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East Bay Then and Now: ‘Soap King’ R.P. Thomas Settled in the Berkeley Hills

By Daniella Thompson
Wednesday April 01, 2009 - 09:40:00 PM
Captain Thomas on his estate, La Loma Park.
San Francicsco Call, May 2, 1897
Captain Thomas on his estate, La Loma Park.
Maybeck Country in the La Loma Park tract. To the left is the Maybeck Studio, built in 1924.
Daniella Thompson
Maybeck Country in the La Loma Park tract. To the left is the Maybeck Studio, built in 1924.
Greenwood Common, William Wurster’s 1950s development in the La Loma Park tract.
Daniella Thompson
Greenwood Common, William Wurster’s 1950s development in the La Loma Park tract.
Captain Thomas’s log cabin was a museum filled with Civil War mementos.
San Francisco Call, March 15, 1897
Captain Thomas’s log cabin was a museum filled with Civil War mementos.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series on Captain R.P. Thomas and La Loma Park. 

If you walk five blocks due northeast of the UC Berkeley campus, you’ll find yourself in the hilly tract named La Loma Park. Enclosed within Cedar Street to the south and Rose Street to the north, the picturesque district is centered on the curvy intersection of La Loma Avenue and Buena Vista Way. 

This is Maybeck Country, also known as “Nut Hill.” It was at the heart of La Loma Park that the famed architect built his family home in 1907, as well as houses for other new residents attracted by the area’s beauty and sweeping vistas. 

After his house burned down in the 1923 Berkeley Fire, Maybeck built a cluster of smaller homes for his growing family. These, as well as surrounding homes influenced by Maybeck’s sensibilities, will be open for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s May 3 Spring House Tour. 

Maybeck, however, was not the first resident of La Loma Park. Nor did he find the terrain in its original state. The open grassy hills had already been forested by the man who had occupied the land since 1880, and who may have owned it considerably earlier. This man was Richard Parks Thomas (1826– 1900), best known as the owner of the Standard Soap Company, which operated a huge factory in West Berkeley from 1876, manufacturing hundreds of different kinds of laundry and toilet soaps. 

A Civil War veteran, Thomas was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic. A capsule of his fascinating biography was published in the G.A.R.’s 1886 Records of Members. There we learn that Thomas was born in Berne, Albany County, New York. In his early years he was apprenticed to a merchant in Ithaca but abandoned that job and left for New York. There, in 1846, he entered the U.S. Navy. 

What happened next is unclear. The G.A.R. Records of Members relates that “being under age, his parents obtained his discharge.” Berkeley historian Richard Schwartz maintains that Thomas served two and a half years on a man-of-war in the Mediterranean. What IS known beyond dispute is that Thomas moved to Syracuse, where he established a small soap factory. On June 28, 1859, while in Syracuse, he obtained a patent entitled “Improvement in Frames for the Manufacture of Soap.” 

After his factory was destroyed by fire in 1860, Thomas went to the oil district in Pennsylvania. He was engaged in boating oil in a flat-boat when news of the firing on Fort Sumter reached him. Having served as lieutenant of cavalry in the state militia, he returned to Syracuse and “opened a recruiting office for raising a company of cavalry, which was offered to the Secretary of War, who declined to accept it, as there was then no call for cavalry.” 

A few months later, Thomas received an order to report to Col. Andrew T. McReynolds, who was authorized to recruit a regiment of volunteer cavalry. The colonel informed Thomas that the government would not equip the cavalry. Recruits were required to furnish their own horses and equipment, and the government would pay them a rental fee of 40 cents per day. Being without means, Thomas teamed up with a wealthy citizen who agreed to furnish horses on condition that his son be made captain of the company. The latter was mustered in as Company F, Lincoln (First New York) Cavalry, reportedly the first volunteer cavalry recruited for the Civil War. 

Thomas was commissioned as first lieutenant in August 1861. When the regiment was divided into battalions, Lieutenant Thomas was commissioned adjutant of the 2nd Battalion, serving in that capacity during McClellan’s Peninsular campaign. He took part in the battles of Yorktown, Williamsburg, Mechanicsville, Cold Harbor, Fair Oaks, Games’ Mills, Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, Harrison’s Landing, Fredericksburg, Bull Run, and Antietam. Wounded in the leg by a rifle ball at White Oak Swamp, he was honorably discharged in November 1863. 

Seeking his fortune in California, the war veteran joined Cogswell’s Standard Soap factory in San Francisco. He wasted no time in becoming a partner, and soon acquired the business, making it grow by further acquisitions. Wanting to consolidate his operations in a single location, Thomas chose the West Berkeley waterfront, where both water and transportation were within easy reach. Constructed in 1875, the Standard Soap Works occupied a full block on Third Street between Addison and Allston Way (the site is now occupied by the Takara Sake Company). 

Until the rail tracks were built along Third Street, transporting freight by water was the only economic option. Thomas got into the transportation business by acquiring the ferry Mare Island, which not only carried his goods and those of other firms but had a virtual monopoly on the Berkeley-San Francisco route for many years. In 1891, after numerous complaints were voiced about the high rates charged on the Mare Island, a rival surfaced in the form of Piper, Aden & Co., which introduced a newer, faster steamer, the Hope. Piper’s lower rates quickly captured much of the freight business, and by March 1892, it had taken over the Mare Island and withdrew the Hope from the route. 

This wasn’t the last salvo in the ferry war. On March 2, 1894, the San Francisco Call announced, “Hereafter the Standard Soap Company will operate the Berkeley ferry, in place of Piper, Aden & Co.” The next day, it was rumored that Standard Soap would reduce wages on the Mare Island. Before too long, its rival, now renamed Piper, Aden, Goodall & Co., had reintroduced the Hope into the route. Thomas, apparently anxious to sell his transportation interests, tried to force his rivals’ hand in early October 1895 by denying them access to the wharf. Yet it turned out that eviction was not within his power, since the wharf’s owner, William B. Heywood, had not authorized him to do so. 

By the end of October, the two companies had reached an understanding, the 25-year-old Mare Island was withdrawn from service, and it was announced that in the future all goods shipped to and from Berkeley would be charged a uniform rate. 

Standard Soap made its owner rich, and by the mid-1880s he was casting about for new ventures. In October 1886, he founded the California National Bank of San Francisco, located in the Palace Hotel building on Market Street. The bank was incorporated as a joint stock organization; its authorized capital was $1 million, of which $200,000 was subscribed in currency. 

Its trajectory was swift. The annual statement filed on July 1, 1887, showed total resources and liabilities of $641,133.57. On Dec. 15, 1888, the bank abruptly suspended payments. In a story foreshadowing the current economic crisis, it was revealed that the bank’s cashier, C.H. Ramsden, acted recklessly, building a portfolio of bad loans that ultimately resulted in a loss of almost $170,000. 

The U.S. Treasury’s Comptroller of the Currency placed a receiver in charge of the bank, assessing the stockholders $75,000, all of which was paid except $20,000 assessed against the bank’s president, our friend Richard P. Thomas. 

Naturally, some stockholders were not pleased with this state of affairs. One of them, attorney John Chetwood, Jr., brought legal action against the bank’s executive committee, comprising president Thomas, vice-president Robert A. Wilson, and director Robert R. Thompson. The charge brought against the three was that they were negligent in their duties and permitted the cashier Ramsden to manage the business as he saw fit, lending money without adequate security, which resulted in the bank’s failure. 

In December 1892, Judge Finn entered a judgment in favor of the plaintiff, and the case was referred to a master. But before a final judgment had been rendered, Chetwood settled with Wilson and Thompson, who paid $27,500. The suit against them was dismissed, leaving a net loss to the bank of $139,419. Judgment for this amount was rendered against Richard P. Thomas alone. 

Thomas didn’t think this was entirely fair. Nor was he the capitulating sort. He wasn’t about to hand over the money quietly and took appropriate measures. 


Daniella Thompson publishes www.berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage  

Association (BAHA).