Timothy Hopkins: The ironic journey of Palo Alto's founder

Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 28, 1999

Timothy Hopkins: The ironic journey of Palo Alto's founder

Son of a servant wound up inheriting wealth of railroad magnate

by Steve Staiger

The life of Timothy Hopkins, Palo Alto's founder and a major early supporter of Stanford University, is a fascinating story of a man whose inherited wealth and second-hand name enabled him to make contributions to our communities that are still visible today.

Born in 1859, Hopkins was the son of Patrick and Caroline Nolan, Irish immigrants who had settled in Maine. Three years after Timothy's birth, his father came to California, lured by the gold fields. Finding some success, he sent for his family, but he accidentally drowned before they arrived in San Francisco.

The widow and her young son traveled to Sacramento, where she found work in the home of railroad magnate Mark Hopkins and his wife. The young Timothy was treated as a member of the family by the childless Hopkins couple. Growing up in Sacramento, Timothy was familiar with Hopkins' neighbor and business partner, Leland and Jane Stanford.

Mark Hopkins' death in 1878 changed the life of the young man. His plans for attending Harvard were cancelled, and he began an active role in managing the Hopkins' financial affairs. Although there were promises and assumptions on both sides that Timothy would share in the estate of his 'adopted' father, Mark Hopkins, legally he had never been adopted. Court proceedings were quickly settled, and Mrs. Mark Hopkins formally adopted him in 1879.

Timothy Hopkins was an officer of the Central Pacific and later Southern Pacific railroads, eventually becoming treasurer. In 1882, he married the niece of his adopted mother, Mary Kellogg Crittenden. Their wedding gift from Mrs. Mark Hopkins was Sherwood Hall, a large estate in Menlo Park centered on what is now the city's Civic Center. The estate stretched from San Francisquito Creek to Ravenswood Avenue.

One of his business interests was a nursery on his Menlo Park estate, where he grew acres of violets and chrysanthemums for the fresh-flower trade in San Francisco. He and his wife continued to live in San Francisco most of the year, spending the summers in the large mansion on their Menlo Park estate. He became close friends of the Stanfords, who also lived in San Francisco and summered at their nearby estate on propertly located near what is now the Stanford Shopping Center.

In 1885, Hopkins was appointed a trustee for the newly created Stanford University, a position he would hold until his death. Whether it was due to his position as a trustee of the new university or because of his summer residence nearby, Hopkins, with the Stanfords' support, purchased the land that would become Palo Alto. The new town was laid out in 1887 and named University Park. The name Palo Alto was not adopted until 1892.

Many of the original streets in the town were named by Hopkins. The literary origins of most of the names is obvious. Kellogg Avenue, by contrast, was named for his wife's family and Alma Street for a family friend.

Hopkins sold lots in the new town as quickly as possible. He donated several corner lots to congregations ready to build churches. In 1907, Hopkins and his wife gave a strip of land along San Francisquito Creek to the board of trustees of the town of Palo Alto for use as a park. The town named the new park for its donor. In 1922, he sold the last remaining lots to Norwood Smith and William Cranston.

In the early 1890s, Hopkins resigned his railroad positions and devoted his time to other business interests and to the young university. He became a major supporter of the university, especially in the years after Leland Stanford's death, when funds were scarce. He provided the money for the establishment of the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory on Monterey Bay in 1892.

Hopkins' gift of his collection of railroad-related material formed the basis of the school's Hopkins Railway Library. For several years, he paid the salary of a cataloger for the collection. The collection remained a separate entity within the university library until 1952, when it was combined into the main collection.

The 1906 earthquake was a financial disaster for Hopkins. Much of his income-producing properties in San Francisco were destroyed in the ensuing fire, thus limiting his ability to support the university as in prior years. In addition, his Menlo Park summer home suffered such damage that it was never occupied again. He moved his summer residence to the estate's Gate House, which still stands on Ravenswood Avenue.

Hopkins' financial situation recovered and his support of Stanford University continued. He managed the funding for the Lane Medical Library at the Stanford Medical School, which was then in San Francisco. He and his wife helped organize the Stanford Home for Convalescent Children in the former Stanford family summer home on campus.

Hopkins continued his support of the university he loved until he died on Jan. 1, 1936. His will provided lifetime support for his widow, with the provision for most of his estate going to Stanford University upon her death. The will also passed to the university the right to enforce a deed restriction for all property in the original universtiy park that barred the sale of liquor.

After Mary Kellogg Hopkins' death in 1941, a large auction was held to sell off the contents of the old Hopkins summer home. While local bidders purchased various items, the bulk of the items as well as the building itself was bought by Universal Pictures in Hollywood. The furniture was used by the studio as movie props. The building was dismantled, and the wood was used to build film sets at a time when wood was scarce because of rationing during World War II.

From his humble beginnings, Timothy Hopkins' life was full of accomplishments, the highlight being more than 50 years of service to Stanford University. Palo Altans can remember him as the founder of their town, and residents of Menlo Park can sense his presence as they visit their Civic Center, the site of his former home.

Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto Historical Association writes "A Look Back" once every two months. 

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