In our recent articles we took a look at 1290 Weber Street, the former home of William F. Chipman, son of Alameda co-founder William W. Chipman (see Today’s Alameda Treasure – 1290 Weber St. – Part 1), so it seems only right to also remember Alameda’s other co-founder, Gideon Aughinbaugh.
Aughinbaugh heads west to seek his fortune
In the year 1849, when so many were traveling west to seek their fortunes in the gold hills of California, 33-year-old Gideon Aughinbaugh (1816-1897) set out from Mississippi with his wife Elizabeth, 27, and daughter Ella. Gideon was a native of Pennsylvania, and had developed skills in carpentry. Arriving in Gold Rush San Francisco, he soon found a business opportunity in meeting the needs of the growing population. He not only found work as a carpenter, but also set up his own grocery store. With fresh produce—especially fruit—selling at premium prices, he realized he needed land where he could grow that produce.
A fruitful meeting
Vermont native William W. Chipman (1820-1873), arrived in San Francisco in 1850. He set up an “intelligencer office,” where newspapers, information and messages were assembled—an important service in the new city. It was there that Aughinbaugh met Chipman, and a connection was made. The two men discussed Aughinbaugh’s need for land to grow fruit, and they soon found themselves looking in the east bay.
The dawn of a new city
In early 1851 Chipman and Aughinbaugh visited the Encinal de San Antonio, part of a land grant held by Antonio Maria Peralta, son of Spanish army commander Luis Peralta. This piece of land, comprising what later became the city of Alameda, was part of a much larger tract that spanned most of the east bay and was split between Luis Peralta’s four sons. Antonio Maria Peralta’s lands were being overrun by American squatters, so he accepted an offer of $14,000 from Chipman and Aughinbaugh for just a portion of his estate, the Encinal de San Antonio.
The men get to work
Chipman was the more educated of the two, having been trained as a lawyer. Aughinbaugh’s interests lay more in the areas of farming and inventing. He immediately set out to plant rows of cherry, apple and peach trees in the vicinity of today’s Versailles Avenue. Chipman, meanwhile, had visions of growing their new land into a thriving city, maybe even the county seat.
The economics of their plan were challenging from the start, however. In order to pay the down payment on the land, the two men had to borrow the money at 4% interest. In addition, the balance was due by the end of the year or they’d lose their entire investment, including the land. This necessitated selling portions of their tract in order to raise funds. More than half of the peninsula was sold to Americans named Fitch, Sharon, Hibbard, Foley, Hays, and Caperton. Chipman and Aughinbaugh kept the east end, where the fruit orchards were planted, and the west end, adjacent to a large expanse of marshland.
As word got out about the desirability of this land for both farming and residential use, more and more squatters started to appear. In addition, Chipman and Aughinbaugh had to deal with two Frenchman, De Passier and Maitre, who were living on the south shore at the end of what is now Chestnut Street. They were engaged in cutting oak branches for San Francisco’s charcoal market, and still had six years left on their original lease from Peralta. It also became apparent that James Hibbard was not going to pay for his property as agreed, and was also engaged in cutting down trees for firewood and charcoal. As Chipman became more and more involved in litigation, Aughinbaugh tried to focus on his dream of operating a successful commercial orchard. He is said to have planted the first apple tree in California.
A home in Alameda
In the meantime, the partners had set up a home near what are now Peach and Washington streets. They had a house from the east coast disassembled and shipped around the Horn to Alameda, where it was re-assembled into a two-story, seven-room dwelling for Aughinbaugh, his wife Elizabeth, daughter Ella, and partner Chipman. It served as their home for three years before Aughinbaugh built a house of his own.
During this time the partners considered names for their new town. The name Peralta was considered, as well as Elizabethtown, perhaps in honor of Elizabeth Aughinbaugh. Finally, they settled on Alameda, which means “a shady grove of poplar trees.” Perhaps Encinal would have been more appropriate though, as it’s defined as “an area marked primarily by the growth of oaks,” but that name was already taken by Hibbard’s nearby Village of Encinal. The men continued to sink money into wharves, roads, bridges, and irrigation.
Tragedy strikes the Aughinbaugh family
In 1855, at just 33 years old, Elizabeth Aughinbaugh was struck down by congestive fever and acute jaundice. Gideon was bereft at the loss of his wife, and as William’s journal recounts, “The light of the house went into everlasting darkness. We have been so long as one family. Aughinbaugh’s heart is nearly broken.”
