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California Genealogy and History Archives

Sonoma County


Mark L. McDonald

It seems eminently fitting that the names of the early settlers in now progressive localities should be perpetuated in such manner that their labors in the days of trial and hardship may remain, an inspiration and encouragement to those who are to come after them. It is sometimes claimed that Republics are ungrateful, but this claim is not true in individual communities, for in all points of the compass are reminders of hero citizens, in the names of streets, towns, rivers, valleys or institutions, this happy method being particularly popular in the west, where heroism and toil have figured so largely in the make-up of the pioneers. Of the early settlers in the town of Santa Rosa few if any have accomplished as much toward its upbuilding and development into the thriving city that it now is as has Mark L. McDonald, whose name is perpetuated in the avenue of that name as a mark of honor.

The son of James and Martha (Peters) McDonald, natives respectively of Virginia and Kentucky, Mark L. McDonald was born in Washington county, Ky., May 5, 1833. He was reared in this southern home until he was about sixteen years of age, in the meantime attending the schools of the locality and gathering as much information therefrom as was possible. It far from satisfied his ambitious nature, however, and in 1849, after a short stay in Missouri, he went to Schenectady, N. Y,, and continued his studies in Union College, from which he was subsequently graduated. This was the period of the interest suddenly created in California as a result of the finding of gold, and it was not a matter of any wonder that this ambitious young man should feel that the invitation to come and partake of the benefits therefrom were meant for, him as much as for the thousands who flocked to the eldorado. After his graduation from college he returned to Kentucky and made preparation to cross the plains. Arrangements were finally completed, and with his parents he set out on the long march that extended from ocean to ocean. The train was a large one, consisting of sixty wagons, but it did not prove large enough to forestall interference from the Indians; however, had their number been less their trials would undoubtedly have taken a still more formidable aspect. As captain of the company Mr. McDonald was obliged to go ahead and select suitable camping places, and he records experiencing considerable difficulty in crossing the Platte river on account of quicksands.

Two brothers had preceded Mr. McDonald to the west and were located in Sacramento, and arrangements had been made for the comforts of the family when they arrived. In that city the family were ultimately reunited. About this time the mines of Virginia City were attracting considerable attention, on account of recent finds of silver, which later developed into gold. One of the brothers, Capt. James M. McDonald, had had a preliminary survey made by Mr. Kingsbury for the building of a road into Virginia City, and as soon as Mark L. came he started him back to Virginia City to take entire charge of the building of it He also did the engineer's work and had charge of the hiring of the men employed, and later, when they charged a toll, he had charge of the toll collections also. The work which this involved was enormous, including besides the responsibility of construction, looking after the men and keeping the books of the business. It proved an invaluable experience in the life of the young man, and he counts it as one of the most enjoyable as well, as it brought him in contact with many men of note, among whom may be mentioned the late Mark Twain, and he later became a close friend of Senators Stewart and Jones of Nevada. He also met Senator Hearst while there, and they became life-long friends and business associates. The salary which Mr. McDonald received as constructing engineer was $80 per month, a small remuneration for such responsible work in the light of present-day conditions, but nevertheless he managed to save $1,500 from his earnings, and with this he went to San Francisco and later purchased a seat on the stock exchange. In June, 1864, he purchased the seat of H. Camp, on the San Francisco Stock and Exchange Board, for $1,400, and put through some of the largest transactions of stock of that time. In the history of the San Francisco Stock and Exchange Board written by Joseph L. King, the following paragraph is found: "Mark L. McDonald was six feet four inches high, towering over all in the turmoil of the ring. A Kentuckian by birth, with sandy hair and a full beard and blue eyes, he was a handsome man and a power on the Board." During his residence in the metropolis he bought and sold considerable land, and in this, as in whatever he undertook, he was very successful It was while a resident of that city that he made the acquaintance of Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, and until the death of both of these men their friendship was close and intimate. While in Virginia City Mr. McDonald had become acquainted with Mr. Hearst, and in living the crude camp life they became great friends. They bunked and ate together, and later were interested in the mines in the Black Hills. After going to San Francisco Mr. McDonald went into the home of Mr. Hearst, and remained there until his own marriage several years later. In the meantime they had become associated in many enterprises and they remained intimately connected in business, Mr. Hearst making many trips to the mines, while Mr. McDonald looked after their interests in San Francisco. After Mr. Hearst's death Mr. McDonald and Mrs. Hearst continued the friendship established, and today Mr. McDonald regards her as the queen of all great and good women, not alone on account of her philanthropic work, but also as one of the few remaining close friends of his pioneer days.

