The 1910s and 1920s were a boom time for San Francisco. A great many civic and private construction projects were occurring around the City as it expanded westward across the great sand dunes to the ocean and looked to justify its reputation as the cultural and economic capital of the West Coast. For almost that entire two decade period, the City was presided over by Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Jr., San Francisco’s longest serving mayor. Mayor Rolph was elected by a huge majority at a primary election on September 26, 1911 and took office on January 8, 1912. He would remain in office for the next 19 years.
During Mayor Rolph’s terms in office, he presided over many civic accomplishments. These included, the building of a new City Hall, the establishment of MUNI, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the initiation of the Hetch-Hetchy water project, and the construction of many new neighborhoods, particularly on the west side of the City.
As a long-time mayor in an era when photography was becoming more popular, Mayor Rolph found his way into many images performing duties of his office. When one looks over the many images of Mayor Rolph on OpenSFHistory.org, one thing becomes quite obvious…Mayor Rolph liked to operate things. At the many government-funded construction projects that occurred in San Francisco during this period, Mayor Rolph was invariably at the ground-breaking or opening ceremonies. Almost as invariably, Mayor Rolph was operating equipment of some kind. In the image above, Mayor Rolph is operating a pile driver on Van Ness in 1914 that was part of a MUNI project. The Mayor didn’t stop there.
One of the biggest construction projects in San Francisco in the early part of the 20th century was the building of the Twin Peaks Tunnel for streetcar service to the west side of the City. Construction of the tunnel under Twin Peaks, from the Market/Castro/17th Street intersection on the east side and the West Portal/Ulloa intersection on the west side, started in December 1914. It was completed and opened for service on February 3, 1918. During the opening ceremonies that day, Mayor Rolph was the motorman for the first revenue trip through the tunnel. This was not Mayor Rolph’s first time driving a streetcar. He made a habit of acting as motorman on the first trip for any new MUNI line that opened in the City.
Sunny Jim did not limit himself to streetcar openings. There were closings to consider too. In October 1927, service on the Montgomery Street line, known as the Toonerville Trolley, came to close. There was a ceremony and a procession of the final streetcars down the line. Included among these streetcars was an old horse-drawn streetcar. Never one to pass up a good photo op, Mayor Rolph took to the controls of the horse streetcar for this last ride on Montgomery Street. The ceremony was described as a hilarious funeral procession1. Soon thereafter, work began on tearing up the streetcar tracks on Montgomery Street.
Mayor Rolph in front of steam shovel he operated during War Memorial ground-breaking ceremony, August 20, 1928. (wnp36.03697; DPW Horace Chaffee – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
After the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco set about rebuilding its Civic Center area. Some years after the new City Hall was completed, the City approved the $6,000,000 War Memorial project. The multi-building complex was to house an opera house and arts complex, a war museum, and a gathering place for veterans. At a ceremony on August 20, 1928, Mayor Rolph donned a pair of overalls and engineer’s cap and took the controls of a steam shovel to break ground. The news accounts noted that Mayor Rolph “demonstrated that he knew all the motions, was familiar with the levers and ‘things’ that controlled the steam monster.”2. The War Memorial was designed by Arthur Brown, Jr. and was one of the last major buildings built in the Beaux-Arts style in the United States. Work finished and the War Memorial was opened in 1932.
With the success of the Twin Peaks tunnel from downtown to the West Portal area, San Francisco went to work on another tunnel from downtown to the Inner Sunset area. Construction started in June 1926 and the Sunset Tunnel opened for service on October 21, 1928. It will come as no surprise to anyone at this point that when the first N-Judah streetcar rolled through the tunnel, it was Mayor Rolph at the controls. He piloted the streetcar for an hour and a half from the Ferry Building all the way to the ocean. Clearly Sunny Jim had mastered the art of driving streetcars by this point, needing no assistance in his duties. 30,000 people turned out for the ceremonies.
Mayor Rolph at controls of steam shovel during Bernal Cut ground-breaking ceremony, November 15, 1928. (wnp36.03738; DPW Horace Chaffee – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
With the growing automobile population by the late 1920s, San Francisco found it needed more roads in and out of the City. To build a high-speed (for the time) road to San Mateo County, San Francisco took over the former Southern Pacific train route. Part of the route went through what was known as the Bernal Cut, a valley cut through a hill for the railroad tracks. The Bernal Cut had to be widened for the roadway and a ground-breaking ceremony occurred on November 15, 1928. Since there was big machinery there for the work, every San Franciscan then just knew that Mayor Rolph would be there to operate it. Although quite experienced with such equipment by this point of his mayoral reign, this time the steam shovel did not work. Rolph was forced to find a shovel and break ground the old-fashioned way. As you can see in the image though, he made sure to get a picture of himself at the controls of the equipment.
After 19 years as mayor and numerous photo ops with big machines and streetcars, Mayor Rolph removed himself from San Francisco by running for and winning election as governor of California. He resigned as mayor on January 6, 1931 to take the reins of the state. One can’t help but think though that his long rule was helped in part by his “man of the people” image cultivated in these images operating equipment and piloting streetcars at various ceremonies around the City.
1. “Toonerville Trolley Obsequies Pronounced Among Dry-Eyed Throng” San Francisco Chronicle, October 6, 1927, p. 1.
2. “Ground Broken For $6,000,000 S.F. War Memorial,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 1928, p. 1.