Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: William C. Ralston

William C. Ralston, a synonym for goodness, was born at Wellsville, Ohio, January 15th, 1820. He drifted to California, being one of the first to pass through the Golden Gate. Here he remained for twenty-five years, becoming the most noted man in the State, having prospered wonderfully.

It has been truly said of him that he did more than any other one man to secure a good municipal government for San Francisco. Aiding with his money weak industries, he did much to elevate the tone of a class of people consisting of almost every nationality—the miners. The struggling young man had nothing but sympathy extended him from this great philanthropist; indeed, his great desire seemed to be, what can I do for my less fortunate fellow-man. He was elected President of the Bank of California, to succeed Mr. Mills. This bank had a credit all over the globe. It was the greatest financial power in the Republic. Such was its standing in the financial world when Mr. Mills delivered the bank over to Mr. Ralston. Mr. Ralston was a great and good man, but his desire to benefit and aid others led him to place out the bank’s money too freely; hence, when Mr. Flood made his sudden and unlooked for call for over $5,000,000, the amount of his deposit, it was useless for the bank to try to raise it at once, as it could not be done, notwithstanding the bank had ample resources, if they had only been available. Mr. Flood, it seemed to us, need not have pressed his claim when he knew that the bank could pay him soon. It is claimed by some that he chose this method to cripple the Bank of California to the advantage of his Nevada Bank. Be this as it may, Mr. Ralston unwisely allowed his tender heart to be touched too deeply, and thus placed the bank in a weak position to meet such a crisis. A meeting of the directors was immediately called, and it was decided to ask the President for his resignation which, together with his household effects, he promptly tendered. This was a terrible blow to him, and it may be the officials were somewhat hasty. On the 27th of August he went down to the beach, put on his bathing suit, drank something from a bottle (it is alleged), dived into the waves, was carried far out and was never again seen alive.

As the people gazed on his lifeless body they began to realize what a loss they had sustained. Threats of vengeance were heard on every hand, which made it seem best for the founders of the rival Nevada Bank to abstain from being seen in their usual haunts. A public meeting was called, and long before the appointed time to begin the business of the meeting the public hall where it was held was packed, and thousands were unable to get in. One orator addressed those in the hall while the dense mass outside, who were unable to get in, were divided and addressed by two speakers. The several charges against him were in turn taken up, and either proven false or shown to be justified by the excited populace. The following resolution expressive of the irreparable loss the city had sustained, was presented.

Resolved, “That in reviewing the life of the deceased. William C. Ralston, we recognize one of the first citizens of San Francisco, the master spirit of her industries, the most bounteous giver to her charities, the founder of her financial credit, and the warm supporter of every public and private effort to augment her prosperity and welfare. That to his sagacity, activity, and enterprise, San Francisco owes much of her present material prosperity, and in his death has sustained an irreparable loss. That in his business conceptions he was a giant, in social life an unswerving friend, and in all the attributes of his character he was a man worthy of love and trust.” When “All those in favor of this say aye,” was called, the answer came like the sound of heavy artillery, and not a solitary ‘No’ was heard in that vast crowd.

Rev. T. K. Noble said, “The aim of his life was not to pull down but to build up. What enterprise can you mention looking to the betterment of material interests in which he did not have part? In the building of railroads, in the establishment of lines of steamships to Australia, to China, to Japan; in the manufacture of silk; in the Pacific Woolen Mills, the Bay Sugar Refinery, the West Coast Furniture Manufactory; and in those superb buildings, the Grand and Palace hotels; and in many other enterprises I have not time to mention. Into each and all of these he put his money and his brains.” This was expressive of much, and it very clearly represented the general impression of the people throughout his State. He gave not only his money, but his sympathy.

People of the East who know of him principally as a man of great wealth cannot conceive an idea of such a man,—indeed they have none such among them. He was the moral phenomenon of modern times. The people of his State all love him, and there are those to-day who are struggling in various enterprises who can look to no one now for help, who like to tell of the time ‘when they could have gone to ‘Frisco and seen Ralston about it.’ What a tribute is this; when we think of a man who regarded money only as a means to do good, and who seemed a special Providence to all in need. We look upon this picture and we see him happy only in giving; but we turn and our hearts bleed in sympathy when we behold him torn from his position, the victim of avariciousness and envy, which to all appearance is the immediate cause of his untimely death. But there is another thought here; he should have been very cautious in placing money where it could not be brought into immediate use in such an emergency.

Great was the feeling at his burial. Three regiments, cavalry, artillery, and the National Guard, escorted his remains to their last resting place. After several years Mrs. Ralston received back over $100,000, and is therefore comfortable. We shall forever mourn the death of such men, and ever regard and cherish their memory as among the dearest in American history.