Annual Session leader has golden ancestral ties to 2012 site
October 15, 2012
By Jean Williams, ADA News staff
Atlanta—Digging into the past turned up gold for Dr. Kent Percy, whose family has ties to San Francisco and the site of the 2012 Annual Session.
San Francisco heritage: Dr. Percy’s great-grandparents Thomas Hewes and Anna Lancaster were married in San Francisco Dec. 3, 1855.
Dr. Percy, chair of the ADA Council on ADA Sessions and a general dentist in Kennesaw, Ga., is related to David Hewes, donor of the legendary Golden Spike. The spike was a fastener that was driven ceremoniously into the tracks of the First Transcontinental Railroad, effectively joining America’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Also known as the Last Spike, the copper-alloyed gold spike was an important symbol at the center of a nationally recognized ceremony held at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.
“This transcontinental railroad enabled San Francisco and the rest of California to increase their participation in the economy and politics of the rest of the United States,” Dr. Percy said. “For a long time, San Francisco was the largest city on the West Coast.”
Mr. Hewes was an orphan who became a self-made entrepreneur—making, losing and regaining fortunes in the American West, including ventures in San Francisco, Sacramento and Orange County. As they relate to the ADA Annual Session, Mr. Hewes’ enterprising travails include construction work on the sites where this year’s meeting will happen. His company leveled the hilly terrain ahead of the construction of San Francisco’s business district.
“He started with a wheelbarrow, himself, and one other person,” Dr. Percy said, “And they would go out and level lots for people, so that they could build on them. This was in the Market Street/Financial District area, which included the Moscone Center and the Marriott [ADA headquarters hotel] locations. He built a railroad running up and down Market Street and leveled this area to about 10th Street.
“He took the soil and sand that he removed and used it to fill swampy locations, such as the Mission Bay area, and to extend the Embarcadero further into the bay.” His last project was the 17-acre Civic Center where the beautiful City Hall was built, Dr. Percy said.
An associate and friend of the four businessmen who were the principal investors in the Central Pacific Railroad—including Leland Stanford, governor of California and founder of Stanford University—Mr. Hewes had been invited to join their venture. But, still reeling from some hard financial losses, he decided to pass on the opportunity.
“He just didn’t have the money at that point in his life to be part of this group that was building it,” Dr. Percy said.
But Mr. Hewes was known to be excited about the developing rail system, Dr. Percy said. When it came time to mark the final connection of tracks of the new transcontinental railway, Mr. Hewes asked Leland Stanford, his friend and later brother-in-law, if anyone had offered to provide a symbolic spike, and found that no one had.
“Then he said, 'Well, I’ll take care of it.’ He had a very large gold nugget that he had acquired when he was a merchant in Sacramento and used this,” Dr. Percy said. “So he had the spike made and then also had some rings made from it, which he gave to President Grant, William Seward, the Secretary of State of the United States, Gov. Stanford, of course, and Ames Oakes from the Union Pacific Railroad.”
Among other inscriptions on the spike was “May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”
Ceremonial spikes were common during the development of the nation’s rail system, said Dr. Percy.
“There were probably more silver ones than others, but these spikes weren’t that unusual when they connected a railroad,” he said, noting that it’s the Golden Spike that people remember. “If you mention a spike connecting a railroad, people think of the Golden Spike connecting the First Transcontinental Railroad.”
As for San Francisco, Mr. Hewes’ mark is still imprinted on the city to this day, Dr. Percy said. He’d owned buildings there prior to the 1906 earthquake and fire, but they were destroyed in the catastrophe. Mr. Hewes, who was 85 years old at that time, decided to rebuild.
“He telegraphed relatives in Boston 'Safe, destroyed today; build tomorrow,’ “ Dr. Percy said. “One of the buildings that had been in the Market Square area survived the earthquake.” So Mr. Hewes called on the same builder to erect a structure, located at Market and 6th Street that stands to this day.
The Golden Spike is still around, too, though not in San Francisco. After the ceremony in 1869, it was pulled up and replaced with a standard issue spike. Many years later, Mr. Hewes donated the ceremonial spike to Stanford University.
Besides his cousin David Hewes, other relatives with connections to San Francisco or California include his great-grandparents Thomas Hewes, an attorney and later a judge in Louisiana, and Anna Lancaster. They were married in San Francisco on December 2, 1855. One of their 11 children, Dr. Robert Hewes, graduated from Vanderbilt Dental School in 1906, was an ADA member and practiced in the Los Angeles area.
Dr. Percy’s first visit to San Francisco was in April 1969, en route to Vietnam, where he served as a Captain in the U.S. Army Dental Corps. This was within a month of the centennial celebration of the First Transcontinental Railroad. A genealogy enthusiast, Dr. Percy is proud of the role that his family played in West Coast and American history.