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The Irishmen who Founded Menlo Park, California

Meta, aka, Facebook relocated its headquarters to Menlo Park in 2012. A thousand new millionaires were reputedly creates in San Francisco on the day the company went public.

By the end of 1854, the two Galway men had built a timber house on the Californian cattle ranch. The 659-acre estate lay on the eastern edge of San Mateo County, 30 miles south of San Francisco. A large wooden arched gateway marked the entrance to the property. Spanning its arches was a sign emblazoned with the name ‘Menlo Park’ above the date ‘August 1854’.

Denis Oliver, the elder of the two men, explained that Menlo Park was named after  ‘a lovely place on the bank of Lough Corrib two miles from the Town of Galway, the ancient Town of my nativity and of my ancestors’ in Ireland.

The arched gateway was modelled on a stone archway that stood at the entrance to the old Blake family castle at Menlo, close to which Oliver grew up. Today, Menlo Park is one of the most iconic places in Silicon Valley, not least as the headquarters of Meta, aka Facebook.

Menlough Castle, County Galway, by Mike Searle. In 2013, a Friendship Agreement was signed between Galway City and Menlo Park City in California, with the mayors of both exchanging visitations.

When Oliver and his brother-in-law Dan McGlynn bought the land, Menlo Park formed part of the Rancho de las Pulgas (Ranch of the Fleas), a massive 35,260-acre estate granted in 1795 to Don José Darío Argüello, the Mexican pioneer who founded Los Angeles.

The Mexicans – including the Argüellos – had lost their power when the USA seized control of California in 1847. Many of the new elite in northern California were Irish émigrés who poured into the region in pursuit of gold in 1849.

Denis James Oliver, the son of Bartholomew and Catherine Oliver, was born near Menlo Castle, County Galway, in 1823 and baptized at St. Nicholas Collegiate Church in Galway. He later recalled Menlo as a place where Galwegians went in their droves on the first three Sundays of May to listen to fiddles and pipes and ‘dance on the daisy clad fields’, while youngsters were to be ‘seen on the summits of lofty trees robbing bird nests’ and lovers sought ‘retirement in adjacent bowers’.

He would later speak of a field near his home known as ‘Gort na Marbhe’, the field of the dead, to which large numbers of people, terminally ill with cholera, would come and stand with their agonized bodies open to the cooling breezes from Lough Corrib.

San Francisco harbour at Yerba Buena Cove in 1850 or 1851 — with Yerba Buena Island, and Berkeley Hills, in the background. Daguerrotype, from during the California Gold Rush.

Oliver left Ireland for New York in 1840 and established a paint business with John A McGlynn, another Galway native. In May 1848, he married McGlynn’s sister Bridget. Eight months after the wedding, Oliver and McGlynn decided to take their chances in California where a goldstrike had prompted the famous Gold Rush. Bridget, who was pregnant, remained in New York.

A six-month voyage on the South Carolina, an American clipper ship, brought the two men around the horn into San Francisco by June 1849.

San Francisco began life as a Franciscan mission established by Spanish explorers in 1776 when the region formed part of the Mexican province of Alta California. By the 1840s, the mission had evolved into the town of Yeruba Buena with a lucrative trade in salmon, lumber and fur.

In 1846, the US army invaded Alta California, overwhelmed the Mexican defenders and forced the surrender of the entire province. The following year, Alta California became part of the United States and Yeruba Buena’s name was formally changed to San Francisco.

An early indication of the importance of the Irish to the city’s history came in 1847 when the new mayor commissioned a survey of the town by Jasper O’Farrell, a 30-year-old from County Wexford, who effectively designed much of the present day city centre, including the grand promenade.

The California Gold Rush would utterly change the face of the town. Between 1846 and 1852, San Francisco’s population rocketed up from just 200 people to 36,0000. Like Oliver and McGlynn, the vast bulk of the newcomers arrived in 1849.

One of two portrait of Lola Montez commissioned by King Ludwig of Bavaria and painted by Joseph Karl Stieler.

Among them was Lola Montez, the Sligo-born actress and dancer, who ran a saloon near the gold mines of Grass Valley, California. Perhaps she was a distant cousin of Denis Oliver; her maternal grandfather was Colonel Charles Oliver of Kilmallock, County Limerick.

In San Francisco, Oliver and McGlynn quickly re-established their paint shop, initially operating from a tent pitched in the sands at the junction of Montgomery and Sacramento Streets. They later moved to a brick house on California Street from where they sold paints, oils, glass, varnishes, and artists’ and painters’ materials to the inhabitants of the expanding city.

In his diaries, held by the California Historical Society, Oliver vividly describes “the desolation, dust and high prices of San Francisco”. After six months, he was starting to buckle and made plans to leave. However, he subsequently changed his mind and stayed on. Bridget, who had lost their baby, now joined him, long with her brother Dan who became Oliver’s new partner.

The business kicked into gear and by the end of 1850, Oliver and the McGlynn brothers were amongst the town’s most successful men.

Oliver subsequently went into business on his own, with his younger brother John as his salesman. Disaster struck when the paint store was engulfed by one of several devastating fires that swept through San Francisco.  According to one account, the fire actually started in his store. Undeterred, Oliver reopened his business, which flourished through until his death in 1886.

A contemporary described Denis Oliver as ‘a fine, handsome, gentlemanly fellow’ while another remarked that he was ‘a man of cultured tastes, a lover of art and beauty, reflected in his mansion in articles of virtue gathered while he travelled abroad’. His own identity papers describe him as 6 feet high, with grey eyes, brown hair, a fair complexion and a long face.

Oliver was deeply Catholic and a close friend of many of the city’s clergy, including Joseph Alemany, Archbishop of San Francisco. His Irish roots were also important to him and he was a generous benefactor of the Hibernian Society, as well as catholic charities and church debt funds. Knighted by the Pope in recognition of his services, he was known as the Count in his latter years.

David C Broderick (1820–1859), attorney, was elected as Democratic U.S. Senator from California. Photo: Matthew Brady.

His brother-in-law John McGlynn mixed with rather less salubrious company, being one of the staunchest allies of Dave Broderick, the ‘boss’ of San Francisco. Broderick, the son of an Irish stonecutter, learned his political skills in New York before making his fortune minting dodgy gold coins during the Californian Gold Rush. He fetched up as Democratic Senator for California and held almost total control of San Francisco throughout the 1850s. According to his biographer Jeremiah Lynch, he became ‘the dictator of the municipality’, installing loyal Irish supporters in all the key posts, including John McGlynn, who became San Francisco’s first county recorder in 1852. Broderick’s reign ended in 1859 when he was killed in a duel with David S. Terry, the former Chief Justice of the California State Supreme Court.

In 1854, presumably with Broderick’s blessing, Dan McGlynn and Denis Oliver headed south and purchased what would become the Menlo Park ranch in the San Francisco Bay Area. Just under twenty years later, the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad arrived in the neighbourhood and named the nearby station Menlo Park after the ranch. In due course, the town of Menlo Park evolved around the station.

Named as the second incorporated city in San Mateo County in 1874, it now stands at the heart of the Silicon Valley, the world’s largest hub of technology and new-media innovation. It is famously the headquarters of Meta (Facebook), while Google, Roblox Corporation and Round Table Pizza were all founded here. In 2020, nearly 70% of its 33,500 residents over the age of 25 had an advanced degree, making it one of the most educated cities in the USA.

In 1876, Thomas Edison set up his home and research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, which at the time was the site of an unsuccessful real estate development named after the town of Menlo Park, California. While there, he earned the nickname “the Wizard of Menlo Park”.