James Alexander Smilie and Isabella McDonald Smilie
photo from McElrath Family Private Collection

James Alexander Smilie (April 22, 1851 – August 19, 1914) was born on a farm outside Montreal, Canada in 1851, and came to the U.S. in 1875.

He returned to Canada and married Isabella Lawrence McDonald Smilie January 31, 1851 – April 6,1931) in 1881. They had four children: Charles M. Smilie (December 31, 1881 – November 2, 1918) Euphemia (”Effie”) Innes Smilie (Huffman) (April 26, 1883 – January 23, 1972), Elizabeth Cameron Smilie (Brown) (December 20, 1886 – October 15, 1918) and Mary Isobel Smilie (McElrath) (November 23, 1888 – February 28, 1974).

When he came to Oakland in 1875, he joined the new firm, Haskell & Smilie, and helped build the Dunn Block. Mr. Smilie was a prominent contractor in his day and built many buildings in different parts of California. They include the county Hall of Records and the Central Bank Building as well as the Fresno Court House.

Later, James and his brother, Robert Smilie, owned Smilie Brothers, a contracting and building company located at the Northeast corner of 1st and Webster. In 1896, Smilie Brothers filed a lawsuit against Fresno County regarding the building in 1893 of two wings of the county courthouse. A judge ruled in their favor, that the additions and alterations came under the contract, and awarded the Smilie Brothers a judgment of $6,708.62. 5,8 In 1898, James Smilie was president of the Oakland Builders’ Exchange. 2 He was a Mason.

On January 26, 1907, James Smilie, along with Max W. Koenig, E.J. Overend, George Roeth, James P. Taylor (Oakland); Hartwig A. Cohen (Alameda); W.H. Davis (Berkeley) incorporated the Greater Oakland Company. 9 This company developed parts of the Havenscourt neighborhood. (amongst others?) He and his brother Robert Smilie owned Smilie Brothers, a contracting and building company based in Oakland.

James was elected to a term on City Council in 1901, but was disqualified before he could be sworn in as a result of a carefully orchestrated coup by Republicans to take over the City Council. According to the story in the San Francisco Call: 3


James Alexander Smilie
photo from McElrath Family Private Collection

This excerpt is from a family history written by Innes McElrath Melton, the granddaughter of James Alexander Smilie and Isabella Lawrence McDonald Smilie 12:

The original Kirkham residence at 58 Eighth St. photo from McElrath Family Private Collection"The family came to the U.S. c. 1887 and eventually lived in the c. 1863 home they’d bought from General Ralph Kirkham after the death of his wife in Oakland, CA, James Alexander Smilie, originally from Canada, bought the Kirkham residence at 58 Eighth St., Oakland, in 1898. In this home he lived with his wife, Isobel Lawrence McDonald Smilie, and children Charles McDonald Smilie, Euphemia Innes Smilie, Elizabeth Cameron Smilie and Mary Isobel Smilie. It became one of the show places of Oakland. The home was located on 8th Street, before 9th Street and Fallon Street were cut through the property, and had spacious grounds covering the land East to what is now First Avenue, and West to the present Oak Street. The grounds were covered with rolling green lawns, and beautiful trees were cultivated about the land. The house itself was a beautiful red 21-room three-story structure with a tower on top and a solarium on the side. From the tower it was possible to see all over Oakland on a clear day. Later the house was turned around to face Fallon Street, and the solarium was removed at the move. Its new address was 825 Fallon Street. When the house was turned around, Mr. Smilie found the record of the date the home was built in a bottle in a corner stone, according to an unpublished letter (from Alice Rogers Reininger of 851 52nd Street in Oakland) to his daughter Mary in 1936. His account book showed a stable record indicating he kept horses, according to the same letter. It was shortly after this that Innes McElrath began writing and recording the family history for her mother Mary.

The Smilie home was turned around to face Fallon Street and the solarium was removed. photo from McElrath Family Collection

Mr. Smilie was a prominent contractor in his day and built many buildings in different parts of California. There was Oakland’s Hall of Records and the Central Bank Building, the Fresno Court House (probably when he bought the Del Rio Rey Ranch in Del Rey, near Fresno) and a building in Pomona, CA, where Mary Isobel Smilie was born.

The Smilie home was the scene of two beautiful weddings, plus an added number of attractive parties at which the young members of the Smilie family were hosts. The first wedding in the “Red House,” as it was fondly called, was on Dec. 4, 1912, of Mary Isobel Smilie to Alden McElrath, scion of another prominent East Bay family. In a lovely candlelight ceremony, on the arm of her father, she and her four attendants walked down a long, circular staircase, through the spacious hallway, up to the alter placed before windows in the drawing room.

James Alexander Smilie and Isabella McDonald Smilie with children (from left) Mary Isobel, Charles McDonald, Euphemia Innes and Elizabeth Cameron. photo from McElrath Family CollectionLikewise, on June 20, 1917, her older sister, Elizabeth Cameron, became the bride of Claude Charles Brown, of Berkeley, just two weeks before the United States declared war on Germany. Shortly afterwards he was called to duty in San Diego, where she lived with him until he journeyed to Washington for Officer’s Training School. He was then informed, after receiving his Lieutenant’s commission, that he was to go on active duty. He left for his wife’s home in Oakland to say goodbye, and enroute he was taken ill with influenza. It was only the second case of flu to strike Oakland so, ignorant of its evil powers, Elizabeth stayed with him, although she was pregnant at the time, until he was better, when she herself caught the rapidly spreading disease. Ten days later, on October 15, 1918, she died of the dreaded disease, and on October 18th the funeral services were held in the drawing room where, a little over a year before, she had been married to the one she loved.

The Smilie’s son, Charles, called Charlie, manager of the Del Rio Ray Ranch, came North to the funeral and, upon returning South to Del Rey, he, too, contracted the devastating germ, influenza, and fifteen days after his sister’s death he too lay dead amid the wildly cheering and intoxicating excitement of Armistice, and he also had his funeral services said for him in the once happy drawing room.

Shortly after, Mrs. Smilie and her daughter Euphemia (called Effie) left for a trip to Europe and the Orient, and on the return voyage across the Pacific Miss Smilie met her future husband, Philip Lindsay Huffman, who was returning home on leave from his place of business in Korea to visit his family in Indiana. A year later Euphemia journeyed back to Korea to marry him, and settled there for two years, after which they returned to the old Oakland residence where the two families, the Huffmans and the McElraths and their children, lived with their mother, Mrs. Smilie, until 1925. The house was then leased to tenants for five years—the Huffmans moving to the Del Rio Rey Ranch, and the McElraths and Mrs. Smilie moved to 27th Street, in Oakland. Then in 1930 the Alden McElraths returned to the old family home after Mrs. Smilie’s death in 1930 where, once more, it was the scene of many happy occasions until the moved to 560 Oakland Ave. in 1936.

Then in 1936 the house was sold to the Presbyterian Ming Quong Home. The Red House was torn down, but there yet remains the beautiful marble mantles, mahogany doors and the “dog” newel post of the magnificent circular stairway, the furnishings and above all, many fond memories of the happy and exciting days spent in the home of early Oaklanders."

Isabella Lawrence McDonald Smilie
photo from McElrath Family Private Collection

Mary Isobel Smilie married Alden McElrath (1889 – 1971), son of John Edgar McElrath and grandson of Solomon Ellsworth Alden, on Dec. 4 1912.7 Effie married Philip Lindsay Huffman (May 5, 1891-September 7, 1977) in Yokohama, Japan on April 6, 1923.

A longtime member of St. Andrew's Society of Oakland, Smilie was elected to the board of trustees in 1913. The organization founded in 1878 by Scotsmen, to support their bretheren in times of need. The Society has evolved since 1878 while still maintaining its Scottish roots. Its benevolence extends to many needful and worthwhile causes.10

James Alexander Smilie
photo from McElrath Family Private Collection
Charles McDonald Smilie
photo from McElrath Family Private Collection
Euphemia Innes Smilie (Huffman)
photo from McElrath Family Private Collection
Elizabeth Cameron Smilie (Brown)
photo from McElrath Family Private Collection
Mary Isobel Smilie (McElrath)

Death and Burial

James died in 1914, and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in plot 33, lot #237, along with Isabella, Charles, and Elizabeth. Mary and Alden McElrath are buried in the Crematorium in Mountain View Cemetery.

After a week's illness from Spanish influenza and pneumonia, Mrs. Elizabeth Cameron Brown, wife of Lieutenant Claude Charles Brown, U. S. N., of Camp Humphries, passed away at the home of her mother, Mrs. James A. Smillie of 825 Fallon street, in this city, yesterday. Mrs. Brown was Miss Elizabeth Smilie before her wedding and a 1907 graduate of the University of California, where she was a member of the Alpha Phi sorority. The deceased is a sister of Miss Effie Smilie and of Mrs. Alden McElrath. She was a brother of Charles McDonald Smilie. Lieutenant Brown was on furlough at the time of his wife's death. The funeral will take place at 2 o'clock tomorrow afternoon from the home of Mrs. James A. Smilie in Fallon Street.11 Charles died a few weeks later.

CC SA-BY Our OaklandCC SA-BY Our Oakland

Links and References

  1. Husted’s Directory. 1892. (PDF)
  2. Carpentry and Building, Volume 20. 1898.
  3. Republicans Now In Full Control. San Francisco Call, Volume LXXXIX, Number 122, 1 April 1901.
  4. Injunctions Against Elected Councilmen to be Considered by Judge Green San Francisco Call, Volume LXXXIX, Number 151, 30 April 1901.
  5. STOPPED PAYMENTS.: Trouble Over a Courthouse Contract.” San Francisco Chronicle: Nov 3, 1893.
  6. Painted With Mud.” San Francisco Chronicle: July 29, 1891.
  7. Miss Mary Smilie, Whose Engagement Interests Society San Francisco Call, Volume 112, Number 118, 26 September 1912
  8. Fresno County Loses a Suit San Francisco Call, December 15, 1896
  9. Realty Men Incorporate San Francisco Call, January 27, 1907
  10. St. Andrew's In Annual Meeting: Society Elects Officers For Ensuing Year Oakland Tribune, Nov. 7 1913
  11. The 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic-Physicians Confer; Some Deaths Oakland Tribune, 16 October 1918, Page 7, Column 2
  12. An English paper written by Innes McElrath in 1940 about her mother's family.pdf
  13. Private letter dated July 23, 1936 from Alice Rogers Reininger, 851 52nd Street, Oakland, Calif.