1909 Portola Festival – San Francisco, California


April 18, 1906. A date that no San Franciscan at that time would ever forget. The fires that raged on for three days after added to the devastation and destruction. The events of those days  could have wiped the town off the face of the Earth, but San Franciscans had resolve.Nearly 500 blocks, numerous business and homes were destroyed in the four mile path of the flames.


For the next three years San Franciscans would endure food lines, temporary shelter,  denizens leaving the area, political corruption, labor strikes and the dirt and grime of a city being rebuilt. Morale was low. The local media was so focused on the labor strife, grafting and pure, unadulterated Asian-bashing that it did little to strengthen resolve.

Construction would continue day after day for the better part of summer 1906 through 1909. Slowly, what building remained after the disaster were repaired and hundreds of new buildings were erected. By the end of 1908, San Francisco was an entirely new city and the citizens wanted to show off their accomplishment to the world. They also wanted a BIG party.

In early 1909, it was announced that San Francisco would have a grand celebration called the Portola Festival.

The San Francisco Call – January 22, 1909

On February 1, 1909 Mayor Edward R. Taylor made the following proclamation:

“Whereas, the 140th anniversary of the discovery of the bay of San Francisco by Gaspar de Portola, first governor of California, occurs in this year; and whereas, the public-spirited citizens of San Francisco, in response to a general and spontaneous demand, have planned and perfected an organization for holding and are now engaged in preparing the details of a festival, to be called the Portola Festival, which shall at once commemorate the discovery of San Francisco bay and afford opportunity for public rejoicing over the splendid present and the still more splendid future of the city, and, at the same time, draw back to their old home the San Franciscans scattered throughout the world; and whereas, it is the common wish of those citizens who seek the welfare and desire to hasten the progress of San Francisco that this festival shall become a fixed annual institution and feature of the city’s life; and whereas, the success of this festival and its establishment as an annual event will promoted and further assured by giving it the official approval and sanction of the municipal government…..”

The Portola Festival was officially set in mention.

The San Francisco Call – February 2, 1909

The festival’s theme and name was designed to honor Juan Gaspar de Portolá’s discovery of San Francisco Bay in October 1769. Portolá, or at least the myth of Portola, was chosen as a symbol to evoke the past ideals of Old California. Red and yellow were chosen as the festival colors in honor of Portola’s homeland of Catalonia.

The San Francisco Call – March 23, 1909

The date was set for October 19 through 23, 1909, perhaps not coincidentally. With the mayoral election in early November, Mayor Taylor wanted to showcase the new city and ensure that he was shown the leader of the rebuilding process and that he would be the man to lead San Francisco going forward.


Immediately after the festival was announced, the city and civic leaders began to hype the five-day festival as the celebration of a lifetime. Advertising and editorials began to appear in local newspapers with Spanish-themed illustrations.

The San Francisco Call – March 14, 1909

With a theme firmly in place, festival organizers set out to find a beautiful young woman to be the queen of ceremonies. In order to identify a suitably beautiful young woman for such a grand festival, a prize of $100 was offered for a photograph of the most beautiful young woman in the state.

The San Francisco Call – March 12, 1909

After the search became public in early March, questions arose.How did you pick the most beautiful woman in the state? Will the selection be fair?

The San Francisco Call raised those questions and concerns in a piece that appeared in the March 13, 1909 issues:

The most beautiful woman in California! Here’s a pretty how d’ye do. Who fling the golden apple of discord on the well spread board of California? Why, then, if you must know, it is done this time by a committee and not a goddess, because of a sad verity, our goddesses are tin, and, in fact, the great American committee as an institution can beat the whole heathen mythology in the infinite variety of its functions and the popular confidence in its omnipotence. But the Paris of this perplexing judgment is not yet named. No doubt Mayor Taylor, as a man of sensibility, should succeed to the vacancy, and should be able to fulfill the job without bringing on a war or making scandal for the divorce court like the late incumbent. Paris was bribed, we all know that, and sold the prize to the highest bidder. Juno offered him a kingdom, Minerva military glory, while Venus promised him the fairest woman on Earth for wife. The transaction becomes a little confused when we find that Paris had to steal another man’s wife to make good on the price of his judgment. From that followed the Trojan war, to Greece the direful spring of woes unnumbered told in song and story.
Of course, the competition set afoot by the Portola committee will be conducted with strictest propriety and will be rigidly chaperoned by Mayor Taylor. No doubt the co-operation of Judge Graham as the official guardian of the home and hearthstone would be a valuable guarantee against funny business which sometimes makes people laugh out of the wrong side of their mouths. By the way of abundant caution the competition will be conducted through the medium of photographs. While the photograph may not madden to crime or inflame the imagination, it has the important merit in the eyes of a blameless and timorous committee that it does not scratch. Yet we have our doubts, and we may be permitted to wish the promoters of Portola’s fame a safe delivery of their rash, presumptuous enterprise. God save you, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, for the embattled womanhood of California accepts your challenge, and there you stand with no other means of defense than a wastepaper basket. Don’t say you were not warned.

The competition was intense and speculation ran wild, For five weeks, the newspapers were filled with speculation. Some articles are outright rooting for specific candidates.

The San Francisco Call – April 10, 1909

The contest ran through April 17th. After examining thousands of photos from all over California, the Portola Festival jury chose Miss Virgilia (often misspelled as Vergilia) Bogue, age 23, as the most beautiful woman in California.

Oakland Tribune – May 8, 1909

Bogue, the daughter of railroad executive Virgil Bogue and his wife Cybil, was just 22 at the time. She stood 5’9″ and was said to carry a “regal beauty.” Bogue would be prove to be a very interesting choice. Before the end of the year she would published a steamy (for 1909) romance novel called “The Strength to Yield.” The story was a thinly-veiled re-telling of Virgilia’s romance with a married Italian man.

NOTE: I had originally written an enormous section here on the fascinating life of Virgilia Bogue but decided to dedicate an entire write-up to her instead of slowing the story of Portola to a screeching halt.

After the queen was chosen another competition was held. This would be an art compeition to design the official poster for the festival. The contest, also with a $100 prize, would take place shortly after Bogue was chosen queen. The official rules were:
the poster must be in four colors, finished by June 12, the size must be 22 x 28 inches and Miss Bogue’s face, drawn from a photograph, must be incorporated.

San Francisco Chronicle – May 26, 1909

Bogue’s image and likeness would appear of most of the advertising for the festival over the next six months. The winner of the contest was Randall Borough.

The San Francisco Call – June 27, 1909

However, the image on this postcard did not translate well from the poster.


However, there were many different types of artwork used to advertise the festival, and most of the did feature a likeness or photograph of Virgilia.


Now that the Queen was chosen, the search was on for a man to play Don Portolá. The committee chose who they though best embodied the caballero spirit of Portolá. 70-year-old Nicholas Covarrubias of Santa Maria, California was picked. Covarrubias, was born to a Spanish immigrant in Santa Barbara in 1839.

The San Francisco Call – August 19, 1909

Covarubbias was a former Santa Barbara sheriff and had gained local fame as almost professional “carnival king” and a showman horse-rider. The selection was widely praised.


For months the preparations had been made. A King and Queen were chosen. Naval ships from all over the world were set to arrive in the Bay. Festivities too numerous to name planned. Multiple parades laid out. Many roofs across the city were painted red as a welcome to visitors.

The San Francisco Call – September 13, 1909

However, by July the scope of festival had far surpassed the committee’s budget and a call was sent out asking for liberal contributions.

The San Francisco Call – June 22, 1909

Over $25,000 was raised and the festival announced it was able to continue with all of their grandiose plans. However, less than two months later, another plea went out and this one asked for $100,000 to complete the festival. Postcards and buttons would be created to aid in the fundraising. The postcards, some of which are featured in this post, were a big success and doubled in raising awareness all over the globe.

