San Francisco bay Area Post Card Club Postcard

Portola Fest. 1909


Site Map
Q & A Forum


Portola 1909 Pt. 2
Portola 1909 Pt. 3
Portola 1909 Pt. 4
Portola 1909 Pt. 5

Home Up Search Contact Us


Portola Festival 1909

San Francisco Portolá [Portola] Festival 1909


Home Page Slide Show Highlights

Portola - Part 1 of 5


The Portolá [Portola] Festival of 1909

A Party with a Purpose


by John T.  Freeman, excerpts from SFBAPCC September 2003 Newsletter

When Queen Virgilia of the Portolá [Portola] Festival issued her Proclamation of Pleasure just before the opening in October 1909, she said “the festival has twofold significance, not only to celebrate the discovery of San Francisco Bay by Don Gaspar de Portolá [Portola], but it marks San Francisco’s renaissance from ruin.”  In historical retrospect, Queen Virgilia’s list should have more items of significance.  The Portolá [Portola] Festival demonstrated to the world that San Francisco had the ability to sponsor a major civic event and it bolstered the city’s case for hosting the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915.  It also served to engender respect for the Asian population, becoming the first major civic event enthusiastically supported by both the Chinese and Japanese communities.  This first Portolá [Portola] Festival was a wildly successful five-day party, with an innocence and revelry never before seen in the history of San Francisco.  



Portola Festival 1909


Portolá [Portola] Festival
Oct. 19-23, 1909, San Francisco, California.


One of the first orders of business in preparation for the 1909 Festival was to decide on a theme that would encourage activities, establish event colors and provide a general structure.  Gaspar de Portolá [Portola]’s “discovery” of San Francisco Bay in 1769 was selected as the theme.  It was a perfect compliment to the romanticized Mission period fad of the times.  During the spring and summer of 1909, various discovery postcards were issued to publicize the five-day Portolá [Portola] Festival.  The official poster and postcard image was chosen, by artist’s competition in June, from a painting by Randall W. Borough.  The picture was described as depicting “a girl of the Spanish type seen dancing with all the abandon of the race, her eyes a-sparkle with the excitement of the moment, her red lips parted, roses in her hair, in her hands and strewn around her —the very essence of youthful vitality.  In the background is the tower of the ferry building and the structures of the ‘new’ city, and beyond lie the mountains.”  The theme honored a Spaniard but presented a problem of pronunciation.  Was it to be Por-TOE-la or Por-toe-LA?   The San Francisco Call reported that Portolá [Portola] committee member James Rolph gave a speech to the Chamber of Commerce the week preceding the opening in which he “varied the accent all along the keyboard.”  Linguists and scholars were consulted and it was unanimously agreed that pronunciation “should be a crescendo, ending with a crash on the LA.” 



Portola Festival 1909


Portolá's [Portola's] First View of
San Francisco Bay


The backers of the 1909 Portolá [Portola] Festival had other agendas besides providing a site for a big party.   San Francisco before the earthquake had been a major tourist destination.  Its economy was diversified with imports from Asian and other Pacific rim countries, and exports of California’s huge agricultural bounty.  It was important to demonstrate to the rest of the world that San Francisco was an exciting destination and to provide confidence to businessmen that the city could handle every commercial challenge.  A lot was riding on the success of this festival.  


 The April 18, 1906 earthquake and resulting three days of fire profoundly changed San Francisco.  Almost four square miles, nearly 500 blocks of commercial and residential property, were destroyed.  Many San Franciscans fled to neighboring communities, but those who remained faced the indignity of food lines and temporary shelter.  Residents whose homes were spared from fire endured weeks or months cooking in the street while waiting for an inspector to check the condition of their homes’ chimneys.  The local press —obsessed by governmental corruption, crippling labor strikes and Asian-bashing —did not do much to strengthen the residents’ morale.  For over three years San Franciscans lived through the grime and dust of rebuilding the city.  Downtown was a construction site with all the noise and grit that entails.  Gradually, salvageable buildings were restored and new buildings were erected.  By 1909 commercial and retail businesses were moving back downtown from their temporary locations on Van Ness Avenue or Fillmore Street.  The people who had endured the hardships of those three years deserved a reward.  They were justifiably proud of their new city and anxious to show off their achievement.  San Franciscans were ready to celebrate.  


Charles C.  Moore, a leading San Francisco businessman, was sent by the festival committee to Europe to secure support for the Festival.  Armed with a portfolio of before and after photos, and exuding charm and enthusiasm, he was able to get promises from the British, Dutch, Germans and Italians to send warships to participate in the Portolá [Portola] Festival.  These were major commitments and raised the level of the festival to international status.  With the addition of Japanese and American warships the naval presence in San Francisco Bay was most dramatic.  On shore, naval officers and enlisted men would become vital players in the festival.  Moore’s diplomatic skills were highly praised and within months after the close of the Portolá [Portola] Festival he was heading the Panama Pacific International Exposition commission.  



