Fresno’s hallowed ground of history exposed

April 14, 2017

John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Then: James Faber pitched a tent near this spot in April of 1872, becoming the first merchant and resident of Fresno.

In early February, the old Greyhound bus station, on H Street, between Tulare and Mariposa streets, was demolished, with the site cleared to make way for the High Speed Rail station project.

The large dirt lot, exposed for the first time in decades, may look just like a dirt lot, but is actually, hallowed grounds for Fresno history.

It was here in April of 1872, that 27-year-old Ohio native, James E. Faber hastily pitched a 14×16 foot tent and set up a primitive general store near the small, wood framed, Central Pacific Railroad depot, built a month earlier.

With this, Faber became the first merchant and permanent resident of the pioneer settlement. He first sold goods to rail workers, who were temporarily housed in boxcars as the Central Pacific drove its line down the valley.

First named Fresno Station, this was the spot on a vast, treeless expanse, called the “Sinks of Dry Creek,” that Central Pacific choose for a new townsite. This is where Dry Creek, Fancher Creek and others creeks in runoff years would end their flow on the lowest spot on the sandy plains.

Adventure ran in Faber’s blood. He was born to middle class parents, in 1844, at Oxford, Ohio. At 16 he ran off to join Union forces fighting in the Civil War. His father tracked him down and took him back home and sent him to school in Cincinnati, only to later have him run off and join up again. He was wounded in battle, but rejoined after his recovery, for the third time.
After his discharge, he joined a 86-team wagon train in hopes of striking it rich in the gold fields of Montana. En route the train came under attack several times by Sioux and Blackfoot warriors. 32 men in the wagon train were killed before reaching their destination.

After a two years, with his gold seeking panning out, he moved to California to try ranching in what would become Madera County, locating on the Alabama Settlement colony near the now-ghost town of Borden.
After two years of failed crops, he turned to hauling freight, from Stockton to Borden, Jones Ferry and Millerton.

Ever looking for an opportunity to make money, he eyed Sycamore (at freeway 99 and the San Joaquin River), a bustling Central Pacific Railroad construction camp on the San Joaquin River, where a railroad bridge was being constructed, and considered by Central Pacific to be a potential townsite. On a visit, he caught wind of a rumor circulating among the rail workers that the railroad would establish a townsite about eight miles southeast.

Always a gambler, Jim Faber saw the opportunity and wasted no time in securing goods at Stockton: a large supply of dry goods and barrels of whiskey.

But because of a Central Pacific regulation prohibiting the delivering of freight past Merced (it was still technically a construction line), it looked like Faber was out of luck.
With some ingenuity on his part, he found a sympathetic conductor, and a secretive agreement was made, and the plan was underway. His illicit goods were hidden under a shipment of construction supplies in a box car, with the agreement that the Faber’s supplies could be delivered only before the train reached Fresno Station, to not arouse suspicion from the CP construction supervisor. Under the cover of night, bundles, crates, and kegs of whiskey, were dumped off on to the sandy plain from the slow-downed train, scattering the goods for a half mile, north of where present day Belmont Avenue crosses the tracks. It took Faber two days to gather and move his scattered goods to tent. Then he was open for business.

Next, things just exploded in growth in what was described as a “lively camp.” Along with the grading and track laying crews, a large water tank arrived, loads of lumber, and with it, teams of carpenters. The town was on its way.

Central Pacific put up an eating house next to the tracks on what would become Tulare Street. Near this at northwest corner of Tulare & I (Broadway), would be Fresno’s first bar, Faber’s “Senate Saloon.” The Fresno Expositor said that the Senate had a choice selection of “eyeopeners” and “eyeshutters” to suit all demands. And what was to be common with him, he sold out, and moved on to more ventures, among them, opening Fresno’s first oyster house, then was employed by the railroad as a night ticket agent and baggage man.

By 1874, Fresno became the county seat most Millerton citizens and merchants had moved there. Some took their homes apart and hauled them to the townsite and rebuilt them. By the end of that year, there were 100 buildings, 60 which were dwellings. The population by the next year was about 600.

Water was brought in by train early on, until Anton Joseph Maassen, who served meals out of a rough board shack he put up, dug a well. Using pick, crowbar, shovel and muscle, chiseling through the valley hardpan, he hit water 50 feet down. For his hard labor, he charged what seems like a bargain, 25-cents for two buckets full of water. Later, and akin to an early day Baldassare Forestiere-type digger, he also dug a 40-foot-deep pit that opened into a subterranean cellar bar, where patrons could escape the heat and enjoy their choice of beer and liquors, under his hotel.

In 1873, Faber married Mary Whitney of Millerton. He built their home, where they had a son, William, on J (Fulton) and Mariposa streets near the site of present day Helm Bldg.

As mentioned, he moved into many ventures: along with running the saloon, he ran a restaurant, a general store, a bakery, joined land ventures, acquiring hundreds of acres in his name. In later years, asked of all of his diverse ventures, he said “it’s all in the game.”

Along the way he succumbed to wander lust, traveling extensively into British Columbia, Arizona, Sierra Nevada mountains, prospecting for gold. He made at least fifty hunting trips into the Mt. Whitney/Mt. Goddard county, leaving for months at a time.

In 1903, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and a park, Commercial Park, was built on the site where Faber first pitched his tent. At the park in the early 1920’s, an elderly Faber showed a Fresno Republican reporter the spot, a large tree then marking the location. In later years, the Native Sons of the Golden West placed a plaque on the Chamber of Commerce building commemorating fresno’s first business. The building was torn down in 1959, to make way for the bus station.

Spry even into his elder years, he died in 1930 at 86, in Hayward, California.

Other than in history books, Jim Faber’s name is a a bygone memory. In 1964 during the Fulton Mall construction, a city committee suggested to the city council the renaming of H Street to Faber Street, but it was rejected. In the Fresno Bee story on the name-change proposal, “Ordinarily, it could be expected some landmark would bear the name of so important a first arrival to the community. But not even an alley can be found to commemorate James E. Faber.”