Mayors 1850-1897

Unfinished History

John White Geary, May 1, 1850 to May 5, 1851

In August 1849, the last Alcalde and first Mayor of San Francisco, John Geary, described a city already with 10,000 inhabitants and a hundred square blocks: "At this time we are without a dollar in the public treasury and it is to be feared the city is greatly in debt. You have neither an office for your magistrate, nor any other public edifice. You are without a single police officer or watchman, and have not the means of confining a prisoner for an hour; neither have you a place to shelter, while living, sick and unfortunate strangers who may be cast upon our shores, or to bury them when dead... Public improvements are unknown in San Francisco. In short you are without a single requisite necessary for the promotion of prosperity, for the protection of property, or for the maintenance of order."

Sent to San Francisco by President James Polk to become the first postmaster, Geary became alcalde in the fall of 1849. He had the distinction of creating the first taxes on real estate sales, auctions, business licenses, and transportation. The "common council," precursor to today's Board of Supervisors, appropriated the first revenues to acquire the brig Euphemia to serve as a jail. (Members of that first council included the namesakes of some of today's streets: T. Green, H. Harrison, J. Townsend, W. Davis, S. Brannan). San Francisco became a state-approved chartered city on May 1, 1850, and Geary became Mayor, dropping the Mexican title of alcalde.

Historian H.H. Bancroft in Vol. VI of his seven-volume history published in 1888 wrote:

"Geary's demeanor is not wholly spotless. His unassuming manners and ability, and his veto on many obnoxious measures, gave an eclat to his official career, which served greatly to gloss over several questionable features, such as amassing some $200,000 in less than 3 years, not derived from trade; illegally buying city lots; countenancing the purchase of the useless city hall on Stockton St., and other doubtful transactions connected with the disposal of city property." (See Mission Bay)

Charles Brenham, May 5, 1851–December 30, 1851; November 10, 1852–October 2, 1853

During his first term, after fire burned down most of the center of the city in May 1851, the famous Vigilantes formed to put an end to rampant crime and property theft and destruction. Brenham risked himself in front of a large angry mob intent on lynching a Captain Waterman. By threatening to arrest everyone present if they failed to disperse in 10 minutes, he managed to save the man's life from an imminent lynching. He lost his office for most of a year when Stephen Harris was elected unopposed after a new city charter called for elections within weeks of its passage, a scant five months after Brenham had taken office, and the state Supreme Court later upheld the election's validity. Brenham signed an ordinance to establish the city's first fresh water supply, to be piped in from Mountain Lake, then a small pond four miles west of Portsmouth Plaza. During his second term the city grew to over 40,000 and settled into racial neighborhoods: German, Chinese, Mexican, South American and some blacks. (See Mary Ellen Pleasant)

Stephen Randall Harris, January 1, 1852–November 10, 1852

A corner druggist and aspiring politician, Harris was elected unopposed in a special new charter election in 1851. He had been on the common council since 1849, and lost everything in the big fires of May 4, 1850, June 14, 1850, and May 4, 1851. He replaced his wealth by returning to the gold streams of the American River.

Cornelius Kingsland Garrison, October 3, 1853–October 2, 1854

First street lights Feb. 11, 1854 (last ones out in 1930). First government regulation of cab fares. Embezzlement charges at end of term.

Stephen Webb, October 2, 1854–June 30, 1855

Elected on the "Know-Nothing Party" ticket, virulently anti-Chinese, anti-foreigner. Served nine desultory months tainted by financial scandals and ineptitude.

James Van Ness, July 1, 1855–July 8, 1856 wikipedia

Second wave of Vigilantes during his term. Several hanged, many beaten and driven away. Ends with torchlight parade of armed men through the city. Van Ness resists by introducing police into waterfront strike; by the end of his term he is bogged down by graft and suspicion. As alderman, he sponsored the "Van Ness Ordinance", which ordered all land within the city limits that was undeveloped at that time (that is, west of Larkin Street and southwest of Ninth Street) to be surveyed and then to be transferred to their original deedholders. Because there were many fraudulent deed holders at that time, this law led to many lawsuits for many years.

