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He was unable to head off a miners’ strike or bankruptcy.

Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. He defended California’s redwoods and Yosemite, prompted Abraham Lincoln to the early stirrings of a National Park System, laid out the campuses of Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, and penned the best books ever written on slavery while “the peculiar institution” was still extant. He directed the U.S. Sanitary Commission (a precursor to the Red Cross) during the Civil War and virtually founded the international profession of landscape architecture and the domestic science of demographics. He was a genius.

Smack-dab in the midst of this success, Frederick Law Olmsted, at age 43, tried managing a consortium of gold mines in northern California when the West remained mighty wild. The mines went bankrupt. Olmsted had to stretch the law to get out with a clean shirt, and for the first and last time in his life, he had to carry a gun. As a mine manager he was a failure. But that failure was the fulcrum that put him back on track as a public works and public service dynamo. Absent the plunging productivity of Olmsted’s Mariposa mines in 1864–1865, there might have been no Yosemite National Park, no Central Park and no more redwoods.

 Olmsted was a workaholic. He spent the first three years of the Civil War running the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which safeguarded the health and welfare of Union volunteers— most of the U.S. Army at the time, as the majority of Regulars were out West, keeping an eye on the Indians. Before the war started, in 1859, Olmsted had married his brother’s widow, Mary Perkins Olmsted, who already had three children. The couple then had two children of their own. The need to provide for his growing family convinced Olmsted—who went $12,000 in debt—to take a shot at free enterprise. And when the twin victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg put the Confederacy on the retreat, he signed on as manager of the Mariposa mines in California. None other than Union Maj. Gen. John Charles Frémont had organized the consortium, but it had changed hands due to early financial wobbles. The new company had a nominal stock capital of $10 million, most of it in the hands of Frémont and his friends, and bonds of $1.5 million were authorized to cover working expenses. When Olmsted took over the operation, he had about $300,000 in working capital to cover expenses and keep the gold flowing.

Olmsted arrived in San Francisco, after the usual trek across the Isthmus of Panama, to two bad omens: First, on the pier in San Francisco, a draft horse kicked him in the leg, touching off a limp that lasted his entire career. Second, when he got a look at the books, he discovered that gold ore production at Mariposa had fallen from $100,000 a month to $25,000, and the operation was overdrawn with its San Francisco bank.

Once Olmsted arrived at the mines themselves, his stomach sank: The previous manager had stripped all the best quartz columns of their gold, producing short-term profits that bore no relation to long-term prospects. The community also underwhelmed him. A Christian if not much of a churchgoer, Olmsted was used to New Englanders who took the Sabbath seriously. The principal observance he saw in Bear Valley was a horse race down the main street, and the only gesture of respect was when a Chinese woman tarred her hair and put on a clean pair of sky-blue pantaloons. “Evening services,” he wrote his wife, “consist of a dog fight.”

He was horrified by the way whites treated local Indians (shooting one was considered on a level with killing a bear), that blacks were denied basic rights, and with the general mistreatment of the Chinese: “If they have ever learned anything of white men except new forms of vice and wickedness, I can’t think of what it has been. I have never heard of the slightest effort or purpose on the part of any white man, woman or child to do them good.” One look at the cemetery convinced him that in the West, “natural death” was generally some form of homicide. “There have been a great many robberies here lately, and half a dozen men have been hung and two or three shot,” he wrote his family back east.

Undeterred, Mary Olmsted brought the children west while Frederick scrutinized the company books. The kids helped sort through the quartz, looking for traces of gold, and thrived on the mild California climate and fresh vegetables. The latter were mostly produced by Italians who took one look at the mines and decided they could do better aboveground. The once-sickly young Olmsteds became robust. Not so the Mariposa mines.

Olmsted’s first move, on learning the mines weren’t as productive as the leather-bound prospectus indicated, was to trim labor costs. He reduced white miners’ wages from $3.50 to $3.25 per day, but to compensate ordered all single men to move into the company bunkhouses, which had plenty of available bed space, and reduced board costs from $1 a day to 85 cents. Olmsted was clearly accustomed to dealing with Irish laborers just off the boat from the potato famine and grateful for any work or food; 4,000 such men had helped during the initial design phase of Central Park. But California’s Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Italian miners—intrepid, adventurous men of valor—were offended by Olmsted’s cost cutting and staged a strike. “I don’t want the men to think that they can ever expect to gain anything from me by striking—and the sooner they learn this, the better in every respect we shall be situated,” he declared. Strikers and guards brawled outside the works, though nobody was killed in the fistfights.

Olmsted’s next move was worse. He hired all the Chinese he could get at $1.75 a day—an action that contributed to the West Coast horror of “cheap Oriental labor,” which in turn led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Some of the white miners headed back into the underbrush with picks and pans to prospect independently, while others looked elsewhere for jobs. The strike collapsed, but so did income from the mines. A gold strike at Mariposa’s Princeton Mine brought big profits and boosted the stock price, in turn benefiting Olmsted. His salary was $10,000 a year—close to a million in inflation-adjusted dollars—and he was able to invest $2,500 (add two zeros today) with his San Francisco stockbroker in January 1864, followed by another $1,500 a few months later. Oddly enough, he put the money into steamships, the telegraph and a water company, not into volatile mining stocks. Perhaps he knew something. He unloaded his own mining stock when it was still worth $30, thus sparing his family financial ruin.

On January 6, 1865, two San Francisco bankers arrived in Bear Valley and told Olmsted that the Mariposa Company in New York had refused to honor its debts and that the mines he was managing were nearly bankrupt. The value of Mariposa stock had been $45 a share when Olmsted arrived in California. On December 28, 1864, it fell to $30—at which point, Olmsted sold. By January 2, 1865, it had dropped to $19.

Olmsted ducked and covered. Gun on his hip, he paid his miners in cash from a bag he carried with him, hoping against hope that another gold strike, like the 1864 find at the Princeton Mine, would put Mariposa back in the black. It didn’t happen. By mid-1865 the mines were bankrupt, and Olmsted was left holding the bag— and not just metaphorically. At one point, he withdrew $3,000 from the company account to make sure he could feed his family, then with an honest man’s dread of debt, he sold the whole operation to the Dodge brothers, who eventually turned things around and sold it back to people who also made money from it.

A federal investigation characterized the two-year operation as “a stupendous folly.” The investigation concluded Olmsted had been honest but inept and that “the fundamental mistake was in the instructions to Mr. O to explore, open up and work as many veins as possible….The plans of the company’s organization, and the scale of its projected operations, were such as to invite every chance of ruin.”

Yet while he was failing at the mines, Olmsted had seen Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove of redwoods. His descriptions of those natural wonders had convinced Abraham Lincoln to deed the tracts to the state of California, marking the first stirrings of the National Park System. Olmsted himself, having flopped in free enterprise, went on to complete New York’s Central and Prospect parks. He also managed a number of other public projects that helped save America’s scenic West from commercial exploitation. For Frederick Law Olmsted, the bankruptcy of the Mariposa mines was a commercial flop, but also an aesthetic fulcrum to national greatness.


Minjae Kim helped with research. For more on Olmsted’s career, see FLO, a biography by Laura Wood Roper. Also see Witold Rybczynski’s A Clearing in the Distance.

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.