Science Amid The Saloons

The Academy Begins

Dave Brian Butvill

San Francisco was booming. In just a few years, the mining town had evolved from a raw outpost of frontiersmen with a single goal—to find gold—to a bustling metropolis of 50,000. Now it boasted 19 banks, 18 churches, 12 daily newspapers, and enough theaters to keep every French-, German-, Spanish-, Chinese-, and English-speaking inhabitant entertained. Blocks of three- and four-story brick skyscrapers, skirted by wooden sidewalks, housed charming hotels, eclectic restaurants, lines of saloons, and raucous gambling halls. Throughout 1853, an estimated $1 million poured into the City from Sierra gold mines each week, and San Francisco shone like a bright golden beacon in the West.

Among the shoeshine shops and horse-drawn buggies decorated in German silver walked a handful of men preoccupied with less material matters. On the evening of April 4, 1853, this small group pushed through the crowded streets toward a meeting at the candlelit office of Lewis Sloat, a notary public and commissioner of deeds. Among those who arrived were a pharmacist, a teacher, two medical doctors, and a gregarious businessman-politician named Andrew Randall. Their shadows dancing on the walls, Randall, Sloat, Albert Kellogg, Thomas Nevins, Henry Gibbons, John Trask, and Charles Farris had come to do something extraordinarily odd in this boomtown: discuss science.

The charter of the California Academy of Sciences, signed in 1853.

To these amateur naturalists, the city of gold was just another nugget in a vast field of untapped treasures—treasures that swam in the ocean, bloomed along the coast, prowled through the mountains, or lay buried in the ground. Now they hoped to refine their ideas as a group. By the time they blew out the tallow for the evening, the men had sparked the state’s newest movement. Calling their motley band the California Academy of Natural Sciences, these men would persevere to establish the West’s first and most enduring scientific institution.

The road to California in those days was not an easy one. While the vast majority of emigrants who made the life-threatening journey west were lured by the powerful dream of quick wealth, the Academy founders were different. Adventurers all, they shared a desire to explore the wild, mysterious new territory around San Francisco.

When Andrew Randall left Ohio in 1849 for California, the 30-year-old was already a seasoned entrepreneur. Earlier that year, he had founded the first newspaper in Minnesota Territory; back in Ohio, he had produced a newspaper for farmer families he cheerfully marketed as “the cheapest paper ever published.” As a member of the United States Geological Survey, Randall helped map Wisconsin and Minnesota under geologist David Dale Owen, who taught the crew how to identify minerals, interpret rock formations, and collect specimens. The experience gave Randall the skills he would hone later in life as a budding scientist.

In spring of that year, Randall was hired as a customs officer by one James Collier, who was to head the newly formed Port of San Francisco. The trip west from St. Louis to California with his boss and 30 other customs officers would prove to be much more dangerous than anyone had bargained for. They had barely sailed out of St. Louis when disaster struck. A cholera epidemic along the Missouri River left scores of abandoned boats tied to docks; their crews were so depleted they could navigate no further. Miraculously, the disease left Randall’s group unscathed. And in Fort Leavenworth, the party set off on horseback along the Santa Fe Trail with a U.S. Army escort and 31,000 pounds of supplies.

In Santa Fe, after a weary three months of travel, Collier and his crew joined a squadron of dragoons for the last leg of the journey to San Diego. Attacking Apache Indians shot one man through the arm, but the group escaped to cross the Continental Divide into Arizona. In early October, they stumbled upon a large troupe of travelers led by John Woodhouse Audubon, son of renowned artist and naturalist John James Audubon. He had left New York with 80 emigrants but disease and desertion had reduced the party to 51. Among the survivors were 25-year-old John Trask and 34-year-old Lewis Sloat, with whom Randall would strike up lifetime friendships.

But their combined forces were not enough to stave off yet another tragedy. While crossing the churning Colorado River, the two parties lost three canoes filled with supplies and four men, including their guide. After the accident, the two groups marched 20 miles a day through the sand dunes along the California-Mexico border. For the last week, their daily rations consisted of a quarter-pound of bread and a cup of coffee. They limped into San Diego the day after Halloween, a cadre of skeletons, some without shoes on their feet.

From there, Randall boarded a steamer north to San Francisco, completing a journey of seven months. He was eventually posted to the state’s capital, Monterey, where he was elected to the legislature. But his 1851 plea to the State Assembly for a geologic survey of California went unheeded. Two years later to the day, he, Sloat, Trask, and four others would embark on their own, much grander, study of California’s natural resources.

At a time when just getting to California was a life and death struggle, launching a scientific society in a wilderness 3,000 miles from the nearest kindred institution took a great leap of faith. But with an eye to organization and an almost naïve ambition, the naturalists pressed forward anyway.

