San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham
(San Francisco’s 32nd mayor, Jan. 8, 1944-Jan. 7, 1948) is
most famous or infamous for his January 1947 dictum that 'cable cars must go.'
Lapham was referring to the city owned Powell Street lines. His dictum triggered
the "Cable Car War," whose opposition to the mayor's plan was led by
Friedel Klussmann and her "Citizen's Committee to
Save the Cable Cars." By that November Mayor Lapham and his allies wished they
had never heard of Powell Street and its cable cars, as San Francisco voters
supported overwhelmingly the retention of the Powell cable lines. (Refer to
The Cable Car Lady and the Mayor for details of the
events of 1947).
The Time Magazine article was written six months before the mayor's
dictum. This piece provides a different view of Roger Lapham than that
generated by the Cable Car War. Instead of being depicted as a grim
faced, hard-boiled personality, as shown by most of his photographs,
Lapham's countenance on Time's cover is much more appealing. The text
offers some unique insights into the mayor and San Francisco politics of
The reader is cautioned that Time's zeal may have distorted reality.
Time states that in the post 1906 earthquake and fire period "Charges of
graft involving (Mayor) Schmitz, Boss Abe Reuf (note, the correct
spelling is Ruef), the Southern Pacific Co.'s subsidiary United Railways
(correct name United Railroads) grew so loud that even tolerant San
Franciscans were aroused." It is doubtful that these scandals as Time
wrote "left an odor behind that 19 years of Rolph and twelve years of
Florist Rossi (as mayors), honest as they were, never quite dispelled."
Time is on shaky-ground when it argued that only the honesty and
integrity of Lapham was able to change the mood of the electorate.
Further, Southern Pacific did not own the United Railroads, but had sold
their San Francisco transit operations to the "Baltimore Syndicate" in 1902.
Nevertheless, the reader is in for well written insight into San Francisco
and its leaders.
"City I Love"
Delegates to the annual American Medical Association convention in San Francisco
last week ... saw a remarkable appeal to citizens. On a billboard near the Civic
Auditorium was the portrait of a vaguely sinister man whose face was hidden by a
tilted derby. A legend read: "Don't surrender your city to the faceless man. Vote
no on recall."
San Francisco was in the middle of a muddle and a strange political campaign. On
July 16 the city will go to the polls and decide whether to recall Mayor Roger
Dearborn Lapham. Some San Franciscans wanted to oust him because his administration
had put through a 3¢ fare rise on the city's rattletrap trolley lines. To add to the
doctors' confusion, when they first hit town the trolleys were not even running.
They were strikebound.
To all outward appearances the anti-Lapham campaign was the idea of a 73-year-old, kewpie-like man named Henry F. Budde. Little Mr. Budde is the publisher of some weekly throwaways ("You can't cancel your subscription, he'll just throw it in your goddam living room") and a paper for municipal employes. He had been a salaryless park commissioner under Mayor Angelo Rossi; Lapham did not reappoint him. More recently Budde had tried to start a "Dimes for Manila" drive; Lapham had declined to push it. Perky Mr. Budde reacted with the fury of a pinto with a burr under its tail. He circulated a petition for a vote to boot out such a graceless officeholder.
The Mayor, he charged, had acted arrogantly in the matter of the trolley-fare boost (from 7¢ to 10¢). Thousands of San Franciscans signed. Lapham signed the petition himself—so the proposal could be put on the June 4 primary ballot, thus save the city the expense of a special election. Budde did not gather enough valid signatures in time, but he got them later; a special election was decreed.
The Lapham people charged that Budde was only the front for politicians who want to enthrone their own man. Who is he? Hardly anyone knows. He is someone the city's supervisors would elect if Lapham is fired. He is the Faceless Man.
There is an outside chance that the plot will work. Odder things have happened in odd and amiable San Francisco.
