Burned out of his home and business by the massive Pittsburgh fire of 1845, Ireland-born Michael Kane traveled a long, rough, and sometimes discouraging road to California to find gold. Kane found it eventually, not in the ground, but by operating a San Francisco liquor business.
Michael Kane was born in County Londonderry (Derry), Ireland, in March, 1817, the names of his parents unrecorded. With other family members, while still a teenager, he emigrated to America, settling in Pittsburgh. The Kanes may have been a clan of carpenters in Ireland and arriving in the U.S. several members, including Michael, took up the cabinet-making trade. Teaming with a cousin, he eventually established a business that apparently was successful enough to warrant a factory and warehouse.
About 1840 Michael also felt confident enough about the future to marry. His bride was a woman named Margaret whose origins differ in the records, some naming her as born in Maryland, others Virginia. Even the year of her birth is variable, her gravestone indicates 1819 but census records have it as late as 1823. Over the next six years, four of their seven children would be born.
At dawn April 1845, the lives of the Kane family would change forever. Beginning in a girl’s unwatched fire heating wash water, flames spread quickly, destroying 10,000 buildings in Pittsburgh, leaving 12,000 people homeless and doing an estimated $9,000,000 in damage. A contemporary drawing caught the inferno. Among the smoldering ruins were the Kane home and business. How the family coped has gone unrecorded but in the process, Michael’s reputation for leadership grew in the community.
On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered by at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California. The California Gold Rush began. In the fall of 1848, Kane, an immigrant who seemingly had a knack for impressing the Pittsburgh political and social elites, formed a joint venture of local young men, many the sons of the wealthy, for the purpose of traveling to California to mine for gold. One of many such outfits that sprung up around the U.S. for that purpose, Kane called it the Pittsburg & California Enterprise Company. Each participant in the wagon train paid $260 (equivalent to about $5,700 today) to provide funds for wagons, mule teams and provisions.
One author has described members as being “gold seekers joined together more as ambitious businessmen than as carefree adventurers.” At the age of 31, Kane was elected president of the company. Recognizing that their overland trek faced many dangers, primarily from Indian attacks, the company also was organized as a protective military unit. Chosen to lead the wagon train was Colonel Samuel W. Black, shown right. He was a Pittsburgh native who two years earlier was hailed as a hero during the Mexican War when he helped save the garrison at Puebla from a Santa Anna siege.
On March 16, 1849, the company left Pittsburgh and by chartered steamboat traversed the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to land two weeks later at St. Joseph, Missouri, the “jumping off point” for many west-bound wagon trains. Collecting the mules they had purchased, on May 4 the men left St. Joseph, the beginning of a nearly 1,700 mile overland journey. In the word of one historian,”Bidding adieu to civilization, they started across the almost interminable wilds by what was called the Fremont route…”
Although the original plan was to travel as one group, 310 participants proved unwieldy and soon the company divided into smaller units. The trekkers under Kane’s leadership had a relatively uneventful crossing, except for challenges to the mules in crossing the waterless stretch pioneers called “Forty Mile Desert,” in the Lohontan Valley of Nevada. On August 22, 1849, 110 days after leaving Missouri, Kane and his group reached Placerville, California, then called “Hangtown” for its many “necktie parties.” It was the rowdy hub of the region’s mining operations.
The trip had cost Kane more than he anticipated. He had loaned other members of the company some $2,500 for the journey, loans he forgave after seeing the hard conditions in California. That fall and winter, he staked a claim in an area known as “Mud Springs” (now El Dorado) four miles south of Placerville. That and subsequent digs seemingly were unsatisfactory as ensuing months found Kane moving from place to place. By winter 1851, however, he was digging for gold near a California town called “Rough and Ready” and making $10 a day (equivalent to $220).
By that summer Kane had accrued sufficient cash to think about going home. He returned by ship in summer 1851, reacquainting himself with wife Margaret and his children. The sojourn resulted in two more births. But California was in Michael’s blood. By spring 1853, Kane was in San Francisco, having been come by way of Panama as appointed United States Mail Agent for the trip, indicating political connections. It was a patronage position.
There to greet Kane in San Francisco was an old Pennsylvania friend, John White Geary, the city’s first mayor, elected in 1850. Shown here, Geary had distinguish himself for bravery in the Mexican War. Earlier he had urged Kane to buy land in San Francisco but after looking around the town, according to a biographer, “…He returned to his friend, disgusted with the appearance of the place” and refused. Geary warned him that he would regret the decision some day.
