Big hearted, strong and lovable – his accomplishments are written large upon the scroll of the county’s greatest achievements, as well as those of the state. Many times a State Assemblyman and Senator, once United States Congressman during Lincoln’s administration, twice Collector of the Port of San Francisco, Regent of the University of California for 21 years and Chairman of the Lick Observatory during that time – these were some of the posts of trust held by Timothy Guy Phelps.
Timothy Guy Phelps was born in Chinango County, New York, December 24, 1824. He received a common school education, and when twenty-one he went to New York City to study law. A few years later, when news of the discovery of gold in California reached New York, Mr. Phelps started for California by way of Panama, arriving in San Francisco on December 14, 1849, after a passage on one hundred and two days from Panama. He started immediately for the mines in Tuolumne County, and engaged in river mining with but scant success. Here he spent the following spring and winter.
On his return from the mines to San Francisco, he first engaged in the mercantile business in that city. Afterwards he became a partner of Jim Dow, one of the most successful of the early Californians and well known to all the early timers.
In the great fire of 1851, he sustained great financial loss, but before the embers had cooled, he started in to rebuild. He was again successful and soon recouped his former losses.
About this time he bought a large ranch of 3500 acres in San Mateo County where San Carlos is now located. Here he spent all his spare time engaged in agricultural pursuits.
During Mr. Phelps’ many trips on business down the peninsula to secure options on grain crops, he journeyed as far south as San Juan, and soon became imbued with a love for the country around San Carlos and then made up his mind that here was the place where he would like to make his permanent home. A short time afterward he became one of the owners of the Rancho de las Pulgas—and continued to add to his holdings until he had acquired 3500 acres.
Mr. Phelps took an active part in the stirring historical events of ’51, when the masses of the law-abiding people organized under the name of the Vigilance Committee to suppress crime and restore order. In 1853 Mr. Phelps journeyed east, and was united in marriage to Miss Sophronia J. Jewell of Guilford, New York. He became a member of the first grand jury held in this county, August 1st, 1856. In this year his public career really began when he was elected to the State Legislature from San Mateo and San Francisco Counties on the first Republican ticket ever presented to the voters of this electorial district. It is interesting to know that today this district still remains.
In the role of legislator in the Assembly, Mr. Phelps showed such ability that he was sent to the Senate, at the next election. In representing his constituents in the Senate Mr. Phelps showed such ability that he was sent to the Senate, at the next election. In representing his constituents in the Senate Mr. Phelps led the opposition against what was known as the Parson’s Bulkhead Bill, which would have given control of the city’s entire water front to a company of capitalists for a period of fifty years, and equipped them with the right to charge a toll on all in-coming and out-going merchandise, thus throttling the commerce of the city and ruining competition. His fight against these big interests gained him great popularity and the confidence of the people.
In 1858, he was re-elected to the Senate, contesting the election with Major-General Halleck, afterwards commanding general of all the Union armies. In March, 1857, when senator from the Fifth Senatorial district, (S.F. and S. M. Co.) Mr. Phelps introduced into the State Legislature “An Act to reorganize and establish the County of San Mateo, which became a law in April 18, 1857. This act defined the southern boundary, and provided for an election to be held in the following May. Mr. Phelps served in the Senate from 1858 to 1861, introducing the first street railway bill for the City of San Francisco.
In 1859-60, the contest to steal the waterfront of San Francisco was renewed with greater determination than ever. Mr. Phelps again threw himself into the fray as champion of the people against the powerful syndicate of capitalists backing this nefarious movement. His fight in the state legislature is historic.
In 1860 he became vice-chairman of the state convention which met in San Francisco to send delegates to the memorable convention in Chicago that nominated Abraham Lincoln for President. His services in the State Legislature as an assemblyman covered several terms, and extended over a period of many years.
Mr. Phelps joined the Society of California Pioneers in 1861, and was later elected Vice-President of the organization.
