Lorenzo White: Linchpin of the American Dream?

Lorenzo White played a pivotal role in the California lumber boom and in the overall development of Mendocino County. At the peak of his success his holdings stretched from Oakland to Fort Bragg. He owned stores, ranches, sawmills, hotels, ferries, saloons, restaurants, real estate, a fleet of ships, and several logging railroads. He commanded the attention of powerful politicians statewide and held sway over four California counties. White’s ambition at times seemed limitless and was the driving force in amassing a considerable fortune. Some admirers have portrayed him as the American Dream incarnate, a Ragged Dick who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Detractors, on the other hand, often depict him as a ruthless opportunist who clawed his way to prosperity and readily discarded those who were no longer of use to him.

Portrait of Lorenzo White from THE SAN FRANCISCO CALL, July 4, 1896.

Lorenzo White from THE SAN FRANCISCO CALL, July 4, 1896.

An obituary that ran in the July 4, 1896 edition of the San Francisco Call was similar in tone to Henry Clay’s tribute to the self-made men of his day who “acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.”

He was one of those broad-minded men whose influence upon his associates was inspiring in the extreme, and whose business integrity brought admiration even from his enemies.

Young Lorenzo White

The story of Lorenzo Eastwick White begins in Massachusetts where he was born into an itinerant merchant family that, over time, settled in several towns in upper New England. Eastlick, the paterfamilias, is listed variously as storekeeper and mill owner but was prosperous enough to send Lorenzo to boarding school. After completing his studies, Lorenzo sailed to California with a group of other young upstarts to seek his fortune in the gold mines. The degree to which he succeeded in that venture is uncertain but he later resurfaced in Marin County as the resident manager of Rancho San Geronimo which, by that time, was owned by two wealthy, influential partners.

Lorenzo soon made the acquaintance of Jane Sheridan, a young widow and mother from Australia. White hired her as a live-in housekeeper for the uncommonly generous salary of $100 per month. Predictably, Jane and Lorenzo were soon entangled in an intimate relationship that produced a child the following year. The two lovers, reflecting on their predicament, swore their vows of marriage to each other, though they did so outside the purview of a cleric or justice of the peace.

When one of the partners sold his share of the ranch, the San Geronimo enterprise began to leak capital. With failure imminent, Lorenzo took some or all of the ranch’s cattle—it’s unclear if he had the blessing of the remaining partner—and, within two years, made his first appearance in Mendocino County. He staked out a large claim near old friend named Orso Clift on a hillside overlooking modern day Elk.

A Door Opens in Mendocino County

White met a man named James Townsend who was a superintendent of mills in nearby Albion and further north on the Noyo River. Townsend, who had was involved in ventures throughout the county, was eager to delegate day to day operations to men he could trust, and soon hired Lorenzo to oversee Albion’s ferry, hotel, and store. The arrangement led to a partnership and a friendship that would last a lifetime. In those early days, however, Townsend was more of a mentor, schooling White in the finer points of frontier entrepreneurship.

Lorenzo’s momentum built steadily. He held a vested interest or managing role in most of the operations in Albion, then he and Townsend began buying and selling railroad ties. Emboldened by their success, the two partners attempted to lay claim to the Albion land upon which the hotel and store were built. Mill owner Alexander MacPherson had agreed to let Townsend construct buildings on the land but never with the intention of conceding ownership. MacPherson was not only in poor health when White and Townsend made their play, he was also  burdened with other legal matters. Nonetheless, MacPherson rigorously defended his claim. The ensuing litigation lasted years and MacPherson died before the final settlement.

With the profits from the Albion ventures, White purchased a sawmill that his brother Carl had built on Salmon Creek, just south of Albion. The mill would provide another training ground for White to hone his future business strategy. The small town of Whitesboro sprouted up around the mill and Lorenzo moved his family to San Francisco. It was on San Francisco’s larger stage that White launched an ambitious retail lumber empire.

Lumber King

As Lorenzo rose through the the ranks of San Francisco society, he began to keep company with a woman named Annie Howard. Jane, his common-law wife and now mother of four White children, learned of the affair and promptly filed for divorce. Lorenzo fought it, claiming he and Jane had never been married and that the relationship had always been one of a man and his illicit mistress. Jane, he claimed, was entitled to nothing. The legal proceedings would stretch out over a decade but Jane was eventually awarded alimony. She never received a share of Lorenzo’s fortune, however, the payment of an “amount certain” she felt she deserved.

