Born of Puritan ancestry on September 1, 1813 in Henderson, New York, Mark Hopkins, Jr. was the son of first cousins Mark Hopkins, Sr. and Anastasia Lukens Kellogg. In 1824, Mark Sr. moved the family to Henderson, New York where he served as Postmaster. The family then moved to St. Clair, Michigan where Dad Hopkins was Postmaster and Probate Judge. Though named for his father, he was never known as ‘Junior’ because his father died when Mark was very young.
When Dad Hopkins died in 1828, his son left school at the age of 16 and obtained a job as a clerk. Starting his career in Niagara County, New York as a clerk, he later moved to Lockport and became a leading partner with Hopkins & Hughes. Nine years later, he studied law with his brother, Henry, and began to move through a number of business ventures.
Love found Hopkins in New York City. On September 22, 1854, he followed in the footsteps of his parents and married his first cousin, Mary Frances Sherwood. The marriage was childless, which after two first-cousin marriages in a row, could have been the result of inbreeding (two of Mark's three married brothers were also childless).
At the start of the California Gold Rush, Hopkins opened the New England Mining & Trading Company. The following year, Hopkins went to work with Collis P. Huntington and formed “Huntington Hopkins & Company.” Numbered among the twenty-six men who invested $500 were two of the soon to be “Big Four”. Hopkins then accompanied the company’s consignment of goods by way of Cape Horn and arrived in San Francisco on August 5, 1849.
Settling in Sacramento after trying a store at Placerville, he formed a wholesale grocery business in 1850 with a friend, E. H. Miller, Jr., who would later became secretary of the Central Pacific. The business proved profitable and in 1855, Hopkins entered a partnership with Collis P. Huntington in the hardware and iron business, a partnership that was terminated only by Hopkins' death in March, 1878.
The relationship between Hopkins, Huntington, Crocker and Stanford (The Big Four) was cemented with the mortar of politics. California's burgeoning Republican Party was chartered at the Huntington & Hopkins hardware store during March 1856. Trouble brewed in the beginning as local Democrats invaded meetings and accosted Republicans on the street shouting "Black Republican!" The future railroaders were in fact abolitionists, as were many of their Republican peers. They knew a contentious platform would not get the party on its feet, thus they chose something more palatable.
During the year 1861, The Big Four founded the Central Pacific Railroad. Hopkins was 49 years old at the time; the oldest of the four entrepreneurs by eight to eleven years. A quiet, retiring man, at times he could be firm in carrying out his ideas. Probably the least known of the “Big Four” and quietest of the group, Hopkins was the group’s cornerstone with his immaculate accounting skills and laid back, honest character. Known as “Uncle Mark,” he was the most financially frugal of the quartet and thus appointed treasurer. It was said of Hopkins that he could squeeze 106¢ from every dollar. Collis Huntington was quoted by American historian Hubert Howe Bancroft as having said, “I never thought anything was finished until Hopkins looked at it.” Bancroft himself described Hopkins as “one of the truest and best men that ever lived.” Each project embarked on by the Four was always submitted to Hopkins for his final approval.
Hopkins’ thriftiness did have its Achilles heel, Mary Frances. Through her persuasion, Hopkins built an ornate mansion on half a city block in the Nob Hill section of San Francisco, California. Construction began in 1875 near the homes of Central Pacific’s other three founders. Before the house was completed, Hopkins’ health hit a slippery slope. Suffering from rheumatism, the cold of winter brought on excruciating pain. Hopkins sought warmth to help alleviate his discomfort and traveled to Arizona. He died in his sleep on March 29, 1878 in Yuma, Arizona aboard a company train. Mary eventually moved into the house, but later lost it to fire as a result of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In its place, the Mark Hopkins Hotel was built in 1926 – known today as the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco.
When Hopkins died at the age of 64, his fortune was estimated between $40 - $50 million ($936,429,897.07 – 2011). After she inherited the estate, Mary adopted Timothy Nolan, the son of her widowed housekeeper, and changed his name to Timothy Hopkins. Prior to her marriage to Edward Francis Searles, Mary disinherited Timothy. After she died, Timothy sued for a portion of the estate and won; however, the bulk of the fortune went to Searles. Timothy went on to succeed in the position of treasurer of the railroad company. In later years, he was a member of the successor group which managed the railroad.