James D. Phelan declares a “New San Francisco” in 1896

January 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Continuing with my series of transcribing San Francisco’s primary sources in the late 19th century, below is a transcription of an address James D. Phelan gave at the opening of the San Francisco Mechanics’ Fair, 1896. These fairs were similar to most industrial exposition across the US in the 19th century. However what was unique about Phelan’s speech was the rhetoric of the City Beautiful Movement, as well as the exposition of a peculiar vision of San Francisco’s collective identity.

More transcriptions to come ~ Click on the “Source Transcription” category on the side-bar to navigate to other sources already presented on Gilded Empire. For more information on the digital trends in history, check out this years AHA Convention, or for links to other projects, check out my first digital transcription post.

“The New San Francisco,” an address by Mayor James D. Phelan, 1896:


If, long years ago, a Spanish imperial commissioner were directed to visit Central and Northern California and lay the foundation for a great city, what site, judge you, would he have selected? In the light of the present there can be but one answer; but, surprising as it may appear, the eligibility of San Francisco was not only disputed under such circumstances, but condemned as a place even for human habitation.

Don Pedro de Alberni was, in July, 1796, ordered by the Viceroy of Spain to examine and report on the most suitable location for the Villa of Branciforte. He examined the country about Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Francisco, and reported that in and about the Mission and Presidio of San Francisco there was no irrigable, pasture or grain lands, no water, no timber, “and therefore” he adds, “I am convinced that the worst place or situation in California is that of San Francisco.” In spite of this evil report, however, we find the Mission of San Francisco Dolores, thirty years later, in 1825, possessed of over one hundred and fifty thousand head of horses, cattle, and sheep, besides thousands of bushels of wheat. But agricultural pre-eminence is not claimed for San Francisco, and hence we greet the views of Captain Benjamin Morrel, a more sensible and far-seeing person than the Senor Alberni, who visited the port in the same year, and who declared it to be the finest harbor in the world, and that the presence of enlightened men was only necessary to give the landscape “a soul and a divinity.” Between that date and 1835 a new population, small in numbers, must have settled in the cove of Yerba Buena, now the city, for Richard H. Dana, in his “Two Years Before the Mast,” modestly assumes the role of a prophet when he says he beheld at that time a town composed of Yankee-Californians called Yerba Buena, “which promises well.”

After the discovery of gold, the pioneers found in the quiet little hamlet a hospitable welcome and temporarily made it their abode, but such of them who thought at all about the possibility of a large city growing on the Bay of San Francisco gave Yerba Buena little heed. They located cities further up the bay, near the mouth of the San Joaquin River, and General W. T. Sherman, who surveyed many such sites, and confidently took town lots in partial payment for his services, describes, in his Memoirs, the failure of these enterprises. One after another they dissolved, with the hopes of their founders.


Scanned image of copied letter to James D. Phelan from San Francisco Art Association

Cities are a growth. They come by a commercial evolution. The development of San Francisco, located on a sterile peninsula, has always been regarded as a marvelous fact. Its discoverers and its founders did not behold with the eyes of commerce the superb gateway through which must pass the traffic of a thousand lands, nor could they foresee California’s wealth of fruits, grains, ores, and manufactures, of which San Francisco is the natural emporium.

But on the map of the world the great bay and harbor, opening into 76,000,000 miles of ocean, was stamped by the hand of Fate and destined for empire, and passing generations, now floating on the tide of fortune, dimly conscious of the greatness of their metropolis, little appreciate the strength of their position and the value of their heritage. We are, perhaps, too close to the object to take an extensive view. We have groveled too long in the slough of self-depreciation, and should arouse ourselves to the dignity of our citizenship, and more particularly to the duties of the hour.


Let us for a moment take the impressions of others: James Antony Fronde, the historian, says in his “Oceana,” written in 1886, that he found himself landed in San Francisco with a sort of youthful excitement, for California, with its gold, and its cornfields, its conifers, and its grizzlies, its diggers, and its hidalgoes, was to him a land of romance the wonders of which passed belief. Nor was he disappointed, and in his critical comment says that San Francisco is now one of the most important cities in the world, destined to expand into dimensions of which the present size of it is nothing, for it is and must be the chief outlet into the Pacific of the trade of the American continent. And later, James Bryce, in his “American Commonwealth,” digresses to exclaim: “Few cities in the world can vie with San Francisco either in the beauty or in the natural advantages of her situation; indeed, there are only two places in Europe Constantinople and Gibraltar that combine an equally perfect landscape with what may be called an equally imperial position. * * * The air is keen, dry, and bright, like the air of Greece, and the waters not less blue.”


