Collis P. Huntington
Collis Potter Huntington was born in Hartwin Township, Connecticut, on October 22, 1821. His father, William Huntington, owned a thirty-six acre farm and several unprofitable mills in a small valley named Poverty Hollow. He also worked as a tinker. Collis was the sixth child in the family. He had two brothers and six sisters. Schooling was limited to winter months and farm work took precedence. The family was poor and the community decided that their father was not taking adequate care of the children. Collis and his brother Solon were bound out to neighboring families. Collis, then fourteen, was apprenticed to Orson Barber for one year. He never returned home.
After his apprenticeship with the Barber family, Collis got a job in a local store operated by Phineas Noble. The teenager did well in the store and soon was engaged in trading far afield for Noble. He eventually moved to Woodbury and worked for another merchant named Daniel Curtiss. Armed with letters of recommendation from Curtiss and Noble he obtained credit in New York and set himself up as a horse cart peddler at the age of sixteen. For the next five years or so he travelled widely and prospered modestly. His brother Solon meanwhile moved to Oneonta, New York and established a store.
In 1842 Collis joined Solon in Oneonta and went to work for him. In 1844 he went into partnership with Solon and married Elizabeth Stoddard whom he had met while working in Connecticut. Collis and Elizabeth purchased a home in Oneonta. Collis and Solon became jobbers providing middleman services between large farms in the countryside and the merchants of New York City. Late in 1848 rumors of the discovery of gold in California began to arrive in Oneonta. Solon and Collis decided that Collis would travel to the gold fields on behalf of their partnership. Egbert Sabin, the son of the partnership's head clerk, would accompany Collis as his assistant. Several other citizens of Oneonta would also go along to try their hands at prospecting.
In March 1849 Collis and his small group traveled down the Susquehanna River to Unadilla and then took a stage coach to Deposit on the Delaware River. From Deposit they took the train to New York City where they boarded the Crescent City as steerage passengers bound for Panama. Huntington took a small quantity of trade goods and $2,000 along with him to start his store in California. (Also on board the Crescent City was Jessie Benton Fremont who was on her way to meet her husband in San Francisco.) After crossing the isthmus the Oneonta 49ers were stranded for several weeks waiting for transportation north. Huntington supplemented his finances by going out into the countryside and purchasing supplies which he then sold to those awaiting passage to the gold fields.
On May 18, 1849 Huntington managed to get his group aboard the seriously overcrowded Alexander von Humboldt, a Dutch bark. The trip north was a difficult one. They were becalmed and did not reach Acapulco Mexico until July 26. During the resupply of the ship in Acapulco a serious disagreement erupted between the passengers and the owners of the ship. The result was that the passengers took control of the ship and left the owners in Acapulco. They reached San Francisco on August 30 and shortly thereafter sold the ship to cover the expenses that they had incurred during the trip. Huntington and his group stayed in San Francisco a matter of a few days before continuing on by riverboat to Sacramento and then on east by foot to the actual gold fields.
Their first stop was the then famous Mormon Island on the South Fork of the American River, but Huntington and his assistant soon continued on further into the mountains in search of the best spot for a store. They tried several different places but Huntington eventually decided that he should establish himself in Sacramento. During this period Huntington discovered that his assistant Egbert was a compulsive binge eater. Egbert was so ill most of the time that he was unable to help with business. (Huntington worked so hard that he was seriously ill during this period as well.) By the summer of 1850 it was decided that Egbert should be sent home. Huntington joined with Dan Hammond and Edward Schultz, formed a new partnership, and built a store on K Street in Sacramento. Solon and Collis were still partners and consequently Solon served as their agent in the East.
Running a business in Sacramento in the middle of the nineteenth century was a challenging affair. Fires, floods, lawlessness, wildly fluctuating prices, unreliable transportation, riots and serious epidemics characterized the times. In the fall of 1850 Cholera killed hundreds of people in Sacramento. During this outbreak Huntington returned to Oneonta to visit his family. In March 1851 Collis together with his wife Elizabeth and her sister Hannah left New York by ship for Panama. They crossed the isthmus without incident and were on their way out of Panama City after a wait of only two days. On May 5, 1851 they arrived in San Francisco and quickly went on to Sacramento. On reaching Sacramento the Huntingtons purchased a home near the river on Second Street.
In 1851 Collis spent much of his time in San Francisco on business and his partner, Dan Hammond, provided security for Elizabeth and her sister. By the end of the year Dan and Hannah were married. During 1851 vigilantism was rampant in both San Francisco and Sacramento. It is not known for certain what role Huntington played but it is known that he approved of the actions of the vigilantes. Early in 1852 the Huntington, Hammond and Schultz partnership was dissolved profitably for all concerned. Huntington built a two story brick store at 54 K Street in Sacramento and Elizabeth and he moved into the second floor. Business that year was excellent and the new store was off to a good start. On November 2, 1852, however, fire ravaged Sacramento's business district and the Huntington store along with most of its stock was destroyed.