Monday, October 5, 2009

The Jewish Merchants of Humboldt County

Nan Abrams is the only researcher to have documented and compiled the history of early Jewish settlers on the northern California coast. These enterprising merchants supplied provisions to miners in the mountainous region of Trinity County, west of Redding.

Placer mining (extraction of gold flakes and nuggets from the sand or gravel in stream beds) in Trinity County was joined by hard rock mining of ore in 1889. In 1893 it was reported that using a hydraulic process, gold output of the county remained at a high figure, and as late as 1918, these methods were still employed.1, 2

Here is Nan Abrams' brief chronology of the county's Jewish merchants, from 1852 to the turn of the century.

In the fall of 1849, miners were successfully panning and sluicing gold at Rich Bar, just north of what is now the town of Helena in Trinity County. The difficulty and expense of receiving supplies through the interior from Sacramento or San Francisco prompted Josiah Gregg and L.K. Wood to lead eight men to locate a route to the Pacific, hoping to find a harbor in which to bring supplies by ship. They set out on November 5th of 1849, and on December 13th, after many difficulties and near starvation, the party succeeded in their endeavor.

By spring of 1850 ships were landing at Trinidad and Humboldt bays, and suppliers and other adventurers made their way to the Trinity gold fields using the new trail from the coast. Within a few years, Jewish-owned mercantile shops could be found up and down the streets of the towns they helped create, including Union (later renamed Arcata), Eureka, Rohnerville, Hydesville, Fortuna, Blue Lake and Trinidad.

The earliest record of Jewish merchants is the rental of property in 1852 in Union by Henry Stern to Isaac Manheim, resulting in the formation of the firm of Spencer, Manheim & Stern. Manheim set up several family members in mercantile establishments all over the county, including the towns of Orleans, Hoopa, and Hydesville. Henry and Israel Fleishman were also early residents of Union and operated a mercantile. In 1855 Henry Fleishman traveled to Alameda to wed Miss Helen Goldsmith of New York, in a ceremony officiated by the Rev. (Rabbi) Dr. Eckman.

Augustus Jacoby built a famous Arcata landmark listed on the National Register of historic sites: the Jacoby Storehouse. Fires were commonplace and many businesses experienced devastating loss year after year, but Jacoby’s building still stands because he had the resources and foresight to build his storehouse of supplies for the miners from stone quarried from a nearby river. Census records note that he also owned a hotel.

In Eureka in 1853 a merchant named Moses Sichell closed his mercantile business, and along with his 17 year old nephew, was readying to return to San Francisco with their considerable profits. Some men from the local mill robbed them the night before their departure, murdered the nephew and severely injured Sichell. The men were arrested and hanged. This was the first hanging in Eureka and one of the few historical incidents involving Jews on the northern coast mentioned in other histories of the Gold Rush.

In 1854 Leavey & Company was also situated in Eureka. By 1856 Spencer & Kleiser, and Sinsheimer Dry Goods had stores in Union. In 1856 a Masonic Lodge was organized in Union and Augustus Jacoby, J. Manheim, and J(ohn) Fleishman were among its officers. The Fleishman brothers dissolved their partnership in 1857 and by 1858 Israel Fleishman had opened a store with Sinsheimer.

Rohner and Feigenbaum began their mercantile concern in 1859 in a southeast part of the county called Eel River, and established the town of Rohnerville. Other members of the Feigenbaum family operated businesses in Springville (eventually renamed Fortuna), and one of the Feigenbaums opened a store in Eureka in 1865.

In 1860 a merchant named Harmon Fleishman and his wife Lena took up residence in Arcata with their children. That same year the firms of Rohner & Feigenbaum and Isaac Manheim of Eel River agreed to no longer conduct business on the Christian Sabbath.3 Henry Manheim married Emma, August Jacoby’s sister in 1860.

Mrs. A Goldsmith ran her own mercantile business in Arcata and in 1866 left to return to the east coast permanently.

