article picture

The 1909 Portolá Festival

by Gail MacGowan

”Pageant Is Too Big for Eye to See or Brain to Grasp; Even With Smoked Glasses.”

With this headline, the San Francisco Examiner trumpeted the wonders of the 1909 Portolá Festival. Opening on October 19 – three and a half years and one day after the 1906 quake – the five-day festival showed the world that San Francisco was back in business. Its tremendous success opened the way for the City to host the Panama Pacific International Exposition six years later.

San Francisco was also eager to announce its recovery from disastrous post-quake labor dissension and the political corruption that had culminated in the trial and guilty verdict against former political boss Abe Ruef. As one leading citizen, the real estate developer A.S. Baldwin, wrote, “The Portolá Festival will have the effect of promoting a more brotherly spirit among the citizens themselves.”

Wishing to evoke the legendary hospitality and bohemianism of Old California, city fathers chose as the festival’s theme the 140th anniversary of Juan Gaspar de Portolá’s discovery of San Francisco Bay in October 1769. Red and yellow, the colors of Portolá’s native Catalonia, were chosen as the festival’s official colors, appearing on banners, bunting, and flags that decorated the city.

The entire world joined in the celebration. Joining the US Pacific Fleet at anchor in the harbor were warships from Great Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Japan. News accounts boasted, “Never before in the history of the West have armed fighting men of so many nations been seen together at one time” – at least 10,000 soldiers and sailors. A total of 25 nations was represented at the festival’s various festivities.

In order to identify a suitable queen for such a grand festival, a prize of $100 was offered for a photograph of the most beautiful young woman in the state. After examining thousands of photos and viewing hundreds of girls who passed in review, the jury chose Miss Virgilia Bogue, age 23, as the most beautiful woman in California. A regal beauty standing over 5’9” tall, Queen Virgilia presided over the five-day extravaganza together with Don Portolá himself.

Portolá was portrayed by 70-year-old Nicholas Covarrubias of Santa Maria, who had been born to a Spanish immigrant in Santa Barbara in 1839. The festival opened on Tuesday, October 19th, with Portolá’s entrance by sea through the Golden Gate. Stepping ashore at the Mission Street Pier No. 2, he was greeted enthusiastically by his loyal subjects as he paraded on horseback down Market Street.

This was just the first of the festival’s parades. The Civic, Industrial, and Fraternal Parade held on Thursday morning showcased state governors, senators, congressmen, mayors, consuls, minis-ters, army and navy officers, mounted police, staff officers, dragoons, the fire department, Native Sons and Daughters, the Improved Order of Red Men, drill teams from Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco, the United Ancient Order of Druids, members of the Scottish, Italian, Swedish, Spanish, and Greek Societies and the Chinese colony, numerous SF clubs, school children – the 25,000 marchers took three hours to pass any given point. The parade also featured what at that time was the world’s largest American flag.

All California cities of more than 5,000 inhabitants had been invited to send a float. The crowd was particularly impressed by Chinatown’s float featuring a dragon, but it was the Japanese float bedecked with blossoming cherry trees brought over especially from Japan that was acclaimed the most beautiful.

Friday brought a parade of more than one thousand decorated automobiles. The fair also included three car races held in Alameda County, with an average speed of 62.8 mph thrilling the spectators. An auto show in the basement of the Emporium featured 160 automobiles of 33 different makes in “the first display of 1910 cars attempted anywhere in this country.”

Athletic competitions included regattas held at the China Basin waterfront; swimming races at Spreckels Lake in Golden Gate Park; football, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, and tennis at Golden Gate Park Stadium (today’s Polo Field); amateur boxing at Dreamland Pavilion (quickly erected at Pierce and Post Streets after the earthquake and the precursor to the famous ice rink built there in 1928); and a pro-am golf tournament at SF’s Gold Club’s Links near Ingleside Park.

The 50-member Portolá Band gave daily concerts in Union Square, which was also the site of a performance by a children’s chorus of 5,000 voices.

Each evening the City was illuminated by one million electric lights looping up Market Street, across major thoroughfares, on twenty pillars erected to form a colonnade leading to the light-bedecked Ferry Building, and on warships in the Bay. At Market, Kearny, and Third Streets, lights in the shape of a mission bell 120’ in diameter were suspended by huge steel cables 125’ in the air. Each night as midnight approached, all lights in the surrounding five-block radius except for the bell were extinguished, and men in fantastic garments glowing with electric lights performed acrobatic feats on the steel cables.

The crowning event of the festival was the Saturday night Historical and Electrical Carnival Parade and Pageant. Seven floats brilliantly lit with colored incandescent lights took up separate stations at key Market Street intersections Historic tableaux with live actors portrayed the founding of the Spanish missions, the Gold Rush, driving the last spike of the transcontinental railroad – even “Boadicea’s Last Stand Against the Romans” and “Truth Against the World (United Ancient Order of Druids).” Bands and orchestras played late into the night for revelers dancing in the street. According to The Call, “Along its whole heart’s highway the pulse of San Francisco beat with maddened throb, and Market Street’s way of ashes yesterday became a tinkling ballroom, where all the nations of the world cast care aside and danced.”

Sources: • “The Portolá Festival of 1909, A Party with a Purpose” by John T. Freeman, excerpts from SFBAPCC September 2003 and October 2003 Newsletters at • Kathryn Ayres presentation, excerpts from SFBAPCC October 2005 Newsletter, notes by Lew Baer. • Portolá Festival files of the San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library.

All photos courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

article picture

This official pageant poster for the Portolá Festival pictured a señorita tossing flowers to the wind.

article picture

Don Nicholas Covarrubias as Don Gaspar de Portolá and his consort, Queen Virgilia, parade past Mission Dolores.

article picture

One hundred forty Spanish American War veterans proudly paraded down Market Street with what was at that time the largest American flag ever made.

article picture

Market and Third streets was illuminated each night by 25,000 colored lights suspended to form a gigantic bell.

article picture

Soldiers and virtuous maidens ride atop this float dedicated to “Virtue – Liberty – Patriotism.”

Send comments and questions to
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.