Adolph Sutro’s patent of the pneumatic drill catapulted him into the ranks of the great silver and rail barons that made up the roots of San Francisco’s wealthy elite.  He was mayor, business proprietor of the Cliff House, and thorn in the side of those condemning the rapidly spreading labor movements through the city.  At the time of his death, he was among the richest and well known figures in civic history, leaving a legacy of invention, metropolitan innovation, and substantial real estate and railroad holdings.  Not to mention a name that has become synonymous with the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sutro was born on April 29, 1830 in Aachen, Prussia, to a middle-class family living on the sanctified hunting grounds of past royalty.  The elder Sutro owned a textile plant in which his sons worked.  At 16, Adolph left school to take up a management position with his father, who shortly thereafter died, leaving the task of running the plant to Adolph and his brother.

It’s arguable if the decision to leave school to go to work was something regrettable for Adolph.  Later in life, he retained his fervent bibliophilic tendencies, building a massive library, which is today preserved in various forms along with much of his notes and letters, in libraries and universities scattered across the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s likely that the Sutro children would have been forced from school anyway when the German revolutions of 1848 broke out.  While the Sutro family was by no means struggling, the war that would likely have taken the kids from school took the factory, and much of the family’s holdings.  The war was one of the most destructive conflicts since the French Revolution, and was among the last cavalry wars.  The first introductions of live ammunition and automation in warfare, and the brutality, destruction and medical advances that comes along with that, was also seen in the American Civil War less than two decades later.

It was thus that the Widow Sutro made the decision to relocate the family of eleven children to the United States.  In the fall of 1850, the Sutros arrived on the eastern seaboard.  At the time, Gold Fever had permeated eastward from California, and Adolph Sutro, by then a ripe 20 years old, hitched a ride to San Francisco on the first clipper ship to leave port.  During the months-long trip, Sutro kept detailed records of events, weather and sights, largely preserved in letters home.

One biographer casts November 21, 1851 as the date Adolph Sutro finally reached San Francisco.  By this time, the Gold Rush had ended, stranding many of those who flooded in expecting to strike it rich.  So many, in fact, that the City of San Francisco, feeling some growing pains, sank many of the derelict ships moored in the harbors and built over them, creating more space on ground that was fairly unstable.

Over the next several years, Sutro was married and had six children.  Busy with life as a father and husband, Sutro was jolted in 1859 when the discovery of the Comstock Lode was made in Nevada.  Adolph Sutro’s scientific mind was set into motion, and he began to tinker.

Sutro’s Drill

Miners were coming, and dying, in droves at the Lode.  Most suffocated in the dank, deep mine tunnel, some fell victim to their machines, others succumbed to disease.  The need to ventilate the thousands-of-feet deep and baking hot tunnels was readily apparent.  Sutro, who the San Francisco Alta saw imbued with the “audacity of a dreamer,” had the idea to develop not only a method of ventilation but a way of extending the shaft, which was decried as “an unfeasible plan.”  Regardless, Sutro continued to develop methods to dig deep into the rocky soils of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

The 6-mile Sutro Tunnel that connected, drained and ventilated the Comstock Lode was completed in October 1878, using Adolph Sutro’s newly patented pneumatic drill (or jackhammer) technology after 14 years of labor at a total cost of $6.5 million.  His primitive precursor to the modern jackhammer ultimately netted his mining organizations multiple millions.

With the problems at the Comstock Lode all but solved, Adoph Sutro took a modest $5 million stipend from his corporation in Nevada, and relinquished the rest.  With it, he returned to San Francisco, where progressive labor movements were just beginning to heat up as thousands of failed miners were returning to the port city in search of work.  There, he made large investments in real estate plots across the city.

Bridging the Bay

It was a few years before, in 1872, when the self-anointed Emperor Norton I, Guardian of Mexico, strolled through the clatter of streetcars down Market Street issuing a public decree that the San Francisco Bay was to be bridged west to east, at roughly the bay’s widest and deepest zone to connect the isolated peninsula to the rapidly expanding East Bay.

San Francisco was poised to grow, especially after the discovery of the silver contained within the Comstock Lode under what became Virginia City, Nevada sent thousands rushing for riches into California to set down roots and again attempt to strike it rich between 1859 and 1874, causing the population of San Francisco to skyrocket.  More miners were successful this time, as the Lode’s value was estimated at over twice that of the strikes found during the 1849 Gold Rush.

Manning the Project

San Francisco has a history as California’s haven for the laborer and bastion of radicalized politics since its inception, partially around a Catholic mission that among other things, spread a very powerful idea.  By 1933 or 35, when final planning for major bridge construction was getting underway, the city was jam-packed with the statically unemployed and frustrated longshoremen.  What better place than this city—whose people and structure were still reeling from the quake and conflagration of 1906—to initiate some of the world’s most historically ambitious feats of engineering?

