A Grim History of Nob Hill's Mansions—And the Horror Novels They Inspired

The Crocker Mansion (left) and the Colton Mansion (right), in 1881. (California State Library, California History Room. Original photograph by O.V. Lange.)

On Oct. 5, 1891, the San Francisco Morning Call newspaper featured an in-depth report about “the shadow of misfortune” that was, at that time, hanging over Nob Hill's most prestigious homes. The article focused on the abandoned mansions of the prominent Stanford, Crocker, Colton, Hopkins and Flood families. “Lifeless and forlorn,” the newspaper stated, “they tell no story but of pride ungratified and happiness that could not be purchased. So the shadows seem to rest on Nob Hill.”

The trail of misery was undeniable.

Leland and Jane Stanford abandoned their 50-room mansion on the corner of Powell and California Streets after their son died at 15 years old. In 1883, after the senator and his wife held Leland Jr.’s funeral in the 41,000 square-foot house, they moved to Menlo Park, leaving the mansion as a sort of shrine to their son. One particularly macabre feature was left visible for passersby. “In [Leland Jr.’s] old room, looking out over the bay,” The Morning Call observed, “all the belongings of his boyhood cluster undisturbed. His picture hangs before a window, the blinds of which are never drawn. To this room, a mother comes to weep. It is the shrine of her grief.”

The neighbors were all struck with similar misfortunes.

Charles Crocker, a co-founder of the Central Pacific Railroad, as well as the bank that later became Wells Fargo, had built his 25,000 square-foot home at the peak of Nob Hill (then called California Hill). His intention was to acquire and demolish the 13 houses already on the land and build on the vacant plot. He succeeded in buying 12. When the owner of the final home—an undertaker named Nicholas Yung—requested $12,000 to move, Crocker refused to pay and, instead, walled off Yung's home behind a monstrous, 40-foot-tall “spite fence.”

Portion of a panoramic photograph, taken in April 1878 by Eadweard Muybridge, showing the spite fence constructed by Charles Crocker around Nicolas Yung's home.
Portion of a panoramic photograph, taken in April 1878 by Eadweard Muybridge, showing the spite fence constructed by Charles Crocker around Nicolas Yung's home.

Crocker died in 1888, leaving two of his sons squabbling over ownership of the house while also continuing their father’s feud with Yung. It’s remarkable that the eldest Crocker, Fred, had the energy for such pettiness, having lost his 29-year-old wife in childbirth the year before his father died. (Fred never married again and their daughter, Mary, only made it to 24.)

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Next door to the Crocker mansion (and the spite fence) was the Italian-style villa of General David Colton, an attorney and another co-founder of the Central Pacific Railroad. The $75,000 L-shaped, two-story home was completed in 1872. Six years later, Colton was thrown from a horse and subsequently crushed by the animal. Surgery was attempted, but a deadly infection resulted and he died at the age of 47, leaving significant debts.

Colton’s death triggered a series of unfortunate events. Believing that her husband’s Pacific Railroad colleagues had swindled her out of money, Ellen Colton took action that resulted in multiple lawsuits, two years in court and a mountain of gossip in the local press. The Morning Call reported that the lawsuits resulted in “much of the [Colton] estate” being “frittered away.”

The paper was also careful to note the bad luck that had befallen one of the Coltons’ two daughters, Carrie. It reported that her first husband died after a year and a half of their marriage, and her second, Henry McClane Martin—“a love match without doubt”—died of a sudden illness that once again left her “heart-broken.” The newspaper said the family mansion was left, “vacant and gruesome with memories.”

Eventually, one of the people Ellen had fought in court, Collis P. Huntington, bought the Colton home for $250,000. But because his family was based in New York, the mansion remained largely empty.

The Crocker, Stanford and Colton mansions, as illustrated in an 1891 edition of San Francisco's 'Morning Call' newspaper.
The Crocker, Stanford and Colton mansions, as illustrated in an 1891 edition of San Francisco's 'Morning Call' newspaper.

Another neighbor on California Street was Richard Tobin, a lawyer, co-founder of The Hibernia Savings and Loan Society and one of the original owners of the San Francisco Chronicle. He became successful after emigrating from Ireland in 1849 with his father and brother, but his 5,400 square-foot mansion at Taylor Street was more modest than his neighbors’ abodes. (It did, however, still include a 75-foot-tall observatory tower and a private chapel, complete with stained glass windows.)

The Tobin clan evidently experienced some trouble with their neighbors. The Daily Alta reported on May 21, 1877 that “On Thursday morning, Charles A. Crocker [he of the spite fence] and William Tobin engaged in a row in a Market Street saloon, during which Tobin was stabbed in the abdomen. Yesterday Crocker was examined before Judge Lawler, and Tobin asserted that they were both drunk, and that the stabbing was done accidentally. The charge was consequently dismissed.”

(It is unclear from records whether William was Richard’s brother or father.)

Richard Tobin died in 1887, but his wife remained in their Nob Hill home. That was until August 27, 1895, when house-painters using gasoline lamps to burn off old paint caused a massive fire. The San Francisco Call reported that “between $10,000 and $15,000 [of] damages” were caused, in part because “the heavy steam engines” of the fire trucks had trouble mounting the hill. The paper also reported that the house was insured for only $5,000.

The grand twist in all of this is that the architectural firm responsible for all four of these homes was one and the same: Bugbee & Sons. And the head of that company, Samuel C. Bugbee, just happens to be the great-great grandfather of Shirley Jackson. Jackson, of course, was an author who built her career writing about strange and cursed old houses in books like 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House and 1962’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. In 1958’s The Sundial, a cantankerous family lives in a mansion at the top of the hill, surrounded by an imposing wall. (It's impossible not to think of the Crockers.)

Though enormously successful with their architecture firm—they also built Mills Hall at Mills College (1871), Wade Opera House (1876) and the Golden Gate Park Conservatory—the Bugbees had a habit of dying suddenly. Samuel died Sept. 1, 1877 on a ferry between San Francisco and Oakland. His son Charles dropped dead in the street a few years later. His other son, Sumner Bugbee, died unexpectedly during a train journey from New York to California. And later, Charles’ brother, John Stephenson Bugbee (the only non-architect in the family) died of a stroke in the middle of making a speech to the 1896 Alaska Republican convention.

Today, none of the Bugbee mansions of Nob Hill are still standing. Those that survived until 1906 all burned in the fires following the earthquake. Landmarks do remain in their places though. The Huntington family, who purchased the Colton mansion, donated the land to the city after the house burned down. Huntington Park now stands where it once did. And across the street, standing on the site of the old Crocker mansion, is Grace Cathedral.

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At the time of writing The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson had requested photos of the mansions her ancestors built for inspiration. Her mother sent her a batch of newspaper clippings. One contained a picture of the Crocker House and a note. “Glad [it] didn’t survive the earthquake.”