JAMES ROLPH, JR.
dapper and highly gregarious James "Sunny Jim" Rolph was
San Francisco's longest-running mayor ever. Wildly popular, he ruled
the roost for 19 years, over an unparalleled
period of prosperity for the city, from 1911
through 1930. Before hitting city politics,
he was a Mission District kid made good, going from office boy to
shipping magnate and bank president in short order. A fancy dresser
with panache to spare, "Sunny Jim" adopted the tune "There
are Smiles That Make You Happy" as his theme song, keeping
a brass band on the payroll to play it at his public appearances.
Rolph showed an equal flair for rebuilding the city in style after
the earthquake and fire of 1906. Virtually
all of San Francisco's major municipal projects (the Civic Center
and most other major city buildings, the Hetch Hetchy water system,
the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges, and the San Francisco Airport,
to name just a few) were planned and/or completed during his tenure.
1919, Rolph presided over the Panama-Pacific
International Exposition, a world's fair which celebrated both the
completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, and
the rebirth of San Francisco after the disasters 1906.
Although it is little remembered today, the PPIE
was one of the most important things to ever happen to San Francisco.
The Civic Center was built for it, Van Ness was kept wide after
1906 to accommodate its parades, and a reef
at the northwest corner of town was filled in to provide it with
635 acres of free real estate, now known as
the Marina District. The PPIE cemented California’s
position as a major vacation destination for the rest of the country,
and even occasioned the nation’s first transcontinental highway
to transport early motorists from New York all the way to San Francisco,
the Lincoln Highway (now known as US 80).
loved to have a good time, and San Francisco had a good time with
him, as parades, parties, and civic celebrations multiplied during
the 1920's. Prohibition was almost totally
ignored within city limits, the economy was strong, the arts flourished,
and San Francisco was growing into its own as a world-class city.
Riding high on his popularity and considerable achievements, Rolph
won the California gubernatorial election in 1930.
starting out his governorship with high hopes, Rolph couldn't have
taken the job at a worse time. The effects of the Great Depression
were just getting serious, and Rolph found himself blamed for many
of the state’s financial woes that he hadn't done anything
to cause. In fact, he had been so focused on running San Francisco
for so long that he had let his own business interests flounder,
and was now in bad financial shape himself. There were unexpected
duties inherent to the position which crushed his spirit, such as
deciding who among the death row inmates to grant pardons to (or
not). These and other grave problems wore Rolph down spiritually
and physically. After a period of failing health, including several
heart attacks, a stroke, and possibly an undiagnosed neurological
disease, James Rolph, Jr. died in 1934.
so many years of the good life, Rolph’s wife Annie found herself
a destitute widow, unable to pay for the funeral expenses. But San
Francisco had not forgotten Sunny Jim. His body was brought back
to lie in state in the rotunda of City Hall, and later the city
paid off $1.5 million in debts against his
estate. In his will, with nothing of his wealth or health left to
leave after giving so much to his fellow citizens, Rolph wrote of
his "grateful appreciation" at being elected to serve
as mayor so many times, and closed "I wish I would have had
an estate to give great gift[s] to all the charitable institutions
of San Francisco. Good Bye, Good Luck, God Bless You All."