They were on a roll by the Depression, too.  San Francisco had conquered its own natural barriers to expansion after Andrew Hallidie figured out in 1879 how to hoist rail cars bound to underground chains up some of the city’s steepest hills, allowing for the development of homes for the silver and rail barons that had made the port their home after making it rich in Nevada.  The city had expanded into its new territories created by landfill in the bay, and new homes were beginning to spring up, even past the old western border of Divisadero Street.

Prior to that, similar methods of dredging up shipping lanes in the sea were employed to make a more navigable Golden Gate.  These same methods would again be employed, to some degree, in the dredging of the sea to create foundations into which to drive the bridges.

San Francisco’s legion of unemployed, plus a proportionately small contingent of laborers that could be contracted below minimum wage, were ripe to be put to work constructing these bridges and thoroughfares that not only connect regions of the city, but also the city to the greater peninsula and Bay Area.

They went to work creating the Golden Gate Bridge, which as representative of the pinnacle of the two-tower suspension bridge seems of the perfect construct and color for the space it spans.  It seems to fit perfectly at the mouth of the bay.

At the time, a two-tower suspension bridge was the only possibility, as any more or less would greatly affect the structural integrity.  The length of the Golden Gate Bridge happens to be just about the maximum length that it could be constructed at the time without having to add a third tower.  Hence, the bridge wasn’t built past the steep hills through which the Waldo Tunnel was drilled.  It was also because of this two-tower stipulation that the Western Span of the Bay Bridge had to be comprised of two joined suspension spans.

Opposite that, eastward, was the considerably more ambitious Bay Bridge project.  The battleship grey World War I throwback shined so brightly in its early years that pilots learning to fly the newest Boeing 247 model—which was to become the first plane that could actually ferry multiple passengers over a distance—had to be warned about the new bridge’s argent reflection.

The Bay Bridge’s construction was delayed for over a decade from when plans were first devised, and for all kinds of reasons.  It’s no easy task figuring out how to join two suspension bridges to one of the world’s longest, and curved, cantilever bridges at a junction that is comprised of two roads that bore through rock as the worlds widest-bore tunnel at such a long length.  Despite the seemingly insurmountable task of bridging the San Francisco Bay in these two main locations, plus a handful of fringe locations, the task was set in motion.

Among other engineering marvels of the era, Sutro’s mechanized deep-drilling technology was imperative in the construction of both bridges, and numerous tunnels boring through many of the region’s numerous steep hills, including the Yerba Buena Tunnel at Treasure Island, which connects the three portions of the Bay Bridge, and is to date the largest diameter transportation tunnel in the world.

The U.S. Navy stonewalled the project until it was settled that there would be a suspension portion so that their battleships could still squeeze through and get to the Alameda Shipyards.  Hence, the double-suspension design of the Western Span, which crosses the San Francisco Bay at one of its deepest points.

Labor’s Representation

The majority of the legion of laborers on the bridge project, finding themselves in need of a voice, helped to start San Francisco’s massive labor movements during the late nineteenth century.

One such organizer, Denis Kearney, who quartered substantial support for his cause by denouncing Chinese, or “coolie” labor, alleging that it took jobs from whites and persisting as a perpetual thorn in the side of big railroads around the turn of the twentieth century.  He became a local leader, and with eccentricity characteristic to some of the others thrust into the public sphere in San Francisco.

Kearny’s popular rhetoric was enflamed as thousands of Chinese immigrated to San Francisco after the Boxer Rebellion erupted in China in 1899.  He was representative of just one of the many opinions of labor advocates of the era, many of whom, like Kearney, acted against those in need of as much labor as possible to engage the building projects that were almost constantly being initiated around the turn of the twentieth century in San Francisco.

There is a Kearny Street that runs directly through the center of today’s Old Chinatown, but it isn’t named for Denis Kearney, but rather for Stephen W. Kearny, who served as an officer during the Mexican-American War.

After his tenure in leadership with the Workingman’s Party (not to be confused with the Socialist Workingmen’s Party), Kearney opened up a coffee and doughnut shop at Ocean Beach, a figurative stone’s throw from Adolph Sutro’s personal residence and the Cliff House.  His café was catapulted onto the map after it was underscored as a hotbed of fiery political rhetoric characteristic to Kearney’s street corner rallies.

Eventually, the property was seized by federal authorities and demolished by officers of the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department who came over to the impromptu marketplace at the foot of Balboa Street with hacksaws and crowbars at the ready.

There, in the shadow of Sutro’s estate, Kearny made his final speech, decrying the capitalist establishment as his was torn apart—ironically, standing on one of the many sand dunes, which at the time, was under the ownership of the Sutro family’s big railroad holdings.  The region had been zoned for more residential zones following 1906, not commerce.

