Monday, May 20, 2019

James Blethen (1828-1909): Mayor of Oakland who died destitute

Mayor James Blethen (Newspaper image: Oakland Tribune)
James Blethen was born on June 25, 1828 in Maine and came to California during the Gold Rush, where he set up shop as a contractor in San Francisco. He paid for his passage aboard he Golconda by working as a carpenter on the ship, a trade he had learned in Dover (now Dover-Foxcroft, Maine).

He was married twice and had nine children. 

In 1868, he and a partner bought the Pioneer Mill at 1st and Broadway in Oakland, where they did mill work, specializing is sashes and doors.  The business proved quite successful and Blethen developed an interest in politics during this time, spurred by the debates over the Chinese Exclusion Act.

He was a two-term Mayor of Oakland, serving in 1881 and 1882 (when Mayor's were elected to one-year terms). A year after he left office his good fortune began to decline. His Pioneer Planing Company became the target of boycotts and he accrued debts of $60,000 ($1.5 million in 2019 dollars) to the likes of Dr. Samuel Merritt, Knowland & Co and the Oakland Bank of Savings.

The Port of Oakland around 1882
The Los Angeles Herald claims his demise was a deal that he cut in 1882 as Mayor when he convened a special meeting of the City Council to pass what became known as the "Second Compromise," which proved to be wildly unpopular with the public. The first compromise, which was passed in 1868, basically ceded waterfront rights for 37 years to the unscrupulous (or wily, depending on your point of view) Horace Carpentier in exchange for $5, some wharf improvements and a new school. The second deal was seen by many as once again benefiting private interests over the public good. The fights over the waterfront dragged on in California and the Nation's highest courts for decades.

The Herald ran an account of him in his later years, describing him as "Old and bent and gray, his clothes patched and threadbare...Blethen, once Mayor of Oakland, now flags the trains of the Southern Pacific...the old man sits on a bench, leans against the Delger Block and either reads the papers or dreams of the days when he was Mayor, and could count more friends than any other citizen of Oakland."

His memorial service was held at the Masonic Temple and he was buried in the Blethen family plot.

Sources: The San Francisco Call, Wikipedia, Ancestry.com, Find-a-Grave, City of Oakland Planning Department, Sacramento Daily Record-Union, History of the Port of Oakland by DeWitt Jones, Oakland Tribune

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