Getting the Shaft: The Workman and Temple Families and Their Mining History, 1844-1874

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This morning, the Homestead’s Non-Fiction Book Club met, in person and virtually, to discuss William Silber’s The Story of Silver: How the White Metal Shaped America and the Modern World and I joined in at the end to share a brief presentation as aspects of the Workman and Temple families’ involvement in mining from the mid-1840s through the mid-1870s.

Thanks to the recent donation of family artifacts from the Josette Temple Estate and which were originally collected and preserved by John H. Temple, grandson of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste and owner of the 75-acre ranch from 1888 to 1899, and his descendants, the Museum has some rare documents regarding their mining history.

Many people are still unaware that the first significant discovery of gold, though paling in comparison to the much larger and more famous Gold Rush, took place north of Los Angeles at Placerita Canyon near Santa Clarita in spring 1842. Francisco López found the precious metal there and soon miners from the greater Los Angeles area and northern México, where mining was a long-standing enterprise, were in the “dry diggings” searching for their fortunes.

Pliny F. Temple, newly arrived from Massachusetts and working in his brother Jonathan’s Angel City store, purchased gold from miners and sent the flakes and dust back to his hometown, where his brother Abraham was requested to exchange the material for cash at the American national mint in Philadelphia.

A document shared with the group this morning was a “Copy of a few articles sent for,” as it was commonplace for people to not only handwrite an letter to be sent to the recipient, but to make a copy for filing. In this case, the 22-year old Pliny, writing from “Angeles” on the last day of June 1844, wrote:

I send you by ship Barnstable capt Hatch fifteen ounces Gold three of which I wish you to give mother the remainder after deducting for your trouble & expence I wish you to purchase the following articles or a part as the funds hold out, commencing at the head of the list & so on and send them when an opportunity presents.

Among the items requested were “fancy silk pocket Handkerchiefs” and neck handkerchiefs (basically, precursors of the necktie), “2 custom made black silk velvet vests,” a half-dozen silver pencils (with lead, of course), a pair of letter stamps with the initials “P.F.T.” for Pliny and “J.T.” for his brother, a quartet of leather pocket memorandum books with clasps, a music box, a silver watch, 18 buckskin, cotton, kid and silk gloves, a silk shawl, a valise “for carrying behind [a] saddle,” belts, a half-dozen pen knives, and pair of pocket pistols, and “1 small balance with weights for the purpose of weighing Gold (Troy weight).”

The estimated total of the 86 items was $172 and it appears that, while some of these were personal purchases for Pliny and Jonathan, others were intended for sale in the Temple store, situated at what is now the northwest corner of Main and Temple streets across from Los Angeles City Hall, which was long known as the Temple Block before its completion in 1928.

After providing this fairly extensive list of goods, Pliny then added that he wanted more material shipped to him, including books relating to growing mulberry trees, seeds of that type, as well as for flowers, apples, pears, quinces, cherries, plums, peaches, pumpkin, “cammomile” and “a few ears of early corn” and “Virginia white flat corn.”

Then, he requested that Abraham should “purchase me a Leather (traveling) trunk two feet & a half long with the initials P.F.T. on the end and fill it up with papers, books &c, Philadelphia Saturday courier, American Traveller, Mercantile Journal & New York Mirror to compose the principal part of the papers & a variety of other weekly & daily papers—Revised Statutes of Massachusetts— [and a] book of five thousand receipts.”

Finally, Pliny wrote:

The above articles you can pick up at your Leasure [sic] so when an opportunity presents they will be ready. I wish them to be packed in as small a box as convenient & well balanced in order that there may not be any notice taken of it & thereby escape the custom house— [the] duties at the present time are very high.

One can only imagine that this evasion was attempted by many a resident of Mexican California who chafed at the idea of paying what they considered onerous duty charges for importing goods!

