Captain James S. Higgins Grocery Store
834 Delaware Street, Berkeley, CA
Captain Higgins Temperance Grocery Store (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)
In West Berkeley stands a two-story, gabled-roofed yellow building of uncertain age. Its ground floor, with its recessed, glazed front doors flanked by two deep store windows, suggests a former commercial use.
Designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 1985, this building was believed for decades to have been Ocean View House, one of the earliest structures built in these parts. A Peralta land-grant case map, surveyed by James T. Stratton in March 1861, shows only four named structures south of Codornices Creek. Domingo Peralta’s residence stood alone on what is today Albina Avenue. The other three structures identified by name were located in Ocean View: “Starch Factory” on the bay shore, “Ocean View Hotel” and “School House” on the San Pablo–Oakland highway, known at the time as Contra Costa Road and later renamed San Pablo Avenue.
Detail from Stratton’s map, 1861
Ocean View School on the Contra Costa Road, 1861
In 1952, California State Archives Historian Jacob N. Bowman published an article titled “The Birthdays of Urban Communities: Oakland and Berkeley” in the California Historical Society Quarterly. In this article, Bowman wrote:On December 24, 1853, the Oakland town council declared the road “from Broadway to Cerrito” to be a “municipal highway to be known as the Contra Costa Avenue.” On this road, after the survey had been completed, but before the assessments were made early in 1854, Capt. William J. Bowen built and opened his grocery store, very probably in the late fall of the same year. Later he added a hotel and a bar to the store, probably in 1854, judging by the increased tax assessment in 1855. Sometime early in this decade, stages had begun to run over the trail and road from Oakland to San Pablo and beyond, and this was probably the reason, or one of the reasons, for Bowen’s erection and opening of his store, hotel, and saloon.
Berkeley Daily Gazette columnist Hal Johnson claimed in a 1944 column that James Higgins bought out Captain Bowen’s business circa 1876, threw out the sale of liquor, and conducted a “temperance grocery.” Johnson, who was given to reprising his columns with minor variations, wrote in 1952, “Perhaps you didn’t know that Capt. Bowen’s grocery store is still standing, although it was moved twice, first to the corner of Sixth and Delaware Sts. and later to its present location on Delaware St. above Sixth St. The building is now used for church services.”
In 1973, George Pettitt published his book Berkeley: the Town and Gown of It, in which he repeated Johnson’s claim that Captain Bowen sold his store to Captain James S. Higgins, and that the latter established, in 1877, West Berkeley’s first post office in that store. Pettitt further stated, “The building was later moved from its original site at San Pablo Avenue and Delaware Street to Fifth and Delaware by Samuel Heywood. Later it was moved again.” A photo of the building under the Heywood ownership (shown below) was included.
The short-lived Heywood & Son grocery store at 800 Delaware Street (Louis Stein Collection, Berkeley Historical Society)
Pettitt’s book, in its turn, became a citation source. In 1978, BAHA published an article in the Berkeley Gazette, suggesting that the building at 834 Delaware Street “was probably built for the store and inn run by Captain William Bowen from about 1854 to 1877.” Echoing Johnson and Pettitt, the article suggested that Bowen had sold his store to James Higgins in 1877, “and during the same year it began to serve as West Berkeley’s first post office.” In 1985, a landmark application named the building at 834 Delaware Street Bowen’s Inn/Higgins Grocery.
But did Bowen sell his store to Higgins in 1877 or in any other year? City directories and assessment records indicate that he did not.
Both captains were listed in the 1876 Oakland directory:
The two grocer-captains in the 1876 Oakland directory
- Bowen William, groceries and res NW cor Delaware and San Pablo av
- Higgins James S., grocer and postmaster, office and res SW cor Delaware and San Pablo av
The Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832–September 30, 1971, kept in the National Archives, lists the appointment of James S. Higgins as having taken place on 27 September 1875. It stands to reason that Higgins already operated his grocery store in 1875 (he bought his lot from the Berkeley Land & Town Improvement Association on 1 June 1874). For the three preceding years, Ocean View’s mail was delivered to Bowen’s store where, according to William Warren Ferrier, “There is record that prior to that change tipsy people sometimes at night stumbled over the mail sacks in Captain Bowen’s ’hotel-bar-grocery’ establishment.” Higgins, a devout Christian, permitted no alcohol to be sold in his store. Appointing him postmaster no doubt afforded better protection for the mail pouches.
