You had to have imagination, optimism and faith to see business opportunity in San Luis Obispo County at the end of the 19th century. Benjamin Brooks saw it in a struggling newspaper printed in a tiny cow town.
Since it was founded Aug. 7, 1869, The Tribune had a revolving door of almost a dozen investors and editors in a 16-year span. It was hard to find the combination of relentlessly imaginative wordsmith and grounded businessman that would be able to keep the enterprise running. Brooks would become business manager just before he turned 43 in 1885. A year later, he would buy out editor Myron Angel and become the area’s longest tenured editor/owner.
The county had a population of 3,000 and boasted of a 4-year-old narrow-gauge railroad line from Port Harford to the county seat, but the 1,200-person town was a long way from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco.
Benjamin H. Brooks was born in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1842. His mother died when he was a child and his father, Benjamin S. Brooks, joined the California gold rush in 1849, leaving his son with relatives. The son attended Fairfield Academy of Connecticut, and about seven years later, his father sent for his 14-year-old son to come west. In the era before a transcontinental railroad, the journey must have been an adventure.
When he arrived in San Francisco, the younger Brooks enrolled in school with the sons of Mariano Vallejo, who had roots in the Spanish settlement of California. The elder Brooks had established a thriving law business and counted Gen. John C. Fremont as a client as well as Vallejo. The young Brooks soon studied law in his father’s office and frequently met Fremont. The colorful politician, after a failed presidential bid, was persuaded to hire his lawyer’s son to assist in organizing business affairs with the Union Pacific Railroad.
Benjamin Brooks would meet the love of his life while on one such business trip to Washington, D.C.
Mary Ella Steele was the daughter of a New York congressman, and she was impressed enough that she would later travel with her mother to the West.
Mary Ella would visit uncles George and Edgar Steele, who had a large dairy business in Marin and San Mateo counties.
The wedding took place in 1857 in San Francisco, and Brooks soon had a good job as an associate collector of customs in the busy port town.
In his spare time, he planned San Francisco’s first cable street railroad but did not have the capital to develop the system.
According to a cable car history website, E.W. Steele was also one of the partners in the venture as well as Abner Doubleday of baseball promotional fame. Brooks and engineer W.H. Hepburn worked out many of the mechanical details but were unable to finance the project. He sold his Clay Street franchise to Andrew S. Hallidie for $2,000, and the successful cable manufacturer completed the system. By 1871, Hallidie, already an experienced wire rope bridge maker, was patenting cable car controls and on his way to making the iconic cable car system a reality.
Brooks returned to law and was credited for being the first attorney in the state to accept Chinese clients. In an era when anti-Asian discrimination was increasingly strident, it was an indication of the lawyer’s sense of justice.
Brooks was soon hired by the Southern Pacific railroad, taking on work at the direction of Superintendent J.C. Stubbs and Director Collis P. Huntington. For a time, the Brooks family lived in El Paso, Texas, and Denning, N.M.
This was the era that the Southern Pacific railroad was acquiring right-of-way and building track east from Los Angeles to El Paso, where it arrived in May 1881. This second transcontinental link would be completed in January 1883.
Brooks clearly had inside knowledge of what a railroad needed to build a line.
In September of 1885, Benjamin and Mary Brooks came to San Luis Obispo, most likely by steam ship and narrow gauge railroad.
Her uncles had relocated their dairy business to the Edna Valley, and George and Edgar had been supporting an anemic newspaper, The Tribune. They were tiring of the task and wanted their niece’s husband to take a look at it.
They must have found something appealing about the town and the task, and soon Brooks was business manager. A year later he was editor as well, succeeding Myron Angel.
He would actively manage the paper until 1922 and would be the last owner to sell out to the corporation that would become the Telegram-Tribune in 1925.
His 40 years as a newspaperman would bear witness to epic changes. He would outlast dozens of competitors, and only one would surpass him in the struggle to grow circulation.
Upon his arrival, the town had a population of about 1,200, according to an advertising guide for newspapers. By the time he died in 1931, the town had grown to 8,300 and was poised for explosive growth.
When Benjamin and Mary walked the streets for the first time, there were no cars, telephones, electricity, airplanes, sewer, radio, pavement, movies, natural gas, lighthouse, or Union Oil Co. Newspapers were delivered by horseback.
A major rail connection was still almost a decade away, and Brooks would be one of the leaders who convinced the Southern Pacific to build track in San Luis Obispo. As editor of the region’s leading paper for most of his tenure, he would have a strong voice in pushing ideas that improved the city. Paving streets, building a sewer, things we take for granted today, were projects that Brooks endorsed.
Former Tribune editor Myron Angel is credited for originating and boosting the idea of creating Cal Poly, but it was the well-connected Brooks who found a way to bring the dream to reality.This appreciation ran on the editorial page of the Daily Telegram on Oct. 12, 1931.
Benjamin Brooks: An appreciation
Probably the most important pioneer figure in San Luis Obispo County during the past half-century has gone with the passing of Benjamin Brooks. Coming to this city in the prime of manhood in 1885, his life has been intimately interwoven as a journalist with all the vicissitudes and triumphs of this county.
From the time that he purchased the Weekly Tribune, gave it new life and developed it into a morning daily three years later, his first thought has been the welfare of San Luis Obispo County.
A trenchant and vigorous writer, his abilities commanded state-wide recognition. But he never sought the personal lime-light. He was content to be “the power behind the throne.” Of strong political views, he helped others to public office, while smilingly waving it aside for himself — even to the extent of refusing his party’s proffered nomination for the exalted office of United States senator.
It is an open political secret that his influence was the factor that finally secured the State Polytechnic School for this city and county. When reverse after reverse had attended the sustained efforts of other gallant local leaders, he enlisted the outside effort of President David Starr Jordan of Stanford University and together they persuaded a wavering governor to sign the hitherto vetoed bill.
A born optimist, a man of broad tolerance, a cheerful philosopher, a widely and deeply read scholar, a gentleman of the old school with great personal charm, San Luis Obispo could ill afford to lose him, even when on the verge of his ninetieth year.
Farewell, good friend, faithful companion generous soul and leader in high ideals.
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