Sutro, Adolph Heinrich Joseph

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SUTRO, ADOLPH HEINRICH JOSEPH (1830–1898), U.S. engineer and civic leader. Sutro, who was born in Aachen, Prussia, left school at 16, when his father died, to manage the family's woolen cloth mill. At the request of a Memel businessman who bought the factory, Adolph went to Memel to set up and run the mill for the new owner. In 1848 he immigrated with his family to the United States, traveling to California in 1850 and selling goods in Stockton and San Francisco. In 1860 he visited Nevada's silver mines and conceived of a tunnel through the Comstock Lode for drainage, ventilation, and more efficient silver mining. His Sutro Tunnel Company began construction in 1869 and completed the tunnel, which ran four miles from Sutro City, a "planned city," to Virginia City, in 1878. The great mining period of the Comstock Lode was over, however, and though Sutro was rumored to have made as much as $5 million through the sale of his tunnel stock in 1880, his profit was probably no more than $900,000. Sutro planned to run for a Senate seat from Nevada in 1880, but his scheme to embarrass his opponent was betrayed to the opposition by one of his advisers, and his campaign collapsed. Sutro then moved to San Francisco and invested his money in San Francisco land, eventually purchasing one-twelfth of the city's land and building up a fortune of several million dollars. He bought a home and grounds, known as Sutro Heights, which he landscaped, furnished with a seal pool, and decorated with statuary he believed to be edifying, and opened the grounds to the public. He built and ran a street railway from the city to the Heights so that San Franciscans could make the trip on a single fare rather than the double fare that the existing railway charged. He also built Sutro Baths, a public indoor pool opened in 1896 which would admit about 10,000 persons at a time. An obsessive book buyer, he amassed a library of about 125,000 bound books, including something under 3,000 of the existing 20,000 incunabula (largely destroyed in the 1906 fire), sometimes buying up whole bookstores in person or through his European agents. Only the Sutro Library, built after his death to house his collection and now a branch of the California State Library on the campus of the University of San Francisco, and the Medical Center at the University of California Medical School at San Francisco, for which he left a bequest, remain. In 1894 Sutro was elected mayor of San Francisco as a People's Party (Populist) candidate on a platform of maintaining the five-cent street railway fare and defeating a bill benefiting the Southern Pacific Railway, which Sutro consistently referred to as the Octopus. He served as mayor from 1895 to 1897. The inadequacies of the city's charter and Sutro's inability to work with others led the San Francisco Examiner to the judgment that "The Mayor's power is barely more than that given by his tact… He passed his term in a state of exasperation." A believer in charity rather than in any religion, Sutro gave land to the Home for Aged Israelites, as well as to other charitable causes, and left a personal bequest to the founder of *Ethical Culture to avoid supporting that organization.


R.E. and M.F. Stewart, Adolph Sutro (1962).

[Robert E. Levinson]

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Sutro, Adolph Heinrich Joseph

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