About two years later, the United States provoked México into a long-expected war and the invasion and seizure of California took place in the last part of 1846 and first days of the following year. The conflict continued until American forces received the surrender of their Mexican counterparts later in 1847 and the resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was ratified by the Mexican Congress on 2 February 1848.

Nine days prior to that, on 24 January, James Marshall, while building a mill for John Sutter on the American River in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Sacramento, stumbled on the precious metal deposits that led to the remarkable Gold Rush. While Jonathan Temple soon wrote back home that Pliny contemplated joining the hordes of gold seekers, Pliny sent a letter back to brother Abraham, dated 20 September 1848, and with his copy shared at today’s meeting.

After admonishing his family and friends that he had not heard from anyone in a year-and-a-half, even though he wrote several times “by various routes,” Pliny (who took the baptismal name Francisco when marrying Antonia Margarita Workman and was, thereby, known as F.P.F.), informed his sibling:

The war between the two Republics it appears is at a close this country remaining in favour of the U.S. I have not as yet seen the treaty. Col. [Jonathan D.] Stevenson’s Regiment of N.Y. Volunteers are now disbanded and are making their way towards the gold mines which have been lately discovered on the rivers Sacramento & San Joaquin; they are immensely rich. Capt. Phelps [who delivered the original letter] has been there the last three or four months & he will be able to give you correct information relating to them.

In something of a postscript, F.P.F. added that “in case that bond of J.C. Fremont is paid I think it would be advisable for you to expend the balance after deducting two hundred dollars for Mother & pay yourself for any . . .” Here the text abruptly ended, but the reference was to the promised purchase by the federal government on a promissory note issued by the notorious John C. Frémont of Alcatraz Island.

The small rocky outcropping in San Francisco Bay was granted by Governor Pío Pico to William Workman in spring 1846, just prior to the American invasion, and Workman then alienated the island to his son-in-law. Frémont, recognizing its military value, issued his “I.O.U.” to Temple and assured him the government would pay $5,000 for Alcatraz. Not only was Frémont court-martialed, with one of the charges being that he lacked authority to make the deal with Temple, but the feds took possession of the island and never paid compensation to Temple for it.

With respect to the Gold Rush, F.P.F. may well have gone to “try his hand at gold digging” as Jonathan expressed it, but he decided instead to purchase property in the “southern mines” of Tuolumne County, north of Yosemite, and from 1849 onward, acquired substantial holdings in the towns of Columbia, Sonora and Springfield. In the former, now a state historic park, there are two surviving structures that he once owned, including a meat market, while, at Sonora, he owned a similar establishment and other property.

At nearby Springfield, which hardly exists now, he had grazing land and slaughterhouses so that he was basically involved in a “fully integrated” enterprise that separated him from almost all of the Los Angeles-area ranchers who sent cattle on the weeks-long trek to the mines and sold the animals “on the hoof” to locals and returned home with their proceeds. Temple, however, went to the extra length to process the cattle for fresh beef and then sell that product in his stores.

Another artifact shared with the book club members earlier is a copy letter from F.P.F. to his sister Cynthia from Springfield and dated 2 July 1856. In this case, he was responding to her sad news of the death of their mother, Lucinda, and told his sibling “I am now deprived of the pleasure of ever seeing her again here on earth, but trust we may meet in a happier clime, where ‘Eternal day excludes the night / And pleasure banish pain.” The quotation is from a 1709 hymn by Isaac Watts called “There is a Land of Pure Delight.”

Springfield remained Temple’s gold country headquarters well into the 1870s, long after the Gold Rush subsided while production did continue, and he had Thornton Sanborn, son of his sister Lucinda, employed there for years to oversee his many interests in that region. Once F.P.F. became heavily invested in the growing business world of Los Angeles as it embarked on its first sustained and significant period of development following the end of the Civil War, he gradually divested his Tuolumne County, selling the last property in 1875.

