Darius Ogden Mills

Portarit of Darius Ogden (D.O.) Mills

D.O. Mills’s reputation for honesty and integrity helped earn him great wealth as an early California banker. Image courtesy: Millbrae Historical Society

Darius Ogden Mills (1825-1910), a Gold Rush adventurer, sailed from New York to California in 1848 at the age of 23.  He tried mining for gold but soon abandoned that effort, deciding instead to focus his energies on “mining the miners.”  After one year as a shopkeeper Mills turned an initial $5,000 investment into $40,000 of profits.1  On his next trip to New York, Mills brought back another item that was much needed in Gold Rush California: a large safe.  With his reputation for integrity and the reassuring presence of his large safe in the store, miners began to deposit their newfound gold with Mills, and the Bank of D.O. Mills was formed.

In 1864, The Bank of California opened with Mills serving as President.  The bank financed several mining operations in the Comstock Lode and soon became California’s leading bank.  The Virginia and Truckee Railroad Company, in which Mills had a major stake, transported the ore to processing plants and to the transcontinental Central Pacific Railroad line in Reno.

Jane Templeton Cunningham Mills

Jane Templeton Cunningham Mills died in 1888, after a long illness.  Her husband D.O. Mills was a widower for 22 years until he died in 1910. Image courtesy: Millbrae Historical Society.

In the mid-1860s, Mills and his wife Jane built a huge 44,000-square-foot country home on their 1,500-acre mid-Peninsula estate that they called “Millbrae.”  Perhaps the most infrequently visited and least used of all the mid-Peninsula estates as a permanent residence, the Mills mansion remained intact for the longest period of time – from the mid-1860s until the mid-1950s.  When Mills family members came for a visit, the arrival of special trains filled with family members, buses, automobiles and an array of servants was always a sight to behold for mid-Peninsula residents.

After his retirement and return to the East Coast, D.O. Mills built three hostels for poor men in Manhattan.  The hostels were closed during the day to encourage the men to seek work. Two of the hostels still stand today: Mills House No. 1 is located at 160 Bleeker Street and Mills House No. 3 at 485 Seventh Avenue.  After renovation, Mills House No. 1 now houses luxury co-ops.

By the end of the 1930s, the aging Millbrae mansion was outliving its usefulness as a vacation home for the extended Mills family.  During World War II, the Mills Estate allowed the mansion to be used to house merchant seamen on leave from active duty.  After the war, the Mills Estate decided to sell the mansion and what was left of the surrounding property.2  Mills had five grandchildren:  two boys and three girls.  By 1947, both grandsons had died.  Of the granddaughters, two were living in Europe married to British aristocracy and the third was married to Henry Carnegie Phipps and firmly entrenched on the East Coast.  There was no need for an aging California mansion among the beneficiaries of the Mills Estate.

Mills Estate from the Air

An aerial view of the Mills Mansion surrounded by trees in 1953.
Image courtesy: Millbrae Historical Society

The sale of the property commenced a long and protracted development battle on the mid-Peninsula.  Both the City of Burlingame and the newly incorporated City of Millbrae claimed the estate.  The culmination of almost eight years of litigation resulted in a compromise:  Burlingame would receive the land south of the mansion and Millbrae would receive the land upon which the mansion sat, as well as land to the north of the mansion.3  Then, the purchaser of the property, Los Angeles developer Trousdale Construction Company, began more battles with the Cities of Burlingame and Millbrae regarding how the property would be developed.  Many local residents advocated for saving the mansion for some public use.  Others wanted to retain at least a portion of the estate’s mature trees, unique plantings and private lakes.  The developer grew impatient and testy.

Any hope for reuse of the mansion was extinguished in June 1954 when a fire started at the mansion.  Virtually everyone living in Burlingame or Millbrae at that time remembered the fire, with flames that shot 150 feet in the air.  Within two hours nothing was left of the once-stately mansion.  The Millbrae fire chief “discounted rumors the mansion was set on fire purposely to dispose of it.”4  But due to the rapid spread of the fire and the curious timing of it—occurring as it did right after the developer’s angry outburst at Burlingame’s city hall—others remain convinced that the cause was not accidental.  It was an inglorious end to one of the last remnants of Burlingame’s Gilded Age.

Aerial Photo of the Mills Estate Stripped of Trees

The developers of the Mills Estate demolished the mansion and stripped the hills of all vegetation.  Image courtesy: Millbrae Historical Society

The bulldozers came to strip the hills bare.  Mr. Mills’s garden, that once contained exotic plants from around the world, became a memory.  Today, the only tangible reminder of the once-famous botanical collection is the name of a short street, Garden Drive, lined with apartment buildings.  As the late local historian Frank Stanger noted, the property that “was finally divided was not the Mills Estate as we knew it, for it had ceased to exist . . . [it] had vanished without a trace, leaving only a leveled plain of bare clay . . . there can be no better example of what not to do where historic values are concerned.”5

D.O. Mills died at his Millbrae estate in 1910 at the age of 84, leaving a fortune valued at between $36 and $60 million.  He is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York.  The huge stained-glass window at the back of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church (facing El Camino Real) was donated in honor of Darius Ogden Mills.  The Mills Family were major donors to the rebuilding fund after the first Howard-financed sanctuary was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

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1 Schweikart and Doti, “From Hard Money to Branch Banking:  California Banking in the Gold Rush Economy,” California History (Winter 1998/99): 215.
2 Portions of the original 1,500-acre estate had already been sold in the early 1940s to create the housing subdivisions known as Burlingame Village and Ray Park.  For more history on the Mills Estate and its development see Burlingame Centennial 1908-2008.
3 The site of the mansion was near the present-day site of Spring Valley Elementary School on Murchison Drive in Millbrae (diagonally across from Mills High School).  An historical marker in the parking lot of Spring Valley Elementary School is all that remains of the once magnificent mansion.
4 “Mills Mansion Burns,” Burlingame Advance-Star, June 23, 1954.
5 Stanger, “Burlingame . . . Was Something Special,” La Peninsula 9, no. 5 (1958): 17.