Q: In your new documentary, adolph Sutro of Sutro Baths fame sure gets a lot of airtime. Why the crush?
A: Sutro was an iconic American Western character, like Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, but without the mean, crazy streak. He was this wealthy German Jew who took on the oligarchs and the railroads and became one of the first Jewish mayors of a major American city. He didn’t follow anyone. At one point, he owned a twelfth of the area of San Francisco [including most of what became the Richmond District], yet he was a working-class hero.
Sutro came here from Bavaria—didn’t have an engineering degree, just liked to tinker. But he decides, OK, I’m going to build this massive tunnel underneath the Comstock Lode in Nevada to provide water and air ventilation to the silver mines. He spends 10 years trying to get the Bank of California to fund it. He makes 25 trips to Europe—can you imagine how long that took in the 1870s? He lobbies Congress countless times. And he wins!
Even today, there are a bunch of Sutro freaks out there. One guy we met in Virginia City, Nevada, dresses up like him all the time. And really, who would have thought that a Jew could be the iconic Western character? That’s supposed to be a cowboy, not a Jew!
The San Francisco Jewish Festival Runs July 25–Aug. 12, sfJff.org
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of San Francisco.
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