Bowen was appointed postmaster for Berkeley on 23 September 1872.
Higgins was appointed postmaster for West Berkeley on 27 September 1875.
From S.D. Waterman’s History of the Berkeley Schools (1918), we learn the following about Bowen’s Inn:
On the corner of what was then the San Pablo Road and the road leading westward to Jacob’s Landing, later named Delaware Street, stood a rambling, old-fashioned, clapboard inn and postoffice. This inn was conducted by Captain and Mrs. Bowen, who had come around the Horn from Boston. The old captain was a veritable seafaring character. His good wife some sixty years ago planted the tall cypress tree still standing guard on the soil trodden by hungry and thirsty stagecoach passengers from San Pablo on the way to Oakland. Captain Bowen’s inn was the regular stage station to the Ocean View district. The Ocean View School became overcrowded with the advent of the Cornell Match Factory, the Standard Soap Co., and the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. On the death of Mrs. Bowen, business at the inn waned and the old building was vacated.
On account of its proximity to the school the captain rented the building to the Board of Education for its first overflow primary classes.
Bowen’s Inn c. 1880 (BAHA archives)
Maria Bowen, the captain’s first wife, died in 1876, at the age of 49. Her death (which evidently led to the decline in the inn’s fortunes), combined with the appearance of Captain Higgins’s competing store directly across the street, would account for Bowen’s abandoning the grocery business in favor of selling hay, grain, and coal, as he did from 1877 until his death in 1887.
The two captains led parallel lives up to a point. They were born a year apart in Massachusetts harbor towns, went to sea at a young age, and settled in the Bay Area in the aftermath of the Gold Rush. Their stories merged and diverged over the years.
William Jones Bowen (1817–1887) was born in Fall River, Bedford County. From his biographical sketch in History of Alameda County, California (M.W. Wood, 1883), we learn that he spent some years in the South Seas and suffered several business setbacks until 1849, when fortune smiled on him in the California gold mines. He married in Australia and lived in Sausalito before settling in Ocean View, where he built the area’s first hotel in 1853, continuing in that business for 23 years. As History of Alameda County went to print, Bowen was still alive and engaged in the wood and coal business at the corner of Delaware Street and San Pablo Avenue.
Captain Bowen remarried a few years after his first wife’s death. The new wife, Irish-born like her predecessor, was named Mary Ann. She outlived her husband and continued to reside at the old address until 1895. That year, there were no property assessments on Block 61 in the Berkeley Land & Town Improvement Association, Tract B—a block that the Bowens had owned in its entirety—indicating that the building[s] had been removed or demolished. The following year, a new owner was assessed for new improvements on that block.
No published biography of James Snow Higgins (1816–1894) has emerged to date. He was born in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod. In 1840, he married Sophia Augusta Pearson in Boston, and the couple settled in Quincy, whose bay is connected to Boston Harbor. Here, the first of their six children, Emma, was born in 1848. At that time, Higgins was already a master mariner, as recorded in the 1850 U.S. Census. Living next to the Higgins family was James’s younger brother Elisha, a mariner, with his wife and two small children.
Some time between 1850 and 1853, the Higgins brothers and their families left Quincy and moved to San Francisco. Here, in May 1853, James Florence Higgins, a future sea captain, was born. His birth was followed by those of Helen August Higgins (1854) and Charles Henry Higgins (1859). The 1860 census taker found the two brothers living again in close proximity, at 510 (Elisha) and 512 Greenwich Street, on the western slope of Telegraph Hill. Elisha was now operating a lumber yard,* while James plied California’s coastal waters in his ships. In San Francisco, two more children were born to James and Sophia: Walter Francis Higgins (1862) and Marietta S. Higgins (1870).
The San Francisco directory of 1874 still listed James S. Higgins at 512 Greenwich Street. The following year, he was appointed postmaster of West Berkeley.
Captains Bowen and Higgins were now living side-by-side and for two years owned competing grocery stores, but here the similarity between them ended. Bowen, the retired sea captain, ran a saloon. Higgins, who continued sailing ships to old age, sold neither alcohol nor tobacco. Both captains had connections to Westminster Presbyterian Church, which was organized on 18 March 1877. Captain Bowen partially donated the lot for the church building, but he is not listed in the church’s death register. Captain Higgins is listed in the register as First Elder and charter member, with a note to the effect that Dr. Curry (pastor of the North Temescal Presbyterian Church) officiated at his funeral.
