Phelan, James D. (James Duval), 1861-1930

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1861
Death 1930

Biographical notes:

James D. Phelan was a businessman, civic leader, political figure, and philanthropist, of San Francisco, Calif. He served as mayor of San Francisco (1897-1901) and U.S. Senator from Calif. (1915-1921).

From the description of James D. Phelan correspondence : ALS and TLS, 1898-1927. (California Historical Society). WorldCat record id: 122394967

Biographical/Historical note

Phelan was the son of a pioneer California banker. He was elected as a reform mayor of San Francisco, serving 1897-1902. He was then elected to the U. S. Senate and served from 1915 to 1921. A Democrat and a supporter of Woodrow Wilson generally, he also advocated for the exclusion of "Orientals." A patron of the arts, his home at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, California served as a hub for writers and artists. Many of these are represented in the correspondence.

From the guide to the James Duval Phelan Papers, 1852-1937, 1886-1921, (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Biography

James Duval Phelan, businessman, political leader, patron of the arts, and philanthropist, was born in San Francisco on April 20, 1861. He graduated from St. Ignatius University, San Francisco, in 1881 and studied law at the University of California, Berkeley. After college he traveled abroad for a year and a half, studying municipal governments and writing articles on his observations for various magazines and San Francisco newspapers. Influenced by his father, he gave up his early aspirations to become a lawyer or a writer and turned to a business career, first as his father's partner, and then as his successor in the banking business and as manager of the considerable estate which he had inherited.

James D. Phelan's parents were Irish immigrants. His father, James Phelan, came to California in 1849 and married his mother, Alice Kelly, in 1859. In 1870, Phelan's father established the First National Gold Bank, later known as the First National Bank of San Francisco, which was the first national bank in California and the second gold bank in the nation. Subsequent business ventures included the erection of the Phelan Building in 1881, assisting in the organization of the American Construction and Dredging Company for dredging the Panama Canal in 1882, and establishing the Mutual Savings Bank of San Francisco in 1889. In 1890, two years before his death, Phelan's father established a copartnership with his son comprising all of his business interests.

After his father's death, politics quickly claimed James D. Phelan's attention and he became actively involved in the battle for San Francisco civic reform. In the mid 1890s, San Francisco was one of the most notoriously boss-ridden, corrupt cities in the country. In 1896, the reform Democrats nominated Phelan for the office of mayor. With virtually no previous political experience, campaigning for an end to corruption, home rule, and civil service reform, he was elected, and twice re-elected. Despite the opposition of the party machines, he successfully led the campaign for the adoption of a new city charter in 1900, which separated the executive and legislative divisions of city government, called for election at large of supervisors, and gave appointive powers to executive decision. In 1901 Phelan stated, "the first administration under the new charter went into office with the purpose to serve the people and the people only." During his mayoral terms, he also worked for municipal ownership of public utilities, public improvements, and beautification of the city. Phelan was also directly involved in the Hetch- Hetchy water dispute when in 1901 he proposed damming the Hetch-Hetchy valley to secure a source of fresh water for the city San Francisco. Phelan concluded his term of office in 1902, refusing to run a fourth time.

The San Francisco fire of 1906 called Phelan back into public service. He was chosen to be president of the San Francisco Relief and Red Cross Funds, a corporation, and it was to him that President Theodore Roosevelt personally sent the $10,000,000 collected for the relief of the fire victims. Soon after the fires, Phelan wrote of the relief efforts in a letter to his uncle George on May 8, 1906, stating "Everybody is cheerful and working with the zeal of pioneers in a new land." Following the 1906 fires Phelan took an active part, with Rudolph Spreckels and Fremont Older, in the graft prosecutions. During this period he was also appointed President of the United Bank & Trust Company.

