Priest Street & the Halcyon Days of Sacramento

If you’re not searching out Priest Street, there’s a good chance you won’t even notice it’s there. Atop Nob Hill on the south side of Washington Street, just west of Jones, its demarcation is somewhat hidden within an explosion of greenery. Like Reed Street down the block, Priest once carried through to Clay, but these days is a staircase-and-sidewalk affair that dead ends mid-block. Priest Street is well worth attention however, especially when contemplating the man it was named for: Albert Priest.

Priest Street Sign

When Albert Priest left California aboard the Pacific on July 14, 1851 heading back to New York, it was said he didn’t even have money enough for his passage. How this could happen to one of Sacramento’s founders and at one time one of its largest land-owners, a man who’d donated money so liberally to the community just a year before,^ no one knew.

Just a day or so after Priest’s departure Samuel Brannan* was sitting outside the Orleans Hotel in Sacramento when William M. Warner,- whom Priest “and his lady” had lived with during their last stay in Sacramento, walked up and asked if Brannan had seen Priest before he’d left. Though Brannan had indeed met his colleague in the street, and wished him good-bye, it became obvious to Warner that Brannan knew nothing of Priest’s pecuniary state. Other men+ were gathered about, and overhearing Brannan and Warner’s conversation, started echoing it, twisting it and morphing it about Northern California like a game of telephone climaxing in the moment days later when General David F. Douglass,~ who wasn’t even present outside the Orleans Hotel, announced to a public house in San Francisco that Brannan had accused Albert Priest’s lawyer, M.H. McAllister, of swindling “old man” Priest out of $26,000. A few weeks after Douglass’s announcement, on July 29, 1851, Brannan was in S.F. attending a raffle at Battell’s Saloon when Hall McAllister, M.H. McAllister’s son, angrily approached him. A fight broke out between the two men.

Both the Alta California and the Sacramento Union highlighted the tangle. And while Brannan and Norval Douglass, brother to Gen. Douglass who’d since left the area, collected and published statements from those present outside the Orleans Hotel,+ what was ultimately on trial was respect for Albert Priest. Surely no one wanted to be smeared a swindler, but especially not in dealing with Priest. Then there were those who’d empty their pockets for Priest in a heartbeat if they felt he’d been wronged. Though McAllister’s name was clearly mentioned during Brannan and Warner’s conversation, it got muddled with the rest of it, especially with a well-remembered statement of Brannan’s regarding whether Priest had been unfairly dealt with in general: “Mr. Brannan [said] that he had $5000, and he knew three more persons in San Francisco who had $5000 more, and they would spend the last dollar if the charges were true, but they would rip up the whole damned transaction.”

Priest Street Stairs
The Priest Street stairs.

Originally from New York and of Prussian ancestry,< Albert Priest was at Sutter’s Fort in February 1849 running Priest, Lee and Co.,= a wholesale and retail dealership at the corner of J and Second streets. Appointed vice president in organizing Sacramento’s first public political meeting, Priest was a pillar of the community. This was during “the halcyon days of [Sacramento].” Not only a pioneer with regard to California’s business and political concerns, Priest was also a religious pioneer, traveling to S.F. by wagon to observe Yom Kippur with other gold-rush Jews in 1849.# In addition, on returning to Sacramento, Priest helped Moses Hyman found Congregation B’nai Israel, a congregation that remains alive-and-well today.

In 1850 however, Priest made a serious business shift when his focus moved to facilitating steamboat communications with the East Coast, becoming a “prominent stockholder” in the California Steam Packet Company, which would form an independent through line to the East Coast, connecting with the Crescent City Company line of J. Howard & Son of New York. On February 1, Priest sold his portion of Priest, Lee and Co. to Barton Lee% who would move into banking and real estate and become “Sacramento’s leading landholder, largest banker, and city treasurer.”> It was only a few months after selling to Lee that Priest boarded a steamboat and sailed back east to conduct business for California Steam Packet Co.

Looking northward on Priest.
Looking northward on Priest.

When Priest returned to California in November 1850 he found himself deluged in legal claims due to his past affiliation with Barton Lee, much of it probably land disputes. In December, Priest ran an ad directing folks to his new lawyers, M.H. & H. McAllister. Even though he’d posted publicly in February 1850 of his complete sell-off to Barton Lee,% it wasn’t that easy. For ultimately these dealings and disputes would get the better of Priest financially, at least for the time being. Supposedly without even money for the journey, he headed back to New York to recoup.

