Leland Stanford was born into a well-off farming family in New York state. After passing his bar exam in 1848, he moved to Wisconsin to practice law. In 1850, he married Jane Lathrop of Albany, New York.
After three years in Wisconsin, Leland moved to California, where his brothers had already found success as merchants. Stanford joined them in 1852 and built a profitable business selling mining equipment in northern California. Jane joined her husband several years later.
Leland soon became involved in politics, first as a justice of the peace, and then after two unsuccessful political bids, he was elected governor in 1861. Leland made no effort to separate his political office from his business interests.
As one of the “Big Four” of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR), he helped plan the eastbound section of the transcontinental railroad, and his greatest contribution came in the form of political influence. Despite his responsibilities to the public, Leland helped secure massive state investment and land grants for the railroad project.
When his term ended in 1863, Stanford declined to run for governor again, choosing instead to become president of the Central Pacific Railroad, a post he held until his death. He also served as president of the Southern Pacific Railroad (which was acquired by the CPRR), and he owned many of the construction companies that built the railroad. Later in the century, even as public pressure mounted for government regulation of such monopolies, Stanford’s political connections in California continued to support his railroad business interests.
The immense wealth the Stanfords acquired from railroad building allowed them to live a lavish life. They maintained enormous vineyards and owned a large horse ranch near Palo Alto. In 1885, Leland arranged for the California legislature to appoint him to the United States Senate, where he served without distinction but with pleasure until his death in 1893.
In 1884, fifteen-year-old Leland Stanford Jr., their only child, died while on a trip in Italy. Leland and Jane founded Leland Stanford Junior University in their son’s honor. The university opened in 1891. After Leland’s death, Jane effectively took control of the university, funding and operating it almost single-handedly until her death in 1905.
Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School was named for her in 1985.
Photo: Leland Stanford Sr., Jane Stanford and Leland Stanford Jr. in 1891. Courtesy of the Palo Alto Historical Association/Guy Miller Archives.