John Braddock Watson (“JBW”) was born in the town of Providence in northwest Saratoga County, New York, the fifth of eleven children of John and Margaret (Irish) Watson. In the 1850 census, he can be found in two places – his parents’ farm, and on a farm a few miles away belonging to the Hoyts, the in-laws of his eldest brother George.
Within two short years he had left Saratoga County in the dust – sailing to Panama, then up the west coast, landing in Sacramento. He moved to Oakland around 1853 when Frank C. Watson was born, the first of his five children with Hettie Scott (real name Phidelia). Frank was followed by Nellie (the Guatemala Girl), Ida May, JB Jr., and Horace C. Watson.
In Sacramento, he worked as a leather tanner (if I have the correct JB Watson). At various times over the next 35 years, he would be called a real estate broker, capitalist, lawyer, farmer, horse breeder, etc. One thing I know for certain: he owned a whole bunch of land in Oakland that is now insanely valuable.
From Lake Merritt to Park Blvd., from Peralta Heights to Trestle Glen – that was The Watson Tract, bisected by Watson Avenue. AND it appears he owned the corner lot where the Grand Lake Theater now stands.
Sounds like he was one of those colorful California pioneers that must have a plaque or statue somewhere praising his life and work. But he doesn’t. His grave isn’t even marked, and Watson Avenue was renamed years ago. I assume this lack of memorials is on account of his primary occupation during all those years – right-hand man to one Horace Walpole Carpentier – and because his death came after a kind of downfall, at a time when Carpentier was something of Public Enemy No. 1 in the East Bay.
I’m not a Carpentier expert – but I will do a future post relating what I know of him. In the meantime I’ll simply say that Carpentier was a man of his time. Smart and confident, full of ambition and gall. JBW and two of his brothers helped make things happen. But mostly JBW.
One of the big public works projects in current-day Oakland has been the demolition of the dam that created Lake Merritt, restoring it to its original state as a tidal estuary. The 12th Street Bridge spanned the estuary, at the site of that dam.
So – shortly after coming down from Sacramento, JBW found himself in charge of the bridge construction, and he was introduced to Horace, the guy who’d just taken over financial responsibility for the bridge project, including several years of toll collection. (At one time or another, I think each of the three Watson brothers who removed to Oakland from Saratoga County worked as a toll-taker on that bridge.) In any case, this was their meeting – and for the next 30-odd years (some odder than others), JBW managed most of the varied business enterprises of Horace Walpole Carpentier.
There were land deals that today sound a lot like swindles, if not out-right theft. There were brazen political machinations that now smack of graft, extortion, and croneyism. Yes, it’s all kind of nasty, deep-seated corruption of the worst kind. But face it, these are some terrific characters doing some seriously outrageous stuff that makes for a crackin’ good read!
Excerpts from JBW’s full-length obituary:
“…a man of great force of character and sturdy bearing, he was always easy to get along with until cornered, when he was as quick to strike as he had been forbearing before that.”
“Mr. Watson always kept his business to himself and with him passed to the grave many of the secrets of the land transactions of the early history of this county.”
“… a brave man who was always where there was any excitement or danger. In 1853… there was great excitement in Oakland and Brooklyn, for one morning five men were found hanging to a tree near where the jute mills now stand, and two more were hanging by the old Larue house. It was afterward discovered that the murders were committed by a gang of cattle thieves who had planned for eight men, the eighth to be [Carpentier]. In some manner Mr. Watson obtained an inkling of what was in the wind, for when the men arrived at Mr. Carpentier’s house the bed was still warm, but Mr. Carpentier and Mr. Watson were in a small boat pulling for San Francisco.”
One final point (because I promised in the previous posting): Carpentier seemed to instill a remarkable level of loyalty amongst his friends and business associates. Case in point: JBW’s first child was Frank C. Watson – C for Carpentier. Oddly, JBW’s little brother Clark’s son was also named Frank Carpentier Watson. (And I have no idea why “Frank” – it didn’t seem to be a family name at all.) JBW’s youngest son was Horace Carpentier Watson. And finally, the daughter of Chauncey St. John, Jr. and Elizabeth Moore was Beatrice Carpentier St. John. (Which sets my mind reeling about Horace’s connection with them – I assume it was yet another sign of the loyalty between Horace and JBW, involving financial assistance to the child the elder Chauncey wasn’t quite ready to claim as his grandchild.)
In any case, Carpentier’s legend lives on – in no small way thanks to the efforts of the Watson Brothers.
And although I said above that JBW and Horace met in 1853 or so, I have reason to believe they met long before that… Stay tuned!!
Yours truly at one of the Watson markers in Plot No. 1 of Oakland’s grand old Mountain View Cemetery. Horace C Watson and his wife Delia are on this monument, as is JBW’s son Frank. JBW has no marker here, and neither does Hettie, but cemetery records confirm that they are in fact there.