Rolph, James, 1869-1934

Alternative names
Birth 1869-08-23
Death 1934-06-02

Biographical notes:

Rolph served as mayor of San Francisco (1912-1930) and governor of Calif. (1931-1934).

From the description of James Rolph, Jr. papers, 1904-1934, bulk 1911-1930. (California Historical Society). WorldCat record id: 122288066

Rolph served as mayor of San Francisco (1911-1930) and governor of Calif. (1931-1934).

From the description of James Rolph, Jr. photograph album [graphic]. [ca. 1913-1916] (California Historical Society). WorldCat record id: 213468344

James Rolph, Jr. was San Francisco's 30th mayor, from 1912 to 1931. Born in 1869 in San Francisco, he attended Mission District schools, graduating from Trinity College in 1888. Rolph became a successful shipbuilder and banker. He married Annie Reid with whom he had three children. A charming and energetic man, he was known as "Sunny Jim". Rolph oversaw the reconstruction of City Hall and the construction of many San Francisco buildings and tunnels and the Hetch Hetchy water system. He was also Vice President of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. In 1931, he left City Hall to take office as Governor of California. Rolph died in 1934.

From the description of James Rolph, Jr. papers, 1909-1930. (San Francisco Public Library). WorldCat record id: 180774886

Biographical/Historical note

James Rolph, Jr. was San Francisco's 30th mayor, from 1912 to 1931, the longest term served by a San Francisco mayor. Born in 1869 in San Francisco, he attended Mission District schools, graduating from Trinity College in 1888. Rolph became a successful shipbuilder and banker. He married Annie Reid, with whom he had three children. A charming and energetic man, he was known as "Sunny Jim."

Rolph oversaw the reconstruction of City Hall and the construction of many San Francisco buildings and tunnels and the Hetch Hetchy water system. He was also Vice President of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.

A member of the Republican Party, Rolph lost his party's nomination for Governor in 1918 but carried the Democratic ticket. He couldn't accept the minority party's nomination. In 1931, he left City Hall to take office as Governor of California. Rolph died in 1934.

From the guide to the James Rolph, Jr. Papers, 1909-1930, (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Biographical Information

James Rolph, Jr., known as "Sunny Jim", served as mayor of San Francisco from 1912 to 1931, resigning only to become governor of California for one term before his death in 1934. Born on August 23, 1869, in a home on Minna Street "South of the Slot," Rolph was the oldest of seven children. His father was from London and his mother from Edinburgh; they met on board ship coming to America and married when they reached San Francisco. Rolph attended public primary schools in San Francisco and graduated from Trinity School in 1888. The family lived near the intersection of 21st and Guerrero Streets in the Mission district during this time; an older neighbor, Matt I. Sullivan, befriended the young man and became his life-long advisor. Rolph started working while a still a student, selling newspapers and performing various odd jobs. After graduation he was employed by De Witt, Kittle & Co. for 12 years, where he learned the shipping business. Rolph's mother died when he was 20, and he helped raise his brothers and sisters (William, George, Ronald, Mildred, Elizabeth Jane, and Thomas) prior to marrying Miss Annie Marshall Reid, the daughter of a Mission district businessman, on June 26, 1900. Daughter Annette was born in 1901, followed by a son, James, in 1904, and daughter Georgina in 1905. Their home at 25th and San Jose served as the family headquarters until Rolph's death, although he also famously spent many nights in his office at City Hall.

In 1900, Rolph formed a shipping company, Hind & Rolph, with a former classmate from Trinity, George Hind, also a life-long friend, and in 1903 helped found the Mission Bank. His other, subsequent companies included Rolph Shipbuilding Company and Rolph Navigation and Coal. He served as president of the Shipowners Association of the Pacific Coast for three terms, president of the Merchant's Exchange for three years, and a trustee of the Chamber of Commerce. Following the 1906 earthquake and fire, Rolph was instrumental in establishing the Mission Relief Agency of the Red Cross. His barn at 25th and Guerrero Streets became the headquarters for distributing food and supplies unloaded at the Southern Pacific station on nearby Valencia Street. He used his personal funds to feed thousands of displaced citizens there for a number of months.

Rolph was first urged to run for mayor in 1909 but declined. In 1911, he was persuaded to enter the race by Matt I. Sullivan and Gavin McNab, head of the Democratic Party in San Francisco. An advocate of the union shop, which he employed in his own businesses, Rolph drew a great deal of support away from incumbent P.H. McCarthy, the Union Labor party candidate. In the September 26 primary Rolph received 47,417 votes to McCarthy's 27,048. Campaigning on a platform of clean government in the aftermath of the graft trials in San Francisco, his personal and professional reputation already well established throughout the community, Rolph promised not only an honest administration but to be "mayor of all the people." He took office at the age of 42 on January 8, 1912, for the first of his five terms.

