Matthew Hall McAllister
In 1850, and few yards offshore from the eastern end of Savannah’s Yamacraw Bluff, forty-nine-year-old Matthew Hall McAllister sailed down the river on his way to the boomtown of San Francisco. In five years, a street less than one-half mile away would carry his name. The smell of salt air and marsh mud hanged on the air as he saw visions of shining gold nuggets beyond Savannah and beyond the horizon three-thousand miles to the West. He had given up on the city of his birth. For the Georgian and local leader, it is time to move on. Fifteen miles to the south, on the Ogeechee River at Strathy Hall, were his cousins who would make history later, That branch of the family would be known for Fort McAllister and the end of the Union Army’s march through the state. Hall, as he was known, would stay in touch and for the meantime, the family ties will reach over a continent and remain.
After serving in the State Senate, Hall ran as a candidate for Governor of Georgia. He lost. He had served as mayor of the city a few years earlier, and as far as credentials go, his were admirable. In 1799 his father had been mayor and had presided over the dedication of a new Exchange Building at the end of Bull Street, a milestone in the city’s history that ushered in an age of prosperity. On his mother’s side, his grandfather, Thomas Gibbons, had also served in the office. Savannah was Hall’s birthright, a part of the genetics of his family. McAllister’s family roots may have tangled and interwoven through the city’s history, but now they were balled up, stashed aboard ship, migrating to California where a new life beckons. The West had called, His golden illusion wasn’t in the placer and hard-rock, yellow metal that others were seeking. For him, it was in the law and litigation and legislation that controlled legal tender. Gold may be where you find it, but law books and their content are where you find the real riches, power, and influence. His wife and children traveled with him to settle in the new boomtown on the bay but Georgia politicians convinced him to sail home for one last attempt to gain a US Senatorial seat. But, again, he lost.
By that time of his first voyage Savannah’s edge-of-the-river, War-of-1812 ditch and parapet at Trustees’ Garden had eroded and had filled with sand and discarded household debris. In the layers of trash and litter were fragments of butcher-cut bone, glass and ceramic shards, unrecognizable decayed nodules mixed between carbon lenses that tell of the firing of tossed household trash and plant clippings. At the top of the slope on the West, the British Revolutionary War trenches had filled with discarded bricks, metal, and trash. Times of war were behind. The need for defenses was out of mind and slowly filling out of sight.
As he sailed past, demolition work was underway to dismantle old Fort Wayne, a stronghold named for General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Shovel by shovel, portions of the earthen stronghold disappeared the same way others on the site had in years past. As it stood, it’s a sickle-shaped earthen structure stretched one-hundred yards long arcing from the southwest to the northeast along the edge of the bluff. The “handle” section stood halfway down the slope in the center of the Trustees’ Garden, pointing to the intersection of Randolph and Broughton Streets. The blade-shaped structure led from the handle, around the bluff northward, arcing toward the intersection of Bay and East Broad Streets. The partial demolition of the fort was for progress, to take the city into the future with Savannah’s new manufactured gaslight plant. Some of the earth from the fort would fill a small terrace to hold a Gasometer tank that would rise and fall, expand and contract, regulating pressure and distributing fuel to the homes of the area. Reynolds street, laid out three decades prior to the American Revolution, was being rerouted around the bulkhead before it proceeded north to intersect Bay Street below the bluff. Gas was the modern way, the progressive way, the future for lighting, for cooking, and for heating. It epitomized the birth pangs of the industrial revolution, and Savannah is on the crest of the wave.
When Hall returned to run for the Senate, he sailed back by the site, the gas plant he saw had expanded to meet the need of the booming cotton and naval stores port. A new wall engulfed the first, looping from Bay Street, around and into the heart of the Garden intersecting with Wright Street that would become a drive and parking area for the Pirate’s House Restaurant a century later. Fort Wayne’s earthen mass was shoveled into the terrace and surrounded by a masonry wall, erasing the fort with only one brick-structured bombproof to tell of its existence though partially hidden. Except for the protective wall, the old fort is completely gone, recycled into a new fortress-looking bulkhead. During the excavation, crews found three discarded cannons from the Revolution era. Years later, gas workers would place them along the parapet creating an unintended prank that confused future generations into calling the wall, “Old Fort Wayne.” Paradoxically, the fort does remain composed of the sand-layered fill in the elongated, square enclosure. Two additional gasometers had sprung up, dominating the skyline of the bluff.
For Hall, the return was frustrating. After his loss, he again pulled his stakes and sailed for California. As he again passed Trustees’ Garden, the Savannah Gaslight Company facility is running at maximum output providing gas for cooking, heating, and especially lighting. The shanghai-prone waterfront of his embarkation was a priority for the City and for gas. Wharf lighting was universally embraced in an attempt to stop the epidemic problem of the kidnapping of citizens and drunken sailors that awoke to find themselves aboard ships, miles from home. When Hall entered the Golden Gate of San Francisco Bay on the other side of the continent, he found that three Irish immigrants, the Donohue brothers, had built gasworks there as well. Their venture formed the first manufactured gas company on the West Coast using imported Australian coal to fire the ovens. San Francisco, like Savannah, was growing.
In two years, Matthew Hall McAllister left his impression on his new home and became revered in San Francisco’s history. Few know of his connection to Savannah and his family history in the east. That historical mark was made when he was named the first judge of the Federal Ninth Circuit Count. His likeness is now enshrined in a bronze sculpture that stands near front steps of San Francisco’s City Hall. A few yards away is statue commemorating Abraham Lincoln. During the first year as a Federal Judge, he would meet and work with a young banker and Major-General of the California State Militia. They would help put down the San Francisco Vigilance Committee, a group of revolutionary elites formed to defy the law and take power in the city. The young banker-general would visit Hall’s hometown a few years later. Generations will remember and revile the day when William Tecumseh Sherman marched across Georgia and came to town.
Survey of footing-soil stratification at Trustees’ Garden, J Byous Company/A.T. Dowd Research, 2015.
Remediation of Former Manufactured Gas Plants and Other Coal-Tar Sites, Allen W. Hathaway, CRC Press, 2012.
The Story of the Ninth Circuit Court, San Francisco Call, Volume 78, Number 35, 5 July 1895.
Law in the West, edited by Gordon Morris Bakken, Brenda Farrington, Garland Publishing, 2000.