Vigilante, Rope Maker Once Made His Home on Site of Lincoln Park

Courtesy Arthur A. Shilt - This sketch of “Rosebush” shows James D. Farrell’s home “Homebush” after the O’Hara Taaffe family moved in.

Ship captain James D. Farwell arrived in San Francisco in the spring of 1850. He had safely captained the steamboat Tehama from Panama. Farwell, who hailed from Maine, opened a chandlery on Clay Street in San Francisco. As a chandler he supplied the ships in port with their wares.

Farwell was a vigilante, who served on San Francisco’s First Vigilance Committee. As a member of the committee he was called to arms on June 10, 1851, when John Jenkins stood accused of stealing a safe. Farwell witnessed the trial and Jenkins’ hanging the next day. Farwell’s signature appears on the document that supported the first time a vigilance committee “jury” meted out “justice” in San Francisco. 

Farwell played a key role when the vigilantes reorganized in 1856. His fellow members called on him to “procure” a cannon for the committee. He teamed up with Richard M. Jessup. Author James Putman tells us that “in less than an hour they returned with a brass field piece that had once been in service with the First California Guard unit.”

The 1860 census shows Farwell living in Alameda with his wife, Angelina, and a gardener, an Irishman named Jim Carroll. He had purchased property in today’s Lincoln Park and built a home he called “Homebush.” Census taker William Grove Deal listed Farwell as a “merchant.” Angelina bore Farwell a son in 1866 and passed away in 1868. 

The 1870 census records show Farwell living at Homebush with his four-year-old son, Willie. Mary and Pat Galigan, who hailed from Ireland, were working for Farwell, Mary as a domestic servant and Pat as a driver. Ah Ming was also a member of the household. Census taker Stephen Burpee recorded him as a “waiter.” 

Burpee also recorded James’ brother and his son’s namesake, William, living in Alameda with his wife, Sarah. The 1868 San Francisco Directory tells us that William and James were partners in a chandlery, likely the same one that James had started in 1850. William and Sarah had two children, Laura and John.  

In 1872 James teamed up with a group of wealthy men who included John Parrott and Peter Donahue. They had put up some $2 million to start the Pacific Cordage Company. 

These investors wanted to meet the demand for rope while competing with the only rope manufacturer in San Francisco. 

At first Californians imported all their rope. For example, in 1852 ships laden with 13,323 coils and 15,612 packages of cordage had passed through the Golden Gate on their way to eager buyers in San Francisco and beyond. Ships coming from New York did not carry complete cargoes unless they arrived with a quantity of rope in their holds.

To meet this demand locally Hiram Tubbs opened the San Francisco Cordage Company in 1862. Nine years later Tubbs got some competition across the bay in the form of the Pacific Cordage Company. 

The company built a 26-foot-wide and 1,800 foot-long ropewalk into the marshland just off Simson’s Switch, the Central Pacific Railroad stop near today’s High Street and Coliseum Way. They hired James to manage operations there. He hired 90 men, women and children to work in the shop, bragging that the cordage factory would be a “boon to the many poor families in the neighborhood who wish to earn a respectable living.”

The company manufactured its first rope in May 1873 and promised to spin “up 500 tons of Kentucky hemp, providing parties would cultivate it on this coast.” The company offered “to pay a handsome premium for the first ten tons of hemp grown on this coast.”

James sold Homebush the same year that Pacific Cordage produced its first rope. He bought a ranch in Hayward. The Pacific Cordage Company stayed in business for four years. For the first two years it offered Tubbs some lively competition; then it began to lose money. It closed its doors in 1877. 

The 1880 census shows James living as a farmer in Washington Township with his wife, Elizabeth. Willie is now 14 and he has two stepbrothers, eight-year-old James and four-year-old Harold and a stepsister, 10-year-old Elizabeth. 

Farwell passed away at his ranch in Hayward on November 19, 1887. “Captain James D. Farwell, an old and respected citizen of the county, died last Saturday morning after a brief illness, The Daily Alta California reported on the front page of its Nov. 22, 1987 edition. 

Next week we’ll meet Gustav Frederic O’Hara Taaffe who purchased Homebush from James Farwell.