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Who was Cornelius Kingsland Garrison--the man who outmaneuvered the powerful Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt for control of a steamship line, and later, during his term as mayor had given away his salary to the orphanages of the city?

This self-made man started out as a cabin boy on Hudson River sloops and later graduated to command a steamboat on the Mississippi. When gold was discovered in California, in 1848, he had shrewdly gone to Panama, where he opened a gambling house, and other businesses, all of which prospered from the traffic that crossed the isthmus.

He arrived in San Francisco in March of 1853 as agent for the Nicaragua Steamship Line, formerly the Vanderbilt Line, which was then in a state of collapse from mismanagement and accidents. Within six months he made the line so fiercely competitive with other carriers that earnings rose sharply.

At this point in his business career Garrison was recognized as being so shrewd in his business dealings that if you dealt with him “you should first set 20 men to watch him.” Many businessmen felt the city might appreciably prosper by making him mayor, especially if he could work some of his financial magic on the city’s problems. It seems amazing that a man could move so quickly into the political spotlight when a resident for only seven months. However, when the nomination was offered, Garrison accepted. Being a wealthy man he waged the city’s first “monied fight,” won, and began office as San Francisco’s fifth mayor on October 3, 1853. Garrison was San Francisco’s fifth mayor, but the fourth man to serve in that office as Charles Brenham had earlier been elected to two separate terms.

Within two weeks after Garrison’s election in September he witnessed the completion and operation of the first telegraph line in California. This line covered eight miles, between Point Lobos and the financial district and brought news of approaching vessels, cargo, and point of debarkation. Such news was vitally important to the auction and commission houses that flourished in the city.

Almost immediately citizen Garrison along with some friends began speculating in real estate by purchasing city water lots and city script which was then afloat at a very low market price. Later as mayor, Garrison became the prime mover in bringing about the sale of these lots. Unfortunately, this transaction cost the city dearly as it was compelled to buy back these same lots sold earlier at speculative prices because it could not give title to the purchasers.

Apparently the citizenry were willing to overlook Garrison’s action concerning the sale of the water lots, but they reacted in unison against him when he suggested that gambling and Sunday theatricals be abolished. Obviously, corruption in politics was one thing and their fun another.

It seemed the new mayor was off to a bad start but he quickly offset his earlier actions by demonstrating great interest in education. He obtained funds from the Common Council to build schools so that students would be properly housed instead of remaining in shanties and shacks. At one point when public funds were exhausted he made certain the school was completed by contributing his own money. He also established the first school in San Francisco for children of African parents. They had not previously been given an opportunity to attend school, primarily because most could not afford the tuition. Garrison also began the first industrial school for problem children, for he was very displeased with the practice then followed of housing delinquent and abandoned children in city jails or poor houses.

The fire department’s budget was sharply increased under Garrison and new firehouses added as well as seven new cisterns built at important street intersections. One of the main reasons for failure in fire fighting was the shortage of water, and cisterns spotted throughout the city help immeasurably.

The uncertainty of the cost involved in traveling by carriage cab in 1853 drew Garrison’s ire. With no city regulations governing fares, most cabbies charged according to whim and demand of the moment. San Franciscans refused to pay more than a moderate price but our visitors were often “taken for a ride.” The mayor initiated the first control over the carriage cabs. In addition, Garrison was the first mayor to ask for a tax on nonresident capital. He had hoped to increase city revenues by taxing the millions of untaxed dollars that passed through our financial houses for accounts held by foreign stockholders in mines and industry.

In order to increase interest and investment in city businesses, Garrison called for completion of a transcontinental railroad and a transcontinental telegraph line. However, when asked by Collis P. Huntington to invest in the railroad, Garrison replied “The risk is too great, and the profits, if any, too remote.”

San Francisco was by the end of 1853 divided into eight public wards for political purposes, had 250 streets with posted signs, two public squares, ten public schools, 38 large cisterns for storage of water, resident consuls for 27 foreign governments, two hospitals, a philharmonic society, five theaters, and something no other American city had, a Chinese interpreter in the Recorder’s Office.

On February 11, 1854, the city took a most important step toward civic improvement with the installation of streetlights. There were 84 in number and were lit by gas provided by a plant located at First and Howard Streets. If the city could finance streetlights, then certainly Portsmouth Plaza, then a dusty lot, could be made more attractive. Garrison urged money be appropriated to plant flowers and trees. After all, this was a historical site, for it was here that Capt. Montgomery first raised the American flag on July 9, 1846.

Not all of Garrison’s time, while mayor, was spent attending to the various civic projects he championed. He had little patience with the high crime rate and was well known for his personal acts of heroism against vandals or lawbreakers. A typical example involved a fence constructed at the direction of a Mrs. Latimer across Merchant Street one dark night. The woman claimed she had not been properly reimbursed for the street after she sold it to the city. The city marshal refused the next day to remove the fence. Local businessmen grew increasingly irritate at this latest interference with commercial life and complained to the mayor. He immediately went to the barricade and personally removed it, in the face of some opposition, after which he fired the marshal for his failure to handle the situation.

When the annual state and city elections came up in September 1854, Garrison felt confident enough to run for re-election. The city had done well under his administration, many new civic projects had begun and the economic slump of that spring and summer had eased. He probably wouldn’t have been so confident concerning his re-election had he realized the strength of the newly formed “Know Nothing Party” whose membership was restricted to native-born Americans, who were non-Catholics. They, by sheer force of numbers, and by proper organization, were able to sweep party members into nearly every city office. The only office in doubt was that of mayor. The counting of the ballots continued for five days during which time there was much talk of ballot-stuffing and fraudulent counting. On September 11, it was announced the city had a new mayor. Stephen P. Webb had won by 539 votes.

In 1859 Garrison returned to New York City for business reasons, but ten years later his visit to San Francisco via the overland train gave the city cause for a great celebration.

The fifth mayor of San Francisco, Cornelius Kingsland Garrison, died May 1, 1885, in New York City. His contributions to this city are many, important, and varied. They include his far-sighted proposals and actions on schools, juvenile problems, including the “industrial school,” fire protection, city beautification, and increased tax revenues.

Regardless of the financial corruption that may or may not have involved Garrison personally, his term as mayor was outstanding for its contributions of some abstract principals known as “enlightenment” and “humanitarian.” Garrison set a pattern for many future generations of San Franciscans when he placed so much emphasis on individual contributions to building a better city.

If, in the 1850s, San Francisco was to compete with the major cities of the world, it could not afford the luxury of many decades in which to catch up. Cornelius Kingsland Garrison, the fifth mayor of San Francisco, was no paragon of virtue, nor was San Francisco virtuous.

Garrison was the man for the times.

Gladys Hansen
City Archivist Emeritus
City and County of San Francisco
July 2007

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