Rolph's initial years as mayor were a whirlwind of activity, culminating in the astonishing Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. The fair brought world-wide attention to the rebirth of the city, which had been virtually destroyed less than 10 years earlier. Rolph's first re-election campaign occurred during the midst of the fair, and there was never any doubt that he would prevail over his major opponent, former mayor Eugene Schmitz. Although his second term was equally eventful, Rolph was also diligently pursuing his private interests. With the impending involvement of the U.S. in World War I, Rolph focused on shipbuilding. Already a millionaire prior to becoming mayor, his wealth significantly increased as he provided ships and tugs for ocean towing. These were built both in San Francisco and in Oakland at the Moore & Scott yards owned by Rolph's sister Mildred's husband, Joseph P. Moore . He formed the Rolph Shipbuilding Company, and in 1917 bought the Bendixsen shipyards in Humboldt, California.

In February 1918 he went to Washington, D.C. to meet with the US Shipping Board for the necessary approval to build wooden ships for the French government. That year Rolph also announced his candidacy for governor of California, seeking the nomination of both the Republican and Democratic parties, which was permitted at that time. Rolph won the Democratic nomination but not the Republican, and ultimately his candidacy was challenged since by law he could not be the candidate of another party unless he had also won the nomination of his own. At the same time, the U.S. Shipping Board retracted their authorization to build ships for the French government and would not permit him to sell the ships to any other countries, for diplomatic reasons. Rolph returned to Washington to protest this decision, which he viewed as politically motivated, but his appeal was unsuccessful. When World War I ended in November 1918, Rolph was left with no opportunity to recoup the significant investments he had made in this venture, and he was faced with growing debt. Despite his personal difficulties, Rolph went to New York to welcome the troops home, followed by a big parade in San Francisco in the spring of 1919, and was quite involved with efforts to find employment and housing for the returning San Franciscans. In the fall of that year, Rolph again faced Eugene Schmitz in his re-election and won.

During the 1920s, Rolph became less involved in city affairs, and focused on his ceremonial role. With his charisma and dapper appearance, including a boutonniere and his handmade boots, as well as his exceptional memory and genuine affection for people, Rolph was the consummate host throughout his years in office. Requiring little sleep, he maintained a punishing schedule of public appearancescutting ribbons, laying cornerstones, and inaugurating streetcar lines, often garbed in the appropriate costumes. He belonged to a multitude of organizations, among them the Masons, Elks, Odd Fellows, and Improved Order of Redmen. He was a member of the exclusive Pacific Union and Bohemian Clubs, as well as the Olympic, Commonwealth and Press Clubs. He also joined the NAACP in the 1920s and was an honorary member of several labor unions, and was a lifelong Republican.

Rolph was known for his personal generosity, approachability and friendliness, offering rides to people on his way to City Hall and sharing lunch with the workers on the docks. He attended the Church of St. John the Evangelist at 15th Street and Julian, although he also supported many other religious groups as well. For relaxation, he spent vacations and any free time at his ranch off Skyline Boulevard down the peninsula, where he enjoyed swimming, riding horses and hunting deer, as well as entertaining. During the 1920s, his health began to suffer from the effects of his rich diet and perpetual activity, although the full effects were not apparent until he became governor following a campaign where he visited all of the 58 counties in California personally.

Rolph's success as mayor of San Francisco did not carry over when he moved to the Capitol and was confronted with the enormous challenges that accompanied the Depression years. His personal popularity suffered when he refused to pardon Tom Mooney in 1931, and the final blow was his infamous approval of the 1933 mob lynching of the two men held responsible for the kidnap and murder of the son of a well-known San Jose businessman. At the beginning of 1934 Rolph suffered a stroke as he began his campaign for the next term; he was kept at Saint Francis Hospital in San Francisco for a month, but did not recover and soon afterward announced that he would not continue his campaign. He went to recuperate at the Riverside Ranch in Santa Clara, owned by his friend, Walter Linforth, and died there on June 2, 1934. The people of San Francisco turned out in the rain by the thousands to pay tribute to Mayor Rolph in City Hall for the last time. He is buried at Greenlawn Memorial Park in Colma.

