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John A. McNear

There is no name more widely and favorably known throughout Sonoma county than McNear, and in Petaluma, where John A. McNear has made his home for many years, his name stands for progress and development along every line that has made his home city the leader in trade and commerce in the North of Bay counties. Without doubt he has done more to develop the town in which he lives than any other individual, and now in the evening of his years he can look back upon a life well spent and even now is actively superintending his interests with a vigor unusual in one of his years.

John A. McNear was born in Wiscasset, Lincoln county, Me., December 23. 1832, the son and grandson of John McNear, both of whom were natives of the same place. The grandfather was captain of a vessel on which he was lost at sea: he married Elizabeth Erskine, a sister of Colonel Erskine. one of the first settlers of Pemaquid, Me. She became the mother of twelve children, all of whom lived to attain maturity, and she herself lived to reach the venerable age of ninety-six years. The great-grandfather, also John McNear, lived to the ripe age of ninety-seven years, and he, too, followed the sea throughout his, lifetime. He was twice captured by the French and Indians during that war, and each time was ransomed. His wife attained the remarkable age of one hundred and three years. The McNear family are of Scotch ancestry and for seven generations, including the subject of this sketch, have been residents of the United States, and nearly all of the male members of the family have followed the sea. as master of ships, and a number of them have found a watery grave, never having been heard from after being reported lost.

Mr. McNear's mother was in maidenhood Sarah Bailey, a native of Maine and the daughter of George Bailey, of English descent, who died at the age of ninety-seven years, and all of his four brothers lived to be over eighty years of age. The mother passed away in Maine. Of the children born to her three grew to maturity, John A. being the eldest and the only one now living; George W. became one of the best known grain men in California and died in Oakland. in December, 1910, and Mary Eliza labors died in Mississippi. November 9, 1860.

John A. McNear was reared in Maine, among its rugged hills and coast country, and receiving his education in the common schools of that day and locality. As the principal business that occupied the men of that place was following the sea, it was but natural that the young and ambitious lad should want to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors, and accordingly he began to study navigation at an early age and as it had been his ambition to become a captain and have a ship of his own to command, he entered upon the life with all the vigor of youth, making several voyages with his father. After he had attended the public schools he entered and graduated from the West Pittston Academy and was prepared to enter the profession of teaching, but did not do so. In 1852 he shipped before the mast on a new ship, the Cape Cod, under the command of Captain Hopkins. The vessel was bound from Boston to St. Johns, New Brunswick, thence to Liverpool and back to New York. On this voyage his salary was $14 per month and found, which consisted of salt beef and hard tack. During this voyage he lost no opportunity to study navigation and became familiar with '"altitudes of the sun" and "lunar observations at night." On his return home from this voyage he completed his education in the academy and received a certificate to teach in the spring of 1853. Although but a few months more than twenty years of age he accepted a position as master of the brig Tiberius. He made but one voyage with this vessel, as he sold it at Bangor, Me. His salary was on shares, and by taking unusual sea risks amounted to about $50 a month at this time, the old sea veterans saying "Not knowing anything, don't fear anything." So well did he negotiate the sale of this vessel that the owners gave him command of the Catherine, which he soon exchanged for the Jasper, and began freighting along the coast from Maine to Boston and New York. In the fall he went south as supercargo in the new ship Thalata, Captain Batchelder, from Bath to New Orleans. This voyage came nearly ending his sea-going experience, for the ship went ashore off the Mississippi river, and with the captain he and three men went to get a tug to pull them off. They were in an open boat all day and liable to be swamped at any time" by the breakers rolling over them; that night they got ashore and secured three tugs to pull the ship off the mud. After their arrival at New Orleans the captain gave young McNear $25 and refused to make a charge for the freight and machinery he was in charge of for a sawmill on the Pascagoula river. This machinery was brought to the millsite by a schooner and Mr. McNear assisted in putting up the mill. During the time of its building, after a hard day's work, he would raft logs at night down the Pascagoula river to the mill boom, a raft containing as many as fifteen hundred logs brought down during the night, and many times he would be on one end of a log and an alligator on the other. For the night's work he would receive $2. Later on he purchased a vessel for the mill owners and sailed her on the coast between Pascagoula, Miss., and New Orleans, La., receiving $100 per month as his share of the business during this time. The following year he purchased a one-third interest in the sawmilling business of Plummer, Williams & Co., of Pascagoula. and turned the vessel over to be run by his brother, George W. McNear. Here he had the experience of a center board vessel which was beine towed down the canal at New Orleans by two mules passing over him from bow to stern - being a good swimmer saved him from being drowned.