One example of local mining in which Temple and William Workman were invested was on Santa Catalina Island, which had a bit of a rush of activity in the late 1860s. The privately-owned island, some twenty-six miles off the coast from San Pedro, included several claims and, in June 1868, Workman and Temple acquired an interest in the “Small Hill Claim” owned by Stephen Boushey, a Los Angeles resident.

A deed that was featured in today’s talk recorded that for $2,500, the to men acquired a 5/12 interest in the claim which was being mined for silver, lead and gold “on the north east side of said Island and towards he west end thereof, and distant from the sea shore one mile and a quarter a little more or less in the Catalina Mining District.” The claim was “Twelve hundred feet in length, running East and West in a general direction.”

While the document was witnessed by County Judge William G. Dryden, an acquaintance of Workman of nearly thirty years in New Mexico and who migrated to Los Angeles during the Gold Rush, it was not recorded by Temple until January 1870. It is not known how much mining was done at the claim and whether there were any yields of significance, but the history of prospecting for precious metals at Catalina is very little known today.

The last object discussed at the meeting is one of several stock certificates owned by Workman in the Cerro Gordo Water and Mining Company, incorporated on the last day of June 1873 with Temple as president. Cerro Gordo was a silver mining boomtown in the steep fastnesses of the mountains east of Owens Lake in Inyo County in eastern California and the company was established with $2 million in stock, divided into 20,000 shares of $100 each.

Workman purchased, in late spring 1874, 1,500 shares in the company, meaning he had an investment of $150,000, a princely sum, in the firm, which was established to mine for silver and other metals, but which also built a pipe system of more than 11 miles to deliver water to Cerro Gordo from Miller Springs, which was found in the mountains to the north. Hydraulic mining had long replaced the “dry diggings” of yore (and caused immense environmental damage through the blasting of mountain sides) and to find a reliable source of the precious fluid was an enormous boon for the area and the company.

Unfortunately, the success of delivering water to Cerro Gordo was short-lived as, after about a year, the springs suddenly and starkly went dry. The company foundered and, clearly, there was a significant financial loss to Workman and Temple and their six-figure investments each in the firm, not to mention depositors of the Temple and Workman bank, whose funds were invested, as well (and in other speculative projects in oil, real estate, railroads and more.)

The disaster was compounded in late August 1875 when a silver mine stock bubble centered on activity at Virginia City, Nevada, north of Reno, burst, not long after Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin precipitated a panic by his selling of his substantial stock holdings at the Comstock Lode. In fact, Baldwin earned his nickname by selling his investments at prices higher than he originally intended and he made off with millions, some of which he used to invest in greater Los Angeles real estate, starting with his $200,000 purchase of 8,000 acres of the Rancho Santa Anita.

When the Bank of California in San Francisco (the state’s largest financial institution) collapsed because of its huge losses involving Comstock Lode stock and its president William Ralston was found dead in San Francisco Bay after his morning swim, the telegraph sent the news south to Los Angeles. Panicked Angelenos besieged the two commercial banks in town, Farmers and Merchants and Temple and Workman.

Eventually, the former easily withstood the hordes of depositors seeking to withdrawn funds and the bank, carefully and conservatively managed by the brilliant Isaias W. Hellman, went on to great success. Hellman’s former partners, however, struggled to save their institution, with Temple finally securing a loan from Baldwin in late November, nearly four months after the bank went into suspension. The $340,225 provided by the San Francisco capitalist, however, could not forestall the failure of the institution and the bank’s demise ruined its owners.

Thanks to these remarkable historic artifacts, the Museum is able to share with visitors the mining history of the Workman and Temple families from the late Mexican era through the end of greater Los Angeles’ first boom. The highly speculative nature of precious metals mining, not to mention oil prospecting, real estate development, and other projects, constituted great risk, something that was eerily mirrored in the experiences of Temple’s son (and Workman’s grandson) Walter P. Temple a half-century or so later, though he was not involved in mining as his forebears were.

Leave a Reply