Historic Martinez:  The Sum of Its Parts

Including Early Businessman, James Rankin


Editor’s Note:  When third generation Martinez resident Phyllis Wainwright died in February, 2011 at the age of 94,  her legacy of local public service as a member of the Board of Education and as leader of the restoration and preservation of Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery guaranteed a solid place for her in the ongoing history of the community.  But she never lost sight of the contributions of previous generations including her Scottish immigrant grandfather, James Rankin.  Although he had died 14 years before her birth, she not only listened to the stories told by his eldest child and her mother, Janet Rankin Butcher, but took the time to write them down as a permanent record now preserved in the files of the Martinez Historical Society.  

Part I in the May, 2011 issue detailed Rankin’s youth in Scotland and his determination along with millions of other late 19th century ambitious Europeans to make a new life in America – the land of unlimited opportunities for those willing to seek them.  Arriving in San Francisco in one of the first transcontinental trains in May, 1869, Rankin’s boyhood in a Scottish coal mining community made the “black diamond” mining area in eastern Contra Costa County seem like a good place to start.  Within 15 years, he owned three hotels, advised the mine company owners, started a family and was elected County Sheriff whereupon he and his wife, Sarah, and the first three of a total of nine children moved to Martinez.

In Part II below, Wainwright details what turned out to be the final 13 years of Rankin’s life, coinciding with the growth of Martinez as the governmental, financial and retail center of Contra Costa County fueled in large part by the stable society guarded by James Rankin as County Sheriff from 188- to 1888 and by its financial growth financed in large part by the Bank of Martinez headed from 1888 to 1901 by James Rankin.  ---Harriett Burt


By Phyllis Butcher Wainwright


To relate more of the history of the (coal) mining work of my grandfather, I will go back to 1885.  There was a rich vein (in what is now known as the Black Diamond Mine) known as the Clark Vein, which had not been operating for a time.  It had fallen into disrepair.  My grandfather went to some men in San Francisco and interested them in financing the restoration of this mine.  One of the men was Charles Allen for whom one of my uncles was named.  When this mine was re-opened the dignitaries from the City came to the mining community to dedicate it.  They went into the mine on the newly constructed elevator.  My mother (Janet Rankin Butcher born in 1880) who was only five still remembers the incident as her father took her with him on the first “run” and of course it was an exciting event for her.  He used to ride on the little coal cars that traveled down the hills to New York Landing (now known as Pittsburg) where he supervised the loading of the coal onto the barges and the freight trains that took the coal to the East or to other lands by ship.  He had to have a place to stay when in New York Landing, so he bought a little house on a section of land next to two friends, Charles and Randolph Wight.  This later became known as MadAvoy.  He had a young Scotsman and his wife living on the property and had them raise grain on the section of land – 640 acres.  Later they developed it into quite a grain operation so my grandfather built two silos to house the grain.

James RankinIn 1888, when his term as sheriff was ended, he did not choose torun again.  But the political bug had “bitten” him and he decided to run for the state legislature.  My mother tells of one of her classmates telling her that her father was going to lose the election and his heart would be broken.  He did lose, but evidently his heart was not broken.  He was very active in Republican politics in the county.  It was said that the county was “bossed” by the three Jims:  Jim Stow, Jim Borland and Jim Rankin.  They arranged and organized the political conventions in the county and had a great influence on who was selected as the Republican candidate.

He was a very devoted father and husband.  He would take my mother and her sister, Sara, to San Francisco four times a year to buy their clothes.  They’d stay at the Lick Hotel, which was considered very elegant at that time.  They’d go to the theater, shop, and return with gifts for the whole family.

My grandmother (Sarah Rankin) became very ill in the fall of 1892.  My grandfather had her go to some doctors in San Francisco for an examination.  Their diagnosis was that she should have a mastectomy as they suspected cancer.  There was a surgeon in Chicago that had performed this operation successfully, and no one on the West Coast had ever performed one.  My grandfather had the surgeon in Chicago come out by train and he performed the difficult operation, which was successful.  This shows a progressiveness that was very rare for that time and age.  While my grandmother had to stay in the hospital – then known as the Stanford-Lane Hospital - he was very worried that she’d be lonely and frightened.  He had my mother – then twelve – stay with her in her room in the hospital.  My grandmother recovered quickly and lived to the age of eighty-two.

