Monday, September 19, 2016

Hugh McCrum, the West’s Peripatetic Whiskey “Capitalist”

Foreword: Trying to cram the multifaceted life of Hugh McCrum into the confines of a single post has been a daunting task.  Although well-known in his own time and deserving book-length treatment, the multi-millionaire McCrum largely has been forgotten as a pioneer entrepreneur in the Old West.  A kinsman in Northern Ireland has done prodigious research on him, however, that made writing this article possible.  

The McCrums were Presbyterians from Scotland who moved to Northern Ireland where they were numbered the Orangemen.  They settled in the town of Carnmoney, County Antrim, an area on the outskirts of Belfast.  The Irish potato failure was no respecter of religion, however, and both parts of the Emerald Isle were victims of famine.  Hugh was born circa 1836 in County Antrim of parents, James and Agnes McCrum. When he was in his early teens, he, his mother and other siblings boarded the S.S. Aberdeen, known as a famine (or sometimes “coffin”) ship,” at Liverpool, England, early in 1850, arriving in the U.S. after several miserable weeks at sea.
James McCrum was not with his wife and children on the voyage.  My guess is that he was already in the United States getting established and had called for his family to follow.  Via the 1850 census, I have found a James McCrum, no wife listed and of the right age, living in Clark County, Kentucky, with his occupation given as “saloon.”  Kentucky was just opening up to settlers and many from Ireland found their way there.  If this was his father, it may help explain Hugh’s penchant for running saloons.

The first ten years of Hugh’s life in the U.S. are shrouded in history.  He later claimed because his father had been naturalized during that period, American citizenship automatically had been transferred to him as a minor child.  McCrum first showed up in a public record in the 1860 Federal census at the age of 22, living in Pine Grove, California, the mining camp shown left.  He was boarding with other miners in a hotel run by an Englishman named Thomas Hardy.  Like tens of thousands of other youths the California Gold Rush seemingly had brought McCrum West. 
Although he never got mining out of his blood, by 1863 Hugh was living in Virginia City, Nevada, and running the Delta Saloon there.  It is shown standing today restored as a tourist attraction.  His stay in Virginia City was marked by a strange occurrence.  According to a newspaper story in December 1868:“Mr. McCrum, proprietor of the Delta Saloon, became suddenly deranged, and seizing a pistol, drove everyone from the saloon, when he closed the doors, shutting himself in.  During the commotion, his pistol was accidentally fired off, but luckily neither himself nor anyone about was hurt.”  After being subdued by the sheriff, he was taken to the jail and shut up in a cell for his own safety.  McCrum was not known to be a heavy drinker and local opinion was that his delirium was caused by contracting smallpox from a partner who subsequently had died.  Whatever the cause, no further such incidents were reported.

During this period Hugh got married.  His wife was Emma J., a woman born in Maine and just a year younger than he.  The 1870 census found them at home in Virginia City with a baby named William, born in California.  Because McCrum was reputed to have no direct survivors, there is a possibility that he was Emma’s child by an earlier marriage or that the boy died in infancy.  Listed as a “liquor dealer” in the census, McCrum befriended and possibly supplied a firefighting company in Virginia City.  Shown here, a certificate dated November, 1870, gave him an “exempt” membership in the unit.

After moving to San Francisco post-1870, McCrum became enamored with the Arizona Territory and began to travel there, some 800 miles from his home.  Although some of the distance could be covered by rail, most required overland transport by stage coach or on horseback.   McCrum was quoted in the press saying that Arizona is “the richest country outdoors,”  an somewhat ambiguous statement that might have been alluding to the natural beauty of the territory or its potential mineral wealth.  Hugh seems rapidly to have gained friends during his travels, particularly among members of the press who helped spin him into legend.  One newspaper called him an “Old 49er,” ignoring the fact that McCrum was 11 years old and in Ireland that year.  Another cited him as an “old frontiersman, freighter and Indian fighter,” although there is no independent evidence of those occupations.

