by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Of the forty-two mayors of Los Angeles since the office was introduced in 1850 at the dawn of the American era, only a very few have not been documented through photographs. One of those has been Damien Marchessault (1818-1868), who served several terms in the office between 1859 and 1865, during some of the most challenging years of the fledgling city.
Marchessault was born in Saint Antoine sur Richelieu, northeast of Montreal, Quebec, Canada and raised there before heading in the mid-1840s to New Orleans, which appears to have been a natural place for a French-speaker. It was also a natural location for the riverboat gambler to have as a home base while he plied his trade on the Mississippi River and it was reported that this is what Marchessault did for several years.
In 1850, however, likely lured by the Gold Rush, Marchessault headed west and wound up in Los Angeles. His best-known enterprise in his early years in town was when he partnered with another French-Canadian, Victor Beaudry, whose brother, Prudent, was a major real estate developer and mayor.
Marchessault and Beaudry learned that there was some substantial deposits of ice in a canyon in the eastern San Gabriel Mountains above today’s Claremont and Upland and began hauling large blocks to town in early 1858. The source of the frozen water is now known as Icehouse Canyon, a popular area to hike and play in the snow. In the 1860 federal census, Marchessault, listed as 40 years of age, provided his occupation as “Keeper of Billiard Saloon,” but it was known that he and Beaudry operated the town’s first ice cream parlor at the time.
It was also then that Marchessault secured election as mayor of Los Angeles from May 1859 to May 1860 (the office had a one-year term). He was succeeded by merchant Henry Mellus, who died in office after just seven months. After a council member, Wallace Woodworth, served temporarily in the position, a special election returned Marchessault to the mayoralty and he was reelected four more times, through May 1865. During a strange period of controversy in 1867, during which the common (city) council and mayor were unseated for three months between May and August, he again served in the position.
Most of his years serving as mayor were difficult ones for Los Angeles. The town’s economy, supported by cattle ranching in the rural regions around the community, was hit hard by the end of the Gold Rush, the national depression of 1857, the horrific series of floods and drought from 1862-1865, smallpox epidemics and other challenges.
Then, with the town having an unreliable supply of water as it grew after the Civil War years and could not rely on the original zanja (water ditch) system of delivery, Marchessault, who also served as zanjero. or water overseer, for the city, teamed with prominent vineyardist Jean Louis Sainsevain to rework a system begun in late 1850s. This included a dam, water wheel and pipe system that carried water to a 700,000-gallon capacity reservoir near the original Calvary Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills, near today’s Dodger Stadium. From there, wooden pipes held together by wire carried the fluid to areas of town, but there were consistent leaks in the pipes, which also burst from inconsistent levels of pressure.
In late 1867, Sainsevain and Marchessault agreed to replace the wooden pipes with iron ones, just in time for another period of severe flooding (that, among other things, forced the San Gabriel River into a new channel). The catastrophe destroyed the water wheel and the dam and halted water supply. Harassed by criticism over the system, facing mounting debts due to business and gambling, and consumed by a drinking problem, Marchessault walked into the common council chambers, located in the Market House built by Jonathan Temple in 1859 and leased to the city and county, and shot himself in the face.
The former mayor left a suicide note to his wife Mary and reprinted in a local newspaper, writing:
by my drinking to excess, and gambling also, I have involved myself to the amount of about three thousand dollars which I have borrowed from time to time from friends and acquaintances, under the promise to return the same the following day, which I have often failed to do. To such an extent I have gone in this way that I am now ashamed to meet my fellow man in the street; besides that I have deeply wronged you as a husband by spending money instead of maintaining you as it becomes a husband to do. Though you have never complained of my miserable conduct, you nevertheless have suffered too much. I therefore, to save you farther disgrace and trouble, being that I cannot maintain you respectably, I shall end this state of things this very morning.
Marchessault asked for forgiveness from Sainsevain and his wife, whom he hoped to shield from slander “in this wicked world,” concluding that he hoped she would find happiness.
Marchessault, whose namesake street was on the north side of the Plaza for many years, was largely forgotten after his suicide, the sensational circumstances of which have been his legacy for the most part.
Several years ago, I was fortunate to be able to acquire the accompanying carte de visite photograph that is inscribed with “Damien Marchessault” on the reverse. This makes the image the only known photograph of the long-time mayor and tragic figure in the highly speculative and risky world of business. It was a fate that was shared eight years later by William Workman, who shot himself in May 1876 after the failure of his Temple and Workman bank and a visit by a court receiver.