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Governor of California, supporter of the Transcontinental Railroad, founder of Stanford University
Leland Stanford was born in Watervliet, New York, on March 9, 1824, one of six sons born to Josiah and Elizabeth Phillips Stanford. At the time of Leland's birth, his father was a well-to-do farmer who also owned a tavern on the road between Schenectady and Albany. Leland attended the local schools until 1836, when the family moved to Elm Grove, where his father rented and operated the Elm Grove Hotel on the Schenectady Turnpike. In 1840, Josiah Stanford bought the hotel and a large parcel of land on which he operated a farm. During this period, Leland studied at home with private tutors.
In 1841, Stanford entered the Clinton (NY) Liberal Institute, where he studied until transferring to the Methodist Seminary at Cazenovia, New York, in 1844. In 1845 he became an apprentice in an Albany, New York, law firm. Admitted to the New York Bar in 1848, Stanford was offered a position in the law firm, but he chose to move west and establish a practice at Port Washington, Wisconsin, instead. By 1850 he had become established himself well enough to marry Jane Eliza Lathrop, whom he had originally met while living in Albany. The two were married in Albany on September 30, 1850, after which they settled in Port Washington.
All five of Stanford's brothers left for the gold fields during the California Gold Rush, but, while he had initially considered going with them, Leland decided to stay with his law practice instead. After his law office and library were destroyed by fire on March 16, 1852, however, Stanford decided to follow his brothers west. He sailed for California, by way of Nicaragua, in June of that year, and arrived in San Francisco on July 12. Jane Stanford chose to stay with her family in Albany until her husband had established a suitable home for her in California.
By the time Leland met up with his brothers, two of them, Josiah and Philip, had given up digging for gold and were engaged in selling supplies to miners. Leland initially joined Josiah and Philip in their business, but soon purchased an existing store at Cold Springs in El Dorado County, in which his other brothers also had an interest. In 1853, after the gold fields near Cold Springs played out, Stanford moved the store to Michigan Bluff in Placer County, where it prospered. Stanford was elected Justice of the Peace soon after moving to Placer County, and he served in that capacity until May of 1855, when he sold his interest in the store and returned to Albany to be with his wife following the death of her father. The couple returned to California in the fall of 1855 and settled in Sacramento, where Leland took over ownership of an existing store.
One of the founders of the Republican Party in California in 1856, Stanford was the new party's candidate for State Treasurer in 1857, and for Governor in 1859; he lost both elections. On November 6, 1860, the California Republican Party was able to secure the state's electoral votes for Abraham Lincoln, and, on September 4, 1861, succeeded in getting Stanford elected as Governor.
As Governor, Stanford made no attempt to separate his political office from his private business interests. One of the "Big Four" planning to build the eastbound section of the Transcontinental Railroad, Stanford used his political influence to secure massive state investment and land grants for the railroad project. He declined to run for another term in 1863, choosing instead to become president of the Central Pacific, a post he held until his death. Stanford was also a major stakeholder in and longtime president of the Southern Pacific, as well as owner of many of the construction companies that did most of the actual railroad building.
In 1876 Stanford purchased 650 acres of Rancho San Francisquito for a country home, which he developed into a prosperous stock farm. He later bought adjoining properties totaling more than 8,000 acres. The town that grew up around Stanford's farm is now known as Palo Alto; the community adopted the name, which means "tall tree," because of the giant California redwoods growing on the bank of San Francisquito Creek.
Stanford's many business interests made him quite wealthy, and he and his wife enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle. That lifestyle was seriously disrupted, however, during a family trip to Italy in 1884. On March 13 of that year, Leland Stanford, Jr., the couple's only child, died of typhoid fever, at the age of 15. Wanting to find a lasting way to memorialize their son, the Stanfords decided to establish two institutions in his name, a university and a museum. Stanford University opened its doors on October 1, 1891, and the Leland Stanford Jr. Museum, the first art museum west of the Mississippi River, opened its doors in 1894.
In 1885 Stanford arranged for the California legislature to appoint him to the United States Senate, where he served without distinction but with pleasure from March 4, 1885 to his death, which came in Palo Alto on June 21, 1893. He is interred in a mausoleum on the Stanford University campus.
This page was last updated on March 08, 2017.