The steam schooner West Coast (Memories of the Mendocino Coast)
Higgins’s tenure as a grocer and postmaster was short lived. In February 1879, a new postmaster was appointed for West Berkeley; he was Arthur Fleming, a druggist operating on the northeast corner of Fifth Street and University Avenue, as well as serving as Berkeley’s town clerk. From 1880 on, Captain Higgins was never again listed as a grocer, nor was there an entry for his address in the classified business section of the city directories. Even during the few years that he was listed as a grocer, Higgins was unlikely to have been a grocer in deed. His wife was the likeliest shopkeeper, possibly assisted by their daughters. Captain Higgins, meanwhile, commanded cargo ships that sailed between Southern California and the Mendocino coast. The following passage from Memories of the Mendocino Coast (1948) by David Warren Ryder gives a rare glimpse into Captain Higgins’s reputation and character.
The next vessel to come in arrived after the [Fort Bragg] mill was completed and had begun operations [in 1885]. It was the steam schooner West Coast, commanded by one of the most famous masters in the famous “lumber fleet.” His name was James S. Higgins, and besides being a splendid ship captain, he was remarkable for being an ordained clergyman—a most unusual combination. He was remarkable also for two sons—Charley and “Nosey”—and a grand-nephew, “Gus,” all of whom later became famous captains in the lumber fleet. Captain Higgins did not want to come into Fort Bragg harbor with the West Coast, for although a brave man, he was a cautious one and refused to take undue chances with his ship. So he anchored outside and sent word ashore that he did not believe the harbor was safe and would not come in.
This was a challenge to C.R. [Johnson, founder of Fort Bragg], who, having sounded every foot of the harbor himself, knew it was safe, and refused to take no for an answer. Getting a couple of men to row him out to the West Coast, C.R. boarded her and proceeded to have a heart-to-heart talk with Captain Higgins. He told him that he knew the harbor was safe because he had sounded every inch of it, and he wound up by deftly implying that Captain Higgins’ reputation might suffer if it became known that he was fearful of doing what the master of the Golden Gate had done.
Whether this was what won the argument, we do not know. But Captain Higgins finally said he would come in—but only this once. He then gave the proper orders and, after a good deal of maneuvering, brought his ship alongside the wharf; insisting, however, that this was no fit place for ships as large as the West Coast, and that he would not come in again. Actually, he may have been putting up all this argument to try to “get a rise” out of C.R., for he was quite a character, with a sly sense of humor. In any event, if he was in earnest at the time, he later changed his mind. After taking out the first shipload of lumber from Fort Bragg, he brought his ship back there many times, and he and C.R. became fast friends. At the time of his first entry into Fort Bragg harbor, he was over eighty [actually, 68], and had been a shipmaster for more than sixty years.
How the old Higgins store was utilized between 1880 and 1893 is not known. The retail grocery business, like all small enterprises, was precarious, and many shops survived only a brief time. A year before his death, the 76-year-old Captain Higgins sold his store building to Samuel Heywood (1833–1903). The fourth son of Zimri Brewer Heywood, Samuel had come to West Berkeley in 1868 to run his father’s lumber business with Captain James H. Jacob. In his monograph “Bowen’s Inn Revisited,” Jerry Sulliger detailed the transfer of the store:In January 1893, Higgins sold his “temperance” grocery store to Samuel Heywood, son of Berkeley pioneer Zimri Heywood. Sam’s son, Frank [Brewer] Heywood, had just finished business school, and Sam was setting him up in business. They moved the Higgins grocery store down the street to the southeast corner of Fifth and  Delaware, and opened the Heywood & Son grocery business. That’s where the building was when the picture published in Pettitt’s book was taken. By March 1893, the Berkeley Daily Advocate reported that the company was successful and even ran a temperance grocery as Higgins had, “selling no liquors, cigars or tobacco….”
The Heywood & Son Groceries sign on the store window. This store existed only two years. (Louis Stein Collection, Berkeley Historical Society)
On 3 April 1894, James Snow Higgins suffered a serious accident, which was reported in the San Francisco Call the following day:
Captain Higgins Nearly Loses His Life on the Water Front.
