By Valarie Huff
Nob Hill is the 11th highest hill in San Francisco, but in terms of its history, elegance and prestige, it’s No. 1. The neighborhood evolved into the Hill of Palaces when railroad barons built their megamansions in 1863, ending 23 years later with the pièce de résistance: James Flood’s Connecticut brownstone. His home remains after post-earthquake renovation and innovation by the irascible local architect Willis Polk. The Flood Mansion reopened in 1911 as the Pacific-Union Club, home to 750 professional male members, both social and economic leaders.
Reaching the peak of society was difficult for James Flood, born in New York City to poor Irish immigrants. Flood came west for adventure and money. He was a carriage maker but soon learned that “the only constant in San Francisco was its thirst.” Flood opened a bar called Auction Lunch with Billy O’Brien from Dublin. Alcohol sales increased with Billy’s fish chowder, James’ corned beef sandwiches and help from Mary Leary Flood upon finishing her chambermaid duties. (Mary paid her passage from Ireland after the sale of the Leary family cow.) Most bar patrons were mining stockbrokers and they encouraged James and Billy to invest based on tips they inadvertently drunkenly blurted out in the bar. Rumor has it (mainly based on James’ business acumen) that the two grossed more than $250,000 per month before selling the bar.
Flood then traveled to Virginia City, Nevada, to learn about silver mining up close. He bought shares in the Consolidated Virginia and California Mine, later known as the “Big Bonanza.” This single mine produced over $500 million (times 20 in today’s dollars). Flood, O’Brien and two new Irish pals—James Fair (whose estranged daughters built the Fairmont Hotel in 1902) and John Mackay—purchased 75 percent of this mine and became the Silver Kings.
Flood also bought and started ore transportation companies that serviced his and other mines. The Silver Kings’ fortunes grew with stock manipulation often based on false rumors.
By 1869, the silver boom of 20 years ended and in 1887 Flood started the Nevada Bank (later purchased by Wells Fargo). The Flood family now rode in English-built carriages, chauffeured by drivers in purple uniforms with gold epaulets. His housekeeping staff kept the bronze railing surrounding his Nob Hill mansion in a highly polished state.
Flood’s wife, Mary, now enjoyed both her 40-room home with its 80-foot tower in San Francisco, not to mention her opulent, seven-story Atherton Victorian complete with flower gardens. She turned in her maid’s uniform for an opera gown. “Mrs. Flood was a virtual beacon of shimmering light,” said society columnist Madame La Bavarde following an Opera performance:
“Perched somewhat askew atop her head was a diamond tiara embedded with six huge pearls, followed in descending order, by a thick dog collar studded with diamonds, pearls and rubies; the famous Flood pearls around her ‘fair neck,’ diamond encrusted shoulder straps, a diamond stomacher and innumerable small diamond and pearl corsages scattered over her white silk gown. This entire vibrant package was encased in a silver wrap.”
La Bavarde was giving credence to socialite Martha Hitchcock’s statement that “San Francisco is a money-rattling city of nouveaux riches, a panorama of swells who dress to show themselves, feeding their vulgar desire to be seen.” She sent daughter Lilly to Billy Ralston’s ball (incidentally where she met Howard Coit for the first time) dressed in a simple gown without any jewelry. Coit was smitten and later he and Lilly eloped.
James Flood had two children, a son, James Jr., and a beautiful daughter, Jennie. Jimmy Jr. eloped with Rose Fritz; the two had an annulment and later remarried. Rose died of consumption (tuberculosis) and, within the year, Jimmy married her sister Maude. With Maude he had three children. (Sadly, one son died at age 4.) Maude lived in the Fairmont penthouse as a widow, and Jennie had an ill-fated love affair with Ulysses S. Grant’s son, Buck. Though she was engaged to be married seven times, she remained, as they said, a spinster.
After James Flood died in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1889, Mary spent her time in her garden at their Atherton home, a quiet respite from their San Francisco mansion, now a crown jewel in the landscape and lore of Nob Hill.