Thomas Edison’s Man in Santa Cruz


The Golden Gate Villa is the crowning glory of Beach Hill, built by legendary Major Frank McLaughlin. He had many adventures, in a career so vast that it included Wild West lawyers, the wizard of Menlo Park, and American presidents like his close friends.

Susan Dormanen has long been her biographer, since she resided at Golden Gate Villa in 1991 and wrote her century-old story. In my own research on McLaughlin, the issue has always been the chronology of his adventures. What is beyond doubt is that his villa was the scene of both triumph and tragedy.

McLaughlin said he was born in 1845, probably in Newark, New Jersey, of Irish descent. He had a jovial nature and well-groomed manners. As a teenager he fought for the Union during the Civil War, where he probably resumed his excellent marksmanship. After the war the nation was to be united with the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, so he became a civil engineer to take advantage of the construction jobs of the Union Pacific. He headed west with the railroad, having adventures along the way, serving as a major in the National Guard and as a coach driver. In 1869, the golden point marked the completion of the Transcontinental railway.

McLaughlin and colleagues at the Menlo Park Laboratory in Edison, New Jersey, circa 1879. Top row: unknown; glassblower Ludwig K. Bohm; founding member Charles Batchelor; Francis Jehl. Second row: stagehand David Cunningham; Thomas A. Edison; maker Frank McLaughlin. Third row: assistant George Carman; experimenter John Ott. (Contributed)

McLaughlin returned to Newark shortly thereafter, where he became a police officer. This led to a friendship with Thomas Alva Edison, a 23-year-old inventor who had moved to Newark in 1870 and hired artisans to build his fellows. McLaughlin went to work for Edison, then in 1876 Edison brought in McLaughlin and several other men to found his laboratory at Menlo Park, the world’s first research and development center. Edison’s genius often lay in improving the inventions of others. Here, in 1877, Edison invented the phonograph and carbon telephone transmitter, an improvement on Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

These were exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878. The vigilantes hailed his phonograph as a miracle of science (listened to with headphones), while some thought it must have been ventriloquist. Edison called the phonograph a book for the illiterate, a task master for memorization, or a way to make dolls talk. The fair also exhibited the head of the Statue of Liberty, with interior supports by Gustave Eiffel (whose namesake tower did not appear until the 1889 fair). McLaughlin promoted the phonograph throughout Europe.

When McLaughlin returned to Menlo Park on August 1, 1878, Edison was discussing the idea of ​​a small monorail mail delivery missile. He envisioned it on poles like a telegraph, with a missile-like compartment to deliver mail faster than a train. McLaughlin wondered if something similar could not also be developed to transport ore from the mines.

In 1879 McLaughlin married widow Margaret Loomis and adopted his daughter Agnes, two women who were the loves of his life. When Edison’s interest turned to the bulb, bulb life was based on filament life, so many substances were tried, finding great promise in platinum. Edison sent McLaughlin west to search for platinum deposits, giving him $ 500,000 for exploration. McLaughlin stopped in Dodge City, a town just 8 years old, and was appointed MP by Field Marshal Bat Masterson, along with Wyatt Earp. Earp once vowed to shoot McLaughlin on sight for what he said. But when they finally met in a living room, after a moment of tension, Earp said, “You wouldn’t have said what you did, unless you thought it was true,” and Earp is left.

In 1880 McLaughlin moved to Oroville, Calif., With his wife and daughter, to learn that Edison was now looking for tungsten as a more efficient filament. However, Edison told McLaughlin to invest the money in gold mining. With the support of Dr. Ray V. Pierce, McLaughlin built the Big Bend Tunnel for $ 750,000, 12,000 feet long, completed in 1887, including a water-powered power plant to operate pumps and hoists for mining. Although this is a technical success, gold has not been found in sufficient quantity.

McLaughlin pursued other large projects, with the support of Edison and the Governor of California he went to England to propose a business to build a massive wall diverting the Feather River from its bed to mine the river bottom. Due to a misunderstanding, he told the British his dollar value, and they paid him in 12,000 pounds. The massive undertaking was an engineering marvel, which Edison made from the very first construction site with nighttime lighting. It was built from 1892 to 1896.