Now Kane apparently had changed his mind about San Francisco. Likely with Geary’s support, the San Francisco Collector of Customs, Richard P. Hammond, shown left, appointed him to the plum job of Inspector of Customs. Like Geary, Hammond was a Mexican War hero, rewarded by President Polk for his service. Kane served a term as inspector, likely working from the building shown below. He then was promoted to Government Storekeeper, another patronage job, responsible for buying, receiving, storing and issuing supplies, materials and equipment for U.S. agencies in the region.
At some point during this period of U.S. government service, Kane sent for his wife and family to join him. They found a home at 611 Eddy Street. There Michael and Margaret’s last child, a daughter, was born in 1858. With Lincoln’s election in 1860 the days of a Democrat in the White House came to an end. Political positions were tenuous. Kane made a strategic decision to move into the whiskey trade.
During the early 1860s Kane bought a one-third interest in an established liquor house that bore the names of his partners, James Hunter and Thomas Wand. The firm as it prospered moved to larger quarters along San Francisco’s Front Street. When Hunter died about 1870 the remaining two partners bought his share and the firm became Wand, Kane & Company. Two years later Wand sold out and Kane, now thoroughly familiar with the liquor business, brought in a new partner, a fellow Irishman named Fergus O’Leary. The company became Kane, O’Leary & Company.
Soon after, the partners made a move to a more upscale location at 221 and 223 Bush Street in San Francisco’ financial district. Shown above, it was located on the ground floor of the Brooklyn Hotel, accounted one of the city’s most popular and successful. The photo shown here of the store, dating from 1880, shows the barrels and crates of whiskey kept on the sidewalk as advertising. Kane may be among the several well-dressed gentlemen at the doorway.
There Michael and his partner offered up a number of brands, including "Morning Glory,” "Old Cabinet,” "Old Judge,” "Old Kentucky Club,” and “Paragon,” “Double Refined Old Bourbon,” “Hunter’s Wheat Whisky,” “Kentucky Farm Bourbon,” and “Copper Double Distilled Rye.” These were packaged in glass bottles, usually amber in color and in sizes varying from quarts to pints and half-pints.
Kane, O’Leary became known for the quality of its lithographed trade cards and labels, such as the languorous lady advertising their Morning Glory Bourbon. Indicating Michael’s continuing interest in politics, the company issued a two special labels for the 1880 presidential race between Republican James A. Garfield and Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock. Both had served with distinction as Union generals in the Civil War and the election was close, each of them winning 19 states. The electoral vote went to Garfield, 214 to 155 — an outcome Kane would not have enjoyed, although Hancock won California.
After a decade of lucrative business selling whiskey, Kane knew he had found a new way to strike gold but at age 65 decided he had money enough to retire. In January 1882 he sold out to two local merchants, Myer J. Newmark and Max Gruenberg, who changed the name of the liquor house to their own.
Of Kane’s late years, a biographer in 1892 noted: “He has a fine, comfortable home in Alameda…where he is surrounded with a happy family and all the comforts of a quiet life.” Indicative of his wealth, Kane had purchased a dwelling built by Senator Nathan Porter, on Railroad Avenue, at the time considered the finest residence in Alameda. He continued to be active in the Pioneer Society of San Francisco, an organization of early settlers, and served two terms as a director. Kane also found time to travel, sailing to Europe and later attending the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans.
It was in Alameda, across San Francisco Bay south of Oakland, that Michael Kane died in November 1899 at the age of 82. He was buried in Oakland’s St. Mary’s Cemetery. His long-suffering but devoted wife, Margaret, erected a monument at his gravesite “Sacred to the memory of my much beloved husband…R.I.P.” She would join him there seven years later. Other family members are buried nearby.
In Ireland men from County Derry are celebrated in song and story for their bravery. Michael Kane clearly lived up to the Derry tradition. It took unusual courage to look past the destruction of his Pittsburgh home and fire, to trek 1,700 miles across the dangerous American West, to dig the earth searching for gold in a lawless land, and even to admit changing his mind on the future of San Francisco. We are left these whisky flasks as reminders of Kane’s extraordinary life story of persistence and courage.
Note: Although information for this post was gathered from numerous sources, a key document was a publication entitled “Bay of San Francisco: The Metropolis of the Pacific Coast and its Suburban Cities, A History,” (no author given) published by The Lewis Publishing Company, 1892. It contains an extensive biographical article on Michael Kane, but unfortunately no picture.