Birth of Bedlam. Strong men and weak, good & bad—from Mormon Elder Sam Brannan to Roger Dearborn Lapham—have tried with varying success to run or rob or manage "The City" since it began life as Yerba Buena 112 years ago.
Today, as then, the average San Franciscan's idea of government is the average schoolboy's idea of school: the less of it the better. There was little of it in 1846, when the population was 60, even less four years later, when the population was 15,000—mostly gold miners, ex-convicts, hoodlums and pioneering whores. Then the town was a bedlam where gamblers murdered one another at the drop of a deuce and drunks suffocated to death in the mud of Montgomery Street. Six times in one and a half years the ramshackle town burned down.
Sam Brannan's Vigilantes brought a violent kind of order out of the violent chaos. San Franciscans settled down to ordinary, corrupt city politics and a less homicidal good time. Ladies like "Cowboy Maggie" Kelly on the Barbary Coast still provided entertainment in the old style. But '49ers learned to waltz at Lawyer Hall McAllister's wife's cotillions.
Mayors came & went. In 1869 the transcontinental railroad arrived and the few San Franciscans who had managed to make and hold their fortunes built wooden castles on Nob Hill. The thousands who had not, organized. Subsequently the organized put Eugene E. Schmitz of the Musicians' Union into City Hall.
Charges of graft involving Schmitz, Boss Abe Reuf, the Southern Pacific Co.'s subsidiary United Railways (precursor of the Market St. Railway) grew so loud that even tolerant San Franciscans were aroused. The only reason they did not act immediately was because of a louder noise. The earth moved. The city tumbled down in dust and fire. When San Franciscans, recovering from the earthquake, found time, they clapped Reuf in jail.
Glad Hands. In 1911 "Sunny Jim" Rolph sailed into the mayoralty in a ten-gallon hat and polished cowboy boots. He stayed there for 19 years, and in those years the city grew up. Up climbed the buildings. Up climbed industry, shipping, finances, while "Sunny Jim" ran things with a glad hand. When "Sunny Jim" left to become governor, he passed the mayoralty to Florist Angelo Rossi, who sailed into office with a carnation in his lapel.
Rossi celebrated the opening of the Great Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. But he also presided, without honor, at San Francisco's greatest labor fight, the 1934 general strike. Out of that trouble came the name of Harry Bridges, boss of the West Coast longshoremen.
The strike ended, but not the trouble. One of the issues was malpractices in hiring longshoremen. Bridges' union wanted to run its own hiring halls. One day in 1936 the president of the American-Hawaiian Steamship Co. accepted a challenge to debate that issue publicly with Bridges. The steamship line president was gregarious, articulate Roger Dearborn Lapham.
They met in a hall packed with Bridges men. The longshoremen hooted at the red-faced, white-haired capitalist and shipowner. Lapham put his feet apart and shouted back. Bridges' longshoremen ended up by applauding him for his frankness and sportsmanship. That day Roger Lapham walked onto the political stage.
The Rise of Roger Lapham. He was born in Manhattan, in 1883. Five of his mother's brothers had gone to sea. One of them, Uncle George Dearborn, had organized American-Hawaiian, and he gave 17-year-old Roger the chance to ride one of the line's new freighters out to Hawaii.
Roger wistfully returned to the East Coast, went to Harvard, married Helen Abbott from Brooklyn and dreamed of the West. He worked in his family's several large shipping firms, served as a captain of infantry in World War I, suffered a gassing and temporary blindness, served on Hoover's Food Board. Uncle George died. Five years later Roger Lapham became president of A-H and moved permanently to the city he had always dreamed about.
Roger Lapham soon found himself embroiled in the labor wars. From those struggles the Waterfront Employers' Association emerged regenerated and enlightened. Lapham provided some of the enlightenment: the conviction, soon adopted by other shippers, that employers had to accept collective bargaining.
