Adolph Sutro portrait, c. 1870s

Adolph Sutro portrait, c. 1870s

Adolph Sutro


Adolph Sutro, full name Adolph Heinrich Joseph Sutro, was a German merchant, entrepreneur, and politician who emigrated from Aachen, Germany to San Francisco with a ferocious ambition to attain success in the “New World.” Rarely lacking doubt in his own capabilities, Sutro pursued a variety of businesses in pursuit of both financial success and public renown, including the construction of the Sutro Tunnel as part of the development of the Comstock Lode silver mine in Nevada and the development of a large real estate portfolio in his adopted hometown of San Francisco.


Adolph Sutro, full name Adolph Heinrich Joseph Sutro, was a German merchant, entrepreneur, and politician who emigrated from Aachen, Germany to San Francisco with a ferocious ambition to attain success in the “New World.” Rarely lacking doubt in his own capabilities, Sutro pursued a variety of businesses in pursuit of both financial success and public renown, including the construction of the Sutro Tunnel as part of the development of the Comstock Lode silver mine in Nevada and the development of a large real estate portfolio in his adopted hometown of San Francisco. To a large extent Sutro succeeded in achieving wealth, becoming a well-traveled man of the world who was both a patron of culture and renowned for his contributions to the civic life of his adopted city.[1]

Childhood in Germany: Creating the Entrepreneurial Mind

Sutro hailed from the city of Aachen, Germany, and was born on April 29, 1830 to parents Rosa Warendorf Sutro and Emanuel Sutro. The Sutro family had 11 children in total; Adolph was the third child in birth order. For a living, Emanuel and his brother Simon ran a woolen cloth factory, S. and E. Sutro, an endeavor which had carried Sutro’s father from his homeland of Bavaria to the Rhineland. The family lived in a pleasant twenty-room mansion, with a beautiful garden and clock tower within its grounds, and had enough wealth to sustain a prosperous standard of living.[2]

As a child, Sutro was both particularly spirited and an excellent student. He entered the local Burgerschule (German secondary school) at the age of eight and stood at the head of his class in the school’s standardized curriculum in science and mathematics. To accompany his academic intelligence, Sutro showed tremendous interest in books from the age of seven, often spending all of his allowance, and sometimes secretly more, whenever there was a public book sale. He was also an inquisitive and curious visitor at his father’s factory, studying its machinery compulsively whenever he had time to spare. He spent many hours in the factory learning about the trade and getting to know the employees, and became skillful at spotting out flaws in the cloth; he even built a small steam engine with the knowledge he obtained from the factory. At home, he fiercely resisted his parents’ attempts at discipline, at one point literally leaping out of a window after his father flogged him for disobedience. Emanuel was unsure at the time whether Sutro had survived the fall or not, and so vowed to never again hit his children.[3]

Emanuel died in 1848 after being thrown into a ditch from his carriage, and the mill was passed along to his oldest sons, Sali and Adolph. This forced Adolph to leave school when he was sixteen in order to help run the factory. However, with various different rebellions taking place throughout Germany in 1848, the brothers decided to close the factory and liquidate its assets. Sali went to Birmingham, Alabama, to join Emanuel’s nephews in business, while Adolph was invited to run the cloth manufacturing plant of O. G. Kaapche, in Memel, East Prussia, after his talents were spotted by the older businessman when Kaapche visited to purchase machinery from Sutro’s mill.[4] Sutro left Aachen in 1849, at the age of nineteen, for Memel, where Kaapche provided him his own home as well as free rein over his factory. Kaapche knew nothing of the business in which Sutro had made his mark, and so Sutro was allowed to set up the plant exactly the way he wanted it.

It turned out Kaapche had various flaws in his calculations, and the fatal one was a lack of clear water to soften the wool. Sutro solved this by laying a pipe from a nearby brook to the factory, which allowed for a consistent flow of water; this foreshadowed his later work in Nevada. The impending crisis was resolved by Sutro’s ingenuity, and the factory became one of the most prominent new enterprises in Memel. In 1850, Sutro received a significant raise, as well as 25% of the profits for the coming year from Kaapche. However, Kaapche had not realized that the youth spent much more money than he had budgeted for establishing the mill, and would need twice as much more to maintain it; Kaapche offered to sell the mill to Sutro, an offer that he quickly declined. War was brewing again in Germany, and Sutro, being as smart as he was, did not want his assets tied down in the country. The factory closed, and Sutro began negotiating for another manager position, this time in Moscow.[5]

During this time, Sutro’s mother had been carefully considering the option of leaving Germany for the United States. Sali had written her and offered the entire family positions in his store; while Rosa Sutro turned the offer down, she did not stop thinking about emigrating. Soon after Adolph closed his second factory, he received instructions from his mother that he was to return home to Aachen and purchase tickets for himself, his mother, and all of his siblings (excluding his younger brother Otto, who was to continue his education in music) for the United States. Sutro, who was at that time eager for new opportunities, complied. By August of 1850, the Sutro family had arrived in New York, ready and eager for the opportunities that the “New World” had to offer.[6]