Just four months later, a correspondent to New York City for the Sacramento Union wrote how he met Priest at the Queens County Fair. His report was that Priest looked as “natural as life” and was in “good health and spirits.” The correspondent was invited to Priest’s house where “needless to say, [he] was most hospitably entertained.” Perhaps Priest’s steamboat investment was already paying off, but whatever the case, Priest would make it back to California sooner-than-later and would even own property in Sacramento again. In 1854 along with T.O. Larkin, W.D.M. Howard and Samuel J. Hensley, Priest offered the California legislature a “four feet by ten” portrait of George Washington painted by Jane Stuart, the daughter of Gilbert Stuart. It hangs in the Capitol today.

While Priest may have weathered the financial storms, his toughest challenge would come in September 1857 aboard the steamer Central America. What first appeared a routine trip back to New York from California turned catastrophic as the Central America got caught in a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina. Though it would eventually sink along with an estimated 500 passengers and $1.6M in specie (most of which was said to be gold), Priest was among those survivors rescued by the barque Ellen. In March 1860, Priest was issued Commissioner for New York City for California by Governor John G. Downey.

1857 painting of the sinking of the Central America by J. Childs. Albert Priest was aboard the ship and rescued by the barque Ellen.
1857 painting of the sinking of the Central America by J. Childs. Albert Priest was aboard the steamer.

It’s interesting to weigh Albert Priest’s legacy with Priest Street while looking at their histories parallel, especially given the street’s location and transformation over time: while ultimately an admirable footnote in the birth of Sacramento and San Francisco, Albert Priest’s history grows more obscure with each passing year; on the other hand, in the 1870s, those other Sacramento merchants whom Priest paved the way for built palatial residences atop the hill and transformed it into “Nob Hill,” which the development of has shaped Priest Street into how we see it today.


All quotes in article not cited with a symbol are from either the Alta California or the Sacramento Union.

^ In early 1850, Priest donated $1,000 to Sacramento for help surveying a possible levee (offering more if need be), and also around the same time, alongside Governor Burnett, donated $1000 to the “sick and destitute poor” of the community. Priest was revered by the Sacramento Union for his “liberality.”

* Though Samuel Brannan is mostly remembered in California history as being the man who publicly announced the gold find at Coloma in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, he’d been present since the Yerba Buena days, arriving in 1846, just weeks after Captain Montgomery had claimed Yerba Buena for the United States. One of San Francisco’s founders, leading business men and land-owners, Brannan established S.F.’s first newspaper, the California Star. During the gold rush, like Albert Priest, Brannan ran a trading post at Sutter’s Fort and helped found the city of Sacramento.

– William M. Warner ran for Harbor Master as an independent Democrat in the May 1851 Sacramento election, though he didn’t win. In regard to his candidacy, Priest had been his #1 supporter.

~ General David F. Douglass (1821-1872) “was a member of the Constitutional Convention in Monterey in September 1849, and was the first State Senator for [San Joaquin County]”: Glenn A. Kennedy, San Joaquin Historian Vol. IV No. 3 (Lodi, Calif.: San Joaquin County Historical Society, May 1968), 1.

+ Men supposedly present: Murray Morrison, Wake Briarly, M.D., William Warner, P.B. Cornwall, Joseph Curtis, Murray Morrison, Henry Schoolcraft, Judge Chas. C. Sackett, Daniel .J. Lisle, Jos. Nevett, N.A.H. Ball and William M. Warner.

< Erasmus Darwin Keyes, Fifty Years’ Observations of Men & Events, Civil & Military (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 243.

= According to their advertisement in the Sacramento Union they were “Wholesale & Retail Dealers in dry goods, groceries, liquors, and provisions.” Barton Lee and Pierre B. Cornwall were Priest’s partners.

# Fred Rosenbaum, Cosmopolitans: A Social & Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009), 13.

% Priest’s February 1850 notice, first published in the Placer Times reads: “Notice is hereby given, that I have this day sold all my right, title and interest in the property, real and personal, of the firm of Priest, Lee & Co. to Barton Lee, one of my partners in said firm. The said Lee having assumed all my indebtedness in the business of said firm up to this day, persons will hereafter call on him for settling the same, as I have no more interest whatsoever in the same, and I am from this day entirely disconnected with the business of said firm.” It is also interesting to note, that soon after, Priest must have already felt some of the legal heat of his connection with Priest, Lee & Co., if not one of the main reasons he bailed anyway, as later in February, he ran another ad informing folks that he’d appointed Henry M. Naglee as his attorney. Interestingly, “Naglee’s Building” was built where Victor Leroy’s store once had been. Also interesting is the fact that Priest found the need to hire new lawyers (M.H. & H. McAllister) by the end of the year.

> Mark A. Eifler, Gold Rush Capitalists: Greed & Growth in Sacramento (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002), 60-61.

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