Thomas Whaley came to California in 1849 during the Gold Rush. He left New York City, the place of his birth, on January 1, 1849, on the Sutton and arrived 204 days later in San Francisco. He set up a store with George Wardle on Montgomery Street where he sold hardware and woodwork from his family's New York business, Whaley & Pye, and offered mining equipment and utensils on consignment. This young entrepreneur, born on October 5, 1823, came from a Scots-Irish family, which immigrated to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1722. His great-grandfather, Alexander Whaley, a gunsmith, participated in the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War where he provided flintlock muskets for soldiers and the use of his house on Long Island by General George Washington. Thomas' father, Thomas Whaley, carried on the family gunsmith business, and served in the New York Militia during the War of 1812. He married Rachel Pye, whose father, William, manufactured locks in Brooklyn.
Whaley's business acumen, acquired in part from his education at the Washington Institute, proved beneficial in San Francisco. He was so successful that he was able to establish his own store on Montgomery Street, erect a two-story residence near the bay, and rent out Wardle's edifice. After an arson-set fire destroyed his buildings on Montgomery Street in May 1851, he relocated to Old Town San Diego upon the advice of Lewis Franklin, a merchant who operated stores in San Francisco and Old Town. Whaley set up various businesses with Franklin, Ephraim Morse, Francis Hinton, and even his brother, Henry, and amassed enough money to return to New York to marry his sweetheart, Anna Eloise DeLaunay, the daughter of French-born parents, on May 14, 1853.
Upon the couple's return to San Diego, Whaley entered various business general store partnerships, most of which lasted less than a year. He purchased this property in September 1855, which had been the site of the hanging of the infamous Yankee Jim Robinson in August of 1852. He first built a single-story granary for 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of grain in May 1856, with bricks manufactured in his brickyard on Conde Street. The adjacent two-story $10,000 Greek Revival style brick residence, designed by Whaley, commenced construction in September 1856 and was finished in 1857. The home, acclaimed as the "finest new brick block in Southern California" by the San Diego Herald, contained mahogany and rosewood furniture, damask drapes, and Brussels carpets.
In August 1857, Whaley established his general store in this residence, and solicited cash customers only. As this location proved too far from the center of the small community, he relocated his business in a frame building on the Plaza, which he rented.
By 1858, Thomas and Anna Whaley had produced three children: Francis Hinton (named for a business partner), Thomas (who died at just 18 months), and Anna Amelia. In August 1858, another arson-set fire destroyed Whaley's business on the Plaza. Despondent over this loss and the death of Thomas earlier that year, the family moved to San Francisco.
In San Francisco, Whaley worked as an U.S. Army Commissary Storekeeper. Three more children, George Hays Ringgold (named for a business partner), Violet Eloise, and Corinne Lillian, were born. In 1867, Thomas Whaley assisted in the American takeover of Alaska, where he established stores at Sitka, helped set up an American base, and served as councilman. Anna and the family, during this time, remained in San Francisco.
After a major earthquake in May 1868, the Whaley couple and their five children returned to the brick house in San Diego, out of which Whaley & Crosthwaite ran a general store. From October 1868 to January 1869, the Tanner Troupe Theatre operated out of the front upstairs bedroom. The San Diego County Courthouse utilized the former granary in August 1869 and rented three upstairs rooms for records storage. After the establishment of New Town San Diego by Alonzo Horton in 1868, the town focus changed to present day downtown San Diego. During a March 1871 raid, courthouse documents were removed from the Whaley House and taken to Horton's Hall on 6th and F in San Diego. After the County's exit, Whaley connected the former granary and courtroom to the residence, changed windows and doors, and altered the front portico.
From 1874 to 1879, Thomas Whaley returned to New York, supposedly to settle his father's estate (his father died in 1832), and then journeyed to San Francisco seeking employment, which eluded him. During this time the Whaley family in San Diego lived in dire straits and was dependent upon Francis Whaley for support.
On January 5, 1882, Violet Whaley and Anna Amelia Whaley married in Old San Diego, probably in this house. Anna married her first cousin, John T. Whaley, and Violet wed George T. Bertolacci, which proved unbearable. After a divorce, which caused Violet tremendous humiliation in 1884 and a period of great depression monitored by the local physician, she committed suicide at the home by shooting herself through the heart on August 18, 1885.
After this tragic event, Thomas Whaley built a single-story frame home for his family at 933 State Street in downtown San Diego. Attempting to capitalize on the boom in that area, he maintained a real estate office at 5th and G in the First National Bank Building, with various partners. After retirement from business in 1888 due to ill health, he died at the State Street address on December 14, 1890.
The Whaley House on San Diego Avenue remained vacant and fell into disrepair until late 1909 when Francis Whaley returned to the old brick and undertook the restoration of the building which greatly improved its appearance. Rehabilitated at the same time as the Estudillo House on the Plaza (which became publicized as Ramona‚s Marriage Place), and the establishment of the San Diego Electric Railway down San Diego Avenue, Francis utilized the family home as a residence and a tourist attraction where he posted signs outside promoting its historicity and entertained visitors with his guitar.
Anna, Thomas' widow, Lillian (Corinne), then assistant at the Public Library, Francis, and George, a musician, all lived in the old dwelling in 1912. On February 24, 1913, Anna died in the house. Francis passed away in the home on November 19, 1914. Lillian continued residency in the structure until her death in 1953. Because she had spent the better part of the first half of the twentieth century in the house alone, it had fallen once again into a terrible state of disrepair.