George Whelan, August 8, 1856–November 15, 1856

Serves a few months and there's little to say about it, the period being dominated by the Vigilantes and their successor political organization. Whelan was unable to gain the support or cooperation of any other sector or group of people, and was turned out of office immediately.

Ephriam Willard Burr, November 15, 1856–October 3, 1859

Candidate of the Vigilante Committee, operating under the banner of the People's Party. Ten thousand armed vigilantes ensured his election by standing guard during the voting. First mayor to serve after the Know-Nothing Party's successful campaign to consolidate the city and county of San Francisco. He served three one-year terms and then retired after having slashed municipal spending by more than half. He went on to finance Andrew Hallidie's cable car scheme, and lived in Cow Hollow (now the Union Street-Marina District area) until he was forced to move in 1891 when the city extended Van Ness Avenue through his property to the bay.

Henry Teschemscher, October 3, 1859–July 1, 1863

The first mayor to have lived in San Francisco since before the Gold Rush (1842), as well as the first foreign-born American to serve as mayor. Avid participant in Vigilante movements of 1851 and 1856. Presided over the opening of the first Market Street Railroad Company line in 1860, running up Market from Battery to a southern turn on Valencia to 17th Street. Civil war trade blockades led to booming economic development in San Francisco. Manufacturing of all sorts exploded, from textiles to iron.

1864 election drawing.jpg

1864 election in San Francisco

Image: Shaping San Francisco

Henry Coon, January 1, 1863–December 2, 1867

During the silver boom that coincided with his term of office, the banking houses of the east as well as England arrived. The Bank of California also got its start, and Montgomery Street began its long career as the west coast banking center. Coon received word of Lincoln's assassination by way of the new mechanical marvel, the magnetic telegraph, and led the largest-ever procession in the city's young history. He fought Ralston's attempts to extend Montgomery Street further south than its present terminus at Howard Street. Later Ralston built the Palace Hotel on Market and New Montgomery, where it still stands. He set aside land amid controversy for what became Golden Gate Park and the Great Ocean Highway.

Frank McCoppin, December 2, 1867–December 6, 1869

By age 27 he was superintendent of the Market Street Railway and had to contend with its greatest nemesis: drifting sand. The trip to Valencia and 17th was frequently interrupted by motorman and conductor having to clear sand from the tracks. McCoppin promoted the planting of native ground cover and the problem was solved. He blamed deteriorating streets on excessive "house moving." With the speculation and ensuing bust following the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, newly destitute and unemployed San Franciscans turned their wrath on the thousands of Chinese who had arrived also with the railroad's end. July 13, 1869 saw street riots against the Chinese by gangs of unemployed white laborers. McCoppin lost his office by about 100 votes but continued on in state politics for many years. His name is on the street near San Francisco's Department of Social Services' office building on Mission Street.

Thomas Selby, December 6, 1869–December 4, 1873

A flamboyant millionaire, Selby threw lavish parties in his Rincon Hill mansion, helping establish San Francisco's reputation for wealth and gentility. He transferred the old Yerba Buena cemetery lands to the new city hall commission in 1870, leading to the move of the city's administrative center from Portsmouth Square to today's Civic Center area. After his term, during the fight over a bay bridge to bring the Central Pacific railroad terminus to San Francisco, Selby joined banker William Ralston and Silver King James Otis in imploring the city to grant liberal accommodations to aid financially in constructing the bridge. The Board of Supervisors pointed out that the city had already granted many concessions to the Central Pacific Railroad: $2 million in direct bond subsidy, interest on a state subsidy of $800,000, $350,000 worth of stock on the SF-San Jose railroad, and sixty acres of tidelands at Mission Bay (worth billions by the 1990s).

William Alvord, December 4, 1871–December 1, 1873

Continued the work of the previous two administrations in struggling to plant Golden Gate Park in the sand dunes of the western peninsula. Alvord was founder of two different iron works, one, Pacific Rolling Mills at Potrero Point, providing rails for the Central Pacific. Alvord vetoed anti-Chinese legislation passed by the board under pressure from restive white workers. He was president at one time or another of the Bank of California; Alaska-Treadwell Gold Mining Company; the Alaska-Mexican Gold Mining Co.; The Alaska-United Gold Mining Co.; the San Francisco Clearinghouse; the Spring Valley Water Co.; and The Pacific-Union Club. He had the glass conservatory built in Golden Gate Park instead of San Jose where James Lick had planned to build it.