Grandfather was very interested in having his children have an education.  When my mother finished the eighth grade, there was not a high school in Contra Costa County.  He contacted two of his friends, L. C. Wittenmeyer and L. P. Fish, and asked them to go with him to persuade the Episcopal minister and Congregational minister to conduct classes in the ninth and tenth grade in Latin, mathematics, literature and composition.  They agreed and the first high school was established in the rectory of the Episcopal Church.  Students came from Walnut Creek, Danville, and Concord, as well as from Martinez.  (Ed. Note: The Episcopal and Congregational ministers who ran the school and taught the classes withdrew after two years.) When my mother was ready for the eleventh grade, her father enrolled her in Berkeley High School. She boarded with one of his friends’ family – the Alexanders – during the week and came home to Martinez on the week-ends.  When she graduated from Berkeley High School, her father enrolled her in Mills College, which had recently moved from Benicia where it had been a seminary.  Several girls from Martinez attended the college with my mother – girls from early California families, the Sotos, Higuerras, and the Pachecos.  While attending Berkeley High, she became acquainted with Tom Hanna, who later married Wanda Muir.  She and Tom would commute to Martinez from Berkeley every week-end.

In February, 1893, (one of the Rankin children) Miriam, the namesake of “Miss Miriam” Porter died of scarlet fever.  It was at this time that James Rankin purchased a plot in the Alhambra Cemetery.  He purchased a stone which was large enough to inscribe the names of the entire family.  It was a great sorrow to the entire family when they lost Miriam.

Bank of Martinez 1The Bank of Martinez had had some poor management and had made too many loans that were not being re-paid.  By this time my grandfather had gained a reputation for being a good businessman, and the Messers Hale, Fish, and Wittenmeyer came to him and asked him to take over the (bank) presidency, so that he could try to get the bank back on its feet.  He accepted the position and remained the bank’s president until his death.

Grandfather acquired quite a bit of property throughout the county and in Martinez.  He owned the block – S. W. corner of Main and Ferry Streets.  McNamara’s Saloon was on the corner, a restaurant behind it, a general merchandise store, a furniture store, a haberdashery were on Main Street in his building.

He was quite a joiner.  He loved lodge work.  He was Master of the Masonic Lodge #227, and as Past Master was the district inspector of the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th districts at different times.  He was one of the founders of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Encampment in Nortonville and became the first Chief Patriarch.  He was one of the founders of the Knights of Pythias Lodge in Nortonville and later a member of the Redmen Lodge.  He was a member of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco and enjoyed attending the club’s high and low jinks at their grove on the Russian River.

During the last five years of his life he was not too well.  He traveled each year to Germany to take the baths at Baden, which were supposed to have great healing qualities.  He also returned to his native Scotland and to the small parish church outside Ayr, where he had lived with the minister’s family as a boy.  The church had burned so he gave the parish money to rebuild the church.  My daughter, Nancy, and I were privileged to see this church in the summer of 1974 and to see the Rankin name over the door of the parish hall.A

On October 15, 1901, at the age of 53, James Rankin died at the Stanford-Lane Hospital in San Francisco.  He had been taken there two weeks before for examination and diagnosis of his illness that had plagued him the past five years.  My mother believes that it must have been cancer that killed him.  He had a Masonic funeral and burial in Martinez by his Lodge #41.  In those days they had a wake, where three men from the lodge were sent to the home in shifts of three hours for three days to sit with the body.  He was buried in the Alhambra Cemetery.

He must have been an extremely kindly, generous person: very affectionate; with a keen and sensitive insight to the quality of living.  I feel this because he is remembered with such warmth and deep affection by his eldest child, my mother.

It has been from my dear mother that I have had the pleasure of vicariously knowing my grandfather, as she has told me during her ninety-fifth and ninety-sixth years these remembrances of him that I have been able to relate on these pages

Martinez Historical Society

1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553  (925) 228-8160