Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Men and Whiskey "Comin' 'Round the Horn"

The Docks of San Francisco c1900
 Around Cape Horn we've got to go,
To me way, hay, o-hio!
Around Cape Horn to Call-e-a-o
A long time ago!

Frank M. Cartan and his partner, Timothy F. McCarthy, both had taken that trip around Cape Horn on their way to Call-e-a-o (California).  Often a perilous trip for ships, sailors and passengers,  it later proved to be just the journey their whiskey required to make it a standout among the many competing brands of San Francisco.

According to his obituary, Cartan emigrated to the United States from Dublin, Ireland, in 1870.  Whether he was drawn by the promise of gold and early on worked, as did many Irish of his time, toiling in the mines of Northern California is uncertain.  According to San Francisco sources, in 1873 with a partner he established a wholesale liquor and wine company at 513 Sacramento Street.  His partner, McCarthy, similarly had been born in Ireland.  Four years older than Cartan, he appears to have arrived in San Francisco about the same time.

It is possible the two men knew each other in Ireland.  In addition, on their way from the Emerald Isle to the United States both had taken the danger-filled trip around the southern coast of Latin America, probably on the kind of combination sailing and steamship shown here. With perhaps some exaggeration,  seamen reported winds between 35 and 125 knots,  waves usually between 80 to 120 feet and only a 90 second time lapse between swells.  The likelihood of survival on a ship going down were counted as “minimal.”  The lifesaving station was accounted as “a hut manned by four Chileans.”

Whatever their experience “Rounding the Horn” the partners early on decided to bring their whiskey to the West Coast by the same route.  Somewhat unbelievably, it not only made economic sense, it was said to improve the quality of the liquor.  On the economics side of the equation,  the long sea journey was not all that expensive.  For example, The New York Times reported in August 1903 that:  “Distillers have found that it costs less to send whiskey to Bremen and Hamburg and ship it from there by way of Cape Horn than it costs to send it  from Louisville to San Francisco by rail.”

Statistics provided at an 1887 Interstate Commerce Commission hearing back up that astonishing claim.  A distiller documented to the ICC that  a barrel of whiskey could be sent from the Port of Baltimore around the Horn to San Francisco for about $1 a barrel.  That was five times cheaper than shipping the same barrel across country by freight train.  Cartan, McCarthy’s expenses, when divided into 40 gallons of whiskey per barrel, add up to an around-the-Horn transit cost to San Francisco of only about 3 cents per gallon.

Moreover, many whiskey producers had the idea that  sloshing around inside barrels on the high seas mellowed and aged whiskey in beneficial ways that sedentary storing in warehouses failed to accomplish.  Some Scotch whiskey distilleries were accustomed to aging their product on long sea voyages to the U.S. and beyond.  A few American distillers  sent their whiskey afloat into the Caribbean and back.  The boast was that whiskey shipped by sea acquired “a unique and most agreeable softness.”

Cartan, McCarthy and their suppliers in the East took the longest trip of all.  Carried on oceangoing steamships, their whiskey was carried down the East Coast of the United States,  traveled the length of Latin America,  rounded Cape Horn (remember, no Panama Canal at that time), headed up the Pacific Coast of the Southern Continent,  cruised past Mexico and finally arrived in San Francisco weeks later, at the docks shown here. Note the barrels on the wharf.

The company’s flagship brand, as shown here on a provocative trade card,  was “Castlewood.”  Decanting it from the barrels in which the whiskey was shipped, the partners sold it in five gallon glass demijohns as well as in smaller quantities.  Their bottles, most of them in amber, often were heavily embossed and ranged in size from quarts to flasks, as shown here.  Like many San Francisco liquor dealers,  the company issued a range of giveaway items to saloons and other favored customers,  among them shot glasses and saloon signs.  among the latter was a dramatic depiction of a Mexican cowboy holding aloft a bottle of the firm’s Azule “pure natural spring water,” said to be from the discovery of the Sierra Azul Springs.

