, in act and word, an undeviating friend to the Union.
In the spring of 1865, with his family he left Virginia City and passed the summer in the East. Shortly after his return to San Francisco the ensuing fall, he was appointed by President Johnson, Surgeon of the U. S. Marine Hospital, a position he still holds to the satisfaction of the authorities at Washington. At the time of the memorable earthquake in October, 1868, being then in charge of this hospital, his utmost presence of mind was called into requisition. The structure, one of the largest in the city, was racked and shattered. As there was every indication that the hospital would fall under repeated shocks, he took the responsibility of removing the patients to safer quarters at his own expense, a procedure which was approved by the Department at Washington, and the building was subsequently condemned by the government architects.
Another of his projects of public beneficence was the purchase of a valuable tract of land in Alameda, on the opposite side of the bay from San Francisco, where in the spring of 1867, he established a private Insane Asylum. Conducted on humane and philanthropic principles, it has proved a blessing to the afflicted, where in many cases, delicacy seeks for that shelter in a private institution which a public State establishment cannot afford. The Doctor, in his leisure hours, has indulged a taste for mechanics, and among other trifles obtained a patent for a machine sewing simultaneously two seams, or parallel rows of stitching.
Our sketch must necessarily be confined to mere brief allusions to the many public measures of which Dr. Tucker is the originator. His life has been one of continual activity, and the talisman of his uniform success is to be found in the happy combination of an affable address with great persistency of purpose, and an intuitive knowledge of men. He had hardly become of age when he arrived in California, but his intrinsic merits speedily raised him to an eminence seldom reached except through painful toiling and experience. A nervous restlessness of temperament, and the courageous, almost reckless spirit of adventure which has ever impelled him to rapid achievement in a multiplicity of enterprises, is not at first apparent under a quiet, unaffected exterior. His tastes at once refined and manly, are equally displayed in art subjects and yatching, in which latter amusement he is an enthusiast and skillful amateur. As a friend, he is faithful and companionable. Entertaining in conversation, he is, as well, a forcible writer, having been a frequent contributor to the press, generally on scientific subjects, and wielding, like his brother in New York, a vigorous and caustic pen. Enjoying an enviably popularity, surrounded by the most charming domestic influences, and having earned by years of public service the confidence of the government, his usefulness in the future promises to be as positive as his power for good has hitherto been wide-reaching and acknowledged.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 581-589.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.