One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco.
By Amy O’Hair
The Poole-Bell House was never quite a mansion, but it was grander than most homes in Fairmount Heights in the early years of the district. It was built in the Italianate style in 1887 by attorney John P Poole; later a top story was added by Teresa Bell in about 1908. Such a fine home was in line with the original aspirations of the investors who laid out Fairmount Heights with generously sized lots—San Francisco’s first suburb, circa 1862. (Read more about the founding of Fairmount here.)
The district was planned to coincide with the building of the San Francisco-San Jose steam railroad in the early 1860s. It was a kind of commuter district; if you could afford the property, you could also spring for the steeper fare for the steam train—more than the nickel for the streetcar. There was a railway depot located nearby to deposit passengers from downtown. Streetcar service did not come this far south until a line was laid on Mission Street to Valencia in 1883.
Later the original large Fairmount lots were subdivided, and smaller, more modest houses went up all over the district, especially after the construction of the electric streetcar line along Chenery Street in 1892. (Read more about that here.)
Still, even as late as 1930, the large Poole-Bell property was basically intact, sitting in an expansive lot on the hillside, with a good view of the growing city. It took a man with a dark past as a notorious Alaska gold-mining claims jumper, to change forever its stately elegance. Robert Nixon Chipps bought the property in 1929. He promptly sold off numerous lots from the large estate to developers for smaller houses, and divided the large aging house into three flats.
Hello Mr Chipps
After buying the property, Robert Chipps changed everything in and around the house. It was a story fit for the Depression years, money-grubbing, make-do, and short-sighted. But he was by then a man with bills to pay, and a wife and six growing children who were accustomed to having the best of things.
Chipps was born in Clinton, Indiana, in 1863, and his parents divorced when he was very young. He lived with his mother until her death. They moved to Chicago in the 1880s, when he was about twenty. He made no waves in these years, working as a laborer. By the turn of the century, he became entangled in a national scandal as the claim jumper of Alaska’s richest vein of gold. This scandalous past spoke to Chipps’ character and presaged his looting of the Poole-Bell property for all it was worth thirty years later.
Alaska Claim Jumper
Chipps played his part in the ‘looting of Alaska’—the Nome Gold Rush conspiracy of 1899-1900. It had national and legal significance, and the story found its way into popular culture, as a novel, a play, and several movie productions.
The story starts in 1898, when Chipps, a 35-year-old single man living with his mother in Chicago, decided his future lay in the gold-rich rivers of Alaska. It was the year of the Klondike gold rush fever, when tens of thousands of men went to the new US Territory in search of free wealth. Chipps, along with twenty or so others, contracted with an English syndicate of investors who wanted the gold without the cold. The contract was to run for a year, and the company paid expenses in return for the prospectors giving them one third or one half of whatever claim they made.
The prospectors sailed north that spring and began working on the Unaclete River, which yielded nothing. They worked there until September, the usual close of the prospecting season, after which everything was too frozen to work. At that point it was well publicized that “three Swedes” had struck a very rich find over at Nome. Hot on the scent of a lucrative source of gold, Chipps went to there with his fellow prospectors. He later related that there was a rumor abroad that the Swedish prospectors who had staked a claim at Nome were not US citizens, and therefore did not have the right to their claim. So Chipps and the others “jumped” the claims at Nome, asserting their ownership.
In June 1899, Chipps grabbed for himself the best of the Nome finds, the Discovery Claim. Unfortunately it turned out that the “three Swedes” who had laid claim to this and other spots the previous summer were actually US citizens. That hard fact did not prevent a cascade of events, initiated by opportunists arriving from the continent, in which these legitimate claims were looted from their rightful owners. The machinations of the plot took place in Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC, over the next year. It was a conspiracy that pulled in even US Senators, as powerful men sought to take control of the rich claims by appointing a compliant judge to adjudicate the case, thus perverting the course of justice.
The Hapless Chipps
Chipps was a minor player in the major scandal that developed and was subsequently exposed over the next two years. More prominent was a wealthy man named Alexander McKenzie, who was politically well connected and who worked to get a Federal judge appointed who would pronounce the legitimacy of the looters’ claims, an appointment to be arranged by the senators under his command.
