Occupational Snapshots of 1906 Contra Costa County

By William Mero

As the 20th Century dawned, Contra Costa County was no longer a quiet, isolated rural county. Railroads, motorcars and telephones were changing the economic and social lives of the people. The 1906 registration records for Contra Costa County record the occupations of the voters. They indicate that at the turn of the century the county workforce was still largely agricultural. However, industry was growing as shown by the numbers of railroad, paper, refinery and dock workers. Fishermen and seafarers were common in Crockett, Pittsburg and Antioch as were explosive makers in Pinole, Rodeo and Hercules. Many males still considered themselves miners in the Nortonville and Somersville districts.

Farmers, orchardists, farm laborers and ranchers were among the most numerous jobs in the county. Agricultural support services like well borers were also listed. Clearly alcohol played an important role in the social life of our county. One of the most common non-agricultural occupations was that of saloonkeeper. Horses still dominated the local transportation system. Usually one lawyer and a couple of real estate agents were present where the community was large enough to support them. In a few villages insurance agents pursued the hapless citizens.

In 1906 many of the old ways lingered on. John William Atchinson of Clayton still handled the reins as a stagecoach driver. Morton Kenilworth of Danville worked as a coachman. Both Peter Colson of Antioch and John Buffo of Black Diamond earned livings as professional hunters. Concord was the home of William Clark Jaquith, a noted East Bay carriage builder. James W. Ebey and Charles Warren Johnson were Walnut Creek harness makers.

Contra Costa had a number of individuals who remained above the daily struggle. Brentwood was the home of Lugui Bacigalupi who in 1906 listed himself as a gentleman of leisure. In Danville lived William Z. Stone, a 76-year-old retired gentleman. From the same area Joseph H. White listed his occupation simply as a gentleman. The unfortunate John Sites of San Pablo was listed just as an invalid.

Several unique professions were noted in the Great Registry. One of the county's most famous citizens, John Muir, was simply a geologist - the only geologist in the county. Charles E. Oswill of San Ramon made his living as a baseball player. Walnut Creek was the home of Ramond L. Nougaret, an ornithologist.

Telephone usage was spreading rapidly by 1906. Antioch already had a John William Kelley working as a telephone operator. Evidently Brentwood also had a telephone system for Ulysses Ambeler Boydston was their town's telephone operator.

There were numerous constables and justices of the peace noted on the 1906 registration lists. Some of the more unusual public servants were William Putnam Geddes who lived in Brentwood but worked as a prison guard at San Quentin and William H. Reeder, the Fire Marshal of Stege. Martinez was the home of the Deputy Fish Commissioner, John H. Davis. On the voter roles was James Fahy, town marshal of Black Diamond as well as James Phillip Allen, a deputy sheriff living in Bay Point (later Port Chicago). Benito Venculado Soto of Concord was listed as the town's constable.

For sailors and fishermen the river and bays provided their livelihoods. Antioch was the home of Albert Randt, a dredger captain, while Edward Jorgensen was a schooner captain. George Marshall was a launch captain. Junder George Jepson was simply listed as a boatman. Ell K. Vovdrey of Crockett was proud to call himself a steamboat man. Charles H. Weber also carried on the seafaring tradition in Crockett as a master mariner. James Earnest Plymtos was a ships carpenter from Atchison (now part of Richmond).

Martinez was the permanent residences of the county's only lighthouse keepers, John M. Nilsson and Carl L. Winthar. John Riley of Crockett followed an even more unusual maritime occupation as a whale butcher.

Another common Contra Costa occupation for those living along the river was that of a wharfinger. A wharfinger was one "who owned or was responsible for the operation of a wharf." Martinez, Crockett, and Port Costa had a number of wharfingers including Alfred J. Jennings of Martinez.

In Alamo August Steinmetz followed the craft of varnisher. Charles Ragusa worked as a soda water distiller. Black Diamond was the residence of John Finnerty, John Joseph Finnerty, and William H. Greist who were all stickerhands. What stickerhands were, the author could not determine. Any advice from knowledgeable readers would be greatly appreciated. Daniel Edward Driscoll along with Pete Juley, Samuel H. Marshall, John William Kelly, Lloyd Nathan Austin and James O'Mara were part of a thriving community of Antioch papermakers.

