William Ralston was a California investor who assembled the means to monopolize the Comstock Lode during the 1860s. Born in Ohio in 1826, Ralston moved to San Francisco in 1854 and became a rising star as part owner in a steamship company. Beginning in 1860, he turned his attention and his investments to Comstock mines.
In 1864, Ralston helped form the Bank of California. The bank hired William Sharon as its Virginia City representative, initially establishing a Comstock monopoly and building the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. The Bank's control wavered by 1871. Ralston became bank president in 1872. He invested in risky schemes including the construction of San Francisco's famed Palace Hotel. Cost overruns were immense. He also attempted to control Bay Area water with the acquisition of the Spring Valley Water Company.
In 1875, Sharon sensed economic disaster and dumped his Comstock stocks, causing panic and eventually a run on the Bank on August 26. Cash reserves evaporated. With a debt of $5 million, Ralston resigned as bank president. He then took a swim in the San Francisco Bay and drowned. An audit revealed Ralston had taken funds to cover his investments.
When Sharon viewed Ralston's body, he purportedly said, "Best thing he could have done." Sharon handled the estate, giving Ralston's widow and children $50,000. He emerged with the Bank's assets, leaving Ralston's creditors with little.
Grant H. Smith. The History of the Comstock Lode: 1850-1920. Reno: Nevada Bureau of Mines and the University of Nevada, 1943.
Gray Brechin. Imperial San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.