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Historically Speaking: Rebuffed Donation Turns Up As University

Harvard University Didn’t Want Their Money

by Tom Morrow

During a meeting with officials of Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass., they were a relatively-unknown couple from California. They were offering several million dollars to Harvard if the college would name a facility or library after their deceased teen-aged son, but Harvard turned them down. Somewhat disappointed, they returned to California and later started their own university – Stanford.

Born March 9, 1824, Leland Stanford rose to become a powerful American tycoon, industrialist, and politician. In 1851, he was a country attorney when he came to California during the Gold Rush years. He became a millionaire merchant and the chief investor of the western section of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

Stanford was one of the four major investors in the Central Pacific Railroad, of which he was president. His partners, who also became California business tycoons, were: Charles Crocker (Crocker National Bank), Mark Hopkins (San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Hotel), and Collis P. Huntington, (San Marino’s Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, cities of Huntington Beach and Huntington Park).
Beginning in 1861, Stanford served a two-year term as Governor of California and later eight years as U.S. Senator. He had tremendous power and a lasting impact on California, but his detractors considered him a robber baron.

On May 10, 1869, as head of the railroad that built the western portion of the “first transcontinental railroad” over the High Sierra mountains of California, Stanford presided at the ceremonial driving of “Last (golden) Spike” at Promontory, Utah. The Central Pacific met the Union Pacific Railroad, which had been constructed west from its western terminus at Council Bluffs, Iowa and Omaha, Neb.

The Stanfords owned a palatial Sacramento mansion where their only son, Leland Stanford Jr., was born; their home on San Francisco’s Nob Hill was destroyed in the 1906, earthquake; today that home site is occupied by the Stanford Court Hotel.

Stanford became a leading member of the Republican Party and was chosen as a delegate which selected U.S. presidential candidates in both 1856 (John C. Fremont) and 1860 (Abraham Lincoln). He was the first Republican Governor of California, serving two years from 1862 to 1863.

During his gubernatorial tenure, Stanford cut the state’s debt in half, and advocated for the conservation of forests. He also oversaw the establishment of the California’s first state normal (teacher’s) school in San José, later to become San José State University. During Stanford’s governorship, the term of office changed from two years to four years, taking effect in 1864, after he left office.

Stanford University was founded as a memorial to Leland Stanford, Jr., who died in 1884, of typhoid fever while on a family vacation in Italy. The Stanfords donated approximately $40 million (over $1 billion in 2014 dollars) to develop the university in Palo Alto. Stanford University’s first student was Herbert Hoover, who would later become President of the United States.

Stanford died of heart failure at his home in Palo Alto, on June 21, 1893. He was buried in the family mausoleum on the Stanford campus. Jane Stanford died in 1905, in a suspected murder while vacationing in Honolulu. She had been poisoned with strychnine. The killer was never found, although it was suspected a member of her household probably was the culprit.


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