James G. Fair, U.S. Senator

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James Graham Fair

Birthplace: Clogher, Ulster, County Tyrone, Ireland
Death: December 28, 1894 (63)
Lick House, San Francisco, California, United States
Place of Burial: Colma, San Mateo County, California, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of James Hay Fair and Susanna Margaret Fair
Ex-husband of Theresa Fair
Father of Theresa Alice Oelrichs; Charles Lewis Fair; James Fair, Jr. and Virginia Graham Vanderbilt
Brother of Andrew Fair; Edward Fair; Thomas Fair; William Fair; Mary Elizabeth Fair and 1 other
Half brother of Ella Fair

Managed by: Sandra Ann Mead
Last Updated:

About James G. Fair, U.S. Senator

Click here for information about James Graham Fair at Wikipedia.

James Graham Fair (December 3, 1831 – December 28, 1894) was the overnight millionaire part-owner of the Comstock Lode, a United States Senator and a colorful real estate and railroad speculator.

Early life

Born to a poor Irish family in Clogher, County Tyrone, Graham immigrated to the United States in 1843 and grew up on a farm in Illinois. There he received an extensive education in business before moving to California in 1850, where he prospected the Feather River country for gold embedded in quartz rather than pan for placer gold. His attention shifted to Nevada, where he operated a mill on the Washoe River and landed various mine superintendent positions in Angels and other places in the Mother Lode region. He became superintendent of the Hale and Norcross mine in Virginia City, Nevada in 1867.

He formed a partnership with three fellow Irishmen, John William Mackay, and the San Francisco saloon owners James C. Flood, and William S. O'Brien. The company was formally Flood and O'Brien, but popularly known as the "Bonanza firm". The four made large fortunes in shares in silver mines working the Comstock Lode, struck in 1859. It was the first major silver discovery in the United States, producing over five hundred million dollars in twenty years' operation.[citation needed] Although Fair was acknowledged to be a capable mine superintendent and a shrewd businessman, he was not well liked, and carried the nickname "Slippery Jim." He invested much of his income from the Comstock in railroads and San Francisco real estate. Fair and Mackay owned the Nevada Bank of San Francisco, the rival to William Chapman Ralston's Bank of California; after the collapse of Ralston's financial empire, the Nevada Bank was for a time the largest bank in America at the height of the silver boom.

In 1876 he conceived the daring plan of extending his narrow-gauge South Pacific Coast Railroad down the east side of San Francisco Bay, through San Jose and Los Gatos and southward through a mountain route that entailed a 6,200-foot tunnel, another 5,000-foot one and six shorter tunnels, during which some six hundred Chinese workers were employed, among whom thirty-one lost their lives in explosions of coal gas. After Fair's death the Southern Pacific took over his line and converted it to standard gauge.

Political career

Fair was elected by the Nevada legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1881. He was not much interested in Washington, where he promoted silver issues in the Senate at a time when a movement was afoot to demonetize silver. Fair only served one term due to his defeat in the 1886 election. Following the end of his term, he moved back to San Francisco.

Personal life

In 1861 Fair married Theresa Rooney, who had been keeping a boarding house. She divorced him in 1883 on grounds of "habitual adultery" and brought up their four children on her own, with a very considerable settlement. The judgment of the court, handed down on May 12, 1883, was one of the major reverses of Fair's entire career. His 21-year marriage was dissolved. He was awarded custody of his two sons, Charley and Jim, but that was the extent of his victory. Mrs. Fair was granted the divorce and the daughters, Theresa and Virginia, were placed in her charge; she was also awarded the newly bought family home at 1170 Pine Street in San Francisco and one third of their joint fortune: some $4,750,000 in cash and securities. This last was said to have been the largest divorce settlement ever awarded up to that time. Because he had no choice in the matter, Fair agreed "in anguish and despair" to these hard terms and set about the task of carrying them out.

When his daughter, Theresa "Tessie" Alice Fair was married in 1890 to Hermann Oelrichs of Norddeutsche Lloyd shipping lines, in the grandest wedding San Francisco had seen, he remained in his hotel suite without an invitation. He gave her a million dollars as a wedding gift nevertheless (Ferguson 1977 p. 2)

Fair is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California. His will left $40 million in trust to his daughters, née Theresa "Tessie" Alice Fair, Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, and Virginia Graham, later Mrs William Kissam Vanderbilt II and his surviving son, Charles Lewis Fair.

After his death, Mrs. Nettie Cravens came forward claiming to be his wife. She presented her evidence to the court trial, but lost the case. She moved to Iowa and lived in obscurity, spending her last days in a mental institution. Later, another woman, Phoebe Couzins, a women's-rights advocate, also claimed a relationship with Fair.


James Graham Fair was originally buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco. The site opened as Lone Mountain Cemetery June 28, 1854 and was renamed Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1867. Before the creation of Golden Gate Park, the cemetery was a favorite spot for family outings and picnics, with its rambling pathways, grassy knolls, and gardens. It was so successful that during the 1860's three other cemeteries were opened in the area - Odd Fellows', Masonic, and Calvary - but Laurel Hill was known for its prestigious burials, including civic and military leaders, inventors, artists, and eleven United States Senators.

Due to overcrowding and vandalism, Mayor Phelan signed an order prohibiting the burial of the dead within city limits in 1900. As development in the city expanded, the Inner Richmond was also seen as a prime spot for new housing. In 1913 the Board of Supervisors ordered all cemeteries closed and bodies removed, but voters overturned the orders. Nonetheless, the City of Lawndale (now Colma) was incorporated by the Associated Cemeteries in 1924, and the other three cemeteries began to relocate south. Laurel Hill burials were eventually relocated to Colma after 1937, when the Supervisors successfully passed their ordinance. WWII slowed the relocation efforts, which weren’t completed until 1948.

The vast majority of bodies were moved to mass gravesites, and anyone wanting to have decedents privately reburied had to pay for it themselves. Laurel Hill's site is located in Cypress Lawn Cemetery, and called Laurel Hill Mound. Anyone who wanted to preserve a loved one’s tombstone had to pay for it themselves, and those left more than 90 days after the relocation were turned over to the Department of Public Works. They were repurposed for sea wall construction at Aquatic Park, creation of a breakwater in the Marina, lining for rain gutters in Buena Vista Park, and erosion control at Ocean Beach.

Today, James Graham Fair is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, San Mateo County, California.


The Fairmont San Francisco Hotel was built and named after Fair as a grand monument by his daughters, Theresa Fair Oelrichs and Virginia Fair Vanderbilt who built the hotel. Construction began in 1902, but they sold their interests in 1906, days before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The hotel is only two blocks from 1120 California Street, where Theresa (Rooney) Fair had earlier built the Fair's first San Francisco home.

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James G. Fair, U.S. Senator's Timeline

December 3, 1831
Clogher, Ulster, County Tyrone, Ireland
Storey County, Nevada, United States
Virginia City, Storey County, Nevada, United States
Virginia City, Storey County, Nevada, United States
October 18, 1876
San Francisco, San Francisco County, California, United States
December 28, 1894
Age 63
San Francisco, California, United States
Colma, San Mateo County, California, United States