The Out-of-Time Old Timer
Randy Bechtel
The Out-of-Time Old Timer

It’s said that Stanford graduates tell you they are Stanford graduates within 15 minutes of meeting them. Eddie Mars needed only 20 seconds after meeting Harry Wooley.

We met Wooley outside Old Sacramento’s Railroad Museum to discuss an episode of a reality TV series we hoped to create about members of The Order of Old Timers. Wooley’s episode would be about his five-year quest for the legendary lost millions of 19th Century railroad robber baron Mark Hopkins.

“Hopkins was one of the Big Four. Do either of you know anything about the Big Four?” Wooley asked us.

Replied Eddie: “I’m a Stanford grad.”

Wooley nodded in a way I would have thought solemn were his eyes not underscored by dark bags and his frowning mouth bookended by sagging jowls. It was a combination that made his face one that undertakers would die for.

“Leland Stanford was one of the Big Four,” Wooley said. “Tell me, Eddie, do you know what inspired him to create your university?”

Eddie responded instantly: “To memorialize his son, who died at 15. Few people realize the university’s full name is Leland Stanford, Jr. University.”

“True. And fewer people know why Stanford chose a university to memorialize his son,” Wooley said.

I now said what Eddie couldn’t bring himself to: “And why was that?”

Wooley replied: “At first, Stanford wanted to endow a school of mechanical design at Berkeley but dropped that idea when his reputation for having been the state’s most corrupt governor led the legislature to refuse appointing him a university regent. However, the idea of founding a full-fledged university—and one less than 50 miles away from Berkeley—was absurd. At the time, Berkeley’s entire student body was fewer than 300. Then, while in Washington D.C., Stanford accompanied Ulysses Grant to a séance conducted by the renowned medium Maude Lord. Stanford became a devotee of Lord and came away from subsequent séances with the mission of founding a university. In other words, Stanford University owes its existence to a spiritual medium, a spook or both.”

Wooley turned and walked briskly up Ist Street toward the river. Eddie and I needed to jog to close the gap.

“The Big Four—men who built the western end of America’s first transcontinental railroad—consisted of Hopkins, Stanford, Charles Crocker and Collis P. Huntington,” Wooley told us over his shoulder. “All came here during the Gold Rush to strike gold. All quickly discovered the real money to be made was selling merchandise to prospectors.”

Wooley stopped abruptly as we approached Front Street and pointed at a two-story building whose banner sign read: “Huntington & Hopkins Hardware.”

“That is a replica of Huntington and Hopkins’ store,” he said. “A cheesy replica and not in the right location. But it does give you a visual image of the store’s exterior. Keep it in mind.”

He darted off again and turned down Front Street with us following.

“Few know that Sacramento—or Sacramento City as it was called—was California’s first incorporated city,” Wooley said. Turning and facing us as he walked backward, Wooley continued: “And from its beginning, this city has time after time proven itself to be second to no city when it comes to bonehead city planning. This tradition began with Sam Brannon, who was sent by Brigham Young to California to scout a location for a Mormon colony. Brannon was biding his time publishing a newspaper in San Francisco when he learned Sutter’s people had discovered gold. He touched off the Gold Rush with the headline, ‘Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!’, then skedaddled here to open Sacramento’s first store. Although Sutter’s Fort was two miles east of the river, being business savvy, Sam thought location, location, location, and opened up shop on the bank of the river. After all, most everyone who arrived here came by boat. A few months later, a city of 10,000 had sprung up around Brannon’s store. Then came the winter rains.”

Wooley stopped and turned so abruptly we almost bumped into him.

“These buildings in Old Sacramento,” he said, “were finally raised a story because practically every winter the damn place flooded.  In 1862, Stanford went to his inauguration as governor in a rowboat.”

A bobbleheaded Eddie held up his hands and said: “That’s all very interesting, Harry, but we’re here about the lost millions of Mark Hopkins.”

Harry suddenly looked as if he were downwind of a dairy farm. “I’m just trying to give you a little background,” he said sulkily.

