Dr. Samuel Merritt, a native of Harpswell, was mayor of Oakland, California from 1867-1869.
One of the most wonderful features of Harpswell is its people, past and present. Samuel Merritt, who was born in Harpswell, was one of its most unusual and distinguished citizens. Merritt left a legacy that benefits Bowdoin College and other institutions, as well as many people in Maine and California.
Born on March 30, 1822, Samuel was the youngest of five children of Stephen and Joanna (Purington) Merritt. His early life was spent fishing, farming, helping to build ships and getting an education.
Just 21 months before Samuel was born, the new Maine Legislature had created the Medical School of Maine as part of Bowdoin College. The school was successful from its beginning. In 1821, its first class had 21 students. Among its students were the brothers Daniel and Seward Garcelon, from Lewiston. Daniel graduated in 1823 and Seward graduated in 1830. Samuel Merritt attended the Medical School of Maine, graduating in 1842.
Immediately after his graduation in 1830, Seward Garcelon moved to Clinton and practiced medicine there until 1861. On Aug. 26, 1833, he married Samuel Merritt’s sister Catherine.
In 1849, Samuel Merritt began practicing as a physician in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Samuel had a large presence, weighing over 300 pounds and standing 6 feet, 2 inches tall, with a vast mental acuity. In 1849 he completed a difficult operation on a neighbor and friend of the aging statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852), and Merritt and Webster became friends.
Merritt told Webster that he was intrigued by the gold rush in California. Webster, knowing the Merritt family’s experience as mariners and shipbuilders, advised Merritt: “Go out there, young man; go out there and behave yourself, and, free as you are from family cares, you will never regret it.”
In September 1849, Merritt purchased a 140-ton sailing vessel, the brig Reindeer, and filled it with building materials and other provisions he purchased at ports along the East Coast. Merritt had learned that one of the needs of the gold miners and merchants in California was for nails to be used for constructing buildings. Although he tried, Merritt was unable to acquire any nails before he made his voyage.
Webster gave Merritt letters of introduction to several of his friends in the San Francisco area.
In late November 1849, Merritt left the port of New York City. He sailed around Cape Horn and arrived in San Francisco 156 days later. Unknown to Merritt, the first two great fires of San Francisco had occurred while he was on the Reindeer. By then, the gold rush and fires had created an extremely high demand for provisions and building supplies. Merritt had such high offers for his cargo that he was able to far exceed his expectations for a profit. Imagine Merritt standing on the deck of the Reindeer and thinking: “If only I had been able to get nails.”
Immediately after selling the cargo from the Reindeer, he sent the ship up the coast and purchased more supplies to sell in San Francisco and Oakland. He prospered, and by 1852 he had begun building more ships and purchasing land in the Bay Area. In May of 1852, he moved from San Francisco to Oakland. He lived in Oakland until he died.
Dr. Samuel Merritt accompanies author Robert Louis Stevenson aboard Merritt’s schooner, Casco. Front, from left: maid Valentine Roch; Stevenson’s mother, Margaret; Stevenson’s wife, Fanny; and Stevenson. Middle, from left: Capt. Albert Henry Otis and Lloyd Osbourne. Rear: Merritt. (PHOTO COURTESY DAVID C. GARCELON ARCHIVES)
Samuel never completely gave up practicing medicine, but he was a capitalist at heart. He was successful in both shipping and land development.
He was well known and popular in San Francisco and Oakland. He declined to run for mayor of San Francisco, but did serve as the 13th mayor of Oakland from Nov. 3, 1867 to Feb. 18, 1869. Samuel was a generous benefactor of the people of Oakland. In 1867 he gave the city of Oakland 155 acres and assisted in turning the area into what is now known as Lake Merritt.
At one time during his life in Oakland, records show that he owned eight ships, one of which was the three-masted bark Samuel Merritt. He also owned several hundred acres of land.
Samuel was a bachelor. In 1861 he persuaded his sister Catherine (Merritt) Garcelon and her husband, Seward, to move from Maine and live with him. They did, and lived at Samuel’s home in Oakland until their deaths.
In 1879 Samuel decided he wanted time to be able to “get away from it all.” He designed a pleasure fore-and-aft schooner of 74 tons named the Casco. It had an overall length of 94 feet, plus a bowsprit of 35 feet, a beam of 23 feet, draft of 12 feet and a mainmast that was 78 feet long. It was designed to carry six aft and six forward, as well as a crew of five. It was the largest pleasure craft on the Pacific Ocean.
Merritt made several trips to the Pacific islands. In 1877, he rented the Casco and a crew of five, including his nephew Albert Otis as captain, for $750 per month plus expenses, to author Robert Louis Stevenson, who used it to sail from San Francisco to Tahiti.
When Merritt’s brother-in-law Seward Garcelon died in Oakland on Feb. 5, 1877, his estate went to his wife, Catherine. They had no children.
Samuel Merritt died in Oakland on Aug. 17, 1890. His net worth at the time was estimated to be more than $2 million. His will was generous to the extreme, to persons and institutions. He bequeathed both lump sums and annuities to relatives, his ship captains, ship captains’ widows, and others. An interesting lump sum was $10,000 to the Old Ladies Society of Oakland. After the will was administered, the balance of his estate went to his sister Catherine.
Catherine died in Oakland on Dec. 9, 1891. It was estimated that her net worth at the time was between $2 million and $3 million.
Catherine’s will was contested, but the court ruled in favor of her wishes. The will was extremely generous and gave away all of her estate. Like Samuel, she gave lump sums and annuities to relatives and friends, most of whom lived in Maine, particularly Harpswell.
Most notable was $400,000 bequeathed to Bowdoin College in 1891; it funded the Merritt/Garcelon scholarship fund, which still exists today. She also bequeathed $600,000 to the city of Oakland to establish a teaching hospital. Today, Samuel Merritt University and Samuel Merritt Hospital exist as a result of that gift.
Despite his humble beginnings in Harpswell, Samuel Merritt lived a life of great accomplishment and contributed generously to the people and institutions that meant the most to him.
David C. Garcelon and his wife, Kathleen Mackay, live in Harpswell. David Garcelon, a retired land surveyor and historian, is Seward Garcelon’s first cousin, five times removed.