The Cliff House and Barbary Coast 

Decades after the idea was first floated, the bridges and highways were completed, just as the gold and silver had exhausted itself years before.  The work had dried up, but the workers remained.  The Barbary Coast had long held the reputation of a locale of ill repute, and it continued to fill well though the Prohibition era.

Merchants and longshoremen, artists, writers, apprentices, masters, prostitutes, foreigners, locals, tourists, hiders, seekers, lawmen, bankers, lawyers, educators (not teachers), pirates, bums, alcoholics and drug addicts all wandered the Barbary Coast, in and out of the pubs and alleys.  Port cities have a way of attracting such bulldozed characters; those who aren’t planning a long stay and maybe have some coin to blow.

Adolph Sutro’s rail line, which ran along Land’s End between his estate at the Cliff House out to the ports and Marina was just another way for the Barbary Coast crowd to come out for a coastside retreat.  These, mostly blue-collar folks, were coincidentally the prime audience for the hot fresh rhetoric being served up at Denis Kearney’s doughnut shop.

Adolph Sutro purchased the Cliff House in 1883, and was largely unsuccessful in its management.  He then leased it to a local liquor company, then independent investor J.M. Wilkins, who Sutro hoped could drive-out the Barbary ruffians and bring back families local to the burgeoning Park Presidio District.

Despite the best efforts of Wilkins, the Cliff House was severely damaged when the schooner Parallel, loaded to bear with high-yield explosives, was run aground in the rocks below and closed for repairs.  Then, just as the beleaguered retreat was repaired and reopened, it was completely destroyed by a chimney fire on Christmas Day, 1894.

In 1896, two years before his death, Adolph Sutro rebuilt the Cliff House.  His elegant chateau-style design with eight floors and multiple venues for dining, dancing and entertaining cost $75 thousand to build and became an icon of San Francisco.  Though it barely survived the 1906 earthquake and fires, the Cliff House again burned to its foundation in 1907, in less than two hours.

The Mayor & His Legacy


As he was rebuilding his Cliff House, Adolph Sutro was also simultaneously trying to figure out how to shield his bathhouse from the waves of the Pacific and man the helm of the City of San Francisco as the city’s 24th, and first Jewish, mayor.  His commitment to his city by funneling his vast fortune into centers of leisure and open space such as the Cliff House and Land’s End, Playland at the Beach and Golden Gate Park made him a natural candidate for mayor.

For a while, the Outside Lands to the far west of Divisadero Street was their land.  The rail magnates, silver barons and other shining representatives of San Francisco’s upper class could hide away among the dunes.  As time went on, America became involved in two world wars, again bringing San Francisco into the national spotlight as the central naval port on the western seaboard.  It was a minor staging ground during the First World War, and a major Allied port during the second.

In the 1940s, the spread of population into the Outside Lands increased dramatically.  With people returning from war or internment, and military personnel seeking lodging after the closure of the Presidio as a base of operation after World War II, new neighborhoods and thoroughfares were rapidly congealing across the western dunes.

His name is nearly synonymous with San Francisco.  If the man who figured out how to ventilate one of the biggest natural resource strikes in American history, making it accessible to miners, then there might not be any City of San Francisco. Instead, perhaps a sleepy port town that never quite recovered from its characteristic, physical isolation.

His property nestled in Clarendon Heights at Mount Parnassus, renamed Mount Sutro, is now closed to the public and home to the largest structure in the San Francisco Bay Area, the 981-ft. broadcast antenna that carries the late mayor’s name.  Sutro Tower has been drilled into the mountain such that roughly two-thirds of its structure is buried within the mountain, so that the tower would be stable, even in an earthquake.  With the tower in place, broadcast signals of all types are no longer hindered by San Francisco’s discursive geography.  It also serves a dual purpose in that residents and visitors can navigate the city just by locating the tower presiding somewhere on the city’s skyline and using it like a compass.

The mayor’s main residence overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Point Lobos is today a popular respite location for residents.  The trees that Sutro planted at Land’s End to block the region’s often unforgiving gales still remain, as does a giant concrete slab that was once the foundation of his home.  The standpipes are still there, as is the residence’s lower shed.  Children ride their bikes around the property’s forward driveway, and their parents lounge on shady benches overlooking the Pacific.  The city of San Francisco still maintains the various species of flora planted by Sutro, many of which are not native to the region.


The property’s lower gardens serve as lodging for a few of San Francisco’s legion of homeless, with garbage and chunks of building material often scattered across the ground and cigarette butts, beer bottles and Burger King wrappers in the still-filled pond.

Regardless, these dunes are Sutro’s dunes.  In 2009-10, volunteers worked to restore a 3.3 acre parcel on Balboa Street at the Great Highway, directly below Adolph Sutro’s main residential plot, dubbing it Sutro Dunes.

See a timeline of Sutro’s San Francisco