Well Marbled: A Letter from The National Bank of California’s President, John M.C. Marble, Los Angeles, 2 April 1890

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It really is remarkable just how many people came to Los Angeles during the great Boom of the Eighties, which peaked during the 1887-88 term of William Henry Workman (nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman) as the city’s mayor and did so for health reasons. A prominent example at that time, though long forgotten now, was John Miner Carey (often known, like F.P.F. Temple, by his impressive three initials of J.M.C.) Marble.

Marble (1833-1912) hailed from the outskirts of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. After his father died in wars with Indians when Marble was an infant, his mother moved the family in with her grandfather. After his death in the mid-1840s, the family migrated to western Ohio and he lived many years in that area, including at Delphos and then Van Wert, near the Indiana border. Marble got his start in his teen years in business working as a store clerk and worked his way up to a partnership.

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Los Angeles Times, 4 September 1889.

In Delphos and Van Wert, he organized the First National Bank of each town and it appears he was quite successful in each enterprise, along with the development of an insurance company. A colonel in the Ohio National Guard, Marble was commissioned to lead the 151st Infantry unit, which was intended to protect Washington, D.C. while action took place elsewhere, but Marble and his men did fight in some battles against the Confederates before being mustered out in 1864. Meanwhile, there were efforts from the 1850s onward to build a railroad line from Cincinnati through western Ohio and into southern Michigan. Of various enterprises, Marble became a leader of the Cincinnati, Jackson and Mackinaw Railroad, which, through acquisition of other companies, completed a line of about 200 miles and was able to lease track from another railroad to reach the River City.

As this railroad project was being developed, Marble brought his family west to the Angel City for health reasons, though it not known which member required the change in climate. Shortly after arrival in 1888, he formed a railroad company, called the Los Angeles, Utah and Atlantic, which had plans to build a line from the harbor at San Pedro, with a branch at Alamitos Bay formerly Anaheim Landing (where William Workman was involved in the 1860s and 1870s in a wharf project promoted by Anaheim capital) through the San Gabriel Valley, San Bernardino, Kern and Inyo counties with future plans, apparently, to connect to the transcontinental line at Ogden. Much of this route would have been along the path of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, of which F.P.F. Temple was the first president and then treasurer before that project, having completed only a line from Los Angeles to the new town of Santa Monica, folded after the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank.

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Los Angeles Herald, 20 October 1889.

The Los Angeles, Utah and Atlantic never got beyond the planning stages, but Marble also turned to his other career element by forming The National Bank of California. Opened in the newly constructed Burdick Block at the northeast corner of Spring and 2nd streets in downtown Los Angeles, the N.B.C., which included investors like Moses H. Sherman (recently in Phoenix, but soon to be known for his real estate and railway projects and as namesake of Sherman Oaks), Dan McFarland (also from Ohio), Ventura County’s Thomas Bard (a native of Pennsylvania who was a banker and oil company president and who went on to be a United States Senator from California), and Los Angeles City Engineer and builder of the Burdick Block (not to mention the soon-to-be “Father of the Los Angeles Aqueduct”,) Fred Eaton, became a success and Marble headed it until 1906.

When the bank began business in September 1889, the great boom was over, though the Los Angeles Herald suggested that, though “these times are called dull here,” the opening of the N.B.C. was an indication of the opposite. It lauded Marble and his compatriots, saying “the sagacity of its managers is well illustrated in their selection of this place for their business.” Marble was called “a gentleman of very considerable experience in financial affairs, especially as relates to banking and railroading.” The banks he’d started in the Buckeye State “have proved eminently successful both as profitable investments to the shareholders and influence in developing the locality where situated.”

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Los Angeles Express, 31 December 1889.