In 1912 Phelan actively campaigned for Woodrow Wilson, and in 1914, he entered the race for the U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket. He won and became the first California Democrat to sit in the Senate since 1897. Phelan served as a Senator from March 4, 1915, to March 3, 1921, and was the chairman of the Committee on Railroads (Sixty-fourth Congress) and a member of the Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation of Arid Lands (Sixty-fifth Congress). Phelan was also involved in issues surrounding immigration and land ownership (especially anti-Japanese legislation). In 1920 Phelan ran for reelection but was defeated in the Harding landslide. He did not completely retire from political life, however. Serving as one of the California delegates to the 1924 Democratic national convention, he placed William G. McAdoo's name in nomination for the presidency of the United States, and he contributed frequently to the Democratic Party coffers.

After leaving the Senate, Phelan returned to San Francisco and devoted time largely to his business enterprises and to civic betterment work. Well known as a patron of the arts, he generously helped artists and writers and served as California's unofficial host, entertaining distinguished celebrities at his spacious country estate, Villa Montalvo, near Saratoga, California. His estate was built in 1912 and named after Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo, a sixteenth century Spanish author who first used the term "California" to describe a gold-laden island in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandian . Celebrity guests who visited his estate include Edwin Markham, Jack London, Ethel Barrymore, Thomas Marshall, and William Jennings Bryan.

In the early 1920s, Phelan also traveled extensively and contributed frequently to magazines, writing on a wide range of topics. In 1923 he published Travel and Comment, an account of his 1921-1922 trip around the world when he visited Hawaii, Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Ceylon, India, Egypt, Jerusalem, Paris, and London.

As one of San Francisco's most prominent citizens, Phelan was honored on many occasions. He served as vice president of the California Commission to the Chicago Exposition in 1893; regent of the University of California; trustee of the San Francisco Public Library; president of the Adornment Association; president of the Art Association; president of the Playground Commission; three-time president of the Bohemian Club; and president of the Hall Association of the Native Sons of the Golden West. Other honors include an honorary Ph.D. awarded by Santa Clara College in 1903; his appointment in 1913 as commissioner to Europe on behalf of the United States Government to support the invitation of the President to foreign countries to participate in the Panama Pacific Exposition; and his appointment in 1914 by the State Department under special authority of President Wilson, to investigate the fitness of the U.S. Minister to the Dominican Republic in Santo Domingo.

Phelan was on the board of directors of many institutions including California Pacific Title and Trust Company, California Pacific Title Insurance Company, First National Bank of San Francisco, First National Bank of San Jose, Mutual Savings Bank of San Francisco, Pacific Title Insurance Company, Real Property Investment Corporation, Sacramento-San Joaquin Stockholders, Security Bank and Trust Co., Bakersfield, United Bank and Trust Company, and United Security Bank and Trust. He was also involved in many local and national committees including the All-California Highways Campaign Committee; American Committee for Relief in Ireland; Bureau of Historical Research Committee of the American Irish Historical Society; American Red Cross, California Branch Executive Committee; Associated Charities of San Francisco Central Council; Reception Committee Chairman for California's Diamond Jubilee in 1925; California's Water and Power Ad State Campaign Committee; Citizens' Campaign Committee for Hetch-Hetchy Bond Election; Civic League of San Francisco Advisory Committee; Hetch-Hetchy Citizen's Advisory Committee; Japanese Exclusion League of California Executive Committee; St. Joseph's Hospital, San Francisco, Central Committee; and the Western Pacific Railway Company Reorganization Committee.

On August 7, 1930, after more than thirty years of supporting San Francisco's political and industrial development and artistic advancement, Phelan died at Villa Montalvo at the age of 69 after an illness of three months. He had two sisters, Mary Louis Phelan and Mrs. Frank J. Sullivan; one nephew, Noel Sullivan; and three nieces, Sister Agnes of Carmelite Convent, Mrs. Alyce S. Murphy, and Mrs. Richard E. Doyle. James D. Phelan never married.

Portions of the biographical sketch were excerpted from "Phelan Distinguished Son of City; Mayor of San Francisco Three Terms." San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 1930.