It does not look like Chipps got much money out of it; when McKenzie in early 1900 had formed a corporation called the Alaska Gold Mining Company, he gave Chipps $750 in cash and a promise of $300,000 in stock in the company, which was funded with $15,000,000 in capital. For this Chipps signed over his jumped Discovery claim, one of the richest sources of gold ever found in Alaska. McKenzie got control of most of the other jumped claims, paying out cash to the looters—although how much, aside from Chipps, was never established. The money came from McKenzie’s unnamed and shady-sounding backers, who had been promised their cut of the spoils.
Ultimately the conspiracy failed, bringing the senators and the judge, Arthur H Noyes, into disrepute and bringing them before the Ninth District Court, the recently formed US Court of Appeals that covered the far western states.
In testimony, Chipps admitted he expected litigation in connection with his claim. He went to Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC, to meet with McKenzie’s contacts, although why he was brought along for these secret conferences “was not clear” to him. He was a passive player in the scandal and his hapless involvement with much more powerful men than himself was pilloried in the newspaper accounts during the corruption trial of Judge Noyes.
The complacency with which Chipps gave his story in court over several days seemed to irk and amuse reporters. His face was reproduced several times, always shaded darkly and looking inanely unflappable. But the testimony was damning; he had blithely participated in a corrupt attempt to rewrite laws in order to profit powerful individuals.
Pop Culture Gold Mine
The scandal was immortalized in 1906 in the novel by Rex Beach titled The Spoilers, which was a top-selling title that year. It was later made into a play and then a movie, five times, most notably in 1942 with John Wayne.
Robert Chipps was a minor figure in the tale—neither heroically righteous nor interestingly evil—and so did not figure in these fictionalized versions of the scandal.
Rex Beach also wrote an account of the factual history of the conspiracy, “The Looting of Alaska,” published in January 1906 by Appleton’s Booklovers Magazine. Due to the legal importance of the precedent set by the subsequent lawsuit, another account dealing with the scandal was published in California Law Review in 1916.
Back on His Feet
Chipps had fallen into the Alaska gold rush late and awkwardly, but he appears to have got some cash out of the adventure. After the trial in San Francisco, the next evidence I find of him is that he has settled in Capella, California, just north of Ukiah, at the end of 1900, the month after his bout of court appearances. He used the name Schipps during these years, probably in order to avoid recognition for his role in the Nome debacle; later he returned to using the original spelling of his surname.
The Merchant of Mendocino
He quickly became prominent in the community in Mendocino County, purchasing property and running a general merchandise shop in Capella. In 1903 he married Martha Finne, the daughter of Louis Finne, a preeminent and well-known citizen of the county and the founder of the first winery in Mendocino. His position as a leading citizen of the area was solidified by the match.
Chipps was by nature an ambitious and enterprising business man; he bought and sold beef cattle and milk cows, and held timberland, supplying wood to county government institutions such as the county courthouse. His business and personal activities were often recorded in the Ukiah Dispatch Democrat during these years.  Chipps was a Democratic Party representative as well, putting him perhaps at odds with his Republican father-in-law Louis Finne. He branched out to selling Studebaker wagons. In February 1907 he sold his general merchandise store in the town of Capella, which was by then a going concern. Later that year he was a delegate to the Democratic State Convention.
At the end of 1909, Chipps relocated his growing family to a large farm in nearby Lake County, where they were recorded on the 1910 US Census. He did business in cattle and property. In 1913, the Yolo [County] Water and Power Company bought a 62-acre tract of land Chipps owned. By then he was called a “prosperous rancher.” He had rebuilt his fortunes and his reputation.
Big City Bound
In 1916, the Chipps family moved to San Francisco. They now had six children between the ages of 12 year-old Audrey and just-born Clay, with Jack, Bob Jr, Thelma, and Betty in between—three girls and three boys.
Once in the city, Chipps did not move his family to a home in one of the better neighborhoods. The first property he bought was on Hanover Street at the far southern edge of SF, near the county line, in the Crocker Tract. The 1920 US Census shows the young family lived there, stating that Chipps was the manager of a fish market.
The family soon moved to the Mission District to a Victorian house on South Van Ness Avenue. The Chipps girls went to visit their Finne Cousins up north, followed by three Finne cousins coming to San Francisco to visit the Chipps family. They kept up their connections in Mendocino County, including retaining property which later two of the Chipps sons oversaw.