San Francisco Chronicle – September 13, 1909

Money wasn’t the only thing the Portola committee needed to ensure a successful festival. Women were asked to provide as much time as they could. One article states that the “success of coming October fete depends largely on the gentler sex.” The call worked. Women of society and housewives joined in planning and organizing. Portola was truly a community affair.

San Francisco Chronicle – September 18, 1909

In August another contest was held (wow did these people love their contests!) to award The Portola Committee’s “Working girls’ contest.” The winner would receive, yes, you guessed it, $100. She would also receive an all-expenses-paid trip to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exposition and British Columbia.

August brought the news that Colonel J.K. Ritter would lead a gayly uniformed cavalry called the Dragoons in the parades. The troop, called San Francisco’s handsomest men and most expert horsemen, would lead a mounted drill to escort the parades.

On June 8th, it was announced that President William Howard Taft would be attending the opening night of the festival. The president would make a toast at the beginning of the festivities. Speculation raged on for weeks about what he might say. The toast was kept under wraps and would not be revealed until the opening night.

The San Francisco Call – September 8, 1909

Sports festivities were planned including an automobile race, auto show, an amateur wrestling tournament, a tennis tournament, a golf tournament, swimming races, boxing matches, a balloon race and an Association Championship of Football was scheduled between the stars of California and the stars of British Columbia. The biggest sporting spectacle planned was Don Nicolas de Varrubias, the Fiesta King himself, in a scientific bullfight with no gore or blood.

The rest of the festivities ranged from a fireworks spectacular; an exhibitions of airships and airplanes; bands and music galore; decorations of all kinds; a carnival; receptions and parties day and night; and a major display showing the city’s new electric grid and power with a lighting spectacular of over 30,000,000 candlepower. An immense bell on Third and Market was suspended 125 feet air in the air and would be illuminated. It was the largest single piece of electrical display attempted.

The San Francisco Call – September 25, 1909

To secure accommodations for the expected crowd the Portola Information bureau advertised the need for 50,000 rooms. Local citizens could offer a room in their homes and apartments and make some extra money.

The festival opened on Tuesday, October 19th, with a religious ceremony in St. Mary’s Cathedral blessing the event. Don Gaspar made his grand entrance by sea through the Golden Gate. Stepping ashore at the Mission Street Pier No. 2, he was greeted enthusiastically by his subjects. He then mounted a horse and headed down Market Street.

The San Francisco Call – October 19, 1909

On opening night, President Taft made his toast to the cheers and delight of the rowdy crowd:

Postcard commemorating President Taft’s Portola toast

Postcard.org has a great write-up about the festivities that followed:

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.  

An enormous jubilee called the Historical and Electrical Parade and Pageant closed the festival. With crowds estimating between 800,000-1,000,000, a closing parade passed the throngs as a final sendoff. California’s history was presented with seven brilliantly decorated and illuminated floats. One float in particular is mentioned in numerous articles and being a “wonder to behold.” A float depicting Yosemite, in which real water fell over its manufactured cliffs. Queen Virgilia waved to her adoring crowd for the final time as the queen.

The San Francisco Call – October 24, 1909

By the time the festival had drawn to a close, citizens and businessmen were alike in calling the event a roaring success. The festival had drawn more than one million visitors to the new San Francisco. The auto races thrilled, the parties roared, the parades were grand. The city came together with unprecedented unity, including support of the Asians communities. For years the local press and citizens had vilified Asians in the area, especially the Chinese. But everyone praised the spectacle of the Japanese float and the beautiful cherry blossom that adorned it and the Chinese floats in particular dazzled. The dragons, lion dancers, flowers all made for a beautiful display of Chinese art and ingenuity.

The San Francisco Call – October 24, 1909

The Portolá Festival was originally planned to be an annual event. It was not. There would another one in 1913 and one more in 1948, in an attempt to bring post World War II business to San Francisco. The other two festivals failed to live up to the enthusiasm and spectacle of that week in 1909 when San Francisco showed its new identity off to the world.

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