Heritage Server > Our People > James Phelan


"James Phelan was born in Queen’s County, Ireland, in 1821. As a lad hardly six years of age he landed in New York with his father in 1827. The common schools of New York gave him his education and, thus equipped, he began a business career at the very bottom of the ladder, climbing step by step to a height of financial success in the subsequent years that has made his name the synonym of financial strength on both sides of the continent.

"From New York his operations in early life had covered a broad field in the South and West and had been attended with marked success. In Cincinnati in 1848 he read the news of the gold discovery in California. His resolution to come to California was quickly formed. To resolve with him was to act. He closed out his business operations in the older states and, selecting a large stock of goods such as he considered most desirable for the new market just opening on the Pacific he shipped them on three vessels bound for California, and took passage himself on the schooner El Dorado for Chagres, intending to reach San Francisco via Panama in time to anticipate the arrival of his goods.

"At Chagres he was stricken down with fever and for three weeks was dangerously ill. His young and vigorous constitution pulled him through successfully however, and he succeeded in crossing the isthmus safely. He secured passage in the steamship Panama, and reached San Francisco, August 18, 1849. His brother Michael had preceded him, having arrived in San Francisco on June 13, with the party that had been organized by David C. Broderick. With him, and under the firm name of J. and M. Phelan, he formed a partnership that led up to the steady acquisition of wealth, which was only reversed by the great fires of 1850 and 1851, in which they were heavy losers. Their business had been so well conducted, however, that new stocks of goods were always afloat and near port, so that their affairs were yet in good condition for regaining their losses.

"His brother Michael died in 1858. The business was carried on without interruption, however, Mr. Phelan was reaching out in other directions, and engaging in new commercial ventures, all of which were planned with rare financial judgement; soundest and safest on the Pacific Coast.

"Meanwhile his holdings in real estate had become very large and of enormous value. The connection of his name with any new enterprise was regarded as a guarantee of its soundness as a field for investment.

"Mr. Phelan was largely interested in the American company which contracted for the dredging work on the Panama Canal, and notwithstanding the disastrous results which befell that great enterprise (when it was first attempted) the stock in the dredging company selling at first $20 per share in five years paid its holders $325 per share in dividends, and thus again vindicated the sagacity and financial judgement of his cool headed business man.

"In 1863 he became one of the original directors of Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. In 1889, with James G. Fair (a business partner of James Flood, another Fireman’s Fund director) and other well known capitalists, he organized the new Mutual Savings Bank of San Francisco.

"Mr. Phelan, about 1891, associated himself with his son James D. Phelan who relieved his father from active participation on the administration of his vast financial affairs.

"James Phelan died December 23, 1892."

Quoted from "Early Days and Men of California," W.F. Swansey, Pacific Press Publishing Company, 1891, Fireman’s Fund Archives [01-03-00-001-0005-0127]


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