The Chipps’ three sons were athletic throughout their lives. In the 1920s Jack and Bob Jr were mentioned in the newspapers for their participation in San Francisco Boys’ Club basketball games. The Chipps girls were mentioned in the social columns.
Robert Chipps had various businesses during the 1920s and 1930s in the Mission District, once being listed under “Chipps and Gallagher,” selling “cigars” at Guerrero and 16th street, the present historic Elixir Saloon. “Selling cigars” was often a cover for liquor sales in Prohibition San Francisco. He also had a business called “Chipps and Baker,” selling oysters at a shop on present location of 16th and Mission BART Station. He was nothing if not catholic in his business interests.
Chipping Away in Fairmount
The conjunction of the Chipps family and the Poole-Bell House begins in 1928 when the property is auctioned off. The ad notes that a buyer might subdivide the property into eighteen choice lots. “Unquestionably a handsome profit awaits.” It was an offer Robert Chipps couldn’t resist. The property was sold to Chipps in September 1929.
Here are two photographs, one from just before Chipps acquired the property, and one after.
Chipps parceled off many lots and sold these away, between 1933 and his death in 1938. New smaller houses began to be built. The result was that the large property was much reduced, with the Poole-Bell House sitting squeezed in from all sides.
He created eleven new small parcels—two to the south of the house, and nine to the north, during the nine years he owned the land. The Chipps children inherited the parts of the original property left at the time of their father’s death, and by the early 1940s they had sold those lots to one of the developers who had been building in the area for some years.
The 1938 and 1948 aerial photographs show the changes then.
The first three additional houses were built on the property in the 1930s, four in the 1940s, three in the 1950s (two of which were rebuilt in 2007).
The last lot was developed later, in 1989, directly to the south (25 on above map). This new home necessitated changes in house numbers. The Poole-Bell House had had the address 198 Laidley Street for one hundred years before this; now that number was needed for this new house on the corner of Fairmount Street, so new numbers were given to the flats in the house (192, 194, and 196).
Living on the Spoils
In the first few years of Chipps’ ownership, the family lived in the house. The 1930 US Census, taken in April at the house, shows Robert and Martha living with their three daughters and their youngest son. While Robert worked away at his project of breaking up the property, his family prospered. By this point his oldest children were moving into adult life. Audrey went to work as a stenographer for Judson Manufacturing Company; Jack was a draftsman working for Punnet and Parez; and Bob Jr was a clerk for California Packaging Corporation.
About then, Bob Jr began his long career as a golfing pro and golf teacher. He used his middle name, Errol, for while, after finally settling with “Bob.” He was frequently mentioned in the Chronicle during the 1930s, first as an amateur and then a professional. In 1931 the Chronicle calls him the “youngster from Ingleside.” Close enough—Fairmount was a fairly obscure suburb then, as it still is for many in San Francisco living north of 30th Street.
Chipps’ son Jack also made a name for himself as a golfer. The brothers were prominent in the Mendocino County world of golf until the end of their lives, Jack being on the Ukiah Golf Club board of directors, and Bob Jr owning a long-running golf school there.
Thelma Chipps graduated from the High School of Commerce about 1929, followed by her sister Betty in 1931. This school was a jewel in the crown of San Francisco’s public school at that time. It provided training for many working-class and immigrant youths, enabling them to get well-paying middle-class jobs, as both these women did. Clay Chipps graduated from Balboa High School in 1933, where he was captain of the basketball team.
The big house in Fairmount was not a very hospitable place for the family. It was an old structure by then, and they had no live-in servants. It was far from a lively commercial neighborhood, and the teen-aged and twenty-something children of the family may have found it isolated. After less than three years, the children and their mother, Martha, relocated to a flat on South Van Ness Avenue, in the heart of the Mission District, an area where they had previously lived. It does not appear from the directories that their father lived with them there.
By 1934 Robert Chipps had the house divided into three flats, one on each floor, and sold the structure to a new owner. Chipps appears to have stayed on Laidley Street while he continued to sell off lots from the property—the last transaction being just months before his death in August 1938.
Although conscious of his social position in Mendocino County, he does not appear to have cared much for the niceties of the social scene once in San Francisco. The other family members were clearly better at navigating their way in social circles. All the children had prosperous lives. Here is a photo taken of the six adult children with their spouses, around 1950, at an important family event held at a fancy club.
