MEET HISTORIC FIGURES OF FRESNO COUNTY - Marcus Pollasky

 

No one of them ever attained to the degree of infamy or popular detestation that was attached to the name of the man who was, in the eyes of most Fresnans, was a villian, Marcus A. Pollasky, founder and first president of the long-defunct Pollasky Railroad.

Marcus A. Pollasky, the "bold and beardless boy" as he was editorially called, was no stranger to Fresno when he appeared in the city in February 1891. He had been sent to Fresno from Detroit in 1889 and again in 1890, to make reports on the value of the timber stands in the mountains. These reports, made for the benefit of Eastern capitalists, aroused in some Fresnans, notably in Thomas E. Hughes, the idea of building a railroad over the Sierra, but no plan came to fruition.

Pollasky had hitherto been acting as an independent agent. But in 1891, though the Fresnans knew it not, the affable lawyer from Detroit was in the pay of, or had some financial agreement with, the hated Southern Pacific. The S.P. had been alarmed lest the Missouri Pacific or the Denver and Rio Grande build a line across the Sierra somewhere about the 37th parallel, and thereby offer competition to its own Donner Pass route. Still, the directors of the S.P. were unwilling to spend vast sums building another track up the canyons and slopes of the Sierra if they did not have to, especially if they could get someone else to do it for them. Recalling the enthusiasm of Thomas E. Hughes for promoting a trans-Sierra railroad a few years earlier, they secretly persuaded Pollasky to go to Fresno, to entertain lavishly, and to persuade the Fresnans to begin building a railroad with their own money. Pollasky agreed to the plan.

Upon his arrival in Fresno, Pollasky first bought a large parcel of land, in the 3100 block on East Tulare Street, which he extensively landscaped and on which he built a magnificent home. Here he was soon entertaining members of the high society of Fresno, especially those with money to invest. To these in particular he confided his great secret and offered to let them in "on the ground floor."

The newspapers soon buzzed with the good news. Fresno was to be, at long last, the terminus of a great transcontinental railroad! Marrcus Pollasky was a smooth operator. By means of well placed hints, of stories left only partly told, and by his personal magnetism and suave appearance, he inveigled a great many prominent Fresnans into subscribing large sums of money for a fund to secure a right-of-way from the eastern part of Fresno to the San Joaquin River at Hamptonville, from which point the railroad was to begin the ascent of the Sierra. Thomas E. Hughes invested a considerable sum, and so did J. D. Gray, Fulton G. Bercy, and others. The total subscribed was close to $100.000.

On February 23, 1891, the San Joaquin Valley Railroad (the third railroad to bear this ill-fated name) was incorporated, with Pollasky as president and Hughes as vice-president. The spring months were spent in obtaining additional funds from other Fresnans. On July 4 a ceremony was held for the start of construction, with Hughes throwing the first shovelful of earth, and making a glowing, prophetic speech.

Track laying was begun at once, and rapid progress was made towards Hamptonville. The route ran for a short distance out East Tulare Street, starting from a depot on the southeast corner of First and Tulare Streets it then continued over a right-of-way along present-day Mc-Kenzie Avenue as far as Clovis Avenue. There it turned north, past the newly established community of Tarpey to Clovis. North of Clovis the road turned northwest and wound its way across the plateau towards the river, aiming at the small community of Hamptonville.

On November 25, 1891, even though the crews still had half a mile of track to lay before reaching that community, a special excursion train left Fresno for Hamptonville, the name of which was formally changed to Pollasky at this time, in honor of the president of the wonderful new railroad. A barbecue picnic was prepared at Pollasky for the excursionists, with plenty of liquid refreshments to fortify them after the half-mile hike from the end of the track. The train arrived as scheduled, filled with prominent Fresnans, some of them ardent believers in Pollasky, others still unconvinced skeptics. A few of the latter noticed that the grading equipment and surveying instruments along the right-of-way bore the initials "S.P." and they asked Pollasky what this meant. "Those belong to my brother, Sam Pollasky," replied the quick-witted Marcus. "He is a construction engineer. 'We ran short of tools and I had to borrow some from him."

This reply, like so many others made by the "bold and beardless boy," silenced the skeptics for a while. They had their day, however, when, a few weeks after the track reached the town of Pollasky, all work on the road ceased, and the citizens of Fresno found that Marcus Pollasky had closed up his house and had departed for parts unknown, leaving, says historian Winchell, "a disillusioned and wrathful community to execrate his memory."

Source: Fresno's Past and Present Journal V. 5 No. 2 1963. Railroads in Fresno County by Raymund Wood

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