James Rankin

Ambitious Immigrant, Respected Businessman,

Devoted Family Man


Editor’s Note:  When  Phyllis Wainwright died in February, 2011 at the age of 94, she had left her own mark in the fabric of Martinez as a member of the first graduating class of Martinez Junior High School, a member of the Alhambra class of 1934, a charter member of Martinez Branch of the American Association of University Women, the first woman to be elected to the Alhambra Union High School Board of Trustees and a charter member and longtime chair of the City of Martinez Cemetery Commission who was instrumental in preserving the county’s first cemetery and final resting place of many of its founders – the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery.  She was also the proud mother of William H. “Bill” Wainwright who served as a City Council member over a century after his great grandfather died.

Probably most of the local residents who recognize her name from any of her activities would not have known that Rankin Park is named after her grandfather who was a successful businessman, a president of the Bank of Martinez (now a branch of Union Bank of California) and an outstanding example of the gifts and the energy ambitious young men and women brought to the New World from their native countries.  Less  than 20 years after his arrival in America at the age of 17, James Rankin was owner of three successful “general stores” in the coal mining communities of eastern Contra Costa County who was elected County Sheriff and moved his growing family to Martinez. A few years later he was tapped to run the struggling Bank of Martinez which he did successfully until his death at the age of 53. 

James Rankin died in 1901, fifteen years before Phyllis was born.  Therefore much of the information she used came from her mother, Janet Rankin Butcher (1880-1977), a lifelong resident of Martinez.  It is not clear when Phyllis Wainwright wrote the following except that it was after her mother’s death.


James Rankin (1848-1901)

By Phyllis Wainwright


James Rankin was born in a small town in the county of Ayrshire called Lankenshire in Scotland.  Because the village was so small it had no school beyond the sixth grade, so his family sent him to Ayr to continue his education.  In Ayr he lived with the Church of Scotland’s minister (today this denomination is known as Presbyterian in the United States) family.  He worked for his board and room while attending school.  As Ayr is a seaport, watching the ships come in and out of the harbor intrigued him, and the stories he heard of “the new world” excited his imagination.  One day in 1865, at the age of seventeen he boarded one of the ships bound for New York.

He had odd jobs in New York, saving his earnings in order to travel further into the United States’ interior.  At this time the transcontinental railroad was being built that would link St. Louis to San Francisco.  He went to St. Louis in 1869.  It was on May 10, 1869 that the last spike was driven into the railroad at Promontory Point in Utah.  On May 15 James boarded the train that took him to San Francisco.  The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific had joined to link the East to the West.

Because the community from which he came was a coal mining community, he was interested in the “black gold” that was being mined in the foothills of Mt. Diablo.  He left San Francisco and went to Nortonville in June of 1869 and applied for a job in the mines.  He saved his earnings and supplemented them by working in Nortonville’s general store.  He then returned to San Francisco and established his residency there and eventually took out his naturalization papers and in November, 1873 became a citizen of the United States.  While living in San Francisco, he made many contacts with men interested in financing the mines.  These contacts later played an important part in his career.

He returned to Nortonville and purchased a hotel in nearby Somersville.  It was known as the Union Hotel and it flourished as it was the only hotel for the mining communities.  After fifteen months of operating it, he was offered a good price for it, which he could not refuse.  In six months the hotel burned to the ground, so his good fortune in selling it was a financial gain.

He then purchased a store in Somersville which was run in competition to another merchant named Sam Brown.  Sam Brown was to later play an important role in my grandfather’s life.  Sam was a veteran of the Union Troops Marine Corps, and one of seven sons and five daughters of Thomas Brown of Pennsylvania.  Sam sent a railroad ticket to one of his brothers in Gettysburg to travel in California.  The brother did not want to come, but his “spunky” sister, Sara, took the ticket and road the Union Pacific to Utah, then the Central Pacific to Port Costa.  She helped her brother in his general merchandise store and through him met James Rankin.  Apparently it was love at first sight, and in eight months, On July 8, 1879 they were married in the German Lutheran Church, known as Freie Deutsche Gemeinde von San Francisco.  It was on the northwest corner of Turk and Buchanan Streets.