They met weekly to share their research and promote the Academy’s mission. This was spelled out at the second meeting a week later: “We have on this coast a virgin soil with new characteristics and attributes...a field of richer promise in the department of Natural History in all its variety than has previously been discovered. It is due to science, it is due to California, to her sister States, and to the scientific world that early measures be adopted for a thorough systematic survey of every portion of the State and the collection of a cabinet of her rare and rich productions.”

By the third meeting, they had a start to the collection—a ship’s captain donated marine shells and coral from the Pacific Islands. By the end of May, they had established five levels of membership, set up a board of trustees, and elected Randall their first president.

Early on, they invited prominent scientists to become honorary members. Eleven accepted, including luminaries Isaac Lea of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences and Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution. The strategy not only announced their presence to the elite, but made contacts that would prove vital to the Academy’s future success.

Then, in a rare move, the men declared “we highly approve of the aid of females of every department of natural science, and...earnestly invite their cooperation.” The retrospectively awkward but well-meaning invitation put the scientific startup down in history for the second time in four months.

The group’s scientific conversations were wide-ranging from the start. Randall and Trask were mainly interested in geology, Kellogg in plants, and Gibbons in meteorology, while Sloat and Nevins were generalists. (Farris had left California three months after the founding.) With each new member, the Academy’s discussions grew richer. By the end of the first year, a typical meeting’s topics might include live-bearing fishes and new coastal plants as well as shooting stars and comet sightings.

Meanwhile, the founders were also breaking new ground as individuals. Nevins established the first recognized public school in the city; Trask completed the first geologic survey on the state’s tab; and Gibbons was the first to document California’s temperature and rainfall.

Despite the excitement of starting a new venture, the men had begun to feel their isolation by 1854. Neither the Pony Express nor the transcontinental railroad were yet in existence, and mail between the two coasts took about four weeks via steamer and an overland trek across the Isthmus of Panama. Reports of the latest species descriptions and scientific achievements were hard to come by, and the scientists’ work had started to suffer. In a revealing letter to a colleague at the Smithsonian Institution, Academy fish biologist William Ayres wrote, “I am working along here in the dark as well as I can, with almost nothing in the way of books or means of reference, and what mistakes I make, some of you more advantageously situated must correct.”

This handicap resulted in a personal slap in the face for Kellogg, whose fame as a botanist was growing. While awaiting information to finish describing the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), which he had proposed naming Washingtonia gigantea after the first U.S. president, several months passed. In the interim, a botanist in London beat Kellogg to it, publishing the tree’s first description and naming it Wellingtonia gigantea after Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington.

Geologist, entrepreneur and state legislator Andrew Randall Albert Kellogg, a medical doctor and expert on California plants Henry Gibbons, who began the study of rainfall and climate in the state
School superintendent Thomas J. Nevins Geologist John Trask, first in a long line of California seismologists

Despite these early setbacks, the fledgling society had struck it scientifically rich. California’s diverse landscape was like nothing before seen on the other coast. Museums and universities back East, anxious to receive samples and publish studies from the region, willingly lent the Academy a helping hand.

Principal among these was the Smithsonian. It not only supplied the Academy with desperately needed publications, but offered crucial guidance. To gain respect in the scientific community, it was suggested that the Academy report findings in official transactions instead of the pages of local newspapers. The advice led to the Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, now in its 150th year of publication.

The next two years would pass quietly for the Academy. The scientists continued traveling and researching the land around them after work and on the weekends, and meeting every Monday evening to exchange their discoveries and ideas.

But in 1856, all hell broke loose.

San Francisco’s evolution into a thriving city brought with it the two-headed monster of crime and corruption. Robberies, assaults, and murders were commonplace. Yet police looked the other way, judges frequently accepted bribes, and roughs who ruled the streets were free to go about their business. A large network of scoundrels had formed, including hardened criminals as well as most government officials and lawyers. And the miscreants were growing ever more aggressive.

This dire situation reached its horrific climax in spring 1856. James King, editor of a popular local newspaper, took a stance against these social injustices. During his quest to reveal the truth, he exposed the fact that James Casey, city supervisor and editor of another local journal, was also an ex-convict from New York. Furious at having his name dragged through the dirt, Casey ambushed King on May 14 and shot him down in broad daylight. The murder inflamed the city’s already exasperated residents.

Some 3,500 citizens organized and formed a Vigilance Committee. The second of three to be founded in the city, the committee would help transform a town rotten with corruption into one of the safest and best organized cities in the world. Armed with bayonets, guns, and a large brass cannon, the small army stormed the jailhouse to which Casey had fled for protection (the chief was his personal friend), and removed him and another wanted assassin. The Committee tried the two criminals in a makeshift court, found the men guilty as charged, and hanged them on the day of King’s funeral.

