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13th Governor of California, December 9, 1875 - January 8, 1880

Born:  1827, in Butler County, Ohio

Died:  March 15, 1886, in San Francisco, California

Marriage:  Amelia Elizabeth Cassidy (1865), 1 daughter

Early Life

William Irwin grew up in Butler County, Ohio. After graduating from Marietta College in 1848, he taught at the college for two years. In 1851 he went by ship to California, and then on to Oregon where he learned the lumber business from his uncle.



In 1854 Irwin returned to California and opened a lumber yard in San Francisco. Over the next few years he tried other businesses: a lumber mill near Yreka, a slaughter house in the gold country, a livery stable, a stage coach line, and gold mining. In 1866 he became part owner and editor of the Yreka Union newspaper.

Irwin’s public service career began as an assemblyman from Siskiyou County in 1862. In the next years he gained popularity in the northern part of the state, serving as state senator from Siskiyou County from 1869-75. His reputation for honesty during his term as senator earned him the nomination for governor in 1875. Irwin received more votes than the other candidates combined.



When Irwin became governor, the California economy was poor, unemployment was high, and several banks had failed. The Workingmen’s party, formed in 1877 in an attempt to give political power to the common people, blamed much of the problem on Chinese laborers. Though Irwin did not condone the violent attacks on the Chinese in San Francisco, he too felt that Chinese immigration should be restricted.

Governor Irwin presided over the opening of the second California constitutional convention in September 1878. He was not in favor of the revised constitution that came out of the convention, believing that it would do more harm than good. The legislature adopted it over his objections, however, and Irwin proclaimed the new constitution in effect on July 4, 1879.


Later Years

Several years after leaving the governor position, Irwin was appointed chairman of the board of harbor commissioners in San Francisco. When he died in San Francisco at the age of 59, the cause of death was reported as either Bright’s disease or diabetes.


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