Early Entrepreneurship in the U.S. and Marriage

In the United States, citizens were optimistic that the future promised sustained economic growth. While most of this depended on the large contribution of slave labor–dependent cotton production and the cotton exports of the Southern states, the industrial economy of the Northeast and Midwestern food production were also beginning to contribute to an increasingly complex interregional trading system.[7] While the majority of industry was located in the Northeast, there was an undeniably growing trend of movement towards the West; in 1850 the Western region of the United States had only 0.8 percent of the population, but the proportion multiplied to 2 percent in 1860 and increased still more to 3.5 percent by 1880.[8] Among the factors shaping American migration in the period of Sutro’s arrival was the massive Gold Rush in California, triggered by the unexpected discovery of gold near Sacramento on January 24, 1848. By the next year, the population of California had grown from 14,000 to 100,000, and within two years, San Francisco’s population had grown from 8000 to 25,000.[9] According to Sutro’s biographer, Pauline Jacobson, he had heard about the gold rush in California during his transatlantic passage, and decided within a few days of settling in New York to travel to San Francisco via Panama.[10] Sutro’s decisiveness is clearly represented by this move, as by this time he was only twenty years old.

Sutro left New York on October 1, 1850 and arrived in California on November 21, 1850. The only inventory he had to start his business were some 20 yards of cloth from Germany and two crates of fine items originally intended for his brother Sali’s store. He quickly found a job as a night watchman for Meyer, Helbing & Company, an import company, and as salary was given a free room in the company’s buildings. Although Sutro was interested in the gold rush, he did not immediately go seeking gold but rather started a contract business in the city; he calculated that this business would be less risky than the gold mines, and would allow him to become acquainted with his new surroundings.[11] A few months later, together with his cousin, Bernhard Frankenheim, Sutro opened a store selling clothes, boots and shoes in Stockton, about 80 miles east of San Francisco. From there, he was able to write letters to his family members, from whom he always received replies, illustrating the tight connections and reciprocal support that the Sutro family had despite the great distance separating East and West.

In November 1851, Sutro moved back to San Francisco and opened a consignment shop for all kinds of goods on commission, offering items such as coffee, windowpanes, musical instruments, and tobacco; he traded in anything that would raise income.[12] Between 1852 and 1854, Sutro’s original business grew, and alongside it, he developed an import business for cigars and tobacco goods in the city, supplying the mining regions both north and south of the city. At this time, with the influx of miners, the demand for tobacco was high, and the tobacco business grew immensely.

In 1854, Sutro married Leah Harris, who had come to California from Dublin, Ireland. Harris was Jewish, and Sutro married her in a traditional religious ceremony. In the beginning, she provided him with great support, and gave birth to seven children: Emma Laura, later Merritt (1856–1938), Rosa Victoria, later de Morbio (1858–1942), Gussie Emanuel Sutro (1859–1865), Kate Sutro (1862–1913), Charles Walter Sutro (1864–1936), Edgar Ernest Sutro (1866–1922), and Clara Angela, later de Choiseul-Praslin (1867–1924). Leah Sutro ran two boarding houses in San Francisco to help feed their growing family, and took care of the children while Sutro was tending to his business. However, in their later years, Sutro put more attention on his tunnel project than his family, straining their relationship. While none of his children followed Sutro in seeking a prominent business career, Emma Sutro did course work in medicine at the University of California and became California’s first female physician.[13]

Nineteenth-century San Francisco was a dangerous place to be, as most men carried knives and pistols and acts of random violence happened frequently. Sutro himself was the victim of a knife attack in March of 1855 by a broker named A. J. King. Sutro’s cousin, Charles Sutro, had gotten into a disagreement with King, and the latter wanted to teach Charles a lesson. King decided to attack, but mistook Adolph for Charles and slashed his face from mouth to ear; it is this incident that many speculate was the reason Sutro wore a thick beard for the rest of his life.[14]

By 1856, Sutro, together with another cousin, Gustav Sutro, had opened a tobacco business that specialized in offering a particular brand of Turkish tobacco. Sutro advertised aggressively for the cigarettes, and even built a 1.5-meter-tall wooden Turkish figurine that emitted “smoke” once an hour outside his store. This business flourished just as well as his others, and by 1857, Sutro had three successful tobacco shops in San Francisco, all of which were rapidly making him income.

In 1858, news arrived that gold had been discovered in valley of the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. While miners flocked there to discover gold, the Sutro cousins traveled to the town of Victoria, which became the gold rush’s main supply center, to sell cigarettes. The enterprise was ultimately unsuccessful, however, and they returned to San Francisco with severe financial losses. In spite of this, Sutro accepted failure gracefully, even naming his newborn daughter Rosa Victoria in good humor, in spite of his unfortunate experience there. He realized that in order to be a successful entrepreneur, what was more necessary than the product was publicity, and his smoking Turk statue in San Francisco had gotten him just that.[15]

