Lucky Baldwin’s heiress once ‘slummed’ in Berkeley

Daniella Thompson

13 October 2009

17 Plaza Drive, built for Anita Baldwin and Hull McClaughry in 1909. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin (1828–1909) was one of California’s most storied individuals. Crossing the plains by wagon train in 1853, Baldwin quickly made his name as a shrewd entrepreneur. By his early 40s, he had become a fabled Comstock millionaire. In the mid-1870s, he opened San Francisco’s legendary Baldwin Hotel and Theatre on the corner of Market and Powell Streets, current site of the Flood Building.

The Baldwin Hotel, designed by John Remer in the Second Empire style, shown on a 1876 card. (New York Public Library)

Baldwin was America’s most celebrated horseman. He owned nine derby winners, four of them raised in his stables. Between 1875 and 1880, he acquired over 35,000 acres of Southern California ranches, including Rancho Santa Anita, his home ranch. Combined with properties in San Francisco and Los Angeles, these holdings made Baldwin one of the foremost landowners in the state.

On Rancho Santa Anita, Baldwin raised 33,000 sheep, 3,000 head of cattle, 500 horses, many hogs and dairy cows. His vineyards yielded 384,000 gallons of wine and 55,000 gallons of brandy. The orchards included 500 acres of orange trees and 3,000 walnut trees. The nursery comprised one million fledgling trees.

A 1908 photo of the Santa Anita Race Track, which opened in 1907. The track closed in 1909, after California banned horse racing. (Library of Congress)

Married four times and involved in many tempestuous love affairs, Baldwin fathered two legitimate daughters, born almost 30 years apart. The younger, Anita (1876–1939), was born to his third wife, Jane Virginia Dexter, a child-bride who died in 1881.

Like her father, Anita was impetuous in love. On 5 January 1892, five days shy of her 16th birthday, she secretly married George W. Baldwin on a tugboat outside the Golden Gate. The 25-year-old groom was her father’s cousin, employed as a clerk at the Baldwin Hotel. On 21 March, while Lucky Baldwin was away at the Santa Anita ranch, the young couple went to Shasta on their honeymoon. The news traveled like wildfire across the nation, and the papers had a field day with headlines such as “Love Laughs at Luck” (St. Paul Daily Globe) and “Lucky Baldwin’s Daughter Anita Mated Against His Wishes” (New York Times).

New York Times, 22 March 1892

A week later, the radiant couple returned home—not to the Baldwin Hotel, where the bride’s family lived, but to rooms in the home of a “private family” on McAllister Street, near San Francisco’s new City Hall, where the groom had secured employment in the county clerk’s office. George expressed confidence in his ability to provide for his wife, while the San Francisco Call speculated on the prospect of her father’s forgiveness: “It is thought a reconciliation will follow in time, although it will hardly be immediate. Mr. Baldwin is a man of strong resolutions, but his most vulnerable part is said to be his affection for the youngest daughter.”

The reconciliation was not long in coming. On 13 April, the San Francisco Call announced, “The old millionaire fell ill several days ago, and when the girl learned that he was sick she went to his bedside to wait upon him as she used to. The reconciliation between them is said to be complete, and the old man will also forgive George for carrying off his favorite.”

The couple moved back into the hotel, where George was again employed. In June 1893, Anita delivered twin boys who died shortly after their birth. Lucky Baldwin had predicted that the marriage would not last a year. It went on for several more but was rocky from the start.

The Baldwin Hotel fire, 23 Nov. 1898

The Baldwin Hotel was destroyed by fire on 23 November 1898. By then, the thrifty George had accumulated enough savings to purchase a string of racehorses, which he took to the East Coast on 1 January 1899. Although George eventually came back to San Francisco, he showed no desire to return to the conjugal home. Anita divorced him in October 1900 on grounds of desertion.

