Steamboat Captain Settles in Alameda's Lincoln Park

Image courtesy Alameda Museum. Captain R. R. Thompson cashed out of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company and moved south: first to San Francisco, and then to Alameda, where he built this stately mansion in today’s Lincoln Park.

Captain Robert R. Thompson once lived on an estate that became Lincoln Park. Before coming to Alameda he made his fortune first in the California gold fields, and then as a principal shareholder of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. He and his partners sold their interests in the steam company to a railroad. Each man received a tidy sum. In 1877 Thompson decided to return to the state where he made his fortune in the gold fields and headed for San Francisco.

While there he began investing the proceeds from the sales of his steamboat company in real estate. While shopping for property, he discovered that "Rosebush," Gustav Frederik O’Hara Taaffe’s 12-acre estate in Alameda, was on the market and purchased it.

In 1879 Thompson decided to start a project that would supply his new hometown with water. After some testing he began to bore four wells on his property. The spot he chose for this enterprise bears his name, Thompson Avenue. He found an abundance of fresh water and obtained a license from the city fathers to lay down the pipe necessary to supply Alameda with water.

In the meantime Thompson found Taaffe’s Gothic Revival cottage too small to suit his needs. So in 1880 he hired local architect William Patton to design a mansion for him. Thompson and Patton struck up a relationship that held them both in good stead. In 1887 Patton would design the building at 1400 Park St. for Thompson and the First National Bank. That building will soon be home to Capone’s Speakeasy on today’s Park Street.

The Alta California newspaper called Thompson’s three-story home "the handsomest and most costly residence in Alameda County." According to the Alta California, "the lights over all the doors were of stained glass specially ordered for the mansion in Munich, Bavaria — each one of them in itself a work of art and done by the best artists."

"The carpets were woven in Europe to fit the rooms of the house and cost fabulous sums. The mantelpieces in the rooms were all of onyx, and everything in the house was of an equally luxurious and costly nature," the newspaper told its readers.

On Oct. 19, 1880, while his mansion was rising up on High Street, the city of Alameda founded its fire department.

On Nov. 17 three fire-fighting companies formed. One, Thompson Hose Company No. 1, bore Thompson’s name. The following month, the city arranged for Thompson to supply the department with water. He also obtained the license from the city to use his water to flush the sewers in town. He also allowed the city to use his "pressure engine" for all fire purposes.

In a touch of real irony the man who did so much to supply the town and its fire department with water, stood by and watched his palatial mansion burn to the ground.

The fire started just after 2 p.m. on Aug. 18, 1884, in a room above the kitchen.

Like other wealthy residents in Alameda, Thompson opposed the tax levies, including those to pay for the city’s fire department. He told everyone who would listen that he had no need for the fire department to ever visit his property because he had his staff drilled to put out any fire that might start on his premises.

"The firemen did all they could, but the water pressure was too low for quick and effective work," the Alta California reported.

The Alta California reported another bit in irony in the case of man who did not want to pay for fire services. "A curious and unlucky coincidence to be noted in connection with the fire (at Thompson’s home) is the fact that the building occupied by the Schmidt Lithographing Company, on Main Street in San Francisco, recently destroyed by fire, was also owned by Captain Thompson," the newspaper told its readers.

The fire did not discourage Thompson in the least. In 1887 he and one of his partners in the Oregon Steamboat Navigation Company, J. C. Ainsworth, purchased a large tract of land on Santa Monica Bay. There they established the city of Redondo Beach.

We’ll follow Thompson south in our next installment.