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VIPS Sailing into San Francisco 1800s James Rolph


Bridge to the Castle.

 

Born August 23, 1869 San Francisco
Died June 2, 1934 at Riverside Farm, Santa Clara County

Son of James and Margaret (Nichol) Roth. Educated in Mission District schools and at Trinity Academy, he began his business career selling newspapers on the streets of the city and then as an office boy in the commission house of Kittle & Company, a shipping firm.

In 1900, he became a partner of the well-known shipping firm of Hind, Rolph & Company and headed the firm of Rolph Navigation & Coal Company.

He founded the Rolph Shipbuilding Company, and the James Rolph Company, which, among others built the four masted Conqueror. Among the ships owned by James Rolph was the 1888 bark Golden Gate, and the 1899 four-master wooden hull schooner James Rolph (586 tons).

Built for the Pacific Coast carrying trade, the James Rolphmade a number of coastwise voyages before she was lost on August 2, 1910. Sailing from San Francisco with a cargo of general freight, lime, hay, and 14,000 board feet of lumber for the sugar plantations of Theo. H. Davies at Hana, Maui, Hawaii, James Rolph was swept by the current and plagued by the lack of a strong breeze. In the thick fog, her master, Capt. A. Olsen, did not see the schooner sail close into shore. At 10:00 p.m. the captain heard surf and ordered the ship tacked offshore, but it was to late and James Rolph crashed into the rocks at Point San Pedro, grounding 50 feet from shore at the same spot where the four-masted bark Drumburton had been lost in 1904. Rolph's crew managed to reach shore safely, but the vessel could not be pulled off the rocks. Tugs attempted to haul James Rolph free but wreckers from Capt. T. P. Whitelaw's salvage firm stripped the wreck of usable fittings before abandoning James Rolph to the waves.

After the disasterous earthquake and fire of 1906, Rolph worked ceaselessly day and night to relieve the suffering community, and aided in establishing many relief committees to conduct the work of protecting the inhabitants, saving such property as could be reached, and in providing material assistance for those who lost everything.

He was asked to run for mayor in June 1909, but declined, choosing to run in the 1911 election on the Republican ticket. For the next 19 years Rolph was "Sunny Jim" to San Franciscans with "There Are Smiles That Make You Happy" as his theme song. When he fell on hard times he was bailed out by wealthy friends, and it was rumored that he repaid his debts with political favors.

A charismatic man known as "Sunny Jim," Rolph openly ignored the prohibition laws and once sent a case of whiskey to a condemned man. He caused an uproar by refusing protection for two kidnappers, and then, when they were lynched by a mob, publicly stating that justice was served. As a remedy for the financial blues during the Great Depression, it was Rolph's suggestion that everyone simply take a two-week holiday. He established the State Park System recommended by C.C. Young, and instituted the California Sales Tax - then known as "Pennies for Jimmy."

Mayor James Rolph, San Francisco.

Along with his job as mayor and his private shipping interests he also served as director of the Ship Owners & Merchants Tugboat Company, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, president of the Merchants' Exchange, and vice-president of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

In November 1930, James Rolph, Jr. won the California gubernatorial election, with his resignation as mayor effective simultaneously with his inauguration as governor, on Tuesday, January 6, 1931.

On November 9, 1933, Brooke Hart, son of a wealthy San Jose merchant was kidnapped. The two men responsible were caught, later forcibly removed from jail and hanged by a vigilante committee in San Jose's St. James Park. Governor Rolph, by condoning the lynching, was nicknamed "Governor Lynch" and received extremely bad publicity across the nation.

Ignoring his doctor's advice, he continued to make personal appearances until he could stand up no longer. He died of heart failure on June 2, 1934.


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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; Maritime Library, San Francisco, California, various Maritime Museums around the world.

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