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William Chapman Ralston: Wikis


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William Ralston, 1872.

William "Billy" Chapman Ralston (January 12, 1826 - August 27, 1875) was a San Francisco, California businessman and financier, and was the founder of the Bank of California. A biography of him is entitled "The Man Who Built San Francisco: ...".



William Chapman Ralston was born in Wellsville, Ohio, in eastern Ohio on the Ohio River, in 1826, the son of Robert Ralston III and Mary Wilcoxen Chapman. He was known as "Chap" when he was young.

With riches derived from Nevada's Comstock Lode, he became one of the richest and most powerful men in California. He founded the Bank of California and was known for having a nothing-is-impossible attitude.


He built Ralston Hall in Belmont, California as a summer home. John Painter Gaynor is thought to have worked on it. Ralston Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now part of the campus of Notre Dame de Namur University.

His dream was the construction of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California at the corner of New Montgomery and Market. He spent $5M on its construction, draining his banking empire in the process. John Painter Gaynor was the architect and engineer. The hotel had early elevators or "rising rooms" and electric call buttons in the rooms. There is still a Ralston Room in the hotel off the main corridor to the left.

In 1871, following a severe drought in California he initiated work on the surveying for an irrigation scheme in the San Joaquin Valley and his lobbying was successful in securing the passage through Congress in 1873 of an Act to set up a Water Commission to advise on the irrigation of California.

He was also involved in Philip Arnold's diamond-mining hoax of 1872.

The collapse of his financial empire

In 1875, his financial empire collapsed as a result of the combination of the expense of building the Palace Hotel, the failure of his attempt to buy and then resell the Spring Valley Water Company, the after-effects of the Panic of 1873, and a crash in the stock value of the Bank of California. The crash occurred just weeks before the opening of the Palace Hotel.


The day after the collapse, his body was found in the San Francisco Bay, due either from a stroke during his regular swim or from suicide. It is said that 50,000 people watched his funeral procession, and 8,000 of his friends were said by Robert Brereton to have attended the public meeting held in Union Hall on September 8, 1875 to express the community's loss. His partner U.S. Senator William Sharon acquired many of his assets including the Palace Hotel and Ralston Hall.

Places and things named after William Chapman Ralston

Ralston Avenue is one of the principal roads in Belmont, California. Ralston Street in Reno is named for William Ralston. There are Ralston Avenue exits from both Highway 92 and Highway 101. Ralston Middle School, Ralston Hall, and the William Chapman Ralston Award are all named after him. A small mining town in southwest New Mexico was named Ralston City in honor of William Ralston, its largest investor, but has since been renamed Shakespeare, New Mexico. The town of Modesto was to be named for Ralston. However, he declined and it was called Modesto as one of the Spanish speaking workers at the naming ceremony for that town said he was "Muy modesto" or very modest. Modesto is home to Ralston Tower, an 11 floor building dedicated to elderly living. It is the second tallest building in the city.

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