Historical Perspective: James Faber, Fresno’s first businessman and merchant
The Greyhound bus station has been torn down to make way for high-speed rail – and in the process, it has exposed hallowed ground for Fresno history.
The large lot on H Street between Tulare and Mariposa streets, exposed for the first time in nearly 60 years, is where the city of Fresno began.
It was here in April 1872 that 27-year-old Ohio native James E. Faber pitched a 14-by-16-foot tent and set up a primitive general store near the small, wood-framed, Central Pacific Railroad depot, built a month earlier.
Faber became the first merchant and permanent resident of the pioneer settlement. He first sold goods to rail workers, who were temporarily housed in boxcars as the Central Pacific drove its line down the valley.
Ordinarily, it could be expected some landmark would bear the name of so important a first arrival to the community. But not even an alley can be found to commemorate James E. Faber.
Bee story in 1964
First named Fresno Station, this was the spot on a vast, treeless expanse, called the “Sinks of Dry Creek,” that Central Pacific chose for a new townsite. This is where Dry Creek, Fancher Creek and other creeks in runoff years would end their flow on the lowest spot on the sandy plains.
Adventure ran in Faber’s blood. He was born to middle-class parents in 1844 at Oxford, Ohio. At 16 he ran off to join Union forces fighting in the Civil War. His father tracked him down and took him back home and sent him to school in Cincinnati, only to later have him run off and join up again. He was wounded in battle, but rejoined after his recovery, for the third time.
After his discharge, he joined an 86-team wagon train in hopes of striking it rich in the gold fields of Montana. En route the train came under attack several times by Sioux and Blackfoot warriors, killing 32 men in the wagon train. Two years later, Faber still hadn’t struck it rich and moved to California to try ranching in what would become Madera County, locating on the Alabama Settlement colony near the now-ghost town of Borden.
After two years of failed crops, he turned to hauling freight from Stockton to Borden, Jones Ferry and Millerton.
Chasing a rumor
Ever looking for an opportunity to make money, he eyed Sycamore, a bustling Central Pacific Railroad construction camp on the San Joaquin River at today’s Highway 99. Central Pacific was building a bridge there, and it was rumored to be considered as a townsite. But on a visit, Faber caught wind of a rumor circulating among the rail workers that the railroad would establish a townsite about eight miles southeast.
Always a gambler, Jim Faber wasted no time in securing a large supply of dry goods and barrels of whiskey in Stockton, intent in selling at the new town.
One problem: Central Pacific wouldn’t deliver freight past Merced. Southward from there, the CP was a construction line.
Faber found a sympathetic conductor, and a secretive agreement was made. His illicit goods were hidden under a shipment of construction supplies in a box car, with the agreement that Faber’s supplies could be delivered only before the train reached Fresno Station, to not arouse suspicion from the CP construction supervisor. Under the cover of night, bundles, crates and kegs of whiskey were dumped on to the sandy plain from the slow-moving train, scattering the goods for a half-mile north of where present-day Belmont Avenue crosses the tracks. It took Faber two days to gather and move his scattered goods to his tent. Then he was open for business.
The “lively camp” grew fast. Along with the grading and track-laying crews, a large water tank arrived, loads of lumber, and with it, teams of carpenters. The town was on its way.
Central Pacific put up an eating house next to the tracks on what would become Tulare Street. Fresno’s first bar, Faber’s Senate Saloon, was established at the northwest corner of Tulare and I Street (Broadway). The Fresno Expositor said that the Senate had a choice selection of “eyeopeners” and “eyeshutters” to suit all demands.
By 1874, most Millerton citizens and merchants had moved to Fresno (some took apart their homes and rebuilt them in the growing town) and it became the county seat. By the end of that year, there were 60 dwellings and 100 total buildings. The population by the next year was about 600.
Water was brought in by train early on, until Anton Joseph Maassen, who served meals out of a rough board shack, dug a well. Using pick, crowbar, shovel and muscle, chiseling through the valley hardpan, he hit water 50 feet down. For his hard labor, he charged 25 cents for two buckets full of water. Later, and akin to an early day Baldassare Forestiere-type underground garden, he tunneled under his hotel and created a 40-foot-deep pit that opened into a subterranean cellar bar, where patrons could escape the heat.
Faber was settling in as much as might be expected. He married Mary Whitney of Millerton in 1873 and built their home, where they had a son, William, on J (Fulton) and Mariposa streets near the site of the present-day Helm Building.
Faber the entrepreneur
Keeping a common theme, Faber sold his original businesses and moved on to more ventures – among them, opening Fresno’s first oyster house. His holdings included a restaurant, general store and bakery. He was a land speculator. And he worked for the railroad as a night ticket agent and baggage man. In later years, asked of all of his diverse ventures, he said “it’s all in the game.”
Along the way he succumbed to wanderlust, traveling extensively into British Columbia, Arizona and the Sierra, often prospecting for gold. He made at least 50 hunting trips, often for months at a time, into the Mount Whitney/Mount Goddard country of the High Sierra.
In 1903, the Chamber of Commerce building and Commercial Park was built on the site where Faber first pitched his tent. At the park in the early 1920s, Faber showed a Fresno Republican reporter the spot, a large tree then marking the location. In later years, the Native Sons of the Golden West placed a plaque on the Chamber of Commerce building commemorating Fresno’s first business. The building was torn down in 1959 to make way for the bus station.
Spry even into his elder years, Faber died in Hayward in 1930 at age 86.
In 1964, during the Fulton Mall construction, a city committee suggested that H Street should be renamed Faber Street, but the City Council rejected the idea. The Bee story on the name-change proposal noted, “Ordinarily, it could be expected some landmark would bear the name of so important a first arrival to the community. But not even an alley can be found to commemorate James E. Faber.”
John Walker: 556-441-6197