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Biography of Eugene De Sabla, "Father of PG&E"

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Excerpted from: Nevada County Historical Society Bulletin, 63:1 Dec 2009

Eugene De Sabla, Jr. was called "Father of PG&E," "leader of the hydroelectric industry," "chief among leading capitalists of San Francisco"-- and an "incorrigible promoter." 1 This biography pertains to his family and personal life. (His career in Nevada County has been documented in the work of Dale Johnson, NCHS Bull.55:3).2 A biographer has stated: "Nothing in the early career of Eugene de Sabla predestined him for the field that became his life work." 3 Perhaps. But his family history pointed the way.

It is true De Sabla got off to a rough start--right here in Nevada County. As early as 1889 he and Alfonso Tregidgo started an ill-fated enterprise named the "Nevada County Development and Improvement Company." Its stated purpose was to "develop mines" and to "light towns and cities with electric lights." It offered $1,000,000 in shares of stock; Eugene bought one share at $10. The company was not a success. Three years later they incorporated under a different name, "The Nevada County Electric Power Company" and made history.

De Sabla traveled all over the county struggling to sell company bonds to local mining interests. Then he went to San Francisco looking for investors. In his own words: "I rang every doorbell in San Francisco's financial district." He then personally canvassed the territory for potential customers. Success was hard-earned. It required vision, energy and determination in the face of obstacles like flooding on the Yuba and the depression of 1893.

Family History4

Eugene's story, however, is not a tale of rags to riches. The de Sablas were both privileged and accomplished--for the most part. Yet Eugene was a man driven by an internal work ethic. On learning he would not inherit from a distant relative, he wrote: " for myself I might have had an attack of heart failure to have gotten something without working for it."

He showed disdain for money spent but not earned: "I am glad Jack got something--by Jove--how he will enjoy himself while it lasts."

De Sabla's great grandparents blessed with wealth and perhaps nobility, lost all in the French Revolution. His grandfather left of legacy in public works and engineering. His ancestors surely contributed some very strong genes. He was six-foot tall, muscular, handsome and had a winning sense of humor--or so it is said. Published articles perpetuate many legends without much proof. Family records are archived at the Library of Congress. Eugene's line from his great grandparents is shown on the next page. Now for the legends:

According to family tradition the head of the family was a Marquis exiled from France during the French Revolution. Forced into exile, they lost their fortune and the lands they had been granted as reward for valor. Jean Baptist had been in charge of the Tuileries when the Bastille was stormed in 1789. He fled with his Family to Martinique in the West Indies. Records show that his son Jacques Joseph Sylvan (called Sylvan by family) settled in Guadaloupe. He was a soldier in the 100 days' service under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The maternal grandfather, Antoine Gallois, was Captain of Grenadiers 66th "demi brigade de lejne," Army de Guadaloupe. The grandparents married at Pointe a Pitre, Guadaloupe where four of their five sons were born. In the 1840s the emigrated to Panama where Eugene's father was born.

By 1843 they acquired over a thousand acres at Bernardino 25 miles from Panama City. Sylvan operated a bakery. He made an unsuccessful attempt to organize a French company to build a canal and railroad across Panama....

DeSabla Genealogy

For the complete article and list of sources, please see the PDF file at EugeneDeSabla.pdf

A few selected sources:
1. Modern San Francisco and the Men of To-day, 1905-1906 (San Francisco: Western Press Association, 1906) p. 73;
2. Dale Johnson, "The Nevada 'Rome' Powerhouse and the Birth of PG&E"
3. Axel Gravender, "The Trail," The Union, Jan. 28, 1956. citing Charles Coleman, PGE of California (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1952 )
4. de Sabla v. U.S., De Sabla Family personal papers and letters, Collection of Canal Zone Library, op. cit. De Sabla Family personal papers and letters, Collection of Canal Zone Library, 1804-1977, U.S. Library of Congress, Washington DC, Box 2.


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