Their first home was in Somersville where James had his store.  Now that he was married and a baby was on the way, he decided to expand his business in merchandising and established two more stores – one in Judsonville and another in Nortonville.

With the establishment of the store in Nortonville, he moved his wife to a new home in that community.  It was here that two of their children were born – Janet on May 31, 1880 and James on January 5, 1882.  Their little cottage was too small for the additional members of the little family so they moved to a larger one in Somersville, where one more child, Sara, was born on October 11, 1883.

James was by this time operating his three general merchandise stores and working in the mines as a financial adviser for the “absent owners”.  The miners and townspeople of the mining communities decided they needed more representation in the county government in Martinez.  They urged James to run for sheriff.  He did and won the election.

With this new position he had to move to the county seat.  He moved his family to a home at the corner of Pine and Ward Streets which is now a parking lot behind the Post Office.  They moved here in 1883.

It was in this home that two more children were born—Sam in 1885 and Eleanor (Nell).  The family now needed a larger home.  Thus began another “house hunt”.  A family named Porter had left Martinez (either by death or travel) leaving one member, “Miss Miriam”, a primary school teacher living in the home until her wedding when she would marry Wilfred Tinning.  She rented the home to the Rankin Family, with the provision that she could remain in it until her wedding day.  It was through this contact with Wilfred Tinning that James Rankin and he became life-long friends.

The Rankins now began to look at homes to buy.  They purchased one nestled in the hills overlooking the bay on land that is now part of the Martinez Municipal Park (Rankin Park where the municipal swimming pool is currently being rebuilt through funds from Measure H approved by voters in 2008).   James purchased fifty acres of land surrounding the home.  He employed to Scotsmen, who had come to this country to work in the coal mines, to be caretakers of this property.  The family moved into the home while the caretakers busied themselves in planting an olive grove on the side of the hill (still visible in 2011), orange trees, cherry trees and almonds on the flatland.  These Scots loved the soil and devoted their time to developing the acreage for my grandfathers. 

In the canyon behind the house there was a quarry which provided the stone for the improvements made on the house.  This same quarry also provided the stone that was used on all the decorative figurations of the buildings on Main Street.  In 1906 when the San Francisco earthquake occurred, all the decorations made of this stone fell off the buildings onto the street.  This “softy” stone was not used by the citizenry after that.

Behind the house the Rankins built a little stone house where they kept the milk which their cows provided.  Any extra milk was either given or sold to the townspeople.  The family built a huge barn to house their horses, cows and one bull.  They also had an ice house.  My grandfather had the ice packed in it every winter.  He had it brought from the sierra in railroad cars to Martinez.  He also had a smoke house where the family’s meat was smoked and kept.

The family kept a wagon, a buggy and a lorry for their transportation.  My mother (Janet Rankin) would drive the buggy to the depot each night to meet her father when he came down from the mines or form San Francisco.

The newly purchased house was now too small for the growing family – three more children had been born (bringing the total to nine of whom one died in childhood).  James enlarged the house so that there were no nine bedrooms, two sitting rooms, a breakfast room, a parlor and a very large dining room to accommodate the eleven members of the family.  Grandfather put in gas throughout the house so that every room had heat and lighting from the gas.  There were fire places in the parlor, sitting rooms, dining room and two of the bedrooms.  One of his good friends, Jim Borland, the manager of the new telephone company that had just come to Martinez, installed a telephone in the house.  It was the second telephone to be installed in Martinez and enabled Grandfather to keep in close communication with his business at the mines.  The spring, which was in the canyon behind the house, provided the family with drinking water and the gardens with irrigation.

Martinez Historical Society

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