In 1861 he attended the Republican State Convention at Sacramento, being a candidate for nomination for Governor of the State, but withdrew in favor of Stanford. He was, however, immediately nominated for Congress, and elected by a majority of 20,000 votes, serving from 1861 to 1863. He took a prominent place in Congress, his duties bringing him into close touch with President Lincoln who became his intimate personal friend. Lincoln consulted him on all issues pertaining to the Pacific Coast. Serving during the Civil War, he was known as the “War Congressman.”
Upon Mr. Phelps’ return from Congress, he found upon investigation that the officers in charge of the Presidio were all southern men, and were just ready to deliver the state to Confederacy. He immediately informed President Lincoln that plans were made and mature to split California from the Union. Lincoln immediately sent a relief and removed the Presidio officers, replacing them with true adherents of the Union cause.
Among other measures, he voted for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.
Mr. Phelps performed one of his greatest services to the State when he was chosen and sent to represent the ranch owners and bankers of California, to protest the attack on the validity of the Spanish Grants, and particularly the boundaries of the Pulgas Rancho. The bill was killed in the committee, and this unjust legislation was crushed forever.
Before Mr. Phelps arrived in Washington upon this mission, one of the Committee who had this matter in charge, asked Senator Sergeant, who they were sending from California “Why”, he said, “Farmer Phelps.” After Mr. Phelps’ speech before the Committee, this same man remarked to Senator Sergeant, “I’d like to know --if those are the kind of farmers in California—what kind of statesmen have you there? I would like to live in that state.”
A few years later his wife died.
While in Congress, he voted for the first street railway bill of the city of Washington. He was prominent in securing the passage of the overland railroad law, and in conjunction with the California delegation, succeeded in placing a representative from the Pacific Coast on the Supreme Court Bench of the United States.
On January 24, 1870, he was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as Collector of Customs in San Francisco, for a period of four years. In the same year he was married to Josephine A. McLean of San Francisco, a daughter of one of the old pioneers.
Five years later, in 1875, he accepted the Republican nomination for Governor as he was in favor of uniting the Independent and the Republican parties. Governor Pacheco and others assured him that he could thus strengthen the Republican party. But two weeks later the Independents under Booth, Swift and Estee reconsidered, and concluded to nominate a ticket of their own, believing they would again control the state. It was a hard fight. Irwin, of course, was elected, but only by a majority of 435 votes. Although the Republicans lost the governorship, they succeeded in holding their party together, and thereby crushing the Independent party whose main object was hostility to the railroads.
Mr. Phelps became Regent of the University of California in 1878, and spent much of his time during the following years in the upbuilding of the State university.
One of his most public-spirited acts was giving the railroad—later known as the Southern Pacific—its present right of way from Belmont to Redwood City. On January 4, 1890, he was again appointed Collector of the Port of San Francisco under another president,--Benjamin Harrison. During the same year he was decorated with the United Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States for distinguished services to the government during the war.
Timothy Guy Phelps lived to the age of seventy-three years, and at the time of his death was the picture of robust health and strength. His demise was due to an accident. He passed away on Decoration Day, May 30, 1899.
The bulk of his large estate was left to his widow, although he remembered his brothers and sisters and their heirs in a substantial way. He left no children.
The life of Timothy Guy Phelps was an honor to the state and the county where he made his home. In his speeches—particularly his memorable speech on taxation—his voice was ever heard in the defense of labor and the industries of the people.
His domestic life was particularly happy. In Mrs. Phelps he had a helpmate whose unfailing sympathy, social tact, and clear-headed advice in all matters, did much to enable him to successfully follow his career.
The name of Timothy Guy Phelps stands to-day an honor to the State of California, revered by her citizens and beloved by her people. Honesty of purpose, uprightness of living, protection to the growing Republic; combined with gentleness and a loving nature, have endeared his memory in the hearts of all.
Transcribed by Karen L. Pratt
Source: History of San Mateo County by Philip W. Alexander & Charles P. Hamm page 186-189. Press of Burlingame Publishing Co., Burlingame, CA. 1916.
© 2004 Karen L. Pratt.
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