Isaias W. Hellman: Pioneer Investment Banker, Part 2, San Francisco Years

Isaias W. Hellman

Values Codes I – H – E – L – P


Isaias W. Hellman FD#1

Isaias W. Hellman, FD#1

The life of Isaias Hellman was of the romantic, not because of its weakly sentimentalizing, but because of the mastery which he displayed in working out a great career from humble beginnings, under adverse circumstances to the honor, respect and love of his fellowman.  In that humble home across the seas in an age when the people of our race knew but little consideration, there began for Mr. Hellman a line of conduct which by dint of his industry, farsightedness and humanity was to bring honor to himself and favor to those who were associated with him.

— Rabbi Martin Meyer, 1920



By 1890, Isaias Hellman was looking to expand beyond the boundaries of Los Angeles.

When he heard that the fabled Nevada Bank in San Francisco, was floundering, Hellman purchased it.

When news spread that Isaias Hellman was taking over the bank, businessmen from across the globe asked to buy stock.

Within a few years, Hellman had turned around the bank and made it one of the leading institutions on the West Coast.

In June 1893, a bank panic hit Los Angeles. Nervous customers ran to their banks and clamored for cash.

Within a day, more than a dozen banks, including Hellman’s Farmers and Merchants Bank, had closed.

When Hellman heard the news, he loaded up an armored railroad car in San Francisco with $500,000 of his own money and brought it to Los Angeles.

He heaped gold coins on the counter of his bank, which immediately calmed people down.

In 1905, Hellman was offered the assets of the banking arm of Wells Fargo & Co.

He merged Wells Fargo with the Nevada Bank to form Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank, and served as its president until his death in 1920.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, Hellman served as president or on the board of 17 banks on the Pacific Coast, and controlled more than $100 million in capital.

He was among the founding members of the California Bankers’ Association and helped push through stricter laws in 1893 concerning capital requirements.


Other Industries

Isaias Hellman was involved in numerous other industries.

He sat on the board of the Southern Pacific Railway, and helped sell $5 million in bonds in 1895 for one of its subsidiaries, the Market Street Railway.

He held a large interest in the California Wine Association, which controlled seven eighths of California’s wine production and distribution.

In 1908, the Association built the world’s largest winery, Winehaven, in Richmond, across the bay from San Francisco.

Hellman invested heavily in numerous water and power companies in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, and helped form the Pacific Gas & Electric Company.


Real Estate

Isaias Hellman also owned a lot of property in San Francisco.

He was president of the Banker’s Investment Group, which controlled one of the largest blocks of real estate in downtown San Francisco — a parcel that stretched 50 feet along Market Street and 40 feet along Kearny.

Hellman lso purchased the 35,000 acre Nacimiento Ranch near Paso Robles.

Civic and Community 

Isaias Hellman was an active member of Congregation Emanu El in San Francisco.

He joined both the Verein Club and the Concordia Club.

In 1908, after Esther’s death, Isaias donated $100,000 to Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco.

He was very active in raising money for the Jews caught in pograms in Russia during World War I.

He donated $25,000 to bring the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition to San Francisco.

In 1917, he gave the University of California $50,000 to set up four perpetual scholarships.

He was an early supporter of the Eureka Benevolent Society in San Francisco.

In 1909, he gave $10,000 towards the construction of a new Los Angeles City Hall.

He donated funds to assist in the construction of the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton near San Jose.

He left $25,000 in his will to the Catholic Orphan Asylum in Los Angeles.



The Hellman Mansion FD#32613

The Hellman Mansion in Pacific Heights, San Francisco, FD#326

Isaias Hellman and his wife, Estherbought a mansion on Sacramento and Franklin streets in the 1890’s, in the heart of San Francisco’s up and coming Western Addition (now known as Pacific Heights).

While walking to work in 1895, a man shot at Hellman with a pistol – and missed. The assailant then committed suicide on the street.

Isaias and Esther purchased two miles of shoreline along Lake Tahoeand constructed the area’s first private mansion in 1903.

The house was Hellman’s favorite place in the world. It still stands, and is part of Sugar Pine Point State Park.

Esther Hellman died unexpectedly in 1908. She was 59.

Isaias Hellman never remarried, and after Esther’s death mostly lived with his daughter, Clara, and her husband, Emanuel Heller.

Isaias Hellman died of pneumonia in 1920. He was 77.

The presidency of Wells Fargo Bank immediately passed on to his son, Marco Hellman, who passed away three weeks after his father. He was just 49, and never learned he had been made president of the bank.

Isaias and Esther are interned  in a large tomb at the Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma, California.

Wells Fargo Nevadan Memorial Book

Wells Fargo Nevadan, memorial book


Isaias W. Hellman had almost reached the end of his 78th year when he laid down his tools and went to a rest that sixty years of unremitting activity had fairly earned him.  For a period nearly twice as long as the life of the average man, Mr. Hellman had lived and worked for the State of California and for commercial development of the Pacific Coast.

The Daily Commercial News, 1920

In the passing of I. W. Hellman one more of the men goes to the beyond who formed the group of dominant minds which directed events and enterprises that have made California an empire.

The Los Angeles Examiner, 1920

Mr. Isaias W. Hellman was a man of sterling excellence such as one seldom meets; a man of remarkably strong self-control coupled with steadfastness of purpose, and an ambition to acquire knowledge on all matters of vital ‘interest. These were qualities which called forth one’s true admiration.

— Max Brandenstein, M.J.B. Coffee, 1920

[Click here for our exhibit on Isaias Hellman’s Los Angeles years.]


  • “1877 Mansion of I. W. Hellman of Los Angeles: An Architectural Story,” Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly 11/4.
  • Joseph D. Lynch, “Isaias Hellman: Banker of the Southland in 1885,” Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly 9/3.
  • “Diary of Isaias W. Hellman, 1911, Part 1,” Western States Jewish History 22/1.
  • “Diary of Isaias W. Hellman, 1911, Part 2,” Western States Jewish History 22/2.
  • “Diary of Isaias W. Hellman, 1915, Part 1,” Western States Jewish History 23/1.
  • “Diary of Isaias W. Hellman, 1915, Part 2,” Western States Jewish History 23/2.
  • “Isaias Hellman: Picture Story #9,” Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly 5/3.
  • Norton B. Stern, “Isaias W. Hellman: Pioneer Merchant and Banker of California, 1842-1920,” Western States Jewish History 38/3&4.
  • Norton B. Stern, “Toward a Biography of Isaias W. Hellman: Pioneer Builder of California,” Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly 2/1.
  • Norton B. Stern, “Isaias Wolf Hellman,” Western States Jewish History 41/1.
  • “Memorial Book of Wells Fargo Nevadian,”Western States Jewish History 44/2.
  • Frances Dinkelspiel, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California (New York: St. Martin’s, 2008).