Arrival in Nevada: Chasing Something Bigger

It was in 1859 that a decisive phase in the entrepreneurial career of Adolph Sutro began. A report that a large silver deposit had been found near Virginia City, Nevada, reached Sutro’s ears, and on March 18, 1860, he traveled to the silver field which would come to be known as the Comstock Lode.[16] In June 1860, just three months after setting foot into Nevada for the first time, Sutro started a new company called the Experimental Metallurgical Works with a business partner, John Ramdohr. Sutro sought to develop a technique for the company to extract valuable metals from the ore deposits he found at the Comstock Lode, and make use of the tailings that were generally treated as waste products.[17] In the same year, Sutro founded Sutro Metallurgical Works in Dayton, Nevada, and began operation of a hammer mill. In addition, Sutro became a real estate agent in Virginia City. It is clear that Sutro was stretching his entrepreneurial muscles, experimenting with different occupations and companies to discover what truly met his own needs and fit best with his talents. He invested heavily in Nevada real estate, and in promotional material insisted that Nevada’s future outlook was sure to prove even more optimistic than that of California. In 1863, his hammer mill burned down. Rather than rebuilding, Sutro chose to invest in mining stock shares (some believe that Sutro himself burned down the mill to obtain the insurance money). He also became a member of the Washoe Board of Brokers in Virginia City, and a member of the Gold Hill Stock and Exchange Board.[18]

However, disaster struck in 1864, as the stock prices plummeted so steeply that Sutro’s only tangible assets were a ranch and four cows. To compensate for his failures, Sutro began contemplating building a drainage shaft in the Comstock Lode, an idea that would develop into the Sutro Tunnel. Ever since the first miners set foot in a mine, water had always been the enemy; without an effective drainage system, disaster could strike at any moment.[19] In 1863, for example, a miner in the Comstock Lode’s Ophir mine had struck a seam 313 feet deep and released water that subsequently created a lake 21 feet deep. It took almost an entire year to clear out the water, at which point another flood immediately began.[20] The Comstock Lode had an especially large vein of groundwater running under it, and so constant flooding in the area created not only an extremely inefficient mining process, but also a steadily growing list of mining injuries and casualties. Sutro proposed creating a tunnel that would slope downward through the mines, allowing accidentally released groundwater to drain out safely and efficiently. He also envisioned using the tunnel as a transportation corridor to easily move rocks and worthless minerals out of the mines. Sutro saw the project as an investment that could dramatically expand the potential output of the Comstock Lode.[21]

Sutro needed the approval of the newly-established Nevada state legislature to continue with his plan, and Sutro moved to convince what he referred to as “a few thinking men” of his project’s importance.[22] Sutro ultimately succeeded, obtaining a unanimous vote in favor, and the Sutro Tunnel Company (STC), headquartered in Nevada, was inaugurated on July 24, 1865. There were five members of the executive board, namely William M. Stewart, Louis Janin, Jr., Henry K. Mitchell, D. E. Avery, and Sutro himself, with Stewart serving as the president of the company. All of these men were very prominent, and Sutro won them over with his self-assured demeanor, intelligence, and solid confidence in the tunnel.[23] Sutro himself served as general superintendent of the project, essentially giving him unlimited control over the tunnel’s construction.[24]

The Challenge of Money

Sutro turned next to obtaining capital to carry out the construction of his tunnel project. The Nevada act authorizing the tunnel company granted it exclusive construction and transportation rights for the next 50 years and gave the company the right to demand contribution fees from the mining companies connected to the tunnel; in exchange, the company had to complete the project within eight years at the latest.[25] Sutro initially had difficulty persuading investors of the actual importance and potential benefits of his tunnel, because private investors were very cautious about investing money in innovations that were not necessarily going to prove useful. Raising these funds depended on the expectations regarding the demand and profit development of the project, and Sutro spent most of his time in 1865 and 1866 pursuing the backing of powerful corporations. His skill in convincing investors is indicated by the fact that by the end of 1866 he had finalized contracts with nineteen important mining companies.[26] On December 22, 1866, an investor from the West Coast, the Empire Mining Company, signed for the first shares sold from STC. The company bought shares totaling $15,000 under an agreement that the Sutro Tunnel begin construction on January 1, 1868 and be completed to the eastern side of the Comstock Lode before February 1873. Subsequently, other mining companies also purchased shares, including Hale & Norcross, Gould & Curry, and Savage, all in 1867 for sums of $100,000 (except Savage, which bought $150,000 worth of shares). By May of 1867, Sutro had obtained share subscriptions totaling $600,000 (or $9.12 million in 2010 dollars) from the contributions of eleven mining companies and a handful of individuals.[27]

Sutro’s project aroused the enmity of other businessmen who had already begun profiting from the resources of the Comstock Lode. His chief foe was the Bank of California, controlled by William Ralston, another San Francisco entrepreneur. The Bank of California enjoyed a monopoly over much of the business services on which the Comstock Lode depended, from the provision of building supplies to materials for channeling water drainage. Most of the mining companies had also become quite dependent on the Bank because it had given them loans. Sutro aspired to displace the bank’s position by developing not only the tunnel project but also a railroad, new processing mills, new production and supply methods, and a new town (named after himself). In a pamphlet titled “Why does the Bank of California oppose the Sutro Tunnel?” Sutro listed three ways in which the project threatened to interfere with the bank’s business, namely by disrupting its monopoly over wood, its control over the transport of ores from the mines to the mills, and the possibility that its reduction mills would be replaced by Sutro’s. Sutro clearly understood the Bank’s motives and reasoning and chose to fight it head on, indicating his immense competitive spirit and ambition.