Time went on, and the partners had to keep selling more and more land to pay their legal fees related to squatters. Selling land to individuals or investors was difficult without clear title being established, so lawyers swooped in to purchase land at a discount, figuring that only they could untangle the legal mess. Alfred A. Cohen ended up with a large plot of land in the Fernside district, where he established a grand estate and set about building a railroad by 1864. Eventually William Chipman had enough of the situation, and moved his family to San Francisco, where he died in 1873 at just 53 years old. Aughinbaugh pressed on, doing the best he could with his diminishing resources.
Gideon and Ella
Having lost his wife and now his business partner, Gideon Aughinbaugh, with his daughter Ella, got involved in some land investments in the Central Valley near Visalia, as well as a series of rental cottages on Central Avenue near the Terrace Baths Resort in Alameda. Gideon also continued to pursue inventions, including a new model for a bicycle that would “revolutionize the manufacture of wheels,” according to an 1895 newspaper article. Other inventions were in the field of agriculture.
An indefatigable protestant
A June 1877 article in the Oakland Tribune described the scene when Gideon Aughinbaugh lodged a protest regarding “opening third avenue,” which must have involved a taking of his land under eminent domain laws. As the article described it, “The members leaned back in their chairs and resigned themselves to their fate, while this indefatigable protestant wandered promiscuously in his remarks round a circle ever beginning and ending with, ‘If they have a right to petition, we have a right to protest.’” The article ended with the observation, “The time has gone by when a few chronic croakers can retard the progress of Alameda.” The article gives a sense of Aughinbaugh as a man not afraid to be a “chronic croaker” when it came to fighting for his land rights, as he did for so long with the help of his lawyer-partner William W. Chipman.
The death of a founder
An article headlined, “Was Laid To Rest,” appeared in the Daily Encinal on July 9, 1897. It described Aughinbaugh’s death and legacy, and how the pall-bearers “included four of Alameda’s oldest residents.” These included William F. Chipman and Sheridan H. Chipman, the two sons of his former partner William.
Though his circumstances were much diminished in his old age, with the town he founded largely sold out from under him, Aughinbaugh had continued tinkering and inventing, even appearing on his newly designed bicycle on the streets of the west end until just a few months before his passing. His death was ruled an accidental overdose of morphine, which had been prescribed for his pain from neuralgia.
Aughinbaugh’s death not what it seemed
Articles appeared in the Oakland Tribune on February 4 and 5, 1898, reporting that the death of Gideon Aughinbaugh the summer before had actually been a suicide, according to his daughter Ella. The article stated that she was firmly convinced that her father took the overdose intentionally, as a result of despondency over illness and poverty—a sad end for a man who had played such a large role in founding the city. With assisted suicide and death-with-dignity laws an issue to this day, Gideon Aughinbaugh’s passing in this way reminds us that these difficult questions are nothing new, and have been part of the human experience for generations.
As I was passing Gideon Aughinbaugh’s former home at 611 Taylor Avenue recently, I stopped to look at the plaque and remember the man who came to Alameda in 1851 and saw the possibilities. At the time it was a wild and untamed peninsula, covered in oaks and marshland, the home of Native Americans for generations, and then held by the son of a Spanish soldier. Aughinbaugh and his partner had a vision, and while that vision didn’t work out financially for them, the city they created was a gift to future generations.
So today’s Alameda Treasure is not just the little cottage on Taylor Avenue, but rather Gideon Aughinbaugh himself. He came to California in 1849 and ended up co-founding a village that grew into a city of almost 80,000 people. There’s little named after Aughinbaugh today, and his pauper’s grave at Mountain View Cemetery was unmarked until former Alameda Museum curator George Gunn had a stone placed there in 1980. But Gideon Aughinbaugh is truly one of our Alameda Treasures, a “chronic croaker” who did things his way, and went out on his terms.
For a fascinating read on Alameda’s early development and history, see Imelda Merlin’s book, Alameda – A Geographical History.
Contributing writer Steve Gorman has been a resident of Alameda since 2000, when he fell in love with the history and architecture of this unique town. Contact him via [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Steve-Gorman.