Leland Stanford, one of San Francisco’s infamous “Big Four,” did not come from remarkable origins. He had seven other siblings, and was the son of an innkeeper. After a short time in the law profession, Leland came to California in order to work with his brothers to start up a grocery in Sacramento. His brothers moved on to other pursuits, but Leland stayed faithful to the small grocery store.
One of his customers was struggling to keep his gold mine open and pay the grocery bill, so he paid Leland in shares of his mine. For whatever reason, Leland decided to accept these shares as payment for the bill. One must wonder if he was motivated by charity or greed. It turns out that this was quite possibly one of the two best business decisions Leland ever made in his life. The gold mine was successful, and it eventually made him half a million dollars. This was not a bad return for a few groceries.
After amassing a tidy sum of money that cemented his place as a wealthy businessman in the Bay Area, he attended a presentation by a railroad engineer named Theodore Judah. He was a convincing orator, and Judah left that presentation with many commitments to buy shares in his idea to build a railroad through the Sierra Foot Hills to the mines. It was a successful business venture, and this was the beginning of the creation of Leland’s fortune. He became known as one of the Big Four in San Francisco, and created an empire based on the railroad. He had come a long way from being the son of an innkeeper, a mediocre lawyer, and a modest grocery store owner.
As his influence grew, Leland became more interested in politics. He became the governor of California for two years during the Civil War era, and later served as a U.S. Senator
Things were going well for the Stanford family until their only son died of typhoid at age 15. The heir to the throne had passed away, and everything he had worked for seemed meaningless. In order to grieve the loss of their son, Leland and Jane founded the Leland Stanford Jr. University in 1891.
Stanford died in 1893, and the university almost went under. As it turns out, Leland had bankrupt his own legacy by spending enormous sums of money on everything from showplace mansions, a Palo Alto farm, an orchard, etc. In fact, he and his wife built Stanford University with five million borrowed dollars.
With the university on the brink of closure, Leland’s wife came to the rescue and somehow figured out a way to keep herself and the university afloat after her husband’s death.
What a remarkable life. After reading his story, one must wonder if Leland contributed his success to the direction of a divine higher power, hard work and business savvy, or just plain dumb luck.
Source: Historic San Francisco: A Concise History and Guide, by Rand Richards