On the personal side,  Frank Cartan’s early life as recorded by the U.S. census carries more than one puzzle.  The 1880 census found him living at 1006 Leavenworth Street as a roomer.  It listed his occupation correctly as “liquor dealer.” But it recorded his birth date as 1850 and that he was then 30 years old but living with his son, Henry, whose age was given as 19 -- my guess is he was younger.  The census also recorded that, like his father, Henry had been born in Ireland.  Those figures would mean Frank had fathered a child when he was a boy of 11, an unlikely scenario.  Interestingly, there was no mother listed in the family.  Twenty years later the 1900 census found Frank still living in a boarding house, apparently a bachelor.  Henry had left and was married.

As their business grew, the Cartan and his partner moved on several occasions. About 1888 they relocated to 312 Sacramento Street and about 1894 opened a second store at 311 Commercial Street, becoming agents for the United Vineyard Company and expanding their wine offerings.  The partnership was dissolved in 1900. Cartan was the owner in charge but McCarthy’s name remained although he personally had departed. Cartan brought into the business his son, Henry, who earlier had been selling cigars, according to census data.

During this period,  Frank also was active in San Francisco social affairs.  Although described as of “a retiring disposition, preferring the company of a few warm friends rather than many,” he was a member of the Shriners, Knights Templar and the Bohemian Club.  By this time he also had married a woman named Nanny A. Carton and moved to nearby Sausalito, a town with many lovely homes on hills overlooking the Pacific.  He maintained a boat in the harbor there that he called “Eblana,” the Celtic name for Dublin and was said to have enjoyed being on the water.

About 1905, only age 55, Cartan’s health declined and he was stricken with paralysis.  A years later he suffered a severe blow when the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906  wiped out his business.  As his father faltered, son Henry came increasingly to manage Cartan, McCarthy.  By 1907 Henry had reopened at temporary location at 450 Hayes Street.  That same year Frank Cartan died, attended by Nanny and given the last rites by the Rev. Father Valentine.   He was buried from St. Mary’s Catholic Church and interred in Fernwood Cemetery, shown here.  Because the cemetery’s burial records burned in the 1950s, Cartan’s grave is not identified.

Henry Cartan subsequently assumed full ownership of the business. After a brief sojourn on Hayes Street, he moved the liquor dealership to the southeast corner of Battery and Commercial Streets, remaining there until 1917. His final move was to 354 Battery before being shut down by National Prohibition.

The quality of Cartan, McCarthy’s whiskey was tested in California several years ago by several adventurous lads who discovered tucked away in a cellar a full demijohn of the Irishmen’s product, estimated at over one hundred years old.  After imbibing it, they unanimously declared that the liquor remained of excellent quality.  The “unique and most agreeable softness” rendered by the trip around the Horn seemingly had stood the test of time.  Frank Cartan would have been proud.


  1. nice blog amazing this site good experince and good stuff.

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  2. I am very interested in learning what else happened to Henry Cartan. Is there any info. on his later life, children? wife's name? I am a Cartan whose Grandfather, Ben (and brother, Joe) were born in SF. We heard tales of the earthquake and fire devastating the family, but never anything else. Wondering if there is a relation?

  3. Dear "Unknown": I did not follow on with Henry Cartan in the post. A little subsequent research shows a Henry Cartan in San Francisco, listed as a widower in the 1910 census. He was boarding, an indication that he had no children. I had no information that any siblings of Frank were in SF, but Cartan is a fairly common name. Perhaps tracing the genealogy of your Cartan relatives will find a link.

  4. Tim McCarthy was from Lissangle, Cork (near Skibbereen). Any info relating to his family history would be appreciated. Chay (greengaijin at gmail dot com)

  5. Dear Chay Cotter: I regret that I did little research for this vignette on Tim McCarthy and really have nothing to add to what you see here. My own Irish relatives are from Cork and I have been in Skibbereen once -- many years ago. My experience doing genealogy in Ireland is that it is difficult getting back even one generation before the individual who landed here.

    1. Hi Jack. Thanks for sharing the story. Tim was a son of Florence McCarthy & Joanna Dillon.

  6. Chay: Thanks for adding this information about Tim McCarthy. For clarification, I should note that "Florence" was a man's name as well as a woman's in Ireland. My own grandfather Sullivan was a Florence, call "Fleur" by his friends.