For an interesting and readable version of California’s development from 1850-1920, one would do well to pick up Frances Dinkelspiel’s Towers of Gold. This book tells the history of California through the actions and life of Isaias Hellman, Dinkelspiel’s great-great-grandfather.
Hellman was one of a group of German Jews who left the old country looking for economic prospects and acceptance. Arriving in New York in 1859, Hellman was lured to California by the Gold Rush and the chance to make a new life on the Western Frontier. Like his co-religionist and countryman, Levi Strauss, Hellman made his fortune by beginning his working life in dry goods. Joining family in Los Angeles, Hellman worked in a relative’s store before going into banking. He was instrumental in bringing the Southern Pacific Railroad through the city, allowing the isolated pueblo a chance to grow. He was also involved in several other key Los Angeles industries, including local transportation, water rights, wine, and oil drilling. By the time he and his family moved to San Francisco in thirty years later, he was connected to many of the key movers and shakers of the area, including Collis and Henry Huntington, John Downey, William Mulholland, and Edward Doheny.
In San Francisco, Hellman continued his economic grasp on the state of California through his banking work. He was responsible for the growth of the Nevada Bank, later the Nevada Wells Fargo Bank, and finally the Wells Fargo that continues to the present day. In addition, his work with other financiers was directly related to the development of the Bank of Italy, which later changed its name to Bank of America. The family lived through the devastating 1906 earthquake, moving temporarily to Oakland. Isaias and his wife also built a summer home in Lake Tahoe, which has since become D.L. Bliss State Park.
The story is told through Hellman’s life, but the reader learns so much more about California history. Street and city names become attached to real people, real lives, and tragic events that shaped the history of the state. Beyond the banks, Hellman was directly or indirectly connected to such notable California institutions as the Huntington Library in Los Angeles County and Stag’s Leap Winery in the Napa Valley. In addition, Hellman was part of a largely untold story – the development of a truly multicultural society in California. Anti-Semitism and race prejudice were rare in the state until the turn of the century; by necessity, people worked together to build an infrastructure that would allow everyone to prosper.
Be forewarned: this book is long (335 pages), and detailed. While it is written in an engaging style, it is a biography first and a story second. This means that there are areas where the reader can get bogged down; the book is aimed at history buffs rather than the general readership. Those who are Jewish will be fascinated with the development of Jewish culture within California; readers with different backgrounds may not be as enchanted with the level of detail in this area. Because it is a biography, there are chapters that move more slowly than others, and at times the plethora of information about specific individuals can be exhausting. Those who persevere and finish, however, will be richly rewarded by learning about several of California’s key industries as well as about an individual who should be better known.
Disclaimer: I purchased my copy of this book from the Huntington Library Bookstore with my own funds. I do not know the author or any member of the Hellman/Dinkelspiel family. My Jewish family did not come to California until well after Hellman’s death and had nothing to do with the events described herein.
Dinkelspiel, Frances. Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. St Martin’s Press, New York, New York. 2008. ISBN: 978-0-312-35527-2