Historic Surveyor Once Lived Here in the Island City

Society of California Pioneers    A.W. von Schmidt arrived in California in 1849.

Not one, but two lines define the border between California and Nevada. One is the official boundary that the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USGS) laid out in 1893. Twenty years earlier, Alexis W. Von Schmidt, who lived out his days in Alameda, had surveyed that “other” boundary, appropriately called the “Von Schmidt line.” 

Much like sailors of his day, von Schmidt used the stars to define his position while surveying his version of the boundary. USGS used more accurate information about longitude not available to von Schmidt.  

Historian John Southworth writes that von Schmidt “was an old hand at running land surveys.” For example, in 1855, as deputy U.S. Land Surveyor, he took on the difficult task of extending the Mount Diablo Base Line from the San Joaquin Valley over the Sierra Nevada into Nevada.

Before working as a surveyor, von Schmidt had already used his engineering skills, designing and building water channels called flumes, as well as ditch systems and pumping plants for mining companies in both California and Nevada. 

Spring Valley Water Company hired him at its first engineer. George Ensign, who had incorporated the water company in 1860, employed von Schmidt to redirect Pilarcitas Creek in San Mateo County through tunnels and flumes and onto San Francisco. Thanks in large part to von Schmidt’s skills, the company became the first to deliver water to San Francisco in 1862.

The history website foundsf.org relates that three years later, von Schmidt tried to break Spring Valley Water Company’s monopoly. He founded the Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Water Works Company, hoping to build an aqueduct from Lake Tahoe to the mines in the Mother Lode and on to San Francisco. “It backfired,” the website states. 

Undaunted, von Schmidt built a dry dock at Hunter’s Point in 1868 to service the ships that regularly visited California from East Coast ports by way of Cape Horn. Von Schmidt’s sturdy creation saw regular use until a larger facility replaced it during World War I.

Blasting Blossom Rock
On Aug. 23, 1870, von Schmidt dynamited an impediment that had long plagued ship navigators in San Francisco Bay. His feat destroyed Blossom Rock, sending it to a depth of some 40 feet below low tide. All that remains on the surface today is a green buoy afloat in the bay off Coit Tower, appropriately marked “BR.” 

In order to send Blossom Rock to a safer distance below the surface of the bay, von Schmidt’s workers excavated “an irregular cavern some 50 by 140 feet within Blossom Rock, filled it with 43,000 pounds of black powder in sealed casks and connected those casks to a single, distant power switch. “The explosion went off without a hitch to the great delight of thousands of people gathered to personally experience the spectacle,” Southworth tells us. 

Three years after defining the California-Nevada border, von Schmidt joined his brother and fellow engineer Julius to design what Southworth calls “a giant floating suction dredge.” The brothers first put their creation into operation along the river levees above Antioch. 

The federal government then hired the von Schmidt brothers to operate a much-improved version of the dredge on the Oakland Estuary. Southworth tells us that this was the “first suction dredge on the Pacific Coast.” He also relates that it may have been the first successful dredge of its type ever built. 

Alexis von Schmidt died at his home in Alameda on May 26, 1906. He was laid to rest in his large family plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco. When the city closed Laurel Hill, the family moved its burial place to Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

Story ends in tragedy
Alexis von Schmidt lived a nightmare his last seven years. His son Edward returned from a voyage to the Far East on Oct. 3, 1880, with a new wife, Juanita Risley. Her father was a ship captain; her mother a native of Tahiti. The marriage ended with Juanita’s death on Jan. 22, 1885. 

A scant three weeks after Juanita passed away, Edward surprised his family by marrying the women he had been having an affair with for several years — Australian-born Isabella Hill, a ballet dancer at the Tivoli Opera House in San Francisco. 

Three years into the marriage Isabella sued for divorce. On Dec. 21, 1898, The San Francisco Call reported that, “In the divorce papers, Isabella accused Edward of innumerable acts of cruelty.” Edward hoped to reconcile with Isabella, but she refused. 

Just after noon on Sunday, April 9, 1899, Edward arrived at his former wife’s home at 2232 San Jose Ave. There, in full view of the family’s nurse Mary Thompson — and with his daughter, Rose, at home — Edward stabbed Isabella to death. He then turned the knife on himself. The home where this took place no longer stands. A fourplex was built on the site in 1968. 

For a short time, the five children orphaned by the murder-suicide lived with Alexis’ daughter, Lily, and her husband, Charles Lee Tilden. At the time of the tragedy, Alexis was living at 809 Montgomery St. in San Francisco. After his son and daughter-in-laws’deaths, he stepped up and cared for his four grandsons — his namesake Alexis, along with Harold, Roland and Edward. Not long afterwards, he moved with the boys into the home at 1816 Eagle Ave.

Lily and Charles, who had a son of their own, continued to care for the boys’ sister, Rose. At the time the Tildens were living at 1125 Chestnut St. in a home that home no longer stands. Three years later the family moved to 1031 San Antonio Ave.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s April 11, 1899, edition, out of respect for Alexis, now in his 80s, fellow members of the Society of California Pioneers took charge of Edward’s body and buried him in San Francisco, it is unclear just where. The Chronicle relates that, in accordance with Isabella’s wishes, friends laid out her body at an Alameda funeral home, then took Isabella to the Odd Fellows Cemetery in San Francisco, where they had her remains cremated. 

Isabella was not the first person Edward had killed. On Sept. 30, 1878, he shot 19-year-old Daniel Merkle to death. In reporting the shooting the newspapers called Merkle “a hoodlum.” 

According to witnesses, Merkle and his friends were stoning a Chinese man, and Edward came to his defense. Court testimony revealed that, during the fray, Merkle had turned to Edward, made a motion as if he were going for a gun and Edward shot and killed him. The courts rendered Edward’s action a justifiable homicide.