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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: Stanford University

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In 1891, Stanford University in California opened its doors after being founded by Leland Stanford and his wife Jane in 1885 with a $40M donation ($1.2B in today's value) in memory of their son. The institution opened on Stanford's previous Palo Alto farm.

Amasa Leland Stanford was an American industrialist and politician. After starting his career as a lawyer, in 1852 he moved with his five brothers to California during the California Gold Rush. After briefly returning to Albany, he and Jane moved to Sacramento in 1856. He was one of the four businessmen known popularly as "The Big Four", or among themselves as "the Associates", who were the key investors in the Central Pacific Railroad.

A member of the California Republican party, he lost in his first run for governor in 1859 but won in 1861, serving for two years. Because of the Great Floods of 1862, it was rumored that he traveled to his inauguration via rowboat. During his tenure as governor, he cut the state's debt in half and advocated for the conservation of forests. He oversaw the establishment of the California's first state college in San Jose, later to become San Jose State University.

In 1868, he joined several other businessmen to form the Pacific Union Express Company. It merged in 1870 with Wells Fargo and Co and Stanford served as a director of Wells Fargo from 1870 to 1884. in May 1868, he started the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company, which is now known as Pacific Life.

As head of the railroad company that built the western portion of the "First Transcontinental Railroad" from Sacramento eastward, Stanford presided at the ceremonial driving of "Last Spike" in Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869 and was given the honor of driving in the final spike.

Stanford and his family moved from Sacramento to San Francisco in 1874, where he took over as president of the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company, the steamship line to Japan and China associated with the Central Pacific.

Stanford served in the United States Senate from 1885 until his death in 1893. He continued to serve as president and director of the Central Pacific Railroad the entire time he sat in the Senate. His focus as Senator was on ideas advocated by the People's Party, including a bill to foster the creation of worker-owned cooperatives.

With his wife Jane, Stanford founded Leland Stanford Junior University as a memorial for their only child, Leland Stanford Jr., who died as a teenager of typhoid fever in Florence, Italy while on a trip to Europe in 1884. Stanford's first student, admitted to Encina Hall that day, was Herbert Hoover, who went on to become the 31st US president.


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