The Chipps Legacy on Laidley Street
Robert Chipps bought the Poole-Bell property on the very cusp of the Great Depression. Property values in the city were terrifically inflated. He paid $18,000; by 1940, the owner valued the house, now flats, at $4,500. He is hardly blameworthy for having tried to make the most of his investment, by breaking up both the big lot and the big structure.
Chipps was a hustler and an opportunist in a city that has been awash with his like since the gold-rush days. Resources, natural or man-made, are exploited by those with an eye for the main chance. He worked to provide for his family, doing whatever it took to make money; he started ventures as they were profitable and abandoned them as easily when they ceased to be so. He left his mark on Laidley Street in as much as he milked the large property for what he could get for it.
Ever the claim jumper, he drained away the foundational elegance of the Poole-Bell House—its original condition as a singular residence poised comfortably on a hillside above the city, surrounded by a lot commensurate with its stately Victorian frontage and tasteful high-ceilinged rooms. Chipps’s work changed forever the context and nature of the property.
Now it is a divided structure squeezed on all sides by many smaller midcentury middle-class houses that share the view—urban living for many, instead of a majestic fantasy for few.
- Sources for background and details on the case as detailed in this section on Robert Chipps: Rex Beach, “The Looting of Alaska,” Appleton’s Booklovers Magazine, January 1906. Available here: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks19/1900161h.html; “The Spoilers,” California Law Review, Vol.4 No.2, January 1916. Available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3474736?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents ; and Waldemar Engvold Lillo, “The Alaska Gold Mining Company and the Cape Nome conspiracy,” Ph. D. dissertation, University of North Dakota, 1935. Accessed through Interlibrary Loan, SF Public Library. ↑
- “Chipps is Quite Sure They had a ‘Shade of the Best’ of Miners,” SF Call, 14 Nov 1900; and “Hostile Witness Tells His Story: Receiver of His Own Mine,” S F Chronicle, 13 Nov 1900. ↑
- “He would Not Stay Bought: Chipps Tells How He Sold Himself,” SF Chronicle, 14 Nov 1900. ↑
- Lillo, p44. ↑
- “The Spoilers,” California Law Review, Vol.4 No.2, January 1916. Available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3474736?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents ↑
- Robert Chipps used “Schipps” in the Chicago City Directory of 1900, and in Mendocino, as reported by the Ukiah Dispatch Democrat, in the years 1901-1903. He seems to have stopped using it at the beginning of 1904. ↑
- Aurelius O. Carpenter, Percy H. Millberry, History of Mendocino and Lake Counties, California, 1914. Accessed at Google books. Also Bob Dempel, “The Finne Winery,” The Anderson Valley Advertiser website, 17 Feb 2016, accessed Jan 2020. https://www.theava.com/archives/52894 ↑
- From Ukiah Dispatch Democrat, notices of Chipps’ business activities, from: 1 May 1903; 20 Nov 1903; 11 Mar 1904; 15 Jul 1904; 31 Mar 1905; 27 Jul 1906; 8 Feb 1907. 29 Mar 1907. ↑
- Ukiah Dispatch Democrat, 15 Mar 1907 and 29 Mar 1907. ↑
- Ukiah Dispatch Democrat, 14 Feb 1908. ↑
- Ukiah Dispatch Democrat, 17 May 1908. ↑
- Ukiah Dispatch Democrat, 26 Dec 1913, p8. ↑
- Ukiah Dispatch Democrat, 16 Jul 1926 and 30 Jul1926. ↑
- As per San Francisco Directory listings for them which give occupations and/or places of occupation. Accessed at Archive.org ↑
- SF Chronicle, 3 Mar 1931, p27. ↑
- As per San Francisco Directories for those years. ↑
- People in the photograph: Family gathering at an unknown venue, about 1950: the six Chipps children (and their spouses or dates in parentheses). Front row, R to L: Robert Errol Chipps, (his unknown date), (Betty Chipps), Jack Chipps. Middle row: Thelma Chipps Walton, Audrey Chipps Page, Betty Chipps McLennan, (Judith Chipps). Back row: (Leonard Walton), (Thomas Page), (Don McLennan), William Clay Chipps. From Ancestry.com. ↑