The paper added that “a bank starting with such a corps of managers must have a successful career . . . so far as thorough experience, strict integrity, perfect success in past undertakings, and abundant means to carry on their present enterprise goes, the new concern starts out with every possible guarantee of success.” The Los Angeles Express, in its last edition of the year, echoed, albeit briefly, what its competitor suggested, stating “its officers are all experienced business men and popular.” Marble, it noted, “has had a wide general business experience, including banking and railroading, and is considered one of the best financiers in the city.” As the board was felt to be “composed of some of the ablest financiers on the coast,” and with sufficient capital and excellent managers, the N.B.C.’s “success is assured.”

In its New Year’s Day edition, the Herald called the bank “A Young Hercules” and declared that, in just a few months of operation, “the result shows the sagacity of its founders.” Thanks to “the demands of the business community” and the standing of Marble and his associates, “not only [was] success a possibility, but phenomenal success a sure thing.” In just two-and-a-half months, figures showed a roughly 80% increase in resources, with a major growth in cash and exchange and a huge increase in loans, while deposits more than doubled and a healthy increase was recorded in capital paid in. “Set afloat in this manner,” the paper concluded, “it will daily increase in strength . . . and will cut a full figure in the future history of this city and section, greatly aiding in the development of its resources and the building up of its industries.”

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After his nearly two decades at the helm of the N.B.C., Marble then turned to investments through real estate financing and formed the John M.C. Marble Company, which sold first mortgages. Long located in the Herman W. Hellman Building, the firm continued on after its founder’s 1912 death under the management of his son William. A connection to the Temples came when Walter P. Temple’s attorney, George H. Woodruff, who was based in Los Angeles, suggested in spring 1927 that William and the Marble company’s treasurer join him in running a proposed Temple Holding Company to manage Temple’s real estate properties outside of Temple City. Walter Temple and his eldest child Thomas, then 22 and studying at Harvard Law School would have comprised the other directors, but the other three would have the power to make decisions. The project, however, was never launched.

As to the letter, it was written to Richard Smith, the treasurer of the Cincinnati, Jackson and Mackinaw Railroad and, though Marble’s penmanship is remarkably tough to decipher, enough could be discerned that the gist concerned the stocks and bonds of the railroad and Marble’s ideas of what to do to sell his shares when the market was at the point when prices were most advantageous. There are some references to fault of Marble’s in how financing was handled, but he seemed to indicate that he was supportive of a reorganization, which did take place in 1892. The railroad went through a series of maneuvers in railroading in and around southwestern Ohio and became the Cincinnati Northern after a couple of years. In 1901, what was called “The Big Four” and formally the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad bought out Marble’s old company, though it retained its name until the late 1930s.

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As to local matters, the missive began with the report that “we [the National Bank of California officials] have got underway here in a business way and I think have no reason to complain so far, but it is a good deal like beginning at the bottom of the ladder.” Marble was in his late fifties, so that sentiment is understandable, though he added, “I have an excellent set of associates which make it very pleasent [sic] in many ways.”

At the end of the letter, Marble wrote Smith that “the family are all with me except [his son] John who is in school [the University of Michigan] at Ann Arbor, all well and enjoy the climate, which is delightfull [sic].” Marble went on to encourage Smith to partake in the glories of greater Los Angeles by telling him “you should be here to spend your remaining days in it” and inviting him out, saying “we have a very comfortable home and would enjoy a visit from you so much.” That residence was on the west side of Figueroa Street, north of Jefferson, in what was a very fashionable area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries close to the University of Southern California.

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In early 1912, Marble, his second wife Elizabeth (the first died in childbirth in 1865 just after he returned home from the war) and their daughter Elizabeth, vacationed in Europe. They were booked to return to the United States on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, but suddenly changed their plans to take a later ship. On that voyage, however, Marble developed a cold, which was followed by pneumonia. The family checked into a New York City hotel, but his condition worsened considerably and he died on 29 April 1912. Marble was buried in a cemetery in his native Pennsylvania and, while he was a notable figure in the Los Angeles financial world for almost a quarter-century, he has long been forgotten.

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