Two City Founders Led Tragic Lives

 Michael Colbruno  Alameda Museum Curator George Gunn spearheaded a movement to mark Gideon Aughinbaugh’s grave at Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. Aughinbaugh’s grave was unmarked from his death in 1897 until 1981. It remains unclear where his daughter Ella rests.
Michael Colbruno

Two City Founders Led Tragic Lives

Eric J. Kos

Part one

Alamedans today have little connection to the city’s founders. No standing monument to their achievement, no statue or plaque commemorates what the two founding families, the Aughinbaughs and the Chipmans, achieved when Alameda was still a wilderness.

Streets were named for the families in the 1990s or later. Prior to that, a school bore the name Chipman, but not even a gravestone commemorated the life of family patriarch Gideon Aughinbaugh.

Truth be told, both men were broken by Alameda and had little with which to mark their legacies.

Gideon Aughinbaugh

The 33-year-old native Pennsylvanian Gideon Aughinbaugh left Mississippi for California in the auspicious year of 1849 with his wife Elizabeth, 27, and daughter Ella, in tow. Traversing the plains could be tragic in many ways, but the family made it to Gold Rush San Francisco seemingly without incident.

Sensing the need for human comforts like food as the local population exploded, Gideon set up a grocery and found work as a carpenter. Soon he was looking for good land to cultivate and provide produce for his grocery.

Enter the woodsy peninsula of Alameda. With the help of a partner educated in the law — the equally upstanding and respectable William Worthington Chipman — Gideon would sink his future into the sunny bayfront land Mexican ranchero Antonio Maria Peralta was more than happy to sell for actual currency.

Many other Americans were simply claiming Peralta’s property as their own without ceremony — a practice called “squatting.”

Aughinbaugh set to work laying out rows of fruit trees to supply his market while Chipman turned his attention to creating a city. The duo sank funds they didn’t have into a wharf, bridge, roads and irrigation, preparing ideal property for settlers. Aughinbaugh offered free watermelons to those who might consider a lot in town.

Sales were sluggish. A ferry rented to bring potential lot buyers to town ran up on a sand bar stranding and souring investors. Another ferry captain agreed to shuttle passengers to the part¬ners’ wharf, but then could only be found at a competing wharf. The partners purchased their own steam ferry for $15,000 but on an early trip, it exploded, killing two.

In 1855 “congestive fever and acute jaundice” struck Elizabeth down at the age of 33. Said William, “I would give the world did I own it to bring her back to life … The light of the house went into everlasting dark¬ness ... We have been so long as one family.” The effect on Gideon could barely be put into words. Chipman’s journal said, “Aughinbaugh’s heart is nearly broken.”

As time went on, the partners’ holding in Alameda was chipped away — parcels were traded to additional lawyers in return for defending the duo’s rightful claims. In 1873,

William passed at age 53. Going from what a friend called “adversity to adversity” Gideon continued pursuing agricultural inven¬tions. He and Ella could be found investing in the Central Valley near Visalia.

He and Ella also invested in a series of rental cottages across the street from Alameda hot and cold-water bathing resort Terrace Baths. Three such cottages still stand on Taylor Avenue today. A plaque designated by Alameda Museum curator George Gunn can be found in the sidewalk near the corner of Taylor and Sixth Street.

On Sept. 27, 1887, The San Francisco Examiner reported one of the cottages burned. “The building was the property of Miss Ella Aughinbaugh,” reported the Examiner. “… valued at $1,200. It was insured for $800. The stock and fixtures were valued at $700 and insured for $400. The fire is supposed to be the work of incendiaries …”

A decade later, local residents must have realized the treasure they had in Gideon, the aged pio¬neer and Alameda resident, now age 81. His recollections were stored in Alameda’s new city hall cornerstone time capsule and a contemporary book History of Alameda by Paul Vigness.

He attempted to recall the good times: planting some of the state’s first apple trees and cross breeding the Logan-Aughinbaugh blackberry that to this day bears his name.

Gideon’s best days were long gone by 1897, the year City Hall was built. At this point he was suffering from a bladder disease made worse by opium laced “medicine.” On July 7, he took too much and passed away leaving an estate of “a little money and a few plots of land.”

The Oakland Tribune offered this in a final statement on Gideon’s life: “He died a suicide discouraged by poverty and infirmities of age, for he was 81 years of age and had seen his possessions slowly melt away through lawsuits and unfortunate speculations.”

While his death was officially ruled accidental, the article quoted Ella saying, “My father’s death was a premeditated suicide, carefully planned and carried out.” The article also pointed out Gideon had a physician-prescribed opiate to “counteract neuralgia. He secured the drug and deliberately ended his life.”

Placed in a pauper’s grave, no stone marked Gideon’s final resting place until 1980 when longtime Alameda Museum Curator George Gunn worked with Mountain View Cemetery to have one placed.

Ella Aughinbaugh

A Dec. 6, 1912, article in the Alameda Daily Evening Times-Star tells of pioneer Alamedan Ella Aughinbaugh’s final hours. The article asserts Ella had lived in Alameda for some 60 years, near Central Avenue and High Street, approximately the location of her father’s original homestead. Perhaps as a sign of respect, she is referred to as “Mrs. Ella Aughinbaugh” though no mention of a husband can be found in the record. She left no descendants.

A newspaper article’s lead sentence is meant to grab the reader’s attention. “Mrs. Ella Aughinbaugh, the elderly Alameda woman, who was stricken with paralysis while locked in St. Joseph’s Church Wednesday night, died this morning at the county infirmary …”

Ella entered the church for her evening devotions but found herself “accidentally” locked inside the as the sun set on a chilly December dusk. Around 8 p.m. her cries for help were finally heard by some passersby, but by then she was suffering from “paralysis, nervous shock and cold.”

Such was the concern for her safety the passersby enlisted an “auto ambulance” for maximum speed. Despite this, Ella passed in the care of the county infirmary in a matter of hours.

Ella had few assets to carry her to her grave. A friend and neigh¬bor, Police Judge R.B. Tappan, took care of Ella given her “straitened circumstances.”

“Judge Tappan is desirous of hearing from friends of Mrs. Aughinbaugh in order that proper funeral arrangements may be made …” reported the Times-Star. “Unless he can hear from some of her friends, will see that she is given a proper burial.”

Today’s historians do not know where Ella was buried.

Next week, the Chipmans.

Eric J. Kos is a historian who has contributed to several titles including: Lost San Francisco and Bay Farm Island: A Hidden History of Alameda.