From this time John A. McNear superintended the work of the mill as well as marketed the lumber in New Orleans. He went through the yellow-fever and cholera epidemics of 1853-54. George B. Williams, his cousin, who was in Petaluma, Cal., sent him a map of Petaluma creek (the head of navigation at Petaluma) and told of the wonderful country of the coast. At that time, 1856, there were but few scattering houses on the site that marks the flourishing city today. This information was interesting, and he made up his mind to see the country for himself, and if he did not find it satisfactory he could return and take up'his duties where he had left them. His brother, George W., then nineteen years old, wanted to come also, but he was induced to stay with his work until the country had been prospected, and with the understanding that if John A. decided to remain and enter in business here, he was to send for his brother. This he did in 1860, and took him into full partnership in the grain and real estate business. He considered himself fortunate that he got out of Mississippi before the war, for if he had remained there he would have undoubtedly lost everything he had during that struggle.

In the fall of 1856 an event happened that might be called providential, for having sold his interest in the sawmill and wishing to make a trip back to Maine before starting to California, he was offered at Mobile free passage on a vessel that was ready to sail for Boston, but after putting all of his household effects on board he decided to take a stage (one hundred and sixty miles) for Montgomery, Ala., and then by rail at an extra expense of $77, which meant a great deal at that time; a storm followed and that vessel and many others were never heard from again. Later in the same year, 1856; he took passage at New York on the steamer Illinois for Aspinwall, landing at Kingston and Jamaica, on the way crossing the Isthmus of Panama. On this side of the Isthmus he took passage on the old Sonora, bound for San Francisco, where he arrived November 3, 1856. He came directly to Sonoma county, arriving in Petaluma November 6 of that year, and here he immediately interested himself with a cash capital of $3,000 as a dealer in real estate, loaning money and merchandising. There were but few houses in Petaluma and not many improvements. In 1857 ne bought the Washington livery stable property and took in P. E. Weeks as a partner and manager, to whom he sold out in January, 1860. Having come to Petaluma after hearing Mr. Williams tell of its advantages as the head of navigation, etc., he realized that there would be thousands just like this Williams to tell of the wonderful future of the state and particularly of this section; as a consequence he believed that it would become rapidly settled and thus insure the prosperity of the country, hence he was not backward in investing his money, and how well he prophesied is now seen from every viewpoint.

In 1860 Mr. McNear began in the grain and produce business, shipping to San Francisco, in which business his brother George W. was interested as a partner. Their first place of business was on Washington street, and in 1864 they erected what was then the largest warehouse in the state. This was a brick building, and is now a part of the Golden Eagle mill. When Mr. McNear built this it was considered a risky undertaking by many, as the war was in progress and government money less than fifty cents in gold on the dollar, but he had confidence in the good people in the country and in the government's ability to put down the rebellion. About this time another act of Providence intervened to save his life. He was going to San Francisco on the train and as usual rode in the car next to the engine. Happening to look in the cab, he saw a strange engineer at die throttle; he stepped off the train and had not proceeded twenty feet when the boiler exploded and killed the man that was with him, the engineer and many others.

From 1862 to 1865 the company carried on an extensive business in dealing in hardware and machinery in connection with their other business interests. In the last-named year they disposed of that branch of their business and confined their energies to the grain and shipping business until August, 1874, when the firm was dissolved, George W. taking the San Francisco business and John A. remaining in Petaluma. He also engaged in exporting to a great extent, and when that part of the business had expanded to considerable proportions it was turned over to George W. in San Francisco and he confined his attention to Petaluma and Sonoma county. George W. developed the grain business in California as did no other individual, and for years he was known as the "Wheat King" of California.