The Vigilance Committee continued cleansing San Francisco of dirty characters, but not before the Academy was affected. Andrew Randall owed one Joseph Hetherington on the order of $67,000, which he either could not or would not immediately pay. On July 24, Randall entered the St. Nicholas Hotel on Sansome Street. Hetherington slipped in behind him, and after a short scuffle, pulled out a gun and placed a fatal bullet through Randall’s left temple.

Hetherington was quickly seized by the Committee, tried two days later, and sentenced to death. The day after Randall’s funeral, the Academy members held their regular Monday meeting. After reading a memorial to their slain first president, those in attendance moved swiftly and calmly to the business of approving an amendment to the organization’s bylaws and reporting the donation of a pamphlet describing the coniferous trees of California.

Hetherington was hanged the next day.

Meanwhile, the City was reeling from an economic collapse that had begun in 1855. A mass exodus, fueled by rumors of gold in Canada, drained much of San Francisco’s remaining vitality. The jewel of the Pacific became a ghost town, and the Academy’s fortunes followed suit. Soon after Randall’s death, membership and attendance waned, and its weekly meetings came to a halt. For five years, those few who gathered kept no records of their meetings.

Ironically, it was during this lull that the little society of scientists started to shine. Staple members like Trask, Kellogg, Ayres, and Hans Hermann Behr kept the fires burning. Their meticulous and copious research helped cement the institution’s reputation as a serious scientific entity. By this time, Trask was a pioneer in chronicling the state’s earthquakes, and Ayres had become an authority on fish. Kellogg, whose circle of friends included iconic wilderness advocate John Muir, was by now one of the most esteemed botanists in the country. In addition to describing and giving names to more than 250 native plant species, and having species such as the black oak, Quercus kelloggii, named after him, he would later publish Forest Trees of California, the first botanical account of the state’s forests. Behr (who would remain one of the most devoted members for more than 50 years), was a lively disciple of science and a socialite who helped found the Bohemian Club. A true intellectual, he spoke seven tongues, including Latin, the language of science. His association with the Academy further burnished the institution’s lustre.

In 1860, the scientists got their big break. In a landmark decision that would forever change the course of science in the West, the state legislature passed an act authorizing a geologic survey of California.

However, it wasn’t the representatives’ grand vision that turned over a new scientific leaf, but the ambitions of the man they had appointed the state geologist. Josiah Whitney, whose name graces the highest peak in the lower 48 states, was far too inspired an individual to simply follow orders to identify sites for gold and oil extraction. Instead, he set out to document California’s “rocks, fossils, soils, minerals, and its botanical and zoological productions.” While Whitney filed one report after another saying he had found nothing miners could exploit, his crew was documenting the heights of peaks, the depths of valleys, and discovering new minerals, animals, and plants. The state was unimpressed and actually withdrew funding. But survey personnel and research would revitalize the Academy and catapult it to new heights.

Whitney had the foresight to headquarter the survey in San Francisco. His arrival in town, along with the many scientists who came with him, breathed new life into scientific discovery in the West. For the first time, the institution had members who were paid to study nature and could dedicate themselves wholly to the cause.

The next several years were more than productive. From measuring the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, to reporting the physics and temperature fluctuations of the Sacramento River, to describing new plants, mollusks, fishes, insects, birds, and mammals, the science poured in.

In 1867, Whitney was elected Academy president, and several other major scientific figures jumped onboard. These included William Dall, the most distinguished mollusk researcher in the country, and George Davidson, renowned for his survey work along the Pacific Coast. The University of California was founded in Berkeley the same year, drawing more scientists into the state and onto the Academy’s membership rolls. Among the notable academics were Daniel Gilman, the University’s first president, who would go on to help found Johns Hopkins University, and Joseph LeConte, the University’s first professor of geology and botany. Attendance at the weekly meetings doubled overnight, and the Academy went from being the only scientific organization in the West to the most active one.

By 1870, membership had increased so much that the Academy was, in the treasurer’s words, “free from the burden of debt for the first time.” It boasted thousands of specimens in the collection and the most comprehensive scientific library west of the Mississippi.

Academy President James Blake summed up their success during his annual address in 1871. He called attention to the “great respect which had been paid to its publications throughout the entire scientific world....No other Society with the same small number of working members had accomplished so much for science during the same period; for, although the laborers were few, the ground we had to work in was virgin soil and had yielded an abundant harvest.”

The precarious pioneering days of California were over. Just as San Francisco had grown from a rowdy wilderness town into a mature metropolitan city, the vision of seven scientific gentlemen had taken wing. It is still soaring 150 years later.

Dave Brian Butvill, previously Associate Editor with California Wild, is a freelance writer based in Costa Rica.