In turn, the main argument the Bank of California used against Sutro was that the Tunnel was unnecessary, because the benefits associated with it did not justify the enormous costs needed to build it.[28] It used its influence to persuade some of the mining companies to withdraw their subscriptions. On July 18, 1867, for example, the Savage Mining Company withdrew its commitment of $150,000. Sutro also tried to obtain federal support in addition to state support by attempting to secure Congressional backing for a loan. However, the Bank of California again attacked Sutro and this effort did not succeed. In 1868, after extensive negotiations in Washington, a bill was proposed in Congress to grant Sutro a $3 million credit, but once again this was denied because of the Bank of California’s lobbying.[29]

The turning point in Sutro’s favor was a severe accident in 1869 that occurred in the Yellow Jacket Mine. Sutro exploited the tragedy by inviting the miners to hear his lecture at an opera house, in which he elucidated the background for the Bank of California’s opposition and argued for his own cause. From this night on, he gained the support of the miners, and made himself out as fighting for the common worker against the bank, which was exploiting the laborers’ needs. The mining unions thereafter subscribed for $50,000 of shares in the STC, and gave Sutro moral support in his fight against the bank.[30] With increased support from the miners’ groups, Sutro was also able to convince many individual workers to purchase shares in STC as well, using the argument that if every worker were to invest 33 cents a day, the future of the tunnel project would be secure and they would all have a job. Sutro gained approximately $30,000 per month in capital for his company.[31]

Sutro also looked to European investors to purchase shares to fund his project. However, it was very difficult, especially in those times, to relay information about an American company, given the lack of an easy means of communication. Sutro attempted the difficult task regardless, and sent various books and brochures about the project to potential investors, had his own articles published in European newspapers, and gave speeches promoting the project. During his feud with the Bank of California, Sutro decided to actually go to Europe in 1867 in order to meet with leading mining and financial experts; this trip took him to Ireland, England, France, Belgium, Holland, Prussia, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Bavaria, Switzerland, and Italy.[32] Most of the companies Sutro reached out to declined to invest due to their lack of experience with similar projects, the great distance that spanned between Europe and North America, and their unwillingness to put an American project ahead of similar projects taking place in Europe.

After a long quest, the only solid success that Sutro had in Europe was with McCalmont Brothers, a banking firm in London that had been investing in American railroads since the 1830s.[33] Sutro obtained the support of George T. Coulter, a cousin of the bank’s managing partners, Robert and Hugh McCalmont, and Coulter in turn convinced the McCalmonts to support the tunnel. McCalmont Brothers became Sutro’s largest investors: by 1875, the firm owned 900,000 out of 2 million shares in the company—almost half the total.[34] Sutro would use the firm’s commitment to the project to his advantage in future dealings with the McCalmonts, making the argument that because they had invested so much in the company already, they needed to invest more in order to ensure an eventual good return on their investment. By the end of the Sutro Tunnel project, the British bankers were essentially held hostage to their own investments, allowing the STC to continually milk money out of them.[35]

The Construction of the Tunnel

After the STC was founded, Sutro made it a priority to gather workers for his project at the same time he was collecting capital. In an ad that ran in the San Francisco Daily Times in January 1867, he called for “Miners, carpenters, engineers, machinists, blacksmiths, bricklayers, stonecutters, teamsters, laborers, and others” to come work on the Sutro Tunnel.[36] Workers who joined the company received half their pay in cash and the other half in the form of stock shares. This was a cleverly calculated move intended to involve the workers in the company’s future by giving them a personal stake in its success. At the same time, this also lowered the company’s salary expenses. Sutro’s optimism and utter confidence at this point is obvious, as he hired workers in 1867, two years before actual construction on the Sutro Tunnel began. He also already had a clear organization of tasks in mind, and thus could afford to list various positions in the advertisement well before he planned to start.

The actual construction of the tunnel project began on October 19, 1869. Initially, the advances on the project were slow, as finances for the STC tightened between 1870 and 1873, and the company could not afford to hire as many workers. However, starting in 1873, the work sped up tremendously, as more modern drills were purchased, and more workers were hired; comparatively, the project advanced at a rate of approximately 815 feet per year in 1872, but progressed rapidly to a rate of 3,728 feet per year by 1875.[37] In addition to factors created by the availability of more workers and better machinery, the geologic conditions also varied at different stages of the project, including varying types of rock and other material to be drilled through, differences in temperature and the density of gases in the rock (the higher the temperatures and gas density, the more difficult the work conditions were), and the amount of water to be pumped out. The different drills in particular were very important to the project; initially, the work was done with hand drills, which meant painstakingly slow progress. In 1872, after diamond drills were applied, the work sped up, but only nominally, because in some cases, hand drills were still more effective when penetrating softer rocks.[38] In 1874, compressed air drills were added for use, and in 1876, air drills that needed less maintenance were added as well. On July 8, 1878, Sutro put on the same kind of gear that other workers wore and triggered the final blast that linked the tunnel with the Savage mine; Sutro was also the first to crawl through the hole created by the blast. The tunnel was ultimately completed on September 1, 1878, after eight years and eleven months of construction, and reached an impressive 3.88 miles.[39]