Eddie looked at me. I looked at Harry and said, “That’s fine with me, Harry. Your story needs background.” I held up my tape recorder. “And I’ve got plenty of tape.”

I flashed a disapproving look at Eddie, who had agreed that I should take the lead in this interview. My experience as a journalist told me that Wooley was an interviewee who wanted to shape his story rather than have it shaped by questions. The more he believed he would own the story we would tell, the more receptive he would be to answering our questions.

We walked as Wooley talked.

Three factors bonded the Big Four, he told us. First, they were church-going Northeasterners turned merchants in a city where saloons outnumbered stores and three out of five female residents were prostitutes. Second, all four admired shrewd bargaining above all else. For instance, early on, while Hopkins price-gouged miners in Sacramento, Huntington would navigate the churning and frigid waters of the Golden Gate in a row boat to hail incoming ships and inquire about their cargos.  Cargos in demand he would try to buy with gold stashed in his pockets that would have sent him to the bottom had he fallen overboard. One bonanza of this practice had been a monopoly on shovels. Third, in 1855, the four organized the Republican Party in a state politically dominated by two competing factions of the Democratic Party—one committed to the anti-slavery or “free-soiler” North and the other to the pro-slavery South. Although Republicans were also abolitionists, they differed from the free-soiler Democrats with a message often expressed by Stanford when campaigning: “If it rained $20 gold pieces until noon every day, at night there would be the same men begging for their suppers.”

According to Wooley, Stanford was the politician of the four, which is to say, he had a compulsion to run for office regardless of the odds. And the odds were impossible when he ran for governor in 1859 and seemed impossible when he planned to run again in 1861. But then came the duel near Lake Merced between David Broderick, a Tammany Hall-schooled politician who had become California's U.S. senator and leader of its free-soiler Democrats, and David Terry, California’s Chief Justice and pro-slavery Democrat. Terry’s shooting of Broderick ignited rumors that Broderick had been murdered. The resulting scandal caused Stanford to become the first Republican governor of California. Stanford served his two-year term, Wooley added, while also holding the job of President of the Central Pacific Railroad.

By now, Wooley had led us south down Front Street, then east down K Street to a pedestrian underpass of Interstate 5, which separated Old Sacramento and the river from Sacramento’s downtown.

Halfway through the underpass, I said: “Any reason, Harry, you’re bringing us here?”

Turning to face us, Wooley stopped and slapped the tunnel’s concrete wall.  “Here’s where it was—415 K Street—Huntington & Hopkins Hardware. The birthplace of the California Republican Party! The first headquarters of the Central Pacific Railroad! The place—on the second floor—where James McClatchy first published “The Sacramento Bee,” the first Republican newspaper in California!  Here! One of the most historic sites in California now buried beneath a freeway. Why? I’ll show you!”

We followed the bustling Wooley up the tunnel into the daylight and the northern end of the Downtown Mall. Harry pointed and said, “Because of this!”

“Macy’s?” Eddie said.

“Yes Macy’s!” Wooley fumed. “In the 1960s, Sacramento had a choice: locate the freeway on the other side of the river or run it along the downtown side. Sacramento chose downtown. Why? Because Macy’s said it wouldn’t locate a store here unless it could be seen from the freeway!”

Wooley seemed to deflate as he stood looking at the ground shaking his head mournfully. Eddie looked at me with a wide-eyed expression that said: “What next?”

I said perkily: “How about lunch?”

Returning through the tunnel, I said: “I know, Harry, you’re a volunteer docent at the Railroad Museum. But how did you first get interested in California history?”

“I’m a distant relative of Hopkins on my mother’s side,” Wooley said. “Her grandfather was one of those that sued way back when.  Although don’t get me wrong. I’m a retired accountant so history—even family history—was never my thing.  Then a lawyer cousin of mine said he’d looked into it and told me the person most likely to solve the mystery of Hopkins’ estate wasn’t a historian or a lawyer or a detective, but an accountant.”