It was Thomas Edison’s electric light experiments that sent Frank McLaughlin west in search of platinum deposits for the filaments. (Contributed)

Meanwhile, McLaughlin vacationed with his family every summer in Santa Cruz, at a small Beach Hill house he named “Golden Gate Cottage” after one of his mining companies. While the State Militia held their annual camp meetings in Santa Cruz, Major McLaughlin enjoyed generously entertaining officers.

McLaughlin attended the World Middleweight Championship game in New Orleans on January 14, 1891, betting $ 17,000 on Fitzsimmons to defeat Jack Dempsey. Fitzsimmons fought Dempsey for 13 rounds, knocking him down a dozen times, but each time the critically injured Dempsey got up. Fitzsimmons ultimately won in a knockout. McLaughlin decided to build the most beautiful house possible with the earnings of $ 25,000.

He hired Holy Cross Church architect Thomas J. Welch, moved his cottage to Second Street, and built a Queen Anne Shingle-style mansion in its place. Its 35 rooms include a music room, library, billiard room, refrigeration room, wine cellar, massage room and an open porch at the top of the tower. The outbuildings were a greenhouse, a car shed and stables. Entering the car brought one into the central staircase hall, with a stained glass window at the stair landing, believed to depict his daughter Agnes in one of her party costumes. McLaughlin was friends with Teddy Roosevelt, whose donation of elephant skins was used to line the dining room. The McLaughlins loved to organize fancy events for major city or state lights.

In 1896 McLaughlin became chairman of the Republican State of California Central Committee. His diplomatic skills were such that William McKinley gave McLaughlin credit for delivering the California vote. McLaughlin attended McKinley’s inauguration, also congratulating its vice president, Teddy Roosevelt. There was a lot of goodwill in this election, as McLaughlin turned down a position in McKinley’s cabinet and an appointment as either California governor or state senator.

When Edison’s patented film strip and projector were first exhibited in New York in 1896, McLaughlin made arrangements with Edison to bring them to Santa Cruz for a special screening at the Palm Theater in 1897, at the southeast corner of Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street. That year, its great diversion wall moved the Feather River to begin mining the riverbed, only to find that the gold miners had already done so, leaving behind rusty pans and spikes. It was a great humiliation.

Then, on March 24, 1902, the Western Power Company was formed to create a hydroelectric power station on the Feather River. Pierce asked McLaughlin to incorporate a rival Eureka Power Company on July 3 to use the Big Bend tunnel to generate hydroelectric power. Western Power did not want competition and was ready to buy out McLaughlin when the 1906 earthquake destroyed San Francisco. Their only reason for hydroelectric power was gone. The same was true for most of the convention halls. McLaughlin therefore invited the Republican State Convention to Santa Cruz, to use Golden Gate Villa, the Sea Beach Hotel and the Boardwalk Casino.

However, by the time the delegates arrived in Santa Cruz, the Casino had burned down and had been replaced by a circus tent. The boss of the machine, Abe Reuf, was working behind the scenes to make the progressive Republicans in the fight against corruption resign. When this was revealed, the convention became known as “The Shame of California”. Then, on November 16, McLaughlin’s beloved wife passed away, a blow to both father and daughter. A year later, they celebrated a special mass at Sainte-Croix on the anniversary of his death.

That afternoon, County Bank Chairman and former Lieutenant Governor Wm. T. Jeter received a phone call from McLaughlin, who said, “I killed my daughter and took poison!”

Jeter rushed to the Villa, but it was too late. How could someone so loved and so devoted to their family do this?

As his friends put the puzzle together, they discovered McLaughlin was broke. He had pledged or sold most of the jewelry, took loans from his secretary who was unable to repay her, and only had $ 21.60 in cash. In addition, a series of good investments had gone wrong. He was swindled out of his stake in the successful Western Power Co. hydroelectric power plant The rich Cananea copper mine in Sonora, Mexico, in high demand for electric wires, had fallen in value due to a panic, a strike and a riot. And the Ocean Shore Electric Railway, under construction, was badly damaged by the earthquake. McLaughlin couldn’t pay for his daughter’s wedding, his secretary said he had to carry a gun for fear of enemies, and he wrote that hiding his poverty from his wife and daughter for seven years led him to the madness.

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