On January 7, 1895, German-born entrepreneur and engineer Adolph Sutro became mayor of San Francisco. Although his mayoralty was limited to a single, two-year term, which even Sutro admitted was undistinguished, he was a colorful figure who in his private life contributed a great deal to his city’s development. He also played a dramatic role in the Nevada silver-mining industry of the late 19th century.
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Adolph Sutro was born on April 29, 1830, in the town of Aachen, then part of Prussia. He was the second of the 13 children of Emanuel Sutro, a textile manufacturer, and the former Rosa Warendorff.
Adolph completed his studies as an engineer, and in 1850, after the death of his father, emigrated with his mother and siblings to Baltimore, Maryland. Later that year, he headed on to California.
Sutro spent his initial years in California in business, beginning as a night watchman at a department store. It was there that, one night, in a scuffle with a thief, he was slashed on his cheek, which led him to grow his trademark mutton-chop sideburns.
After several failed business attempts, Sutro finally succeeded as a tobacconist, eventually owning three shops. But after the 1859 discovery of silver at Nevada’s Comstock Lode, he sold the shops and headed east, leaving behind his wife, Leah Harris, whom he had married in 1856, and their three children.
The civil engineer in him awakes
In East Dayton, Nevada, he set up a silver-refining mill. But the civil engineer in him envisioned construction of a giant tunnel to ease access to the mines and offer them drainage.
Sutro’s plan, for which he immediately set about recruiting political support and funding, was to dig a 6.4-km tunnel network through Mt. Davidson, to remove both water and deadly gas fumes from the mines. The channels he excavated (according to historian Samuel Dickson, Sutro himself participated in the physical work, marching “ahead of his men, stripped to the waist, laboring with them facing death with them”), could evacuate 15,000 cubic meters of water a day. When completed, he rented them to the mining companies for $10,000 a day.
By the time the tunnel was complete, however, the year was 1878, by which time the Comstock seam was approaching exhaustion. Realizing that early on, Sutro sold all of his interests in Nevada, and returned, in 1879 to San Francisco.
There, he began buying up real estate: At one point he owned one-twelfth of San Francisco’s land. At a 1,000-acre ocean-fronted plot he called Sutro Heights, he built his family mansion, and also a huge entertainment complex for the public, which included six pools (which could accommodate up to 10,000 bathers at a time), a skating rink, a public garden and other amenities.
Vastly wealthy, with a socialist bent
Despite his own vast wealth, Sutro was critical of the business world, and especially outspoken about the monopolistic tendencies of the railroads. In 1894, the tiny Populist party recruited him to run for mayor.
Among a field of six candidates, Sutro gained an absolute majority of the votes, and on January 7, 1895, he began his two-year term. (Although Sutro is often described as San Francisco’s first Jewish mayor, that distinction actually belongs to Washington Bartlett, who was in office 1883-1887, following that with a brief term as governor of California, the first and to date only Jew to fill that position.)
Sutro would soon discover, however, that most of the power lay in the hands of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (which was the city council), and most of his initiatives were blocked.
After leaving office, Sutro returned to his philanthropic efforts. When he died, on August 8, 1898, he left a significant legacy to his fellow citizens: He gifted 26 acres on which the University of California built its San Francisco medical campus; planted 40,000 trees around the city; left his personal library, one of the largest in California, to the state.
Years later, Mark Twain recalled Sutro as possessing “a fine, manly character, adding that, “I have always found something of Sutro in all the Jews whom I have personally known since.”