Purdy Pharis – Shingle King

Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 4/1989

Of all the early Mountain settlers, to me the most fascinating is Sheldon “Purdy” Pharis – for many reasons. Not only was he among the County’s early settlers, but back then, perhaps its most famous. His was a classic 19th century rags-to riches story, ending as the county’s largest landowner. He funded our school, scavenged our forests, cut our trees, pioneered an industry, and finally, died in mystery. All here! But it started with his birth on a New York farm on March 22, 1828.

He arrived in San Francisco by boat on February 22, 1853. After wandering around California for eight months he found himself quite literally lost in our canyons – probably somewhere just southeast of Tunitas Creek. In those days being out alone was dangerous, because of grizzly bears, but somehow the experience of being lost in the wilds overnight turned Pharis into a Mountain man. He never left.

Starting with nothing but an axe, a saw, a “froe” and a mule, Pharis “shingled” the “bolts” that had been left behind by lumber seekers, like a parasite. He carried his shingles on mule back to Redwood City. In this humble way he started like many shingle men. But unlike others, he frugally reinvested in his business adding more mules and better gear. In 1863 he built his first mill on “his own” first 320 acres – in Deer Gulch – just east of the northern-most part of what is now Star Hill Road, close to the headwaters of Corte Madera Creek. Its top capacity was 30,000 shingles per day. By 1870 he expanded into Purisima Creek with a mill capable of 100,000 per day. By his death in 1883 he had built six mills, owned more than 6,500 acres and had made in excess of 300 million shingles. That’s 300,000,000 in a county with only 5,000 registered voters (men only, of course). His land holdings were essentially half the mountain – all funded from his frugality and, as we shall see, his creativity.

B.F. Alley’s 1883, History of San Mateo County, coincidentally written the year of his death, listed him as the largest landowner in the county. But he was much more. Within the logging industry he was noted as an innovator, starting with the simple process of gulching out shingle via mule, and finally leading the way into “donkey engines” ,”cable runs” and fancy blades. Mill vendors nationwide cited him as a reference in their ads. And lumber yards statewide referred to the “Shingle King.” It was bis innovations and frugality that created the efficiency leading to the profits that fed his fortune.

Personally, Pharis was a generous but eccentric hermit who never married, so he had no children. But when our first ramshackle school at Summit Springs burned down in the early 1870s, he gave us the land and lumber for a new one. When that one burned down, at some undetermined later date, be re-schooled us one more time. Continually from 1874 until 1912, long after his death, our children attended the Pharis School District. As his fame and fortune grew, he lost his mental stability, and according to official records, at age 55, killed himself. The coroner’s jury, including men of local import like W.W. Durham and Alfred Fay (of whom we shall hear in future blogs), and most importantly, legendary Robert Tripp – they all agreed he shot himself. But it was all based on his increasingly wacky behavior and the harmonious testimony of the two men most local folks thought had together murdered Pharis – Hiram Haskins and Emanuel Stevens. Haskins, a rough and tumble former stage driver and Pharis’ nearest neighbor (living on the south side of Star Hill Road – what was recently called “Alan Hoskins’ barn” ) , may have been conducting a campaign to convince folks of Pharis’ lunacy with the plan to use that as a screen to mask murder.

Haskins and Stevens, a friend of Haskins’, supposedly slept at Pharis’ house that night, despite the fact that Haskins lived only a few hundreds yards away. According to Stanger’s Sawmills in the Redwoods, “That night, after Mr. Pharis had gone to his bedroom, the two guests heard a sound “like the dropping of a boot on the floor,” then moaning. They called out, asking him if he was sick, but he said “No.” Early in the morning, the two heard moaning again. They then broke open the door and found him on the floor, dying, his own revolver in front of him, with one of the chambers having been fired and the others still loaded.” The suspicions of murder centered on the facts that the bullet entered his brain from the rear, which is rare for a suicide-that Haskins’ story of spending the night may have been concocted and no one would know otherwise – that an old fashioned gunshot in a tiny secluded house would sound very much louder than a “boot dropping” – that Haskins was known for local strong-arm tactics including cattle theft – that from then on Haskins packed a six-shooter, making him suspicious – and finally, motive – that Haskins picked-up much of Pharis’ land cheap from the churches and few eastern relatives to whom Pharis’ estate left it.