In 1867 Henry Fleishman and his family left Union and the local paper reported:
“H. Fleishman & Family left the County by steamer to live in the east. Mr. Fleishman was one of the early settlers of this county, residing and doing business in Arcata to the time of his departure. In his business relations he commanded universal respect & enjoyed the confidences of all who he dealt. Socially, few families had won & gathered about them more and better friends.”

That same year, Jacob Loewenthal, a man who was to become one of the community’s highest regarded citizens, arrived in Eureka on October 21 and began working as a clerk for B. Feigenbaum. He established his own clothing store at 2nd and F in Eureka in 1874 and was in business for more than 40 years. The original storefronts are still standing in Old Town Eureka.

A new merchant in town, Joseph Greenbaum, purchased Henry Fleishman’s business in Hoopa and Arcata (housed in Jacoby’s Storehouse) in 1866. Five years later Greenbaum purchased a building in Block 6 in Eureka. On this same block, Henry Reilinger established a mercantile business and was soon joined by his wife’s family, the Galingers and the Greenwalds; the latter who became prominent citizens of Arcata.

In 1885, Joseph L Cohen, formerly with I. Culberg of Arcata, partnered with J.S. Thornton to open a mercantile business and hotel at New River, and is considered one of the founders of the town (now known as Denny).

In Eureka in 1886 H. Reilinger built a store, his brother-in-law, Julius Greenwald, opened his dry goods business on the northwest corner of Arcata Plaza, and H. Cohn & Co. Importers & Wholesale Dealers, were located on 2nd St. One year later Lewis C. Cohen opened the Alhambra Cigar store.

In July of 1861 Augustus Jacoby’s wife, Elizabeth died. Her headstone, pictured above, can be found in the Greenwood Cemetery in Arcata. This possibly prompted Jacoby and his daughter Bertha to leave the county and move to New York. A friend visited them there in 1892 and reported on the good health of both, but shortly after that Augustus Jacoby passed away.

1892 was a banner year for Jewish merchants in Eureka. One could find Steinberg’s Bazaar: Crockery, Glassware, Etc., A. Lazarus: Jewelry & Watchmaker, and N. Kalischer & Co. Dry Goods. J. Levy had a dry goods store on the Arcata Plaza and M. Kalisch & Co: Commission Merchants from San Francisco, did business in Eureka as well.

The Jacobs brothers opened The Red Front and Blue Front stores on 2nd and F in 1897. They were able to keep their stores open on Sunday mornings. In 1902 A. Crocker & Bros. Ladies Clothier was on 3rd and F and Mr. L.J. Greenberg was the manager. Jake Lowenthal opened a store on Main St. in Ferndale.

These names represent fifty years of Jewish merchants from the Gold Rush to the turn of the century. There is no evidence of an organized Jewish community, although in the 1920's a group of Jewish families attempted to start a “Hebrew Social Club.” After the initial newspaper report no further documentation is available, and none of the founders mentioned seem to have remained in Humboldt County. These included F.S. Diamond, Marie Diamond, Mrs. M. Sallan, M. Blum, J. Greenberg, and the Shelly, Powell and Benjamin families.

The Jewish residents who arrived later, sometimes buying into businesses started by these early pioneers, built Temple Beth El in Eureka in the 1950's. It was the only synagogue on the west coast between Ukiah and Portland.


1. G. Chester Brown, Field Assistant. Mines and Mineral Resources of Shasta County, Siskiyou County, Trinity County California State Mining Bureau, Ferry Building, San Francisco, California State Printing Office, 1915.

2. Northwest of Weaverville, La Grange, the largest placer mine in the world, operated from 1862 to 1918.

3. Sunday sabbath legislation was proposed in the California Senate and Assembly and bills were passed in 1855 for “the suppression of amusements and business activity on the Christian Sabbath” but repealed in 1883. The Jewish businessmen, for the most part, supported these laws.