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Adolph Sutro Arrives in SF (Part 4)

by Jack Leibman

City Guide Jack Leibman, a volunteer at the Sutro Library, has been sharing with GuideLines readers descriptions from the letters of German immigrant Adolph Sutro about his 1850 journey from New York to San Francisco. The previous installment featured Sutro’s description of his dreadful passage across the isthmus of Panama. In this fourth and final installment, Sutro, after further adventures, at last reaches his destination.

After six steamy, disagreeable days in Panama, on November 1, 1850, for $300, Adolph boarded the California bound for San Francisco. As usual, the trip was described in meticulous detail, with all landmarks noted. On November 9, the first safe anchorage was reached in Acapulco, a beautiful scenic natural harbor. Adolph went ashore in a canoe to visit the town and crumbling old Spanish fort. He admired especially the handsome mixtures of Spanish and Indian women, who created realistic flowers out of little shells.

At dusk, he took a refreshing swim in the bay, and was later horrified to learn of the man-eating sharks he had luckily escaped. Later, at sea, an English warship passed, and their band played the English National Air, eliciting three hurrahs.

Mazatlan, a town of 15,000, was the next stop, superior to all previous places. It featured tiled stone houses, paved streets, all sorts of trade shops, and even a Prussian consul. "The ocean looked very inviting, the water was shallow, and I decided to take a dip. I thought it was too shallow for sharks. Just before I stepped in, a dark-skinned girl ran up, and warned of nearby sharks. Now I discovered these greedy monsters, at least 10-15 of them, less than 20 steps away. My hair stood on end, and I was thankful that this black angel had saved me. That was the end of my desire for ocean dips."

Incurably seeking adventure, Adolph then ascended a precipitous rocky spire to admire the panoramic view and barely (but proudly) survived the perilous descent, in time for the boat.

On November 18, with the weather suddenly much cooler, the ship reached its first California port, San Diego. Here Adolph's letter digressed for a dissertation on the history of the rise and fall of the Missions. In San Diego, the ship was joined by a wild-looking group, some of whom had come overland from Texas and Mexico, surviving much misery and Indian hostility during their six-month trek.

Santa Barbara's scenery was charming, but was the burial site for the first adult fatality of the group, a 22- year-old German. "I am amazed that others who were deathly sick did not die also. Almost all of the 300 passengers suffered from this illness, known as Panama fever. Sick people were everywhere and nobody looks after them."

After a brief stop in Monterey, the ship entered San Francisco Bay on Friday, November 21. The gloomy weather obscured the scenery. "The climate is said to be good, but I doubt it. The nights are cold and it rains almost daily. I wear woolen underdrawers and woolen undershirts. No city in the world has ever been built so rapidly. Most streets have very clean wooden pavements. On one square alone there are 10-12 magnificent gambling places, always filled. Almost every night a gambler is shot or stabbed. Rents are $500-$600 a month for a tiny store, interest rates are 5%-10% a month." Finances, business prospects, the cost of living were all discussed in detail. Gold mines would surely last for a hundred years. Frequent fires were vital factors in business survival, which required daily packing up in readiness for a quick removal. Thus Adolph immediately settles in as a fire-watcher with ambitious business plans. He concludes that in ten years, the comfort and luxury of San Francisco will surpass all the cities of Europe.

Adolph Sutro eventually made his fortune designing a tunnel to access and drain the mines of Nevada's Comstock Silver Lode. At one time he owned 1/12th of the land in San Francisco. The founder of Sutro Heights and Sutro Baths, he was Mayor of San Francisco from 1895 to 1897 and died in 1898.

Photo in this issue courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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Adolph Sutro in his later years

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