Ira & Caroline Rankin: Civic-Minded People
By Joel N. Fowler and Cliff McCarthy
Ira Packard Rankin, the son of Zebina & Nancy (Packard) Rankin, was born in “The Valley” of Pelham, Massachusetts on 10 January 1817, and died in San Francisco on 1 October 1895. He married at Northampton in 1841, Caroline A. Bryant, daughter of Ichabod & Silence (Bryant) Bryant, born in Pelham on 29 September 1817. She died in San Francisco on 7 September 1881. Both are buried in Bridge Street Cemetery, Northampton, Mass. Ira and Caroline had no children.
The History of Pelham tells us that when Zebina Rankin decided to move to Ohio, Ira “plead with his father to be allowed to remain in Massachusetts and his request was finally acceded to.” Ira then “went to Enfield and entered the store of Oliver Bryant, where he was employed for several years.” Oliver Bryant (1802-1865) was the older brother of Ira’s future wife, Caroline, and the half-brother of Mary A. Bryant (1798-1865) who was married to Ira’s uncle Abiel Rankin. Silence, the Bryant’s mother, was sister to the father of the bearded poet, William Cullen Bryant.
The family of Ichabod Bryant had come from Bridgewater via Brockton to Amherst about 1794, and to Pelham about 1799. About 1850, Ira’s former employer, Oliver Bryant and one Warren succeeded to Jones, Wood & Co, “one of the oldest card-clothing manufacturing firms in the country,” at Enfield. In 1856, Oliver sold out to Stedman & Fuller of Lawrence, Mass. (later of Providence, RI), and himself moved to Lawrence, Mass. Oliver’s daughter Susan F. Bryant (1842-1889) would later reside with the Rankins in San Francisco. His daughter Harriet Pierce Bryant (1845-1926) would also reside in California sometime after 1860, and also perhaps with the Rankins, her parents having died.
In the meantime, Ira had moved to Boston, and in 1840 was at Holbrook, Bowman & Co. By 1842, he was at Holbrook, Carter & Co, the partners apparently being H. M. & John F. Holbrook, Henry & Joseph B. Carter, and Ira P Rankin. This mercantile house was prominent as importers in the foreign dry-goods trade. In 1849-50, Ira was a partner in William A. Brown, Jr. & Co in Boston, also a dry goods firm. He then lived at 4 W. Cedar Street on Beacon Hill.
The lure of the West did not escape Rankin, for sometime in 1851 he moved to California, and was established as a merchant at 81 Front Street, San Francisco in 1852, as Rankin & Co., “a general commission firm. This was so successful that after a few years he was enabled to sell out at a profit and became a partner in the Pacific Iron Works. The firm name, Goddard & Co, was changed to Rankin & Brayton after his entrance [in 1858]. This firm was the largest of its kind on the coast. It dealt in machinery, marine and milling goods. After many years Mr. Rankin absorbed all the interests of the firm, and at his retirement, when the Pacific Iron Works was absorbed in the Union Works, he was sole owner.” – History of Pelham
The 1889 and 1890 directory of San Francisco lists this company as Rankin, Brayton & Co, proprietors of Pacific Iron Works. Some of the machinery the company had built was for mining purposes, as well as train locomotives. The Union Iron Works ultimately became a part of Bethlehem Steel.
It may be nigh on to impossible to delineate the civic, moral and political activities engaged in and the impact Rankin had in these arenas, as they were impressive. Indeed, a street in San Francisco is named after him. His concern that his new-found home-state achieve legitimacy was probably immediate. The whirl of a transient mining society must have impinged on his sense of propriety. It is reported that in August 1856, at a spontaneous public meeting in front of the American Exchange in San Francisco, Rankin was elected chairman of the People’s Reform Party, essentially a successor to the Vigilance Committee. That year he ran as an Independent for Congress with six others, at that time the top two vote-getters winning at-large seats for all of California. His opponents were three Democrats, a Know-Nothing (or American Party) member and a Republican. Rankin came in fourth, the two winners being Democrats. Rankin himself would soon convert to the Republican party, and was a Republican man ever after.
In 1861, Ira Rankin was appointed by President Lincoln to the office of Collector of the Port of San Francisco, which position he retired from in 1863, succeeded by Frederick F. Low, who was soon elected governor.
In 1874, a disastrous year for Republicans, Rankin again ran for a congressional seat, coming in behind the Democrat in a three-way race.
Rankin was always interested in the iron business and was president of the Engineers & Iron Founders Association in 1890, and an early and long-time member of the Chamber of Commerce, which he also presided over in 1889. He also found time to be a member of the Board of Directors of the Occidental Fire Insurance Co. in 1867, and was that year appointed a school director for the city, which position he resigned. He was an early trustee and secretary of Toland Medical College, the College of California in Oakland, 1856-1870, and a proponent of its incorporation into the University, realized in 1873.
Ira Rankin was a deacon of the First Congregational Church of San Francisco from 1859-1879.
Ira could not be construed as to being pro-labor, however. During the iron workers strike, he naturally sided with management. There is the case of one John Ferguson who was employed as an iron-moulder for Rankin in 1864. Ferguson lost his job when, like others of his trade, he asked for a 50 cents per day advance on his wages to meet increased living expenses. Ferguson then made an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Rankin was an original trustee of the James Lick Trust, and in 1884 an original trustee of the Lick Old Ladies Homes (later University Mound Old Ladies Home), a benevolent society. He was also Trustee of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, chairman of the State Board of Commissioners for selecting a site for the Deaf and Dumb Asylum, and chair of the building committee for same. Mrs. Rankin was also philanthropic, serving as President of the San Francisco Protestant Orphan Asylum in 1863, and she also rendered service to their church.
In 1890, Ira Rankin was President of the California Society for the Suppression of Vice. It must have been in this capacity that he inspired the wrath of writer Ambrose Bierce. Bierce’s poem, “An Art Critic,” goes in part:
Ira P. Rankin, you’ve a nasal name–
I’ll sound it through “the speaking-trump of fame,”
And wondering nations, hearing from afar
The brazen twang of its resounding jar,
Shall say: “These bards are an uncommon class–
They blow their noses with a tube of brass!”
“What’s in a name?” There’s much at least in yours
That the pained ear unwillingly endures,
And much to make the suffering soul, I fear,
Envy the lesser anguish of the ear.
So you object to Cytherea! Do,
The picture was not painted, sir, for you!…
Provincial censor! All untaught in art,
With mind indecent and indecent heart,
Do you not know—nay, why should I explain?
Instruction, argument alike were vain –
I’ll show you reasons when you show me brain.
Bay of San Francisco: The Metropolis of the Pacific Coast.., Vol. 1, Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1892. p.312
Bierce, Ambrose, The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, New York: Neal Publishing Co., 1909.
“Letter From Washington,” San Francisco Bulletin, 23 April 1861.
Parmenter, C. O., History of Pelham, Massachusetts, from 1738 to 1898, Amherst, MA: Press of Carpenter & Morehouse, 1898.
“Pelham and the California Gold Rush: Selected Sources,” notes prepared for the author by Robert Lord Keyes, 21 July 2008.
Price, Realto E., History of Clayton County, Iowa, Chicago: Robert O. Law Co., 1916.
Vital Records of Pelham, Massachusetts.
Winsor, Justin, ed., Memorial History of Boston, Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1881.