So nature has dowered San Francisco. The accident of the gold discovery brought a superior population, yet with no set purpose of settlement, nor inspired by any civic pride in the founding of a commonwealth. There was no community of interests. Men were here for fortune, on whose wings they hoped to fly away when she smiled upon their suit.

But San Francisco went ahead, calm and irresistible, by the force of her position. Destroyed by fire, she rose in fairer form. Pillaged by her custodians in the name of “law and order,” despoiled of her lands by fraud or by conspiracy, as in the time of Peter Smith, or, as subsequently, by Supervisors and City Attorneys; compelled to suicidally surrender her water front to the State in order to avoid a threatened private monopoly; betrayed by her legislators in the granting of valuable franchises for long terms without reversions, safe-guards, nor consideration, she has been the outraged and neglected foundling of Fate, surviving simply because there is a necessity that she should live. She lives for a purpose. She lives to serve as the hand-maid of commerce between the western shores of the United States and the lands facing the great Pacific; she lives to preserve the ocean free for the carriage of California’s wealth; she lives to be the capital of an empire, and to foster the arts of peace; to yield for her citizens the fruits of a civilization, riper and better than those which gladdened the Athenian heart and fulfilled the Roman’s boast “to be a Roman was greater than to be a King.”

Nature, I repeat, has endowed our city it is for the people to administer the trust.


The past has been a black page when we measure results by opportunities. Commerce has been crippled and diverted; the city has fallen prey to a transportation conspiracy; American goods have even been shipped to Europe and reshipped to San Francisco, in order to save the prohibitory rates imposed for direct shipment; harbor rates and pilot charges have despoiled the weary merchantman; an iron monopoly, short-sighted, perverse, and aggressive, has turned our back upon the serviceable sea, paid largesses to steamship companies to stifle ocean traffic, and has made New Orleans the real port of California. In fact, our peerless position as an entrepot has been turned against ourselves to satisfy private interests, and the people have not yet effectually established the self-evident principle that quasi-public corporations have their charter from the State to serve it, not to oppress it; to develop its resources, not to crush them; to use its natural advantages, and not to lock them up.

Independent railways, however, from San Francisco into the interior will restore our cities as a port and give the country the advantages of the sea; the passing of the Central and Union Pacific system into the control of the government, or of rival corporations, and the construction of an isthmian canal will stimulate intercourse with distant points and insure competitive rates, and thus the future may, in some measure, atone for the sins and omissions of the past.

When we consider that the early settlers had only a temporary interest in the metropolis, perhaps it would be unreasonable to look for that stern and potential burgher spirit which animated the builders of medieval towns and established free cities, and guarded so zealously the rights of the community.


But who shall say that spirit is wanting in the people of San Francisco to-day? Has there not been a metamorphosis? Do not the Traffic Association, the North American Navigation Company, the Valley road, the Merchants’ Shipping Association, the Mechanics’ Institute, the Manufacturers’ and Producers’ Association, the Merchants’ Association, and the improvement clubs speak for something? Have they not awakened the citizens to a realization of the fact that here are their firesides? Have they not, taking a broader view, convinced themselves that, provided man but supplements what nature has done, San Francisco may yet become the pride of the American continent the ideal commonwealth, the hive of commerce, and haunt of pleasure, and the home of the arts?

But we live in our lifetime, and what is remote but lightly interests us, and hence the present generation should not fail to enjoy, in a part, at least, the certain future of their city.

Athens under Pericles, and Rome under Augustus, in the span of a few decades, rose in splendor and usefulness, and yet they are not in all respects models for the modern city to copy. Better say that in the course of thirty years under Haussman and Alphand, directors of the public works, Paris rose to a position from which she teaches the world how to provide for the necessities, comfort, and artistic cravings of civilized people living within a city’s walls, and developed the fine and useful arts and sciences to an unparalleled degree, combining work and play, profit and pleasure, in such a marvellous combination as to delight and stir the emulation of mankind.


