Selby arrived in California in August 1849 to make his fortune. He had been in a failed business venture in New York with his brother and a man named Peter Naylor. Selby was under pressure to make money quickly in order to pay back his creditors, which prompted him to join the Gold Rush.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, Selby saw the potential for making his fortune in the city. In 1850, he built one of the first brick buildings in San Francisco at California Street near Montgomery, where he opened Thomas H. Selby and Company. This company dealt in the import and export of non-precious metals and other commodities.
In 1856, Selby would found the Selby Smelting and Lead Work at First & Howard Street, which was the first smelting operation for metals other than gold and silver on the West Coast. His company enlarged their facility to forty furnaces and Selby quickly became the largest metal smelter in America. The 200-foot tall structure known as the Shot Tower became a well-known city landmark, which could be seen from miles away. In the shot tower, lead was heated until molten, then dropped through a copper sieve high up in the tower. The liquid lead solidified as it fell and formed tiny spherical balls as a result of the surface tension.
|Shot Tower at 1st & Howard|
During his time as an Alderman, the Board of Education was composed of the Mayor, one member from each branch of the Common Council, and two citizens at large. Selby represented this body from the Board of Aldermen, and worked tirelessly to create free public schools, an issue that he was passionate about.
Selby also helped build the Presbyterian Church at Stockton near Broadway and the Calvary Church on Bush Street.
He died in San Francisco on June 17, 1875 of pneumonia.
Thirty years after his death, Selby's smelting company was sold to the American Smelting and Refining Company.