Lapham was called to Washington to serve on the Defense Mediation Board, later the War Labor Board. Colleagues there remember him for his expert golf (low 70s), his prodigious jitterbugging at staff parties, his bluff, blunt honesty. They always knew when he was about to sound off. His neck turned red. The flush spread to his ponderous jowls, then he exploded, not with a single salvo but in a rumble of steady fire. He was an industry member but he was never industry's stooge. He wrote caustic and furious letters to Montgomery Ward's diehard Sewell Avery. He won the respect of every man on the board.
Then San Franciscans, tired of the fumbling of Angelo Rossi, asked Lapham to run for mayor. He accepted and San Francisco elected him.
Man in Brocade Pants. San Francisco had acquired a zestful extrovert as mayor. His neckties are notorious. One, which Sculptor Benny Bufano gave him, is of royal purple satin. On it Bufano painted a picture of St. Francis, symbols representing a bond issue and the Mayor's tree-planting program, and Lapham's solemn pledge, made before his election: "One Term Only."
On Sundays in his big brick house on fashionable Pacific Heights, Lapham pads around in striped golf socks, plum-colored silk brocade pants and a tentlike Chinese silk wrapper. He has four children, who call him "Pa," ten grandchildren, with whom he plays dominoes, making them put up 10¢ a game and no fooling.
Fun-loving Lapham gave fun-loving San Franciscans their money's worth. Last fall he made a swing through northern California in the interests of better town-&-country relationships. At Roseville, in the Sierra foothills, he kicked up his heels at a roadhouse dance with locomotive firemen and their ladies. At Yreka, he danced with assorted Yrekans and Indians until 4 a.m. When he stopped for a swim au naturel in the Trinity River, an Indian squaw and children stopped to stare. Lapham's companion was embarrassed. Said Lapham: "If that squaw hasn't anything better to do than watch an old fool like me in swimming, why, to hell with it—let her look."
Man in Office. Such cutups are only large Mr. Lapham's large way of relaxing. At his office in City Hall he is in deadly earnest. He boosted taxes to pay for such badly needed items as sewer repairs. He antagonized people by his refusal to waste time & effort on various impractical do-good stunts (such as Budde's "Dimes"); he declined to proclaim a "Day of Prayer," on the grounds that any San Franciscan who wanted to pray was at liberty to do so, any time.
He did what no mayor before him had done: he convinced the people that the only way to solve the city's transit mess was to buy out the privately owned Market St. Railway and unify it with the municipal trolley lines. It was in order to buy new equipment that he approved the fare increase.
Transit has been one of his biggest headaches. Last week's strike was typical. The trolleymen's wages were fixed in the spring by the city's supervisors and, according to the city charter, would have to stand for one year. The trolleymen argued that Lapham should declare an emergency and boost their wages by edict. Although he saw some justice in their wage demands, he refused to jump through that legal loophole.
After four days of strike and profane telephone calls to Lapham's listed home number, the trolleymen went back to work. This week the brakemen on the cable cars were once again clanging "shave-and-a-haircut" up & down Nob Hill.
Lapham has restored the confidence of San Franciscans in city government. Handsome, black-bearded Eugene Schmitz left an odor behind him that 19 years of Rolph and twelve years of Florist Rossi, honest as they were, never quite dispelled. Even Lapham's loudest critics admit his courage and integrity, and agree that he has raised the mayoralty to a high plane. Lapham himself is waiting for the voters' decision on July 16 with considerable suspense. He takes pride in his job. He wants more than anything else to go on serving San Francisco until the end of his full term.
New Faces, Old Roles. Amidst this latest fracas in City Hall and the troubles of its latest mayor, the city of helter-skelter hills, hodgepodge houses, crawling cable cars, fogs and fish smells goes about its play and business, cynical, tolerant and urbane.