San Francisco Call, 7 Oct. 1900

No sooner was she free of one marital entanglement than she fell into another. Her new innamorato aroused Lucky Baldwin’s ire just as fiercely as the previous one, since this time Anita committed the sin of falling in love with a Democrat.

She met Hull McClaughry (born 1870), a Harvard Law School graduate and politician, during the 1898 election campaign. “It was no uncommon sight to see Mrs. George W. Baldwin an interested spectator at all the Democratic meetings at which McClaughry spoke in the interest of the party at large and incidentally for himself as a candidate for the office of Justice of the Peace, a stepping stone to possible future political honors,” reported the San Francisco Call.

Anita went so far as to attempt a conversion of her father to the cause, showing him Hull McClaughry’s campaign poster and asking for his support. A staunch Republican, old Baldwin was outraged. Relating the incident to his cronies, he summed up, “Well, I just tore that picture in small bits and gave her to understand that I did not want any Democratic ads around where I was and what’s more made it plain to her that she had better overlook the original, too, or there’d be something doing.”

The daughter promised to obey. In May 1900, her father traveled to the gold fields of Nome, Alaska, determined to recoup the millions he had lost in the Baldwin Hotel fire. For the second time, Anita took advantage of his absence to elope. Remembering the seasickness of her 1892 tugboat wedding, she vetoed a floating venue for this round. The couple traveled by train to Carson City, Nevada, where a Justice of the Peace married them on 26 October—exactly 20 days after Anita’s divorce from George.

Newspapers across the land announced the wedding several days before it took place. (San Francisco Call, 25 Oct. 1900)

The new bridegroom practiced law and eventually found some favor with his father-in-law, for in July 1903, when Lucky created the town of Arcadia on the Santa Anita tract, McClaughry was one of the five insiders elected to the town’s first Board of Trustees.

The McClaughrys’ first child, Dextra, was born in San Francisco in 1901. Their second, Baldwin, was born in Berkeley in 1904. They were not listed in the city directory until 1908, when their home was an undistinguished Colonial Revival “Classic box” at 2401 Ward Street.

2401 Ward Street in 1964 (BAHA archives)

In January 1904, Hull McClaughry was offered the post of secretary to San Francisco Postmaster Arthur G. Fisk. By mid-March, he had become General Superintendent, and in January 1905 attained the office of Assistant Postmaster, a position he held until 1910. This post had previously been held by President McKinley’s aged uncle, who accepted a subordinate position in the money-order department to make way for McClaughry. Fisk clearly favored McClaughry, for they went on to become law partners.

By 1908, it was time to seek a more fashionable address, and the McClaughrys hired contractor John Armstrong to build them a two-story house at 17 Plaza Drive, in the new Claremont tract. The cost, $3,650, was very modest for the home of a millionaire’s daughter.

Lucky Baldwin died on 1 March 1909, leaving an estate of over $20 million. Anita inherited half of it, including the Santa Anita ranch. As a result, the McClaughrys began spending much of their time in Arcadia, where Hull managed the estate.

Still, this marriage, too, foundered. In July 1913, Anita filed for divorce on grounds of cruelty. “She testified that she and her husband quarreled so often over the cost of living as a result of his economical ideas that her health became impaired,” reported the New York Times. She undertook to pay Hull $300,000 as part of the divorce settlement.

New York Times, 11 July 1913

Celebrating her freedom from economy, Anita proceeded to a San Francisco jeweler, dropping close to $225,000 on a string of pearls. Having yielded the estate management to Arthur Fisk, the frugal Hull McClaughry kept the house on Plaza Drive for several years before returning to his hometown, Galt, in Sacramento County. His ex-wife and children quickly dropped his surname, reverting to Baldwin. Both Dextra and Baldwin faithfully followed in the footsteps of their mother and grandfather, marrying by elopement.

Oakland Tribune, 13 July 1913

Anita Baldwin’s Arcadia mansion, built in 1913, is shown in a 1915 photo.

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 15 October 2009.


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