William Chapman Ralston, Ronald Reagan's last character role, was one of California's first and most successful venture capitalists. By age 38, Ralston had influence on every major industry in California, from the mines in the Comstock Lode and railroads in the West to the steamships bound for the Orient. His power was felt from Alaska to the Rockies, from Hawaii to Japan. Ralston was a man of dreams and passion. He was born on January 12, 1826, in Wellsville, Ohio, to a religious family. He left school at age 14 to become a storekeeper, but steamboats plying the muddy waters of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers attracted him as they did Mark Twain. Ralston spent several years clerking on the paddlewheels where he met Cornelius K. Garrison and Ralph Fretz, two men who would play a significant role in his future. The 1849 gold rush lured hundreds of thousands to California, many winding their way through Panama and later Nicaragua. Ralston went to work for Garrison and Fretz in Panama as a shipping merchant for their charter steamship business. They were competing with the Nicaragua Transit Company in shipping goods from the Atlantic side for transport to California and Oregon. His administrative duties included the purchase of ships for the firm, including the SS New Orleans which he acquired for $50,000 at a Panamanian auction in 1851, then captained the steamer from Panama City to San Francisco with 200 passengers. A grateful Garrison and Fretz renamed their firm Garrison, Fretz & Company, signaling Ralston’s rise to the rank of “Company.?