“Really? And do you think he was right?” I asked.

“Oh yes, because I solved it.”

“What? Eddie gasped. “I thought . . . You say you solved it?”

“Oh yes. I know the who, the how and the how much,” Wooley said matter-of-factly.  “I can produce proof as to how financial records were manipulated, how millions in assets were laundered and the form in which they now reside.”

We walked on in silence.

Eddie finally said: “So . . . Harry . . . you want to give us some details? That’s why we’re here.”

Wooley barked a laugh. “Not until you give me a contract with money attached to it,” he said. “And I mean cash, not net profits or some other Hollywood accounting swindle.”

Eddie threw up his hands in frustration. I resisted laughing as I imagined myself imitating Al Jolson’s voice to say: “Harry, baby, sweetheart, you’re killing us, big guy!” 

“Look Harry, we’re not from Hollywood,” I said. “We’re just two Sacramento retirees like you trying to pitch a reality show to Hollywood. We just can’t say, ‘Harry has a story. Trust us.’”

“The best I can do,” Wooley said, “is tell you where the fortune is hidden with the promise to prove it when I’m paid.”

“You’d do that?” Eddie said.

“Sure, why not?” Wooley replied. “Because you’ll need my evidence to do anything about it. Except to sell Hollywood.”

We emerged from the tunnel and approached Second Street.

“Okay Harry, where’s it hidden?” I said.

Wooley rushed ahead of us, turned and said walking backward: “You know the Broadway Cemetery?”

‘I know where it is,” I said.

“Go there and look for a red granite tomb. You can’t miss it. Carved at its top is the name ‘Mark Hopkins.’ The thing is sealed tight. No entrance. A veritable vault that for 143 years has—”

I heard a loud thud, saw a white wall flash by. Gasps, cries and screams rippled down Second Street. Thirty yards away the speeding truck bounced as it raced away. In its wake was the late Harry Wooley.  

I looked at Eddie, who looked like a big-mouthed bass out of water. Cars on either side of Wooley slammed on their brakes. Then nothing seemed to move. Except me.  

I would be the only one to walk to the corpse. I would because I could. More than 50 years ago my infantry squad had dug up a grave in the jungle. The North Vietnamese would often hide weapons beneath buried corpses. A foot down we found a bloated stiff. When someone removed a ring on its finger, the whole finger came with it. Another soldier chopped off its head with an entrenching tool and tossed it up in the air. I watched all this eating lunch. I thought to myself: You’re a savage.

Wooley’s most distinctive feature was the side of his head, which was now 10 times broader than it was thick and stamped by a tire. I looked away. I thought to myself: You’re not the savage you once were.

One of Old Town’s foot policeman rushed up to me, glanced down at Wooley, shivered and said: “Did you know this man?”

“All of 20 minutes.”

“And you saw what happened?”

“Some of it.”

“I’ll need you to wait over here to be interviewed.”

The policeman escorted me to the sidewalk where a half dozen rubberneckers were congregated.

“Who here witnessed what happened?” the policeman asked the rubberneckers.

Everyone looked at everyone else.

“Well I did,” a middle-aged woman finally said. “It was horrible!”

“What can you tell me about the vehicle?” the policeman said.

“It was a white truck,” the woman said. “Not that big.”

“A delivery truck,” a man next to the woman said. He was probably the woman’s husband and spoke up only because his wife had ensured neither of them would be leaving soon. “On its side in big letters was ‘Desi’s Deliveries,’” the man said. "And a phone number, but I didn't catch it."

After telling the couple and me to remain where we were, the policeman called in a description of the truck. He then left to assist another policeman in clearing the street of backed up traffic.

Eddie now joined me.

Suddenly I realized I was still holding my tape recorder.  “You know, I have everything on tape,” I told Eddie.

Eddie’s eyes rounded. “There’s gotta be an hour episode in there somewhere!” he said.

Copyright © 2021 by Randy Bechtel

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Email Randy Bechtel at rbechtel@rkbechtel.com