City government presents entirely new problems since vast populations have come to be housed and cared for in prescribed limits. Manufactures, superseding agriculture, have within the last hundred years revolutionized populations; and whereas before it used to be three to one in favor of the country, now the cities have three citizens to the country’s one. fin these congested communities the bodily health of the race itself is determined by good or bad municipal arrangements. Infection and disease increase the death rate to alarming proportions where sanitation is not studied, and a city’s prosperity reduces itself to a question of science sanitary, engineering, educational, and governmental. Satisfactory results can not be obtained by accident, but only by knowledge and intelligence. It becomes a matter of paramount importance for not only the attractiveness of a great city, but for its very existence, that everything about it be clean and bright and healthful; that its children be properly instructed; that the, convenience, culture, and happiness of its people be an object of solicitude, and that its burdens be equitably adjusted. How these things may be best accomplished has been solved in other cities, to which I can give but a passing and incomplete notice; but let us first enquire what effect these influences have on population and prosperity.

Paris, in 1852, when public works were begun systematically, had less than a million population, and ten years later, by reason of its magnificent internal improvements and wise and industrial policy, added seven hundred thousand people to its inhabitants, and now boasts of upwards of a million more. So it would appear to be a city’s lasting interest to, first, equip itself for the proper care of its people, in a broad and comprehensive sense, and then to make life worth living within its confines for all who choose to come; secondly, to provide remunerative employment for its citizens.

The trade of the French capital has grown, pari passu, with its municipal system, and this, as we will see, is due in a large measure, to the superior technical education of its craftsmen, and to the artistic environment of its people.


San Francisco's Advantages as an Outfitting Point for the Klondike

Map in the Official Souvenir for California's Golden Jubilee, 1898 depicting the advantages of San Francisco in outfitting for the Klondike Gold Rush

Of course, before everything else, the chief element in a city’s prosperity must be the profitable employment of its inhabitants, which means a market for their productions at home or abroad. So a municipality has more to do than to keep its house clean, healthy, and beautiful it must keep its workshop busy. Trade and commerce consist in exchange. One must exchange what he makes or has for what he doesn’t make but wants. Prices remaining the same, one naturally wants the best, the most durable, the most artistic, the most palatable, the most wholesome, as the case may be. The demand of the consumer is the standard of the workman. It is true of the past that not only the question of fashion, but the question of quality as well, determined the choice of goods, and gave the preference in too many cases to, the foreign product. Now, why do goods “made in France,” or “made in Germany,” force their way into our reluctant market? That is a question for a well organized municipality to solve. The fault is largely with our education. At one time in Europe there were craft-guilds organized to maintain the several crafts, to regulate them, to. prevent fraudulent workmanship, and to transmit knowledge and skill. These have passed away, and in their place a better system has sprung up namely, municipal trades and technical schools, which may be found in Berlin, Paris, Lille. Hanover, Milan, and other cities, where the young are trained not in languages and music alone, which our High Schools affect, but in the useful arts, and especially in those crafts for which the locality is particularly favored. They also qualify men for civil service employment. This is the secret of the better quality of certain foreign products and manufactures, and also of sound municipal administration the superior technical skill in these concerns of the French and German people. Therefore, to succeed we must remodel and add to our school system. James Lick, J. C. Wilmerding, Charles Lux, and Dr. Coggswell of this city have had right ideas in endowing the trades schools, and their plans should be taken up by the city itself for the preservation and development of its crafts and manufactures.


A remarkable display of the French industrial schools was made at the Paris Exposition of 1889, and revealed at a glance how Paris is kept rich and prosperous. These schools, it was shown, taught not exclusively, as ours, the elementary and ornamental branches, but the trades that pertain to wood, iron, chemistry, fruit-preserving, decorative arts, furniture, carpentry, painting, lithography, dressmaking, shoemaking, artificial flower making, millinery, and so on. If we attain perfection in these things, and it can only be had by education, then we can make a home market based on merit, which will endure. Sentiment is a good thing in its place, but it cuts a poor figure in the markets of the world.

The door of knowledge is open to all. At one time it was the policy of the different countries to keep their manufacturing secrets to themselves, and as late as 1761 the British Society of Arts, in giving what is probably the first national fair, forbade drawings to be made of the machinery on exhibition. France, for instance, guarded certain industrial secrets for centuries, and they were only revealed to England and the world by the emigration of the Huguenots; and to acquire a knowledge of shipbuilding, you will recollect that Peter of Russia had to work in the low countries as a common mechanic. But with the liberalizing influences of the nineteenth century industrial fairs, such as yours, became a passport to knowledge instea’d of a prison-house, and the competition thereafter consisted in ingenuity and skill.