McCrum also was regaling attentive newsmen about his reputed scrapes with hostile  Indians.   Citing him as a man who “carries on his face the strong impression of truthfulness and reliability,”  the Arizona Daily Star published a extensive interview with him on the subject:  “Mr. McCrum  represents that traveling in the Territory, except with a strong and well armed escort, is extremely hazardous, and he was compelled to do most of his traveling under cover of night to prevent being waylaid by Apaches.”  The Prescott (AZ) Courier, however, was not as impressed:  “Mr. McCrum evidently likes to hear himself talk…As to Arizona being a unsafe country to travel in, and the ‘hairbreath escapes’ of Mr. McCrum — well, as we said before, he likes to hear himself talk.”

At this time McCrum’s frequent trips to Arizona were part of his work as a traveling salesman for the J. M. Goeway & Co.  This was a wholesale and retail liquor house that had been founded in 1869 at 409 Front Street in San Francisco, It featured a proprietary brand of whiskey called “Blue Grass Bourbon.”   Hugh’s success in the liquor trade was indicated in a 1872 notice by Goeway indicating that McCrum had been made a partner in the firm.
By 1876, Goeway had departed the scene and the Front Street business belonged to McCrum and a new partner, John Sroufe.  Born in Ohio, Sroufe was a decade older than Hugh, married with a family of three girls.  Listed in the 1870 census as a “produce dealer,” he brought to the liquor house San Francisco business savvy and a willingness to “watch the store” while the restless and peripatetic McCrum roamed the West.  A Nevada newspaper described the Scotch-Irish entrepreneur being “…as well known in Nevada as sagebrush and as popular as the product he sells.  Yesterday the firm of Manning & Berry, our townsmen, ordered from Hugh ten cases of the famous Blue Grass Bourbon.”

Despite the purported threat from Apaches, McCrum increasingly was being drawn to Arizona, particularly the area around Prescott.  There were two attractions, mining and saloons.  From early on McCrum was checking out area mines, telling newsmen that he believed the mineral resources of Arizona to be almost inexhaustible and would prove equal if not superior to the mines of California.   While selling whiskey to their owners, he also was calculating the profitability of the numerous saloons on Prescott’s infamous “Whiskey Row,”  shown here, eventually buying at least two and a barbershop.  Later they would be destroyed by fire.

About 1886 McCrum and Sroufe also became partners in a saloon in Tombstone, Arizona, called the “Bird Cage,” an establishment notorious for rowdy behavior and a bordello on the second floor.  Hugh, apparently ever on the move, probably instigated the purchase.  Two years later they sold the Bird Cage to Joe Bignon. [See my post on  the Bird Cage and Bignon, January 2014.]  McCrum also is recorded having bought a stock farm near Point of Rocks, a highly scenic area not far from Prescott, shown below.
With their liquor trade burgeoning, by 1881 the partners had moved to larger quarters at 208-210 Market Street.  They also were looking closer at home for opportunities.  The Cliff House Restaurant, perched on rock above the Pacific Ocean was a longstanding San Francisco icon, a eatery favored by the city’s wealthy residents and famous figures that included three American presidents.  When a new owner found himself unable to manage the property, he leased it in 1883 to McCrum and Sroufe.  They apparently brought a different kind of clientele to Cliff House, raising local eyebrows and offending the owner who terminated their lease within two years, instructing their successor to “clear out the riffraff.”

The early 1890s were an particularly eventful period in McCrum’s always active life.  In March 1881 he met with a serious accident while driving a horse and wagon in Golden Gate Park.  Described in press accounts as “driving at a top rate of speed,” he struck a projection on the side of the road and was thrown headfirst out of the wagon onto the road, sustaining a head cut and a bruised shoulder.  Assisted by the police, McCrum received medical treatment at his San Francisco home.  The horse, one he had purchased only a short time before,  was severely injured and had to be shot. 

By now 53 years old, this incident may have dampened Hugh’s ardor for being on the road constantly for McCrum & Sroufe.  He left the firm in 1893, one that John Sroufe would carry on under his own name until about 1915.   Although out of wholesaling liquor, drinking establishments still had an attraction for McCrum and looking south to Los Angeles, he found an attractive property.  Called the Exchange Saloon it had been closed for several weeks because of a fire.  McCrum bought it, expanded the drinking space, upgraded the bar, re-painted and papered, and installed new lights.   According to the press, he also insured that there was a “fine new stock of liquids,”

Finally, after at least 35 years of marriage to Emma J. McCrum, years during which Hugh seldom was at home, their union came to an end.  On the grounds of “willful desertion” she sued for and was granted a divorce with a substantial financial award.  With weeks, Hugh wed again.  This time his wife was Harriet M. Lakeman, a native of Massachusetts recorded as living in Mill Valley, a community north of San Francisco.  He was 58 and she was 42. The couple were married on May 13, 1885, in a Los Angeles Congregational Church with the pastor presiding.  Calling Ms. Lakeman “a most excellent lady” the Prescott Journal-Miner joined McCrum’s reputed “army of friends in Arizona,” in extending congratulations.

By this time McCrum had changed his official residence to Prescott, keeping an office in San Francisco where directories referred to him as a “capitalist.”  In those days the term was synonymous with “investor,” a wealthy individual whose occupation was putting money behind business developments.  For McCrum that meant saloons and, more important, mining endeavors.  Federal minings laws had greatly benefited him.  They allowed beneficiaries to buy land and the mineral rights below for no more than $5 an acre.  Between the years of 1893 and 1896, McCrum is recorded making three purchases in Arizona, amounting to 150 acres.  His was a particularly large holding.  

The Phoenix Gazette called him “…One of the oldest mining men on the coast and his judgement is taken above all.  He has traveled through the mining regions on the coast for thirty years and none are better known.”  McCrum had reported to the paper on his mining efforts twenty miles south of Prescott, claiming his works were “running night and day on good gold ore.”

McCrum  also became the majority owner of the Silver Cave mine, one he described as the biggest gold mine on the West Coast.  It was located in the Florida Mountains, a small range in southern Luna County, New Mexico, not far from the Mexican border.  He also was an investor the McCabe mine, at one time holding a half ownership. Shown below, it was located not far from Prescott and produced both gold and silver.  
A friend of Hugh’s later recalled a dialogue between him and a prim New England lady during a stagecoach ride to Prescott.  While McCrum was in mid-sentence the woman interrupted him with a question:  “‘Mr., what constitutes capital in this country?’  Quick as a flash, he answered:  ‘Eight dollars and six bits, Madam,’ and finished his sentence.” 

Although McCrum listed his residence for voting purposes as Prescott, he continued to keep strong ties in San Francisco, continuing to own considerable property in the area.  He was there when he died at the age of 66 in July 1902. In Hugh’s obituary The Sausalito (CA) News opined: “The life of the deceased was thrilling in the extreme, and the account of his experiences in Arizona would make reading as rich as the experiences found in the yellow colored novels.”  The Prescott newspaper highlighted the amount of overland travel Hugh had endured over 25 years through California, Nevada, Oregon, and Arizona, “…that would have worn out an ordinary man years ago.”

With his widow Helen and friends looking on, McCrum was interred in Cypress Lawn Cemetery outside San Francisco at Colma, where many of the city’s dead are buried.  In keeping with his wealth, Hugh lies in a freestanding mausoleum with his name carved in large letters over the door.  The figure sitting atop the structure even today provokes curiosity.  It is a seated angel with a hand to chin as if puzzling over what kind of man lies below.

There are few written assessments to tell us more about McCrum’s personality.  One obituary described him as a “large-hearted, generous and genial man,” with a host of friends all over the Pacific region, but said little else to describe him.  It occurs to me that the many miles Hugh McCrum had traveled in the West were of  less importance than the distance he had covered from being an indigent boy arriving on a Irish famine ship to becoming a West Coast multi-millionaire.

Note:  This vignette would not have been possible without the help of Roy Lyle, a resident of Northern Ireland and a direct descendant of Hugh’s niece.  He had seen an earlier post of mine and wrote to tell me about his relative.  Roy found Hugh McCrum’s “rags to riches” story of considerable interest, as did I, and he had gathered a wealth of material on him.  Unfortunately, neither of us can find a photo of the man.  Instead, Roy’s photo is inserted here as a sign of my gratitude for his help.  Finally, two of my recent posts, in March and August 2016, also deal with Prescott’s Whiskey Row.

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