  • 1911 October 14: City hosts President Taft for Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) ground-breaking.
  • 1911 September 26: Rolph elected Mayor of San Francisco.
  • 1912 March 28: Bond issue ($800,000) approved to acquire land for Civic Center.
  • 1912 December 10: Special election held for 32 proposed charter amendments.
  • 1912 December 28: First day of service for first municipally-owned transportation agency.
  • 1913 April 22: Lower Market Street Agreement adopted, outside tracks for Muni, inside tracks for United Railroad.
  • 1913 June 3: Last horse car of Municipal Railway, driven by Mayor Rolph.
  • 1913 June 25: Geary Street line to the beach begins service.
  • 1913 August 26: Bond issue approved for Muni expansion, mostly for Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE).
  • 1913 October 25: City Hall cornerstone placed.
  • 1914 August 15: Van Ness Avenue line begins service.
  • 1914 September 7: Potrero Avenue line begins service.
  • 1914 November 3: Removal of cemeteries ordinance rejected by voters.
  • 1914 December 11: Stockton Street Tunnel completed - first tunnel for automobiles.
  • 1915 January 9: Exposition Hall dedicated.
  • 1915 Febuary 20: Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) opens.
  • 1915 March 16: Special election held for 36 proposed charter amendments.
  • 1915 April 20: Special election held for Spring Valley bond measure.
  • 1915 September: Rolph elected for second term as Mayor.
  • 1915 December 29: City Hall dedicated - architect's competition won by Bakewell and Brown.
  • 1916 January: Rolph suffers appendicitis and "breakdown."
  • 1916 July 22: Rolph leads Preparedness Day parade, bomb explodes at 2:06 p.m.
  • 1916 November 7: Special election held for 33 proposed charter amendments, including two-platoon system for Fire Department.
  • 1917 February 15: Public Library dedicated.
  • 1917 February 24: City hosts funeral of General Funston.
  • 1917 April: Rolph Shipbuilding Company purchases Bendixsen in Humboldt.
  • 1917 July 14: Twin Peaks Tunnel dedicated.
  • 1917 October 30: Special election held for school bonds.
  • 1918 February 4: First Muni car travels through Twin Peaks Tunnel with Rolph at the controls.
  • 1918 November 5: General election and vote on proposed charter amendments.
  • 1919 April 22: Rolph organizes parade in San Francisco to welcome return of 363rd Infantry and 347th Field Artillery.
  • 1919 July 31: Rolph awarded Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honor by France.
  • 1919 September 8: Rolph receives Cross of the Commander of the Royal Order of George the First from Greece.
  • 1919 October 14: City hosts King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, Herbert Hoover.
  • 1919 November: Rolph elected for third term as mayor.
  • 1919 November 17: City hosts reception for President Eamon de Valera, Republic of Ireland.
  • 1920 June 8 - 12 : Rolph attends Republican Convention in Chicago.
  • 1920 June 28 - July 6 : City hosts Democratic Convention at Exposition Hall.
  • 1923 August 2: Death of President Harding at Palace Hotel.
  • 1923 November: Rolph elected for fourth term as mayor.
  • 1924 October 7: Special election held for Hetch Hetchy bond measure.
  • 1924 November 11: Palace of the Legion of Honor opens to the public.
  • 1925 July: Rolph travels to Washington D.C. to gain support for Hetch Hetchy funding
  • 1927 June 14: Special election held for five propositions: Bernal Cut, War Memorial Halls, Municipal Railway Extensions, Spring Valley Water Company Purchase, and refuse management.
  • 1927 November: Rolph re-elected for fifth term as Mayor.
  • 1928 May 1: Special election held for bond measures for Hetch Hetchy completion and Spring Valley purchase.
  • 1928 August 28: Special election held for charter amendment creating Utility Commission.
  • 1928 October 21: Sunset Tunnel opens.
  • 1928 November 6: General election with charter amendments and bond measures for airport, aquatic park, McLaren Park.
  • 1929 June 9: Celebration of completion of Great Highway and Ocean Beach Esplanade.
  • 1929 November 5: General municipal election with propositions to acquire China Beach and extend Marina Park; garbage management, including municipal collection and incineration.
  • 1931 January 7: Rolph resigns as Mayor of San Francisco to become Governor of California.
  • 1934 Spring: Rolph suffers stroke and is unable to continue as Governor.
  • 1934 June 2: Rolph dies in Santa Clara County.

From the guide to the James Rolph, Jr. papers, 1904-1934, bulk 1911-1930, (California Historical Society)


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  • Public works
  • Public works--California--San Francisco
  • Mayor
  • Street-railroads
  • Street-railroads--California--San Francisco
  • World War, 1914-1918--California--San Francisco
  • Labor disputes--California--San Francisco
  • Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919
  • Mayors--California--San Francisco
  • Political Campaigns
  • Water-supply--California--Hetch Hetchy Valley
  • Draftees--Photographs
  • Water-supply
  • Water-supply--California--San Francisco
  • Boy Scouts--Photographs
  • Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919--California--San Francisco
  • World War, 1914-1918
  • Labor disputes
  • Processions--Photographs


  • Mayors--California--San Francisco


  • California--Hetch Hetchy Valley (as recorded)
  • California--San Francisco (as recorded)
  • San Francisco (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • San Francisco (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • California--San Francisco (as recorded)
  • California--San Francisco (as recorded)
  • Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • California--San Francisco (as recorded)
  • San Francisco (Calif.). Mayor (1912-1931 : Rolph) (as recorded)
  • San Francisco (Calif.) (as recorded)