San Francisco Portolá [Portola]
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Portola - Part 2 of 5
The Portolá [Portola] Festival
of 1909, A Party with a Purpose
John T. Freeman on September 20, 2003 at Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, California
excerpts from SFBAPCC
October 2003 Newsletter
John Freeman: Portolá [Portola] Festival 1909 -
John began by expressing thanks to other club members who had helped
by loaning images in their collections: Glenn Koch, Chris Pollock,
Kathy Elwell, David Parry, Kathryn Ayres (who also helped decorate the
room); and to Alanna Freeman. It was truly a group effort. The
decorations included red and yellow banners sewn by Alanna. After a
few minutes of typical computer user excoriation the machine settled
down and the PowerPoint presentation, a computer generated slide show,
got under way.
Festival, View of Fireworks in Union Square,
Hotel St. Francis, San Francisco, Cal.
to appear was a map showing the burned area of San Francisco following
the ’ought-six fire — the entire northeast portion of the city, larger
than the Boston, Baltimore and Chicago fires combined. Next mounds
of rubble —not from the quake or fire but from demolition.
Reconstruction: many class A buildings were quickly repaired; bread
lines on Ellis, Fillmore to Octavia; life was very inconvenient.
Earthquake shacks were crowded together with board sidewalks; little
privacy. Public toilets were two door shacks, one ladies, the other
gents, over a manhole. People were allowed to cook only in the
streets as there were damaged flues and no water for fire protection.
Images: the effort needed to heat and carry water to take a bath,
black demolition workers on Sansome Street, crowded streetcars, dust
everywhere —city dirty and nasty, iron frameworks going up. There was
no shopping downtown; it was too dangerous and too dirty, but folks
did come to see the red hot rivets being tossed around at night by
steel workers. Sheet music: “Back to Market Street.”
The Merchants Association was first to propose an event to let the
world know that San Francisco was back in business and soon all of
downtown was festooned in red and yellow, the Portolá [Portola]
colors, or red, white and blue for President Taft’s visit after
stopping at the AYP fair in Seattle. Folks had to learn how to
pronounce Portolá [Portola]; the town or the street could be
Port-O-la; but the man and the festival were Port-o-LA, as in la la
LA. Nicholas Covarrubias was chosen to represent Don Gaspar de
Portolá [Portola] he was a good horseman and made a great image. His
very regal queen, Virgilia, 22, was five feet nine and a quarter
inches in a Merry Widow hat. A souvenir program told of a hot air
balloon race the week before the festival and of the Mardi Gras-like
All the Big Bugs will be in Town! Are you Coming?
Portola, San Francisco October 19-23, 1909
Advertising told that hotels are open and ready for visitors. The
city has recovered from 1906. Postcards promoted the festival:
Portolá [Portola]’s first view of the bay, sailors and women on
shipboard, other cards bearing red and yellow stickers, cornucopia,
woman cuddling a bear, a flower series, a faux ticket to Portolá
[Portola] fun —like the more common Admission Day card of 1910, a
Mitchell series (of unusual poor quality). A pennant card advised
that the “Big Bugs will be in Town,” arcania for big shots. A Pacific
Novelty card of a bear atop the Call Building showed the old and the
new. Tuck carnival series cards were overprinted for Portolá
[Portola], Even a Portolá [Portola] hankie! Weidner cards showed the
45 foot high letters on Yerba Buena Island, both close up and at a
There was a competition on Market Street for building displays; the
Ferry building was outlined in lights and chains of lights crossed
Market Street every forty feet. A distant real photo showed the
curtain of lights on the Palace Hotel, a bell in lights on Market, the
lights crossing the street and the lighted domes of the Call and
Humboldt buildings. The bell of lights was at 3rd and Market and had
4000 bulbs; it was used again several times. A tightrope walker
performed near it every night at eleven o’clock. A night view of the
St. Francis Hotel showed the murals in the bays between the ells. A
night view showed the fireworks on Union Square, every night at nine.
An Emporium ad showed Virgilia at an auto show in the Emporium
basement. A Buick ad was for the Howard Auto Company —you know,
Charles Howard, Seabiscuit’s owner.
The Conservatory was got up in red and yellow flowers shown on colored
postcards; a more distant RP showed the whole design that now was
obviously for Portolá [Portola]. Ships were outlined in lights; the
Japanese cruiser IJNS Izumo was the most popular to visit.
Four parades were held, one each day, and many cards show the floats
and marchers. The most surprising was the Japanese float with cherry
trees and blossoms tied on —an ugly card, a beautiful float. Another
card showed the giant flag, 65 by 160 feet, carried by 140 Spanish
American War veterans. A Britton and Rey card showed the
building in Chinatown. The Chinese took part in the celebration and
won many awards especially for their 375-foot long dragon “worn” by
200 men. Britton and Rey cards also showed the festival at the Cliff
House and another at Fort Point, but there are no indications that
these locations participated in festivities.
Queen Virgilia Makes Presentation to
Portolá [Portola] Festival San Francisco,
Sporting events took place in Golden Gate park including swimming
races at Spreckels Lake! In the East Bay 200,000 viewers saw a
seventeen car auto race; average speed: 62.8 MPH.
There are no good images of the last parade —the Historical and
Electrical Parade, and its confetti volcano. Confetti was exciting in
1909 as there had been no New Year’s Eve parades while the downtown
was a construction zone. Portolá [Portola] made up for it that last
night. Southern Pacific hauled away 300 tons of used confetti, which
it placed as ballast along its lines.
By 1911, two years after the Portolá [Portola] Festival, all thoughts
and frivolity turned to the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE)
first promoting it and then preparing for it. The Portolá [Portola]
Festival had drifted into obscurity.
Portola - Part 3 (Portola Festival
of 1909) Continued...
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