There must be a municipal policy in these respects. We elect School Directors by accident, and they follow in the old groove, showing the greatest activity when there is a vacancy to be filled or a place to be created. You can not get men fit to reorganize the schools on practical lines under the present system of election. School Directors should be appointed on the ground of fitness alone. They may be pledged in platforms, but the platform invariably slips from under their feet as they ascend to office. If, however, the executive of the government were charged with a duty, the power of appointment and removal would give him the means of carrying out the people’s will. Should not our city government then be erected on the lines of responsibility and efficiency? Otherwise, what does in avail? There is, however, in every community a class of people who oppose conservatism to progress. They lack confidence and courage. They will not brush cobwebs off their house lest the roof should fall. They lack the quality of enterprise that magic power which, like sentiment and enthusiasm in the time of war, sweeps everything before it; which multiplies the material resources of a community by infusing into the body-politic a soul and spirit and investing it with the breath of life, it is a force which, like the genius of Hamilton, touches the dead corpse of civic pride and it springs to its feet! San Francisco is situated on the edge of the earth; so far away that our own Joaquin Miller has said that a man might drop dead and God would not know it. To enhance its prosperity it needs a larger population to consume, and a more skillful population to create, and these things will come when we have confidence in ourselves to do and to act.

The holding of this great fair annually helps to inspire confidence and self-help by giving us an introspective glance at our own resources and our own needs. It helps in other directions it draws from all sections visitors who may come to laugh, but who will remain to pray; who come for pleasure, and who will remain as a permanent addition to our population. There are European cities that derive immense revenues from tourists and travelers, and it has been stated that the French Exposition in 1889 saved that country from bankruptcy, which otherwise would have been precipitated by the failure of the Copper Trust and the Panama Canal. Every visitor adds to the volume and flow of the circulating medium, and thus adds to the general prosperity, stimulating trade, which is “the calm health of nations.” San Francisco could thus be made a great resort a great, summer and winter city if the people, having an ideal before them, would devote their efforts to its realization from year to year.


Scanned image of "Power of Beauty" section, emphasizing the City Beautiful Movement's influence on Phelan

When Pericles was considering the best use to which he could put the treasures of Delos, which flowed into the Athenian treasury, he consulted the wise men of his city, who, with one accord, said: “Make Athens beautiful, for beauty is now the victorious power in the world, and that city will take precedence over others by the charms of the beautiful, and, like a lovely woman, will win fame, admiration, love, and influence. Appreciation of the beautiful will render the citizen cheerful, content, yielding, self-sacrificing, capable of enthusiasm. What could be more enviable than a nation to whose festivals people flocked from far and near.” So they put aside the gloomy and austere models of the Spartans and made Athens, garlanded like a bride, the mistress of all hearts. But we need not go to Athens. The city of Washington, with its broad and well-paved boulevards, broken only by magnificent monuments, erected in the honor of the heroes of the country, with its art galleries, museums, and parks, is one of the most fascinating of capitals. There, beauty and utility go hand in hand, and it is not too late, in spite of all the mistakes which may have been made, for the spirit of enterprise, led by Beauty and guided by Intelligence, to awaken the metropolis of the Pacific to its sense of duty and make it par excellence the home that all art yields and nature can decree. Located on the matchless bay of San Francisco, by the Golden Gate, under the blight skies, if art were given a fair field and upheld by an enlightened public opinion, there is no question but what San Francisco could also become one of the most beautiful and attractive cities of the world. All public places and buildings should be works of art, and private enterprises will follow the public initiative. Louis Napoleon appointed a Commission of Artists to create plans for Paris, and it was their influence, acting through a French engineer, which made Washington what it is. We should rise above the demands of unfeeling trade and rear columns to Balboa, who discovered the great ocean which is waiting to serve us; another to Cabrillo, who first beheld and led the way to our beloved California; to Sloat, and to Montgomery, who raised the flag. The names of these and other great men should not be allowed by a grateful people to lie in cold obstruction and to rot. They should stand in our streets as an inspiration to the rising generation. The educational value of these things, apart from honoring great names, should not be despised. Beauty, a good in itself, creates an atmosphere such as Plato described when he said that young citizens should not be allowed to grow up among images of evil, least their souls assimilate the ugliness of their surroundings. “Rather should they be like men living in beautiful and healthy places; from everything they see, loveliness, like a breeze, should pass into their souls, arid teach them, without their knowing it, the truth, of which beauty is a manifestation.” But it would be idle to dwell upon the charms of an ideal San Francisco, if it were, indeed, only Utopian. But there is a way to accomplish these great ends, by stirring the public spirit of the people; by teaching them that these objects are desirable, not only for their health, comfort, and lucrative employment of themselves and their families, but for the delight and pleasure of strangers who shall be attracted to their city, and thus add to their municipal and individual prosperity. Civic capacity will follow close upon the footsteps of civic pride!