Black Diamond was fortunate for it contained the eminent John H. Quee who claimed the elevated status of a tonsorial artist. Martinez also was also blessed with the services of a tonsorial artist in the distinguished person of Samuel Jacobs. All the other Contra Costa communities had to be satisfied with ordinary barbers. In Clayton Thomas S. Aria was, appropriately enough, listed as a musician. Isidore J. Cereghino may have worked in a bank as a coin teller(?). Henry Bruns made his living in Concord as a cigar maker as did Adolph Newman of Antioch. Apparently George Oscar Riggs was an up and coming advertising man for he listed his profession as billposter.

A few of the more interesting agricultural jobs are noted on the voter roles. One certainly had to be flexible to make a living in the thinly populated Brentwood area of 1906. Thomas Anderson Cantreil had the distinction of being both a veterinarian and a dentist. Hopefully he did not confuse the two professions. A few of the more specialized rural jobs in the east county were those of gamekeeper (Soren Jorgensen, Woodward) and beeman (James Henry Wilkenson, Knightsen). Byron evidently had some thriving chicken farms for John Eves, John Sproll and August F. Schmude listed themselves as chicken raisers. In Alamo James Maringo continued the ancient tradition of wine making. In Pacheco David G. Bartnett was a hide and wool buyer.

Crockett had many jobs associated with refining sugar. Henry Miller, Andrew E. Peterson and Arthur Warner were all hard working sugar boilers. John Ryan was a melter.

The railroads provided a number of jobs for the growing population. The Secretary for the Santa Fe Railroad, Fredrick W. Pape maintained a legal residence in Antioch. Mack Bradley lived in Antioch and, like so many others, had a job with the railroad as a trackwalker. Some of the more unusual railroad jobs were those of car repairer. A trade practiced by Jsean Hansen and Peter A. Smith of Port Costa and William Horn of Richmond. John Lester McCarthy (Richmond) and Lawrence Thole (Atchison) were airmen responsible for the care of railroad airbrakes. Charles Harrington Anderson and Henry Siebe were telegraphers working for the railroad in Richmond and San Pablo.

The oil industry was growing in importance. Luke Moore from San Pablo was noted in 1906 as the Superintendent of the Standard Oil Company. Several chemists and numerous oilstillmen like Camillus Rees of Martinez found work in the new refineries being built along the river. William Wells Miller of Vine Hill and David S. Stafford made their livings as oil drillers.

A flourishing explosive manufacturing industry had developed in the Giant - Hercules - Pinole area and by 1906 employed many of the county's braver voters. Most of the workers called themselves powdermen or powdermakers. A few like Jerry Crothers and Edward Walton of Pinole worked as powderpackers. Percy E. Ritchford had an even more dangerous job. He noted his occupation as a nitroglycerin man.

The lead-zinc smelter at Selby offered skilled employment opportunities as well. Leonard H. Barnard, Jornes S. Cambell, William S. Dunning, George Upton and David Watkins all worked as assayers for the smelter.

Two of the more interesting occupations that were always found together were those of acid makers and lead burners. A few of the lead burners included John Brensel (Hercules), and Edward Kirkwood (Giant). Pinole was the home to W. Benson and Fred Elmer Carr who worked as acid makers. In Martinez James Bickneil was an acid maker and Henry E.J. Magree was a lead burner. While acid was used to make explosives and paper, it was also used in Contra Costa for the manufacturing of electrical batteries. A lead burner was simply someone who made and inserted the lead plates into batteries.

There were several saw-filers active along the river. In Pinole Joseph A. Sweat worked as a saw-filer. Wesley I. Manson (Cornwall) also was a saw-filer. They made and kept sharp the teeth of the large saws used in the lumberyards and sawmills. Serving the building trade was Harold F. Charleston who worked as a shinglesawer in the Black Diamond (Pittsburg) area.

Examining the registration roles reveal the mixture of the old and new economic forces changing Contra Costa. Whether you were Henry Dewey Mason (Atchison), ice dealer or Dennie Anthony Burns (Richmond), streetcar conductor, 20th Century technology was beginning to affect everyone.

In the archives of the Contra Costa County History Center voter registration data and other primary source material is available for researchers interested studying the historical development of Contra Costa County.

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