By 1887, Lorenzo was known as the “Lumber King” and found himself on the redwood throne of the immense L. E. White Lumber Company empire. His ambition had yet to reach full force. Intent on expanding his Greenwood operation, he attempted to purchase the lumber chutes and shipping facilities of James Kenney, who had successfully spawned the town of Cuffey’s Cove a mile north of Greenwood. White made an offer of $40,000 but Kenney, who’d watched White’s wheeling and dealing with interest, held out for more. White walked away from the deal after Kenney made a counter offer of $75,000.

Greenwood: Lorenzo Builds a Town

Lorenzo, in a move no doubt intended to punish Kenney’s impudence, cut a better deal with several land owners in Greenwood. He then embarked on his most ambitious project to date, an enormous mill that would sprawl across the mouth of Greenwood Creek. Ramps and railways boldly skirted the surrounding high cliffs. Dams, trestles, and cranes hovered over the mouth of the creek. With the lessons from Salmon Creek still fresh in his mind, Lorenze began building a company town around the mill, comprised of housing, stores, saloons, and brothels. Workers would be dependent upon him for their every need to recover as many dollars as possible that the company paid out in wages. Anyone attempting to shop or drink or live elsewhere risked dismissal.

White further augmented his profits by implementing a timed check policy. Workers were issued vouchers that could only be redeemed 60 days after issuance and then only at specific banks in San Francisco. Should a logger need money for necessities before that time, he could secure an advance from the company at 10% interest. The policy was eventually ruled illegal by the courts but White managed to make his workers pay most of their own wages for nearly a decade.

The booming town of Greenwood quickly drew people from nearby Cuffey’s Cove. The rapidly declining population of the older settlement, coupled with several catastrophic fires, turned a once thriving mill town into a ghost town within ten years. It was Lorenzo White’s fatal thrust to James Kenney; he had proven his superiority.

photo of modern day Elk by Keith Skinner

Modern Day Elk, CA by Keith Skinner

Who Was the Real Lorenzo White?

Despite Lorenzo’s seemingly cutthroat tactics, he is remembered in Greenwood and in San Francisco as a generous benefactor, a savvy businessman, a civic leader, and an all around stand up guy. Though the Greenwood mill passed from the White family’s hands soon after Lorenzo’s death in 1896, it remained in operation and sustained the town of Elk almost continuously until the 1950s.

There is further evidence of Lorenzo’s generosity. He reportedly provided the son and daughter he’d fathered with Jane with a quality education and suitably comfortable lifestyle. He also demonstrated a loyalty to longtime employees, offering them lumber at cost to build homes on small, affordable lots. And he is known to have run at least one business at a loss during recessionary times, purely to keep the workers employed.

So what can we conclude about L. E. White from this jumbled legacy he’s left us? Clearly he was no Ragged Dick swimming against the tide for a single chance at the golden ring of success. But he worked hard to build his empire and was undoubtedly a shrewd, visionary entrepreneur. The MacPherson family and Jane Sheridan White would probably add that he was a mean spirited, ruthless villain and thief, as would many of the competitors he outwitted. If some of his actions were morally or ethically bereft, was he in sole possession of such shortcomings? Or did success at the very edge of the American frontier demand a compromised character as a young nation grappled with its self-described and self-appointed Manifest Destiny? Did L.E. White pervert the American Dream or did he, like so many others of his ilk, use it to harness the masses, the less crafty and less driven, like a fisherman hauling in the day’s catch?

2 Replies to “Lorenzo White: Linchpin of the American Dream?”

  1. Interesting and informative piece. Two comments:

    1. The photo of “Modern day Elk” is clearly Mendocino, not Elk

    2. The story of L.E. White probably needs some discussion of the roles of his daughter Helen White and his daughter in law Helen Paddock to round it out.

    • Hello Chuck, good to hear from you.

      Thanks for pointing out the problem with the photo. I have two images that look similar and I must have grabbed the wrong one when inserting it into the post. I’ve replaced it with the correct photo of modern day Elk.

      According to several newspaper reports, the information I have is that Lorenzo’s daughter Helen was married and was Mrs. Paddock of Santa Rosa. She surfaced in 1898 after Lorenzo’s son William died of alcohol poisoning and Helen contested the will. William had left his entire fortune to his wife and it was his sister’s position that he was mentally unfit at the time he signed the will. I don’t know William’s widow’s first or maiden names, but I know she prevailed in the lawsuit, kept the inheritance, and in a rather questionable turn of events, later married the court reporter from that trial. His name was Frank Drew. The L.E. White Lumber Company thus passed out of White family hands into that of the Drew family, where it floundered.

      The story of Mrs. White (who your great-grandfather (?) alludes orchestrated William’s death) and Frank Drew is intriguing but it is beyond the scope of my post portraying Lorenzo and both his ambition and puzzling contradictions.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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