The citizens of San Francisco know better than they can be told of the inadequacy of their present government; of its corruption and of its disgrace. It is a survival of the dead past. If you plant an oak in a vase, the oak must wither or the vase must break. Let the vase break! Let the tree live! The people crave for a government which will carry out their will. Bound hand and foot, they have seen themselves robbed by their own servants. Is it not a quarter of a century since work was begun on their municipal building, and has not that mean and extravagant undertaking, absorbed all their energies, while it has discouraged all their hopes?

“Arches upon arches, as it were that Rome, Collecting the chief trophies of her line, Would build up all her triumphs in one dome!” Are we unequal to the task of municipal government? No; but our provincialism raises doubts and our incivism holds us back; yet as soon as we contemplate other cities, to whose excellence we must bow, we see that our dreams have already become their realities. It is the experience of every advanced modern city that responsibility and efficiency go hand in hand. There must be in the government local autonomy, executive independence, and systematic organization, under a wise civil service; and at the same time legislative independence. The legislative body should not both appropriate money and expend it; nor should it usurp the executive functions. That is the bane of San Francisco.


Paris has a Council which votes money, but the Prefect of the Seine does the work. In the service of that great municipality there are employees, school teachers, policemen, firemen, street cleaners, engineers, and architects, protected by civil service laws, who survive every change of administration, so that the work goes on systematically and uninterruptedly. Without such a system no work can be done properly, honestly, and economically. While the city of Paris has a total annual revenue of $57,000,000, only seven millions of that is derived from direct taxation, because its government has been wise enough to know that a great city which spends vast sums for drainage, for streets, for the protection of life and property, for schools, for museums, for galleries, for parks, is, in one sense, a well equipped exposition, or market, or emporium a place for trade and exchange, which attracts people from all parts; and that it is entitled to charge for concessions and to collect revenue from remunerative franchises, which use public property and thrive by the presence of population. So the companies which use the streets for gas, water, telegraph, and transportation, are made to contribute largely to this great fund. But in San Francisco we have but recently witnessed the humiliating spectacle of a great city betrayed by its chosen officers in these respects. Shall there be no remedy? It is for the people to answer.


While we should not compare small things to great things, yet it is pardonable, and may be profitable, to recall that every great country takes pride in the prosperity and splendor of its chief city. The French turn to Paris, as the Briton turns to London; the German to Berlin; the Italian to Rome; but the people of the State of California have not always loyally upheld the city of San Francisco, the centralization of its civilization and its herald to the world, in her struggle for metropolitan pre-eminence. The State looks upon the city with a jealous eye, and yet the city is the gateway to the State, and cannot but reflect honor upon it. She greets and entertains the stranger. She beneficently provides for the citizen. Her local institutions are open to all, and, even now, she is endeavoring to make a market, at home and abroad, for the products of California. Her material interests and those of the country are one; and yet, while Paris receives, on account of her representative character, from the national government of France one-third of the amount of her police budget, and even one-fifth the amount of her street expenditures, San Francisco asks nothing of the State but its good will. Shall she not have it, freely and generously?

No longer let it be said, then, of San Francisco, that, in the words of Bret Harte, she is “serene, indifferent to Fate,” but let it rather be known that she is alive to her interests, conscious of her duties, and prepared to merit her destiny manifest, but, as yet, unearned and unwon. In the competition she must meet, no relics of the past shall be suffered to retard her progress. If she would be a modern city, she must be governed by modern ideas.

[Digital Version of Phelan’s Address provided by Hathi Trust Digital Library]

Document Citation:

  • Phelan, James D. The New San Francisco: an Address by James D. Phelan At the Opening of the Mechanics’ Institute Fair, Columbia Theatre, Sept. 1, 1896. California: s.n., 1896.

Secondary References:

  • Berglund, Barbara. Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press Of Kansas, 2010.

  • Ethington, Philip J. The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 1850-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

  • Munro, Lisa. “Investigating World’s Fairs: An Historiography.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 28 (2010)


Tagged: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading James D. Phelan declares a “New San Francisco” in 1896 at Gilded Empire.


%d bloggers like this: