Laying the Rails to History: The Arrival of the Transcontinenal Railroad in Alameda and Oakland

Cohen-Bary House

Laying the Rails to History: The Arrival of the Transcontinenal Railroad in Alameda and Oakland

Dennis Evanosky
Part one of six.

An Alameda man and his uncle by marriage played key roles in bringing the transcontinental railroad to the West Coast.

Rodman Gibbons and his associates built a railroad from Seventh Street and Broadway to a wharf on the San Francisco Bay in Oakland in 1863.

A year later, A. A. Cohen (pictured right) laid rails across the Alameda peninsula from today’s High Street and Coliseum Way in Oakland to a wharf that stretched into the bay from today’s Pacific Avenue near Main Street.

Cohen and Charles Minturn, among others, created ferry lines to carry rail passengers and freight to San Francisco. By 1864 these transportation pioneers had set the stage for the Central Pacific Railroad to choose first Alameda, then Oakland as the final destination for their cross-country trains.

Let’s meet A. A. Cohen. 1850s Cohen was a respected and trusted financier and banker. He rubbed elbows with — and on at least one occasion clashed with — another San Francisco banker, William Tecumseh Sherman.

The regard and confidence that some felt for Cohen vanished in 1855, however, when rumors spread that he played a major role in what his contemporaries called “Black Friday.”

Cohen was born in London, England, on July 17, 1829, the son of a wealthy merchant. Stunning news reached the family just a month after Alfred’s fourth birthday. On Aug. 28, 1833, King William IV had freed all the slaves in his kingdom.”

“Whereas diverse persons are holden in slavery within divers of His Majesty’s Colonies, it is just and expedient that all such persons should be manumitted and set free,” the decree read.

Among the family businesses that included wine and money-brokering, the Cohens owned a coffee plantation in Jamaica. Since this enterprise depended on slave labor to squeeze the profits from its popular bean, the Cohens found themselves in financial straits.

They could no longer afford to live in London and moved to Exeter in Devonshire where Alfred attended school until 1841. By age 14, he had returned to London to work for a solicitor. Two years later he immigrated alone to Nova Scotia, where he earned his living in a variety of jobs.

In 1847, Alfred left Canada for the West Indies. He joined his older brother Frederick’s mercantile business in one of the family’s old footholds in the New World, Jamaica.

In 1849, the thought of striking it rich in far-off California got the better of Alfred and he headed west. At first he settled in Sacramento, where he established the commission firm of Alfred A. Cohen.

By 1852 he had moved to San Francisco where his brother joined him. Alfred had prospered enough to mingle with San Francisco’s high society.

He cemented his membership in that elite circle when he married. Emilie Gibbons, daughter of prominent San Francisco physician Henry Gibbons, in 1854. He found employment the San Francisco branch of the bank Adams & Co.

Barely a year into his marriage on Thursday, Feb. 22, 1855, news arrived that the St. Louis, MO., bank Page, Bacon & Co. had serious financial problems.

This news precipitated a run on all San Francisco banks, including Adams & Co. Clients demanded their deposits in gold. Many found themselves penniless in the streets, however, and remembered the day as “Black Friday.”

Cohen discovered that Adams & Co. had not only cooked its books but had made a “quiet run” on the bank and withdrawn $250,000 in gold before the doors opened on Black Friday. Unfortunately for the hoi-polloi waiting outside in the February chill, little was left for them.

Although Cohen was nothing more than the bearer of very bad news, he was made (or offered to become) the scapegoat.

Almost year after the bank run, the district attorney issue a warrant for Cohen’s arrest. In an attempt to escape, Cohen concealed himself in the hold of the steamer Uncle Sam bound for Nicaragua, to no avail.

On Jan. 5, 1856, deputy sheriff John Harrison came aboard warrant-in-hand and took Cohen into custody. Cohen did little to help his cause. In his memoirs William Tecumseh Sherman — who was working as a banker in San Francisco at the time — accused Cohen of spreading false rumors about his bank, Lucas, Turner & Co.

By then Alfred had likely had enough of San Francisco. While in jail, he studied the law. He was admitted to the bar in 1857. He was looking forward to getting out of town. He would still keep his fingers in politics. He had already wrangled himself an appointment as justice of the peace in Alameda County.

He settled in on some property across the Bay that his in-laws had obtained from W.W. Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh. He had big ideas. Cash in his chips with Adams & Co. — payment for his time in jail for when the bank failed — and build a railroad, just through the peninsula for now. Later to Hayward, and, perhaps on to Stockton.

He had no idea that, 12 years later, he would be riding on his train with Leland Stanford as his railroad fastened the transcontinental railroad’s final link.

We’ll retrace Cohen and Stanford’s steps over the next five articles and tell the story of the shenanigans behind how and why Stanford and his fellow Associates — Charles Crocker, Collis Huntngton and Mark Hopkins — agreed to bring their train to Alameda and Oakland, rather than San Francisco.

Contact Dennis Evanosky by email at devanosky@alamedasun. com.