One of the most valuable properties which Mr. McNear has is McNear's Point (Point Pedro), on the Bay, a natural deep water terminus for all of the railroads of Sonoma county. The original property was purchased in 1868. to which he has since added until it now comprises about twenty-five hundred acres, with a valuable water front of over five miles. This is exceptionally fine grazing laud, and here he maintains a large dairy. With his son, Erskine B., he has built a large brick manufacturing plant, as they have the most valuable clay in the state for the manufacture of brick. They make about 80,000 per day, employing seventy-five or eighty men. The brick is shipped by their own barges and tugs to San Francisco, where they have a distributing place on Sixth and Barry streets. On the same ranch Mr. McNear has opened the most valuable bluestone quarries on the Bay, one of which is being operated by the San Francisco Quarries Company. Mr. McNear gave permission to the government to cut through his land to shorten the route of Petaluma creek, although it left him short thousands of feet of water front, but he was desirous of doing anything that would tend to shorten the route, thus keeping down freight rates, making them one-third less than formerly. In order to accomplish daily trips to San Francisco by steamer from Petaluma he built a canal nearly a mile long with a basin 250x500 feet so that steamers could enter at any time. This he did from his private means, as well as keeping it open at an expense of thousands of dollars. It is his belief that some day this canal will be extended to the Bay. He owns the land along the east side of Petaluma creek as far as below the railroad bridge and secured the mahogany mill for the city.

Mr. McNear claims credit for making the first concrete in California, cutting the material into squares after laying the concrete in a plastic state on the floors in his warehouse as early as 1864. This process was twenty years later covered by the Shillinger patent. In building a reservoir at Point McNear he used reinforced concrete over forty years ago, and at the same time made concrete floors and feed boxes in his dairy, the first of the kind on the Bay. He also was the originator of heating tar and asphaitum by running coils of pipe through the tank, through which circulated steam from the boiler (for dipping pipe when building the Petaluma water works), a process which was afterward patented. Mr. McNear also has credit of setting out the first eucalyptus grove in Sonoma county, in 1866, raising the trees from the seed in open ground and later transplanting the young plants from the seed beds. This process cheapened the plants-to one cent apiece, whereas the price had formerly been twenty-five cents. Some years ago he constructed a concrete brick reinforced reservoir forty feet in diameter, with a capacity of one hundred and twenty-five thousand gallons. This was constructed of concrete and brick, reinforced with galvanized twisted ribbon wire, with a series of coils for each tier of brick. This has withstood the blasting from quarries, as well as the earthquake of 1906.

During 1865 Mr. McNear built the handsome and commodious fast passenger and freight steamer Josie McNear expressly for the Petaluma trade, taking passengers at fifty cents to San Francisco, the effect of which was the immediate reduction of the fare from $2.50 to $1 between Petaluma and San Francisco by the Minton line. Mr. McNear's plan has always been not to see how much he could get out of a customer, but to see how much he could do for him. This same advice he gave to his oldest son, George P., when he entered his business, and in following this policy he has gained the confidence of the people, and is one of the foremost business men of San Francisco and Northern California. For many years Mr. McNear and this son were in partnership, carrying on and building up one of the largest mercantile enterprises of its kind in the state. Of late years the business has been carried on by the son alone, the business transacted amounting to about $1,500,000 annually. The average pay roll for labor by Mr. McNear and three sons has been $10,000 per month for many years.