Mr. McDonald's identification with Sonoma county and Santa Rosa dates from the year 1879, at which time he came, to this city, and in the northeastern section bought one hundred and sixty acres of land, then a waving wheat field. With prophetic vision he saw the possibilities for the future of the little town, and at once set about subdividing the land and laying out streets and avenues in what was known as McDonald's addition to Santa Rosa. Residents of the town less courageous than he were delighted with the future prospects of their home city, and as a mark of appreciation for their benefactor, voted that the best residence street in the new subdivision should bear his name. This was done, and today McDonald avenue is pointed out as one of the show places of Santa Rosa. All the trees that now adorn the subdivision were planted by him, as well as shrubs and plants. Expense was not spared in carrying out his plans for the adornment and beautification of the tract, one of his ideas along this line being the representation of each state in the Union by a tree brought from each state, and many foreign countries were also represented. He also built and established the first water works in the city (now known as the Santa Rosa Water Company), laying the pipe lines with the aid of an experienced engineer from the east. An abundance of pure water has since been supplied to the city. He also laid out the first street railway in Santa Rosa, and was instrumental in having the first steam railroad built (now owned by the Southern Pacific), being one of the directors of the company that planned and financed the enterprise. One of his duties in furthering the enterprise was buying up the rights of way from the ranchers through the many miles of country traversed by the road, and as indicative of the esteem and honor in which he was held by his compatriots, Stanford and Croker, in the enterprise, to him was given the honor of driving the last spike in Santa Rosa, thus completing the road. It would have been surprising if Mr. McDonald had not been called upon to help in the administration of the young and growing city. Recognizing the value of his superior judgment and ability his fellow-citizens elected him a member of the city council, and for a number of years he served that body faithfully. As became a man so thoroughly in touch with the upbuilding of the town as he was it was natural that he should take a keen interest in educational affairs and kindred enterprises. This interest was shown in a marked degree through his labors in the establishment of the first free library in the town, of which he was president for a long period. In later years Mr. Carnegie gave a library to the city and the city's free library was finally merged into this.

In all of his labors and benefactions Mr. McDonald has had the support and encouragement of his wife, who before her marriage in 1866 was Miss Ralphine North, a native of Natchez, Miss. Seven children were born of this union, and of them we mention the following: Mark L., Jr., was the eldest of the number, and a sketch of his life will be found elsewhere in this volume; Stewart passed away in 1907; Mabel is the wife of William H. Hamilton, of San Francisco, where they make their home; Edith is the wife of Selah Chamberlain, also of that city; Florence became the wife of Maxwell McNutt, of the same city; and two daughters died in childhood. Now in his seventy-eighth year Mr. McDonald can look back over a life well spent, in the conscientiousness that he has intentionally wronged no man, but on the other hand has made it the thought uppermost in his mind to help, support and sustain his fellow men in every way possible. That he has done this long and faithfully, every citizen of Santa Rosa will attest Mr. McDonald is affiliated with but one fraternal order, being a member of the Masonic order, in which he has attained the Knights Templar degree.

History of Sonoma County, California
Biographical Sketches of The Leading Men and Women of the County Who Have Been Identified With Its Growth and Development from the Early Days to the Present
History By: Tom Gregory
Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, California (1911)

Transcribed by Peggy Hooper 2011