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Haggin, James Ben Alilocked

(09 December 1822–12 September 1914)
  • Patrick J. Furlong

Haggin, James Ben Ali (09 December 1822–12 September 1914), mine owner, land developer, and horseman, was born in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, the son of Terah Temple Haggin, a lawyer and farmer, and Adeline Ben Ali, a schoolteacher. Haggin’s mother was said to have been the daughter of Ibrahim Ben Ali, an exiled Turkish army officer who settled in England and then moved to Philadelphia in the mid-1790s. Ben Ali’s residence in England is well attested, but there is no record that he ever lived in Philadelphia, where he supposedly settled and practiced medicine. Haggin may not have descended from a Turk, but he gloried in the name Ben Ali.

Haggin’s education is uncertain, but he was admitted to the bar in 1845 and opened a legal practice in Shelbyville, Kentucky. The following year he moved briefly to Natchez, Mississippi, where he married Eliza Sanders; they had five children. Then they moved to New Orleans, where he again practiced law. Haggin followed the gold seekers to California, but instead of digging for gold he opened a law office in San Francisco early in 1850. The following year in Sacramento he went into partnership with Lloyd Tevis, a Kentucky friend who soon became his brother-in-law.

Haggin and Tevis flourished as lawyers and then as investors in real estate, mining properties, and other California corporations, most notably Wells, Fargo & Company. Haggin’s first great landholding was the Rancho del Paso, 44,000 acres just east of Sacramento, which he acquired with Tevis in 1862 in settlement of a legal fee. Haggin developed the ranch for sheep and cattle on higher elevations and grain and hay on the American River bottomlands. Haggin began raising blooded horses around 1870, trotters at first and then thoroughbreds, but did not race under his own colors until 1882. The ranch’s private railroad shipping point was called Ben Ali, as was his colt that won the Kentucky Derby in 1886. Haggin withdrew from racing in 1891, after the death of his son, Ben Ali Haggin, who managed his eastern racing interests and pursued a long financial dispute with other horsemen. Haggin continued as a horse breeder in California until 1905, when he gave up the business as no longer profitable.

From 1872 onward Haggin gradually acquired several hundred thousand acres in the southern end of the San Joaquin valley, eventually incorporating his holdings as Kern County Land Company (1890). After prolonged litigation and legislative lobbying over water rights, Haggin negotiated a fruitful compromise in 1888 that enabled the large-scale and very profitable development of his Kern County holdings.

Haggin knew nothing about mining, but he developed a remarkable talent for identifying those who did. He owned interests in at least sixty gold, silver, and copper mines scattered from Alaska to Peru, often in partnership with George Hearst and Marcus Daly, as well as Tevis until his death in 1899. Haggin was a founder and for many years a director of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in Montana, as well as a major shareholder of the Homestake mine in South Dakota and Cerro del Pasco in Peru.

In 1897 Haggin purchased Elmendorf near Lexington, Kentucky, and gradually enlarged the property to 10,000 acres, the largest Bluegrass horse farm. In addition to breeding thoroughbred racehorses, Haggin raised beef cattle, sheep, and hogs and built a large dairy operation. For some years prior to 1905 he owned more thoroughbreds than any other American horseman.

Haggin’s wife died in 1894, and three years later he married her 28-year-old niece, Margaret Voorhies, known to friends as Pearl. He erected a lavish mansion at Elmendorf for his bride and named the house Green Hills. Their principal residence was in New York City, for he sold his Nob Hill mansion in San Francisco before 1900. Haggin remained vigorous in business and society until a few months before his death, acquiring a rich copper mine in Peru, buying land for a new Fifth Avenue mansion in New York, and building the Ben Ali Theatre in Lexington.

Haggin died at his summer home in Newport, Rhode Island, and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City. His estate, variously estimated between $15 million and $100 million, was left almost entirely to his family. On his death many newspapers remarked that little was known of his private life, although he was called the “greatest mine owner of earth” by the New York Times, which noted that tales of his Turkish ancestry only made his life more glamorous. To the Lexington Herald he “was always a man of mystery.” Many recalled his dark complexion and Turkish appearance, but he would never confirm or deny stories of his ancestry. Haggin was an astute man of business, never the speculator, regarded by many business associates as aloof and silent but always loyal to his friends and true to his word.

Bibliography

There are a number of James Ben Ali Haggin items in the Haggin Family Collection at the University of Kentucky Library, and a few letters and more extensive business papers at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley. There is an extensive clipping file on his racing interests at the Keeneland Library in Lexington, Ky. A biographical source is Lois E. Mahoney, “California’s Forgotten Triumvirate: James Ben Ali Haggin, Lloyd Tevis, and George Hearst” (M.A. thesis, San Francisco State Univ., 1977). All accounts of Haggin’s youth must be treated with suspicion. Ibrahim Ben Ali is described in William Jones, Memoirs of the Life, Ministry, and Writings of the Rev. Adam Clarke (1838), and also the anonymous Life of the Rev. Adam Clarke, L.L.D. (1841). For the water rights dispute, see Lux v. Haggin, 10 Pacific 674 (1886). Haggin was known beyond California chiefly as a horseman, and brief wire service obituaries appeared throughout the nation. There are detailed accounts in the New York Herald, the New York Sun, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Lexington Herald, all 13 Sept. 1914, as well as the Thoroughbred Record, 19 Sept. 1914.