From the guide to the James D. Phelan Papers, 1855-1941, (bulk 1906-1930), (The Bancroft Library.)

Biography

James Duval Phelan was born in San Francisco, April 20, 1861, and was intimately associated throughout the greater part of his life with the political, business and cultural history of the city. His father, James Phelan, was an Irish immigrant who came to California in the gold rush and made a fortune in trade, banking, insurance, and real estate. Young Phelan attended San Francisco schools, was graduated from St. Ignatius College in 1881 and studied law at the University of California. After graduation he traveled abroad for a year and a half, studying municipal governments and writing articles on his observations for various magazines and San Francisco newspapers. Influenced by his father, he gave up his early aspirations to become a lawyer or a writer and turned to a business career, first as his father's partner, and then, in 1892, as his successor in the banking business and as manager of the considerable estate which he had inherited.

Politics quickly claimed Phelan's attention, and he became actively involved in the battle for civic reform. In the mid-nineties San Francisco was one of the most notoriously boss-ridden, corrupt cities in the country. The reform Democrats, in 1896, nominated Phelan for the office of mayor. With virtually no previous political experience, campaigning for an end to corruption and for home rule and civic service reform, he was elected, and twice re-elected. He successfully led the campaign for the adoption of a new city charter, despite the opposition of the party machines, and worked for municipal ownership of public utilities, public improvements, and beautification of the city. He concluded his term of office in 1902 and refused to run a fourth time.

The San Francisco fire of 1906 called Phelan back into public service. He was chosen president of the Relief and Red Cross Funds, a corporation, and it was to him, personally, that President Theodore Roosevelt sent the $10,000,000 collected for the relief of the fire sufferers. He took an active part, too, with Rudolph Spreckels and Fremont Older, in the graft prosecutions that followed the fire.

In 1912 he actively campaigned for Woodrow Wilson, and in 1914, he entered the race for the U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket. He won and became the first California Democrat to sit in the Senate since 1897. Before he entered office he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Santo Domingo by the State Department, under authority form President Woodrow Wilson, to investigate charges of unfitness for office brought against the U.S. minister to the Dominican Republic. In 1920 Phelan ran for reelection but was defeated in the Harding landslide. He did not completely retire from political life, however. Serving as one of the California delegates to the 1924 Democratic national convention, he placed William G. McAdoo's name in nomination for the presidency of the United States, and he contributed frequently to the Democratic Party coffers.

After leaving the Senate, Phelan returned to San Francisco and devoted time largely to his business enterprises and to civic betterment work. Well known as a patron of the arts, he generously helped artists and writers and served as California's unofficial host, entertaining distinguished celebrities at his spacious country estate, Villa Montalvo, in the Santa Clara Valley, near Saratoga. He traveled extensively, too, and contributed frequently to magazines, writing on a wide range of topics. In 1923 he published Travel and Comment, an account of this trip around the world in 1921-22.

As one of San Francisco's most prominent citizens, Phelan was signally honored on many occasions. He served as vice president of the California Commission to the Chicago Exposition, 1893; regent of the University of California; trustee of the San Francisco Public Library; president of the Adornment Association; president of the Art Association; president of the Playground Commission; thrice president of the Bohemian Club; and president of the Hall Association of the Native Sons of the Golden West.

Phelan never married, though he attempted to propose once. The floor of the hack in which he was kneeling gave way, and left him chasing after the hack while the young woman sat inside and laughed. He was humiliated, and the young woman, whose name is unknown, left for Europe from the Ferry Building in San Francisco, apparently either turning down Phelan, or never getting to hear the proposal.

Phelan died at his estate, Villa Montalvo, on August 7, 1930, after an illness of three months.

From the guide to the James D. Phelan Photograph Albums, 1902-1929, (The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.)

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Subjects:

  • Mayors--California--San Francisco
  • Legislators--California
  • Civic leaders--Correspondence

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • California (as recorded)