It is not old. The modern city is no older than the 40 years which have elapsed since the earthquake. Like its pre-1906 buildings, most of its pre-1906 families have disappeared, although there are still Crockers and a sprinkling of Sutros and Spreckels around. The exclusive and monstrous Pacific Union Club, once the home of Bonanza King James Flood, is still a rendezvous of the wealthy, but Nob Hill is no longer the center of the social whirl. The center now is the Burlingame Country Club, outside of town.
A new cast of characters has taken over the roles once played by railroad tycoon Mark Hopkins; by Educators Emma Marwedel ("Have faith in the kindergartens") and Kate Douglas Wiggin (Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch); by Socialite Mrs. Hall McAllister; by Author Jack London; even by "Cowboy Maggie" Kelly.
Arbiters of culture now are Mrs. Leonora Wood Armsby, who runs Pierre Monteux's San Francisco Symphony, Mrs. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, who campaigns for sanity in art. Faces come & go around the Palace Hotel bar, John's Rendezvous, Golden Gate Park: "Jake" Ehrlich, attorney for the underworld; Bill Hurley, Third Street saloonkeeper who ran for mayor with the slogan: "Get up early and vote for Hurley; stay in bed and be misled." Henry Kaiser rides importantly back & forth over crowded Bay Bridge to Oakland.
William Saroyan hides out coyly in the Sunset district sand dunes. Kathleen Norris, longtime favorite author of millions of housewives, has just published another work—a penny postcard bearing her signature and addressed to all registered voters: "San Francisco is my home city and the city I love. It must be saddening to you as it is to me to see our city's reputation for fairness and dignity sullied ... by this ridiculous and baseless recall campaign. . . . The attempt to recall [Lapham] simply because of a difference of opinion is unfair and fundamentally unAmerican. I appeal in the name of the city we all love for your 'no' vote against the recall."
Saints & Sinners. Why do San Franciscans love their city so?
Mayors may come and mayors may go, but in San Francisco it rarely snows, it rarely freezes. The worst it does in the winter is rain, which turns the Pacific hills green. Even in summer the thermometer rarely climbs above 70°.
The New Yorker, the Parisian, the Londoner, the cosmopolite, all find something in San Francisco that is reminiscent: the babel of languages, the ships along the Embarcadero, the slope of Telegraph Hill which looks like the tumbling slopes of Algiers, the pagoda roofs of Chinatown, the Spanish missions.
Many have tried to define the city's charm; most decide that it is indefinable. It invites where New York overwhelms. Its pleasures are within reach. Saroyan wrote desperately: "It is an unreasonable city. It makes friends of thieves . . . and opens its hearts to saints. But only for a moment. It soon returns to the thieves and abandons the saints. It loves the good as well as the evil." It is a city of splendid beauty. It is most beautiful when seen at sunset from "the Top of the Mark," the glassed-in penthouse saloon in the Mark Hopkins Hotel.
In the evenings, from behind the Golden Gate the fog rolls in, swallowing the sun and reaching for St. Ignatius' ornate spires. The web of Golden Gate Bridge is black against the clouds. A ferry trails two white ribbons of wake from the foot of Market Street toward the Oakland Mole. The yachts in the St. Francis Yacht Club basin vanish in the bay shadows. Searchlights shoot up nervously from the walls of Alcatraz, and a beer sign flowers in the floodlights over the ballpark.
To the south rises the blue dome of City Hall. Near the Civic Auditorium, where the doctors gathered, waits the Faceless Man, who also loves San Francisco, if for different reasons.
Mayor Roger D. Lapham at his City Hall desk the day after winning in the recall election
described in this article. Note the necktie.
(Source: San Francisco
Public Library, San Francisco Historical Photograph
The February 24, 1947 edition of Life described
the early stages of the fight to save the cable cars from
Mayor Roger Lapham. The article said "Civic-minded San Franciscans
and sentimentalists all over the U.S. denounced the move, ridiculed
Lapham's claim that the cars were losing $200,000 a year, wondered how
buses, even if they could climb the hills, would lose any less."
Read the complete article
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Go to SF cable car lines in detail.