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Pioche, Francois Louis Alfred

San Francisco Banker and Financier

Entry Author: Charles A. Fracchia

Francois Louis Alfred Pioche was born in France in 1818, of a middle-class family. He studied law and received an appointment in the Ministry of Finance. When he was 23, a wealthy uncle died, leaving him a large legacy. It was soon gone in stock speculations and extravagant living.
Deciding to try life anew in the Americas, Pioche left for Santiago, Chile, where he was employed in the French consular office of that city. He subsequently secured employment in a French-owned mercantile firm, where he met Jules B. Bayerque, who was to be his banking partner in San Francisco.
At the time of the discovery of gold in California, Pioche and Bayerque left Chile for San Francisco with a cargo of merchandise, arriving in the city in February of 1849. They opened a general merchandise store on Clay Street, specializing in French-imported goods, prospered, and slowly turned to banking in the tradition of those days: storing gold for miners in their safe, and using their excess capital to lend to businessmen.

Pioche's Gallic enthusiasm and emerging financial skills made him exceedingly positive about the potential of the West. The seemingly endless supply of gold made men casual about spending money. The price of goods and rents in San Francisco was extraordinarily high. In 1851, Pioche went to France to seek more funds to invest in the Golden West. He became one of the most sought-after figures in Parisian financial circles. Bankers and individual investors pressed Pioche with money to invest in the new El Dorado. Seeking to popularize San Francisco, Pioche commissioned the famous engraver Charles Meryon to engrave a view of the city from a series of daguerreotypes, showing a prosperous metropolis. This engraving was designed to show off San Francisco as a substantial city to the thrifty French.
Photo courtesy of the
Pioche Nevada Chamber of Commerce


The funds went to work immediately, through the banking firm of Pioche & Bayerque, in San Francisco real estate. The rental returns of 6-10 percent per month in the early 1850s allowed Pioche to pay dividends of some 20-25 percent each year to his French investors. He bought property and developed Montgomery Street from Sutter Street to Market Street and almost the entire block bounded by Montgomery, Washington, Sansome, and Jackson streets.

But it was not only in downtown commercial property that Pioche invested his funds. He also bought large undeveloped tracts of land in what is today known as the Mission District. And when it appeared that the city's population was not moving rapidly enough into "the Mission" and buying lots in that early land development operation, Pioche built a steam railroad - the Market Street Railway, one of San Francisco's earliest transit systems - to bring them there. The profits on both the land development and the transportation system were enormous.

Pioche purchased even more real estate. Virtually every county in the state of California has records of the large ranches, which Pioche and his bank bought during the 1850s and 1860s. This period, which saw the break-up of the massive Mexican land grants, also saw Pioche become one of the principal buyers of this land.

Pioche returned to France in 1853 and spent a great deal of time there during the 1850s, continuing to funnel investment funds to his banking firm in San Francisco. The operations of the bank were then handled by Pioche's partners: J. B. Bayerque, J. Mora Moss, and A. Caselli.

It was not only in real estate that Pioche employed his and his investors' funds. He financed the Jackson Street Wharf Company, one of the several private wharves that stretched into the bay. In 1860, Pioche & Bayerque were in the forefront of a group of San Francisco capitalists who sought to obtain the shore area of San Francisco for private use. Pursuing this objective, they succeeded in having the Bulkhead Bill passed by both Houses of the State Legislature. Their scheme was foiled when Governor Downey vetoed the bill.

Pioche was a major financier for two private utilities based in San Francisco: the San Francisco Gas Works, a principal component of what is today the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, and the Spring Valley Water Company, which many years later the City and County of San Francisco purchased for its municipally-owned water system.

From the time of the Gold Rush to well into the late 1870s, mining was one of the principal sources of California's wealth. Pioche was not remiss in his financial endeavors in this area either. After the Comstock discovery in 1859, Nevada became a new Golconda. Pioche's money helped to develop the Ely mining district in Nevada, and the county seat of Lincoln County in eastern Nevada is named after him. Pioche was also involved in the financing of the Temescal tin mines in Southern California, the Malakoff diggings at North Bloomfield (Northern California), the Rivot process for treating refractory ores and sulphurets, the Nolf process for the same purpose, and various hydraulic mining enterprises in California.

