Pioche, Francois Louis Alfred
San Francisco Banker and Financier
Entry Author: Charles
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.
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
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 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.
Dolin, David G. and Charles A. Franklin, "Forgotten
Financier: Francois L. A. Pioche." California Historical
Quarterly, Volume LIII, November 1, Spring, 1974.