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The Making of Henry Edwards Huntington

Henry Edwards Huntington was born on Feb 27, 1850 in the small town of Oneonta. It was a bucolic setting in the rolling hills of central New York, amid apple orchards, pastures and forests of the Susquehanna Valley. Looking back at his early life in this idyllic setting, surrounded by nature’s beauty, one cannot be surprised that Edwards, as he was known to family and friends, grew to appreciate beauty in gardens, in art works and in books.

He could trace his family’s beginnings in America to 1633. His father, Solon Huntington’s ancestors included graduates from Yale and Harvard, Revolutionary War generals, Benjamin Huntington, member of the Continental Congress; Jedediah Huntington, member of the court-martial that tried Major André; Samuel Huntington, signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of the Continental Congress for two years. His mother Harriet Saunders Huntington was descended from the theologian Jonathan Edwards.

Solon Huntington brought his bride to Oneonta in 1840, bought a house and opened a general store. The family lived on Chestnut Street in an impressive two-story frame house with eight bedrooms. Chestnut Street had once been an Indian trail and occasionally a Native American walked past. Trees grew on both sides of the wide street where only two other homes stood. Edwards and his siblings grew and prospered in a warm, stable family setting. The Huntingtons were devoted members of the Presbyterian Church in Oneonta. The family home often welcomed guests, both friends and extended family.

Families in the 19th century were large and it was not uncommon for parents to lose many children before they reached adulthood. The Huntingtons were more fortunate than most having four of seven children survive. Henry’s younger brother Willard published a memoir in 1891, “Oneonta Memories and Sundry Personal Recollections of the Author,” providing information on childhood activities. We know the children gathered wild strawberries in the summer and swam in the cool waters of the Flume and the Dam. There were many good fishing spots, they enjoyed playing ball and croquet, as well as flying kites. In the autumn they gathered chestnuts and made jack-o-lanterns. Winter found them skating on Frog Pond, Grove Pond or their favorite, Mill Pond.

Not every minute was filled with play. There were chores and school. Henry Edwards attended school and studied many subjects such as, reading, geography, arithmetic and U.S. history, Latin grammar, French, botany, philosophy and astronomy. Both of his parents enjoyed reading and there were many books in their home. Henry’s love of books likely began at home during these formative years. Solon Huntington’s business practice, his principles, helped mold his young son. To understand the man who helped found the City of San Marino, it is helpful to appreciate the environment of his childhood.

In 1842 Solon’s younger brother Collis P. Huntington joined him as a partner in the general store. The town was growing and business was good. Solon invested in land and when brother Collis was struck with gold fever he helped finance his venture. Once in California, Collis Huntington formed a partnership with Mark Hopkins in Sacramento and their Huntington & Hopkins hardware store soon became one of the most prosperous in the state. Beginning in 1861, Collis Huntington invested capital in an overland railroad.

It was the railroad business and Uncle Collis that eventually brought Henry Edwards Huntington to California. But before going West, at the age of 20, Henry set off for New York City. Once he was gainfully employed he contacted his uncle who was in New York on Central Pacific Railroad business. Henry declined an offer of financial help from his uncle and in so doing impressed Collis Huntington. In April of 1871, his uncle offered him a job managing a sawmill in St. Albans, West Virginia. The mill cut ties for the railroads and from this moment on Henry Edwards Huntington’s business concerns were all about railroads and transportation.

His skill in management grew and he demonstrated his financial acumen during the financial crisis of 1873. He went from managing the mill to owning a share of it and eventually becoming sole owner. In November 1873, Henry E. Huntington married Mary Alice Prentiss. They would have four children – Howard, Elizabeth, Clara and Marian. In 1876, he sold the mill and returned to Oneonta to help with his father’s affairs. Uncle Collis had noticed his nephew’s abilities and in 1881 appointed him superintendent of construction for the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railroad Company. A few years later Henry was offered the management of a faltering railroad, the Kentucky Central. He agreed but only if he could have full control. He succeeded again.

By the 1890s, both men were in the railroad business and people in the industry differentiated between the two by referring to them as “H.E.” and “C.P.” In 1892 H.E. came to California. His uncle requested his help in San Francisco managing the Southern Pacific. On his way, Henry Edwards Huntington made a stop in Los Angeles and enjoyed a fated meeting with James de Barth Shorb. In the spring of 1892, the San Marino Ranch was beautiful indeed and left a lasting imprint. Henry was attracted to the surrounding area and a later investigation confirmed his first impression – Southern California had a bright future.

While working in San Francisco, H.E. was involved in the management of electric railways, and he began to consider the significance of such railways in the city but also their potential for building up the surrounding regions. Two years after Uncle Collis died in 1900, Henry withdrew from the Southern Pacific Railroad and moved his offices from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Collis Huntington had great respect for his nephew and in his will left him a large legacy. The two men had much in common. They came from the same background, shared business principles and interests and were hard working, driven men. The contributions of each to the growth and development of California are infinite.

Do you have a story of historic interest for San Marino? Send comments and suggestions to historyofsanmarino@gmail.com.

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