James Otis,December 1, 1873–October 30, 1875

Grandson of the famous James Otis of the Revolutionary War. After campaigning for flushing the sewers and against trashing the streets, Otis ultimately died days before the end of his term of diptheria.

George Hewston, November 4, 1875–December 6, 1875

In office for only a month, nothing noteworthy.

Andrew Jackson Bryant, December 6, 1875–December 1, 1879

Elected by the anti-Chinese sentiment, he also strongly opposed the purchase of the Spring Valley Water Co. by the city at a price he labeled outrageous. His anti-Chinese oratory, combined with that of Denis Kearney and others in the sandlots south of Market, made the Chinese question the preeminent one of the day. By late July 1877 Mayor Bryant had done an about-face, having announced that the police were unable to control the situation and turning control over to William Coleman's Pick-handle Brigade–the third of his Vigilante Committees.

The Great Crisis of 1877 erupted on Friday evening July 27 when the Pacific Mail Steamship Dock at Brannan and 2nd became the sight of a raging inferno, followed by a full-scale riot between the unemployed and the pick-axers. Soon after the Workingmen's Party was formed, largely in retaliation against Bryant's ineffective show of support for labor's demands. On October 29, 1877, 3,000 of the newly-formed party marched up Nob Hill to the famous demonstration against the importation of Chinese labor, the Big Four, and Crocker's Spite Fence.

Bryant proved a malleable and craven mayor. When the tide turned against Kearney and the Workingmen's Party, Bryant went so far as to push legislation through the state legislature giving the police the right to arrest any group of three or more congregating on a public street!

Isaac Smith Kalloch, December 1, 1879–December 5, 1881

Nicknamed the "Sorrel Stallion" because his "heavenly aspirations (he was a priest) were often compromised by earthly angels." (San Francisco Mayors by William F. Heintz, Gilbert Richard Publications, Woodside: 1975) He was shot by Chronicle owner Charles de Young a week before being elected, but survived and served out his term.

The Workingmen's Party won almost every elective seat in San Francisco except on the Board of Supervisors in the 1879 election. Isaac Kalloch, a former New England abolitionist, was the new mayor. As a minister he had the largest congregation in the city, including a large Chinese Sunday School. Nevertheless he joined the Workingmen's Party and their anti-Chinese campaign.

During the mayoral race, an exchange of insults between Kalloch and SF Chronicle publisher Charles De Young led to the latter shooting Kalloch on the street in front of his church. Kalloch survived to win a landslide election ten days later, but was immediately deadlocked by a hostile Board of Supervisors.

Mayor Kalloch, quoted in the SF Examiner, 2/18/1880:

What I want to tell you is there is danger of some reckless and revolutionary person, some man from some hot scene in the old country that don't understand the peaceful working of our Government... We free ourselves from any sympathy that has come from hot revolutionary scenes of the old world, and we don't want that kind of men to put their fingers into our pie.

Maurice Carey Blake, December 5, 1881–January 8, 1883

Washington Bartlett, January 8, 1883–January 3, 1887

Edward B. Pond, January 3, 1887–January 5, 1891

George Henry Sanderson, January 5, 1891–January 3, 1893

Levi Richard Ellert, January 3, 1893–January 7, 1895

Adolph Sutro, January 7, 1895–January 4, 1897

In February, 1865, a tobacco merchant and visionary engineer named Adolph Sutro approached financier Billy Ralston with a mad scheme: Sutro proposed to construct a seven-mile-long, two-thousand-foot-deep mining tunnel from one end of the Comstock Lode to the other. Ralston liked the idea; soon Sutro was touring the country, whipping up political and financial support for a project so improbable that the Gold Hills News (1869) called it "one of the most infamous and barefaced swindles ever put forth in Nevada."

The Sutro Tunnel, finished in 1878, was a financial bust for everyone but Sutro, who had secretly sold his stock just before it was completed. Sutro had known what the others didn't: The Comstock Lode was played out. Sutro retired to his mansion in what is now Sutro Park. In the 1890's he was elected Mayor of San Francisco.

San Francisco Mayors and Alcaldes

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