Departure from His Company

Towards the end of the 1870s, the project ran into difficulties that led Sutro to severe disagreements with his business partners. In October 1879, there was a major conflict between Sutro and his most loyal creditor, Joseph Aron. Sutro was in New York to meet with Aron and to sell shares, but Aron opposed Sutro’s business practices. Through a series of telegrams, we know that Sutro had told his secretary on October 13, 1879, that “J. Aron admits his error,” but then on November 11, he wrote again, “I have no further relations with Mr. Aron,” suggesting a serious issue had arisen.[40] During the next spring, Aron sold all of his STC shares and resigned from the company wordlessly. The stock prices for the STC at this time were extremely high, creating an incentive for Sutro to sell out as well.[41]

In the spring of 1880, Sutro decided to leave the STC without telling any of the other trustees and shareholders. He attributed the reason for his sudden departure to a scheme by his business partners to seize ownership of the company from him. It proved to be a good decision, because the output of the Comstock Lode weakened right after, and the tunnel company’s stock price plummeted. Many within the company accused Sutro of a lack of morals, because he sold out right before the stock’s price dropped and therefore did not take responsibility for the company’s decline. The responsibility for Sutro’s position transferred to his younger brother, Theodor, and Sutro himself made a profit while the other shareholders went through great financial loss. Aron lamented his decision to trust Sutro and cursed himself for putting “blind faith” in him.[42] Many people, such as the McCalmont Brothers and other private individual investors who had financially supported Sutro, were greatly disappointed; the German entrepreneur’s departure from his company was undoubtedly not a happy one.

By selling his shares in the company, Sutro profited immensely from the tunnel project. He had contributed almost no equity to the original corporation, so his gain from selling the stocks was pure profit. Many estimates were given about the amount that he actually made; the most accurate figure seems to be just over $900,000 (or approximately $20 million in 2010 dollars). This figure is based on the fact that Sutro owned 350,000 shares of STC stock which Robert and Mary Stewart, in their biography of Sutro, calculate he sold for $908,987.50.[43] Sutro’s profits could have been much more than this amount because he also received a monthly salary of $1,000 as superintendent (or $22,000 monthly in 2010 dollars); the total profits from this salary cannot be calculated because there is no information available about how long Sutro was paid.[44]

Return to San Francisco

In 1880, Sutro relocated his family to San Francisco after walking away from the project to which he had devoted over fifteen years of his life. It is not clear why he suddenly decided to abandon Nevada for California; his biographers, Robert and Mary Stewart, hypothesized that “there must have been some final blow of sufficient proportions to make Sutro… finished with the… whole state of Nevada.”[45] Regardless, it was obvious how much Sutro believed in the future of California: in his own words, “I have the most exalted ideas regarding the future of California. I think we will grow in population, we will grow in commerce, we will grow in civilization and arts and sciences until we will rank first among our countries, and my reason for it is, that the invigorating climate of California is such, that under development, the human physique will grow and the mind will grow in the same proportion as the physique develops, and produce a magnificent man and woman of bright mind and liberal in their views and go-ahead spirit, who would foster and encourage the development of all the better traits of nature.”[46]

Returning to the first place he had visited on the West Coast, Sutro departed from entrepreneurship and instead invested money into real estate and companies. It is clear that at least a part of the motivation for these actions was to provide for his wife and children. For example, in 1880, Sutro purchased the Reese Building on Battery Street, and arranged for any income from the rents it obtained to be divided amongst his family members. An interesting point to note is that while Sutro wished to provide for his family, he did not actually live with them; he initially lived in a hotel in San Francisco upon returning to the city before purchasing his own house.[47] It is unclear, therefore, whether Sutro was a family man who provided for his children out of love, or out of a sense of duty to be a traditional “breadwinner.”

The Creation of “Sutro Heights” and Other Passions

On March 2, 1881, Sutro took a buggy ride with his daughter that possibly changed the course of his life. As they rode out towards the western edge of San Francisco, Sutro saw a small white cottage that overlooked a view that enthralled him. Sutro immediately arranged for its purchase and this small piece of land turned into his next passion in life. Sutro added bits and pieces to the cottage, finding new ways to improve it and always keeping it in excellent repair. He named his new house and the neighborhood surrounding it Sutro Heights.[48] Sutro also purchased an extensive ranch on the southern outskirts of the developed portion of San Francisco and eventually owned some 1,100 acres of property. He transformed the area’s appearance by arranging for the planting of thousands of eucalyptus and other trees.[49]

Another event in 1881 that proved important was a trip Sutro took around the world that included visits to, among other places, Japan, Singapore, India, and Jerusalem. It was in this period that Sutro developed a keen fascination for book collecting and a passion to create a public research library. This part of his life is easily overlooked given his many other achievements; historian Russ Davidson even goes as far as to say that “in the annals of American book collecting and library history, there is no collector who has received less recognition… in relation to the value and importance of his library.” Over the course of four years, Sutro purchased a large portion of his collection, which at its peak featured over 250,000 volumes. The collection was not only large but also encompassed “range and depth across different branches of human knowledge and periods of history.”[50]

Upon his return to San Francisco in 1885, Sutro developed a new appreciation for the allure of Sutro Heights and opened his estate to the public. He added statues and urns to the garden, as well as hundreds of chairs for potential visitors. Sutro Heights quickly aroused much interest in San Francisco and traffic to Sutro’s personal paradise was substantial.[51] The way Sutro handled his plot of land was atypical of his fellow millionaires, and provided a precursor for the rest of his philanthropic activities in the city. Many wealthy people in San Francisco at the time built massive homes studded with gold furniture, and bronze statues of themselves; the only commonality Sutro had with his contemporaries was purchasing the land, as he spent most of his resources on creating a garden paradise that he, and others, could enjoy. This motivation for a better San Francisco led to Sutro building Sutro Baths in 1890, an indoor swimming pool that held 10,000 people and created hundreds of jobs, as well as building the Sutro Library to house his books. Sutro also purchased meal and bed tickets from the Salvation Army to hand out to the poor as part of his philanthropic activities; Sutro’s secretary estimated that he purchased at least 10,000 tickets in 1893 alone.[52]

Sutro as Mayor

Sutro’s stint with politics emerged from his concerns over public transportation. In 1893, Collis P. Huntington and other Southern Pacific railroad executives, who also controlled several streetcar lines in San Francisco, engineered a consolidation with several other independent streetcar companies and made plans to use their near-total monopoly to raise fares throughout the streetcar system.[53] Upset over this prospect, Sutro tried to trigger a public backlash against the company by allowing visitors who came on foot free admission to his estate but charging a 25-cent entry fee for those who came by streetcar. When that tactic failed, Sutro built his own electric railroad to compete with the Huntington-backed trolley and provide access to his estate and other properties.[54]

After addressing the railroad issue, Sutro also fought Huntington on the “Funding Bill,” a proposal to permit the Southern Pacific to pay off its twenty-seven million dollar debt, due in 1894, in ninety-nine years, at zero-point-five percent interest. Sutro essentially saw this delay as a cancellation of the original debt, and argued that the railroad was also exploiting the public through unfairly high rates. His battles against Huntington awakened his political interests, and at breakfast with members of the Populist Party in July 1894, Sutro became their candidate for mayor. His campaign went fairly smoothly, as he was a popular man known for doing whatever he could to help the people of San Francisco. He continued to accuse the Southern Pacific Railroad and other such big business companies of exploiting the poor, and eventually won the election, taking 31,254 votes out of a total nearing 60,000 people.[55]

Unfortunately, Sutro turned out to be a terrible mayor because he was far too personally involved in the city; for example, although Sutro originally campaigned for street railroads, he also refused to let other companies build new ones, for fear of construction destroying the city’s beauty. Sutro grew frustrated with politicians, declaring that “the Mayor is little more than a figurehead… I have always been master of a situation; I have always had a number of men under my employ, and they did as I told them. I could not manage the politicians.”[56] He left the mayoral office at the end of his term in 1897, much to the relief of everyone involved in San Francisco politics.[57]

Sutro’s Legacy as a Philanthropist

Sutro’s philanthropy affected most of those who lived in San Francisco during his time and continues to benefit those in San Francisco today: for example, the city’s major medical center, UC San Francisco, sits on land donated by Sutro in 1895. One of Sutro’s most ambitious projects was the Sutro Baths, a public bathhouse that he opened in 1896. An interview with the San Francisco Chronicle from 1886 indicates that Sutro had initially begun with the intention of building a saltwater aquarium that held “every class of sea anemone, sea mosses, and shell fish.” Around 1890, Sutro converted the aquarium into the Baths. After a lengthy period of approximately six years, during which time Sutro’s workers constructed the building, swimming tanks and utility systems, the Baths opened for public use on March 14, 1896 as the world’s largest indoor swimming complex. The building contained six main swimming tanks, along with changing rooms, lockers, and even a museum to show off Sutro’s collections from his world travels.[58] Apart from swimming, there was also live entertainment every weekend at the Baths, with an assortment of performances that included concerts, acrobatics and even circus animal acts. During these days, one of the pools would be covered over to double as a stage and thousands would sit in bleachers to watch the acts.[59]

After Sutro died in 1898, his children attempted to sell the property, first for approximately $1 million, next for $687,000 and then finally for $410,000; they was unsuccessful on all three counts, and the complex remained in the family’s control until 1952. There were no significant changes to any part of the building until 1935, when Adolph Sutro’s grandson Adolph G. Sutro decided to try attracting younger people to the Baths by modernizing the exterior, rebuilding the main pool and adding a feature called “Tropic Beach.” The Tropic Beach was converted to an ice rink in 1937 that became extremely popular among San Franciscans.[60]

In 1952, the Sutro Baths finally changed hands to a buyer named George Whitney. He decided to convert the entire project into a museum for his personal collections, shutting down the swimming pools in 1954 but leaving the ice rink. He also built an aerial tram in 1955 in an attempt to create an attraction with more modern appeal.[61] When Whitney died in 1958, his heirs decided to sell a part of the structure to a developer named Robert Frasier; he wanted to convert the entire area into condominiums and high-rises.[62] However, soon after demolition work at the complex began, a massive fire broke out on June 26, 1969. The entire building was engulfed in flames and the Baths were no more. The National Park Service, after years of negotiations, finally managed to purchase the 4.4-acre site for $5.5 million in 1980 and turned it into a historic preservation site. Today, a trip to San Francisco’s Lands End Park allows a visitor to see the deserted ruins of Sutro Baths, once a place of remarkable liveliness and constant activity.[63]

One of Sutro’s longer-lasting achievements was the assembly of the aforementioned Sutro Library. Sutro explained that he aimed to create a collection “for the benefit of the people among whom I have so long labored” that would not simply house “various book curiosities” but instead provide a comprehensive reference library for San Francisco’s residents.[64] Near the end of his life, Sutro devoted considerable thought to ensuring how his large collection of tens of thousands of volumes would be made available to the public; he intended to provide funds for a library building and an endowment for the collection’s maintenance. Unfortunately, he was stricken with illness before he had a chance to implement his plan, and his will—drafted in 1882, before he embarked on the library project—contained no provisions for implementing his intentions. Thus, the books became part of his estate and remained in storage for almost two decades as Sutro’s children feuded over his assets. The building where half the collection was stored was destroyed in the fire that swept San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, but the other half was eventually donated to the public and in 1917 the surviving collection officially became the San Francisco branch of the California State Library. In 2012, the collection was moved to its own dedicated space within the J. Paul Leonard Library at San Francisco State University.[65]


Sutro died on August 8, 1898 at the age of 68 years in the house of his eldest daughter, Emma. His body was sturdy, but his mind was steadily growing weaker. Despite his wishes to stay at the Sutro Heights for the remainder of his days, his daughter Emma, who had been deemed his legal guardian by the courts, moved him to her home. Lying in Emma’s bed, Sutro suffered from immense dementia, believing that he was still at the Heights, and was completely oblivious to the serious legal battle amongst his children to obtain his guardianship. A month before his death, Sutro suffered a serious stroke that rendered him immobile; it was in this state that he left the world, blessed without the knowledge that soon after his death, his beloved Heights would be torn down, much of his library would suffer destruction in a fire and his bathing complex would become a picturesque ruin.

By the time of his death, Sutro’s wealth had grown to an estate valued at $2,849,572, approximately $77.3 million in 2010 dollars.[66] Two years after Sutro’s death, a woman named Clara Kluge-Sutro sued the Sutro estate to receive a share of it on behalf of herself and her two children. According to Kluge-Sutro, she and Adolph Sutro had begun a relationship in 1890 which eventually resulted in the birth of two children—Adolph and Adolphine. An 1890 city directory reference shows that while Adolph Sutro was living at Sutro Heights, “Mrs. A. Sutro” was living in the same house on Fillmore Street the family had occupied a decade earlier, suggesting that Adolph and Leah Sutro had separated by then. Leah Harris Sutro died in early 1893, and Clara Kluge-Sutro claimed that not long afterward she and Adolph Sutro went through a common-law marriage. Eventually, she accepted a payment of some $100,000 (approximately $2.7 million in 2010 dollars) as a compromise, and the bulk of the Sutro estate was divided among his six elder children. Not much is known about Sutro’s children after his death, except that they each received an equal share of Sutro’s estate, allowing them to presumably live out their lives comfortably as members of San Francisco’s elite.[67] Sutro’s real estate holdings were sold off to developers and San Francisco neighborhoods such as St. Francis Wood and Ingleside now sit on the land he once owned.[68]

Despite the checkered legacies of his business career and his philanthropic projects, Sutro played an important role in the development of San Francisco and etched himself deeply into its history. He was recently commemorated with a bust in San Francisco City Hall to mark his term as mayor and his role as an inspiring figure in German-American and Jewish-American history. In his brave decision to travel to San Francisco, his multiple accomplishments, including the construction of the Sutro Tunnel, and his single-minded dedication to his goals and complete refusal to accept failure, Sutro is undoubtedly an example of how far ambition can take a person when he has enough of it.[69]


[1] The authors wish to thank the Institute of European Studies, University of California, Berkeley, for its assistance.

[2] Robert Stewart and Mary Frances Stewart, Adolph Sutro (Berkeley, Calif.: Howell-North, 1962), 9.

[3] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 10.

[4] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 12–14.

[5] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 15–18.

[6] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 19.

[7] Douglass North, The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790–1860 (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1961), 37.

[8] Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, Historical Census Statistics… for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States, U.S. Bureau of the Census Population Division Working Paper No. 56, Sep. 2002, table F-1.

[9] Russ Leadabrand, Shelly Lownkopf, Bryce Patterson, Yesterday’s California (Miami: E.A. Seemann, 1975), 23.

[10] Pauline Jacobson, with Carl Glasscock, Miner, Merchant, and Mayor (San Francisco: Society of California Pioneers, 1933), 23.

[11] Jacobson, Miner, Merchant, and Mayor, 38.

[12] Jacobson, Miner, Merchant, and Mayor, 60.

[13] Martini, Sutro’s Glass Palace, 83; Jeanne E. Abrams, Jewish Women Pioneering the Frontier Trail: A History in the American West (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 153.

[14] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 32.

[15] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 31.

[16] Jacobson, Miner, Merchant, and Mayor, 77.

[17] Jacobson, Miner, Merchant, and Mayor, 96.

[18] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 37–40.

[19] Eliot Lord, Comstock Mining and Miners (1883; repr. ed., Berkeley, Calif.: Howell-North, 1959), 230.

[20] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 42.

[21] Otis E. Young, Western Mining (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), 253–254.

[22] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 46.

[23] Joseph Aron, History of a Great Work and of an Honest Miner (1892), 5.

[24] David William Davies, “History of the Sutro Tunnel to Its Completion,” M.A. thesis (University of California Los Angeles, 1940), 24.

[25] Sutro, The Mineral Resources of the United States, 171.

[26] John Church, The Comstock Lode: Its Formation and History (New York, 1879), 1.

[27] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 57–58.

[28] Lord, Comstock Mining and Miners, 109.

[30] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 76. For further discussion of these events see also Gunther Peck, “Manly Gambles: The Politics of Risk on the Comstock Lode, 1860–1880,” Journal of Social History 26 (Summer 1993): 701–723, 709–714.

[31] George Lyman, Ralston’s Ring: California Plunders the Comstock Lode (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 145.

[32] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 65.

[33] Mira Wilkins, The History of Foreign Investment in the United States to 1914 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 218.

[34] Davies, “History of the Sutro Tunnel,” 38.

[35] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 130.

[36]The Daily Times, San Francisco, Jan. 31, 1867.

[37] Virgil Monroe Henderson, “Sutro Tunnel,” B.S. thesis (University of Nevada, Reno, 1912), 29.

[38] Davies, “History of the Sutro Tunnel,” 71.

[39] Davies, “History of the Sutro Tunnel,” 73.

[40] Jacobson, Miner, Merchant, and Mayor, 1. Sutro had meanwhile published a number of pamphlets in hopes of obtaining federal aid for the tunnel project, including Closing Argument of Adolph Sutro on the Bill before Congress to Aid the Sutro Tunnel (Washington: M’Gill & Witherow, 1872); Why Does the Bank of California Oppose the Sutro Tunnel? The Mystery Explained (Washington: M’Gill & Witherow, 1873); Argument and Statement of Facts, Showing Why the Amendments to Senate Bill 16… Should Be Concurred in by the Senate (Washington: M’Gill & Witherow, 1874).

[41] Jacobson, Miner, Merchant, and Mayor, 2.

[42] Aron, History of a Great Work and of an Honest Miner, 4.

[43] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 166.

[44] Aron, History of a Great Work and of an Honest Miner, 24.

[45] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 169.

[46] “Adolph Sutro,” American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco, accessed February 17, 2017,

[47] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 170–171.

[48] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 175.

[49] Richard Brandi, “Farms, Fire and Forest: Adolph Sutro and Development “West of Twin Peaks,” The Argonaut 14 (Summer 2003), available online at:

[50] Russ Davidson, “Adolph Sutro as Book Collector,” California State Library Foundation Bulletin, no. 104 (2012), 6.

[51] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 181.

[52] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 174.

[53] See William Friedricks, Henry E. Huntington and the Creation of Southern California (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992), 32–40.

[54] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 200.

[55] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 204. See also David B. Griffiths, “Anti-Monopoly Movement in California, 1873–1898,” Southern California Quarterly 52 (June 1970): 93–121, esp. 105–108.

[56] Quoted in “Adolph Sutro,” American Jerusalem.

[57] “Adolph Sutro,” American Jerusalem; Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 205–206.

[58] John A. Martini, Sutro’s Glass Palace: The Story of Sutro Baths (Bodega Bay, Calif.: Hole in the Head Press, 2014), 26, 51–60; Nancy Rockafellar, “Bricks and Mortar: Building the Affiliated Colleges,” A History of UCSF,

[59] Martini, Sutro’s Glass Palace, 74–75.

[60] Martini, Sutro’s Glass Palace, 99–103.

[61] Martini, Sutro’s Glass Palace, 109.

[62] Martini, Sutro’s Glass Palace, 113.

[63] Martini, Sutro’s Glass Palace, 115.

[64] Quoted in Davidson, “Adolph Sutro as Book Collector,” 11.

[65] Davidson, “Adolph Sutro as Book Collector,” 8; Gary F. Kurutz, “Sutro Library: Now Open in a Sparkling New Location,” California State Library Foundation Bulletin, no. 104 (2012), 3.

[66] “Will Be Cremated,” San Francisco Report, August 9, 1898.

[67] See “Funeral of Mrs. Sutro,” San Francisco Call, Dec. 12, 1893; “Sutro’s Will Is Read to His Children,” San Francisco Call, August 12, 1898; “Mrs. Kluge Will Battle for the Sutro Millions,” San Francisco Call, Jan. 11, 1900; “Mrs. Clara Kluge-Sutro Accepts the Compromise,” San Francisco Call, Jan. 22, 1902; and “Sutro Heirs to Divide Pioneer’s Great Estate,” San Francisco Call, June 25, 1909.

[68] Brandi, “Farms, Fire and Forest.”

[69] Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, 212; “Sutro’s Profile Raised with New Sculpture at S.F. City Hall,” Jewish News of Northern California, May 3, 2013,

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Adolph Sutro
  • Coverage 1830-1898
  • Hermann-Victor Johnen
  • Author Jack Chai
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date June 23, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018