One of the first men to build a major financial empire in the Far West, Ralston was born in Ohio in 1826. In 1854, he immigrated to the booming town of San Francisco, a once sleepy Spanish missionary village that had become the center of the California Gold Rush five years earlier. There he became a partner in a steamship company, and 10 years later he used his profits to organize the Bank of California.
Ralston’s bank quickly became one of the most important financial institutions in the West. Starved for capital, western businessmen were happy to deal with a reliable bank in their own region instead of the New York and Boston banks. Ralston committed his own funds as well as those of the bank to a wide array of western businesses. Many were unexciting but essential enterprises like water companies. Ralston also had an adventurous side, though, and used his money to support lavish hotels and theaters in San Francisco as well as the hugely profitable Comstock Lode silver mine in Nevada.
The always-treacherous world of mining, however, eventually proved to be Ralston’s undoing. Having made millions in the Comstock Lode, Ralston gambled on several silver mines that proved busts. News of the failed mining investments sparked a run on the bank, forcing the bank to close its doors on August 26, 1875.
The next day, a somber board of directors asked for and received Ralston’s resignation as bank president. A few hours later, after Ralston had gone for his usual morning swim in San Francisco Bay, his body was discovered. Whether Ralston had accidentally drowned or deliberately killed himself remains a mystery.