Portola Festival 1909


Portolá [Portola] Festival San Francisco,
Mayor Taylor Presenting the Key to the City to Don Gaspar de Portolá


By opening day, October 19th, San Francisco was transformed into a carnival midway from the Ferry Building out into the neighborhoods.  In daylight San Francisco was a mass of red and yellow, the Catalonian colors of Portolá [Portola].   Banners, bunting and flags draped buildings and stretched across major streets.  With nightfall more than a million lights illuminated downtown, the arched intersections of Fillmore Street and the retail section of Mission Street.  The Ferry Building, St.  Francis Hotel, Humboldt Savings Bank and other major buildings were outlined in lights.  All along Market Street, from the Ferry Building to the Van Ness Avenue intersection, lights were strung curb to curb every forty feet.  The most spectacular lighting display was at the intersection of Market and Third Streets where 25,000 colored lights were suspended to form a gigantic bell.  In the harbor were seventeen warships also outlined with lights.  The entire north end of the peninsula was an awesome display of color by day and lights by night.   Away from the center of downtown, the Portolá [Portola] Festival held sporting events in Golden Gate Park.   Championship matches were played at the tennis courts.  Further out, at the Stadium (now called Polo Fields) were track and field competitions, football, rugby and lacrosse matches.  There were swimming races held at Spreckels Lake.  In the Ingleside area, a major golf tournament was held at the San Francisco Country Club, drawing some of the leading professional and amateur golfers in the country.  


For five days festivities of joy and spectacle reigned.  There were two days of huge parades with marching military and fraternal units, bands, and floats on Market Street.  A formal dress ball and a masked ball were featured on two of the evenings.   An automobile parade with 1, 600 decorated vehicles wound the lengths of Van Ness Avenue and Market Street.  In Oakland 200,000 people cheered auto racers as they sped 12 times around a 21 mile course that circled from Melrose to Hayward and back.   Every evening of the festival there were fireworks displays in Union Square and a tightrope walker high above Third and Market Streets to awe the crowds.  Over the course of five days 75,000 visitors took launches out to tour the warships, with the Japanese vessel leading in popularity.  The culmination of the festival was called the Historic Pageant with floats moving along Market Street depicting historical events, surrounded by costumed marchers.  Along with the moving floats, were seven immense stationary floats or tableaux.  Each was 46 feet long, mounted on rail flatcars and weighed more than 60 tons.  Starting at the Ferry Building Plaza, these floats were stationed about two blocks apart along Market Street.  All were decked in lights and featured bands and space around them for dancing.  Many of these tableaux had cascades of real water to dazzle the crowds.   All week long San Francisco resembled Mardi Gras, but more so on the last night of the festival.   Most of the revelers wore costumes, and confetti covered them like a snowstorm.  Besides what was thrown by hand, there was a volcano float that spewed out confetti.  


Portola Festival 1909


Meet me at the Portola [Portola] Festival
San Francisco, October 19th to 23rd


After the close of the festival, when the organizing committee and the press evaluated the Portolá [Portola] week, it was rated an unqualified success.  Businessmen were effusive in their praise as they calculated that the festival had brought over a million visitors to San Francisco who had spent $1.5 million.  There had been an unprecedented spirit of cooperation from all segments of the community, but particular note was made of the Asians.  After years of vilifying Asians, the San Francisco press praised the Imperial navy and the beauty of the special cherry blossoms it had brought for the Japanese float. The Chinese community used the Portolá [Portola] Festival as a “coming out” after years of isolation.  Chinatown had been rebuilt after the earthquake with tourism in mind.  In the festival the Chinese introduced such spectacular floats, lion dancers and dragons, that a rear admiral commented he’d never seen their equal in all his years in Asian ports.  Immediate interest was expressed in making the Portolá [Portola] Festival an annual event, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia.  The press also editorialized about San Francisco having demonstrated to the world that it was ready to host a world’s fair by 1913, to celebrate the anticipated completion of the Panama Canal in that year.    


The Portolá [Portola] Festival did not become an annual event.  The following year, the festival was co-opted by the sixtieth anniversary of Admission Day.  It was restaged in 1913, tying it with Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1513.  In 1948, the third Portolá [Portola] Festival was held in San Francisco to stimulate post-World War II business.   Neither of these events approached the vitality and lavishness of the original celebration.  The first festival had the spirit of a newlywed’s housewarming party that subsequent celebrations never would equal.


Portola - Part 2 (Portolá [Portola] Festival of 1909) Continued...



Last updated: 11/06/2013 03:45:35 PM -0500
Jack Daley, Webmaster

webmaster at


    2 *  3 ** 4 ** 5 *