Captain James S. Higgins of the well-known firm of Higgins & Collins came near losing his life at Jackson-street wharf yesterday morning.
Captain James Higgins Jr. is commander of the steamer South Coast. His father was going on board the vessel to see him when the accident occurred.
Captain Higgins’ foot slipped causing him to fall into the bay. His head struck a fender pile and the old gentleman was rendered unconscious before he struck the water.
Teamster John Holland was backing his horses up to the edge of the wharf when Captain Higgins tripped. Holland very promptly threw down his reins, grasped a rope, and lowering himself over the side of the South Coast caught the stunned man by the coat.
Holland released his grasp on the old gentleman for a few moments to try to pass the rope under the latter’s armpits, and in so doing the captain went down for a second time.
Holland succeeded in securing a hold on he sinking man again, help arrived, and the captain was lifted to the dock, where he remained unconscious for several minutes. Captain Higgins is a very old man and it is feared that the shock will prove fatal to him. He is one of the best-known lumber dealers on the coast.
But for Teamster Holland Captain Higgins would have been drowned.
Captain Higgins did not survive. He died two days later, on 5 April 1894. The inventory of his will included his property at 1806 San Pablo Avenue and 295 shares in the West Coast Steamship Company, owner of the steamship South Coast, commanded by his son.
The Higgins parcel in a 1903 Sanborn map. The original location of the temperance grocery was on the northeast corner of this property.
As for the old temperance grocery acquired and moved by Heywood & Son, it was just as short lived as all the other small businesses in the area, saloons excluded. Heywood & Son was listed in the 1894 and 1895 city directories before being shuttered. By 1896, Frank Brewer Heywood (1875–1935) was employed as a trimmer by the Berkeley Electric Lighting Company. After another year as an electrician, Frank became a letter carrier. Later yet, he worked as an engineer in the Berkeley Fire Department, never again returning to the grocery business.
The Heywood store at 800 Delaware Street reopened in 1896 under the management of Samuel’s younger brother, Harry Holmes Heywood. Harry sold general merchandise for one year, and groceries the following year, before returning to his previous occupation as a railroad engineer.
About 1898, the store building was sold to Mary Donovan. Once again, the old store was unaccounted for during a number of years (there was no classified listing in the city directories for any business at that address from 1898 to 1904). The 1903 Sanborn map tagged 800 Delaware Street as a dwelling, but Mrs. Donovan did not occupy it.
The former Higgins/Heywood store at 800 Delaware Street was labeled D for dwelling in the 1903 Sanborn map.
In 1904, the storefront was taken over by William A. Gentry, a cabinetmaker, who established a new grocery business. Unlike his predecessors, Gentry did well—so well, in fact, that after just one a year in that building, he relocated his store to a larger building across the street, at 809 Delaware, which was being vacated by a retiring shoe manufacturer.
The successful Gentry grocery rendered the old Higgins/Heywood store superfluous. The building changed hands again c. 1908, when Margaret C. Ryan acquired it. In 1912, an Italian-born barber named Dante Sormani (1869–1927), who had moved to West Berkeley from San Francisco in the wake of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, acquired the building and moved it to its present location.
In 1911, the former Higgins/Heywood store was still at 800 Delaware Street, and its current location (834) was vacant.
The Sormanis were last recorded in Berkeley in 1926. They and their married son, Oreste, moved to Queens, New York, where Dante passed away on 15 September 1927.
The 1929 Sanborn map shows the former Higgins/Heywood store as a dwelling at 834 Delaware Street, while its previous location is vacant.
Little is known about the subsequent use of the Higgins store building. In 1929, it was shown as a residence. In May 1948, the building was acquired by Liberty Hill Missionary Baptist Church and used as a place of worship. Within a few years, the Liberty Hill congregation had outgrown this space and moved into the former Grace Bible Church building, located on the northwest corner of University Avenue and Ninth Street.
For the past several decades, the building has served as a private residence. In 1985, the interior was remodeled by architect Bart Jones.
* Elisha Higgins (1819–1898), who became a lumber and shipping magnate in San Francisco, moved to Oakland and constructed a house there in 1886. The house still stands in its original location, in what has since become Preservation Park.
This article was published on 3 August 2018, replacing earlier versions written in 2004 and 2011.
Copyright © 20042019 Daniella Thompson & BAHA. All rights reserved.