Pioche and his firm were also pioneers in western railroad development. The Sacramento Valley Railroad, the first railroad in the West, was incorporated in 1852, and construction began in 1855. Pioche & Bayerque became the financiers of the venture and for a time held a controlling interest in the railroad. Along with Lester L. Robinson, the firm also managed the railroad.

The Sacramento Valley Railroad proved to be financially unsuccessful, and was sold to the Central Pacific (later called the Southern Pacific) in the mid-1860s.

Pioche also retained his interests in the field of general merchandise. He remained the California agent-distributor for the famous Sazerac brandy. At one of his summer homes and properties - the New Almaden Mine near San Jose - he discovered a mineral spring. He had the water from this spring tested for its medicinal qualities and compared to the waters from various European spas. Satisfied with the excellent properties of the mineral springs, he began to bottle and sell the water.

Pioche never ceased to labor to enhance his adopted city. He backed industrial fairs, generously contributed to charitable and philanthropic causes, strongly promoted the cultural and educational institutions of the city, and, reputedly, promoted fine cuisine in San Francisco by financing restaurants and importing chefs from France.

His will illustrates his benefactions. To the fledgling University of California he bequeathed his extensive art, book and mineralogical collections and $5,000. To French Hospital (now part of Kaiser Permanente) he left two acres of land and $5,000. To the sculptor Pietro Mezzara he left $10,000 and various objects d'art.

Pioche's personal life was quite atypical of a modern businessman. A life-long bachelor, Pioche had all the qualities one would expect of a cultivated and cultured Frenchman. He loved the good life and had the money to enjoy it. An ardent collector, he assembled numerous works of art, furniture and decorative pieces, books, and minerals and shells. His taste for good food, wines, and spirits was something he loved to share with friends and visitors to San Francisco.

Pioche had five homes during his residency in San Francisco. Three of these were located in the city and two were country homes. One of these homes, the Hermitage, was located on what is now Dolores Street, across from and south of Mission Dolores. Another was on the site of what has come to be called the Sullivan Block, on Mission Street between Sixth and Seventh streets. Here, during the rainy winter of 1852, Pioche's gardens and house were flooded when the waters of San Souci Lake (at what is now Divisadero and Fulton streets) flooded and rushed down to submerge the area around the Pioche estate. The third home was at 806 Stockton Street.

Pioche's summer homes were located in San Mateo and near San Jose. The San Mateo estate was located on property between El Camino Real and the Alameda de las Pulgas. After his death, San Francisco banker Antoine Borel purchased the property and house, and his descendants continue to own the property. Further south, Pioche owned property at the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine and he used the old house built for the managers of the mine as his residence.

For all the panoply of wealth and financial successes, it appears that in the late 1860s or early 1870s, Pioche and his firm found themselves financially overextended. Details for this contraction of business are not available; however, from both the accounts of the inquest held at the time of Pioche's death and from lawsuits launched by the executors of his estate, it is obvious that Pioche had become financially straitened. Whether for "fresh blood" or for additional capital, Pioche had taken in as a partner and, seemly, effective head of the firm, L. L. Robinson, who had been the effective operator of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. (After Pioche's death, the executors of his estate sued Robinson for fraudulently misappropriating to his personal use assets belonging to Pioche and to the firm of Pioche & Bayerque.)

On May 2, 1872, Francois Pioche put a heavy Navy pistol to his head and committed suicide.

Bibliography

Dolin, David G. and Charles A. Franklin, "Forgotten Financier: Francois L. A. Pioche." California Historical Quarterly, Volume LIII, November 1, Spring, 1974.

QUICK FACTS

Born: France, 1818
Arrived in San Francisco in February of 1849
Died: San Francisco, May 2, 1872

RELATED INFORMATION

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OUTSIDE RESOURCES

+ Market Street Railway Company
+ Sacramento Valley Railroad
+ Central Pacific Railroad

 

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