In all matters that have been for the upbuilding of Petaluma Mr. McNear has always been found ready and willing to assist to the best of his ability and it was through his influence that the silk factory, shoe factory, and many other manufacturing interests were secured to Petaluma, he giving the site for the buildings and thousands of dollars and months of time. He also gave the acre of land upon which the shoe factory and East Petaluma school are located, and with his son. George P., promoted the present electric railroad that has done so much to develop the entire country, and plans are now under way to extend the road to the bay (deep water) and San Francisco by ferry, also to Healdsburg. Mr. McNear is one of the largest property owners in the city, and at the same time one of the most prosperous. He is never lacking in enterprise and had all others been as progressive as he, Petaluma would now be many times its present size. Almost every business enterprise in which he has engaged has prospered, and another of the .worthy movements started by him was the building of the water works to supply the growing needs of the city, acting as president of the company during its construction. He was also the organizer of the Sonoma County Bank, the first incorporated bank in Sonoma county, and the strongest financial institution of the county: and he is the only living member of the original twenty stock subscribers who were selected - each taking $5,000 - and he has been the designer and builder of many of the best blocks in the city. Perhaps the work best known and for which he is held in the highest esteem has been the development and beautifying of Cypress Hill Cemetery, upon which he has spent many thousands of dollars. This park is located on the outskirts of Petaluma, on a rise of ground from which one can get a view of the entire surrounding country and it is improved upon a scale that makes it equal to any other public enterprise of its kind in the state, having miles and miles of beautiful drives lined with all the varieties of trees.

In 1867 Mr. McNear erected his present residence (opposite "Walnut Plaza" which he secured for the city at great personal expense) upon a block of ground, which is without doubt one of the most beautiful places in the city. The yard is enclosed with a stone fence, the stones being secured from the hills nearby and set on end with smaller rocks used as filler, giving a unique and substantial appearance with its seven hundred feet of frontage. Beautiful trees and shrubbery embellish the lawn, and make the house appear like a jewel in its setting. It is in the midst of these surroundings that Mr. McNear is seen and can be appreciated, as by the quick yet keen glance from his eyes and his kindly though unassuming manner, his modesty and strength of character and decision of mind are plainly expressed.

On September 3, 1854, in Pascagoula, Miss., John A. McNear and Miss Clara D., daughter of George B. Williams, were united in marriage. She died in San Francisco January 17, 1866. On May 15, 1867, ne was married to Miss Hattie S. Miller, in the Church of the Advent,,the service being conducted by Rev. George H. Jenks. Mrs. McNear is the daughter of Michael John Miller, who was born in Alsace, France. His father, John Miller, served twenty years in the French army under Napoleon and was in the march to Moscow and present at the burning of that city. .He brought his family to New York state, locating in Monroe county, where his death occurred. Michael J. Miller brought his family to California in 1864, coming by way of the Isthmus of Panama, and locating in San Francisco, where he engaged in the commission business and later in the transportation and freight business. In 1870 he located in Petaluma, where he became prominent in business and social circles. His wife, Julia Upton, was born in Rindge, N. H., the daughter of Nathan and Hannah (Colburn) Upton. both natives of New Hampshire. The father died in Petaluma in 1900. and the mother in 1907. In their family besides Mrs. McNear there was a daughter, Mattie A., the wife of Capt. Nathaniel Gould, of Petaluma. Of Mr.. McNear's second marriage two children were born, as follows: John A., Jr., who is a graduate of Cooper Medical College, but is aiding his father in his vast business undertakings instead of following his profession, and Erskine Baker, who is manager of the brick-manufacturing plant at McNear's Point. Of Mr. McNear's first marriage there is one son living, George P., who was educated at the Petaluma high school and the Oakland Military Academy and is the most extensive grain and real-estate dealer in Sonoma county, president of the Sonoma County National Bank, and who with his father originated and built the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad. The elder Mr. McNear was president of this road from its inception and during the time it was being constructed looked after the details of construction. After the road was completed he acted as president of the company without salary for four years, when by his suggestion the general manager was made president, and he has since served-as vice-president and director of the road. Plans are now under way to continue the line to deep water at Point McNear, for connection with San Francisco.

Of all the prominent pioneers of the state there is none more deserving of the esteem and good will of the people than John A. McNear, for whatever his name is known it means that he has stamped some indelible action in that locality that has almost made his name a household word. He is typically a Californian by adoption, always of the most loyal kind, honorable, upright, and a man who has forged his way to the front through the exercise of talents given hom by nature, and while doing this there has never been a time that he has neglected the duties of a citizen. He is a large property owner in Petaluma and Sonoma county, nor are his interests confined to this one section, for he has confidence in the state and has made judicious investments in other places which have returned him a good profit. It is to such men as John A. McNear that attention is directed and whose example is worthy of emulation.


Source:
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