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Finding Aid to the James D. Phelan Papers, 1913-1922 (bulk 1906-1930)
BANC MSS C-B 800  
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Collection Details
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  • Collection Summary
  • Information for Researchers
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Alternate Forms Available

  • Collection Summary

    Collection Title: James D. Phelan papers
    Date (inclusive): 1913-1922
    Date (bulk): 1906-1930
    Collection Number: BANC MSS C-B 800
    Extent: Linear feet: 111.7 linear ft. 9 digital objects (14 images)
    Repository: The Bancroft Library.
    University of California, Berkeley
    Berkeley, CA 94720-6000
    Phone: (510) 642-6481
    Fax: (510) 642-7589
    Email: bancref@library.berkeley.edu
    URL: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/
    Abstract: The James D. Phelan Papers, 1855-1941 (bulk 1906-1930), contain materials documenting Phelan's political career as San Francisco's Mayor and a U. S. Senator, his involvement in relief efforts following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his business and financial activities, and his philanthropic efforts. The bulk of this collection consists of correspondence. Other types of records include financial statements, insurance and tax forms, newspaper and magazine clippings, agreements, reports, notes, and published and unpublished writings by Phelan and others. Although the collection contains materials dating from 1855-1941, the bulk of the materials range from 1906-1930.
    Languages Represented: Collection materials are in English
    Physical Location: Many of the Bancroft Library collections are stored offsite and advance notice may be required for use. For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the library's online catalog.

    Information for Researchers


    Collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to The Bancroft Library. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of Public Services. Permission for publication is given on behalf of The Bancroft Library as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], James D. Phelan papers, BANC MSS C-B 800, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

    Alternate Forms Available

    Digital reproductions of selected items are available.
    A selection of digital images included are in the online Guide to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Digital Collection finding aid, and can be viewed at http://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/hb8779p2cx/

    Related Collections

    Title: James D. Phelan Photograph Albums, 1902-1929,
    Identifier/Call Number: BANC PIC 1932.001--ALB
    Title: Mary Louise Phelan Papers, [ca. 1896-1930],
    Identifier/Call Number: BANC MSS C-B 803
    Title: Alice Phelan Sullivan Papers, [ca. 1904-1912],
    Identifier/Call Number: BANC MSS C-B 804
    Title: Noel Sullivan Papers, [ca. 1911-1956],
    Identifier/Call Number: BANC MSS C-B 801

    Separated Material

    Photographs have been transferred to Pictorial Collections of The Bancroft Library.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog
    Phelan, James D. (James Duval), 1861-1930--Archives.
    United States. Congress. Senate.
    Earthquakes--California--San Francisco.
    Fires--California--San Francisco.
    San Francisco Earthquake, Calif., 1906.
    Water-supply--California--San Francisco.
    California--Politics and government.
    Emigration and immigration law--United States--History.

    Administrative Information

    Acquisition Information

    The James D. Phelan Papers were given to The Bancroft Library by Noel Sullivan in 1948 and Benjamin H. Lehman on November 5, 1958. Additions were made on August 22, 1990 by Peter E. Doyle of the Alice Phelan Sullivan Corporation.

    Processing Information

    Processed by History Associates, Incorporated in 2003.


    James Duval Phelan, businessman, political leader, patron of the arts, and philanthropist, was born in San Francisco on April 20, 1861. He graduated from St. Ignatius University, San Francisco, in 1881 and studied law at the University of California, Berkeley. After college he traveled abroad for a year and a half, studying municipal governments and writing articles on his observations for various magazines and San Francisco newspapers. Influenced by his father, he gave up his early aspirations to become a lawyer or a writer and turned to a business career, first as his father's partner, and then as his successor in the banking business and as manager of the considerable estate which he had inherited.
    James D. Phelan's parents were Irish immigrants. His father, James Phelan, came to California in 1849 and married his mother, Alice Kelly, in 1859. In 1870, Phelan's father established the First National Gold Bank, later known as the First National Bank of San Francisco, which was the first national bank in California and the second gold bank in the nation. Subsequent business ventures included the erection of the Phelan Building in 1881, assisting in the organization of the American Construction and Dredging Company for dredging the Panama Canal in 1882, and establishing the Mutual Savings Bank of San Francisco in 1889. In 1890, two years before his death, Phelan's father established a copartnership with his son comprising all of his business interests.
    After his father's death, politics quickly claimed James D. Phelan's attention and he became actively involved in the battle for San Francisco civic reform. In the mid 1890s, San Francisco was one of the most notoriously boss-ridden, corrupt cities in the country. In 1896, the reform Democrats nominated Phelan for the office of mayor. With virtually no previous political experience, campaigning for an end to corruption, home rule, and civil service reform, he was elected, and twice re-elected. Despite the opposition of the party machines, he successfully led the campaign for the adoption of a new city charter in 1900, which separated the executive and legislative divisions of city government, called for election at large of supervisors, and gave appointive powers to executive decision. In 1901 Phelan stated, "the first administration under the new charter went into office with the purpose to serve the people and the people only." During his mayoral terms, he also worked for municipal ownership of public utilities, public improvements, and beautification of the city. Phelan was also directly involved in the Hetch- Hetchy water dispute when in 1901 he proposed damming the Hetch-Hetchy valley to secure a source of fresh water for the city San Francisco. Phelan concluded his term of office in 1902, refusing to run a fourth time.
    The San Francisco fire of 1906 called Phelan back into public service. He was chosen to be president of the San Francisco Relief and Red Cross Funds, a corporation, and it was to him that President Theodore Roosevelt personally sent the $10,000,000 collected for the relief of the fire victims. Soon after the fires, Phelan wrote of the relief efforts in a letter to his uncle George on May 8, 1906, stating "Everybody is cheerful and working with the zeal of pioneers in a new land." Following the 1906 fires Phelan took an active part, with Rudolph Spreckels and Fremont Older, in the graft prosecutions. During this period he was also appointed President of the United Bank & Trust Company.
    In 1912 Phelan actively campaigned for Woodrow Wilson, and in 1914, he entered the race for the U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket. He won and became the first California Democrat to sit in the Senate since 1897. Phelan served as a Senator from March 4, 1915, to March 3, 1921, and was the chairman of the Committee on Railroads (Sixty-fourth Congress) and a member of the Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation of Arid Lands (Sixty-fifth Congress). Phelan was also involved in issues surrounding immigration and land ownership (especially anti-Japanese legislation). In 1920 Phelan ran for reelection but was defeated in the Harding landslide. He did not completely retire from political life, however. Serving as one of the California delegates to the 1924 Democratic national convention, he placed William G. McAdoo's name in nomination for the presidency of the United States, and he contributed frequently to the Democratic Party coffers.
    After leaving the Senate, Phelan returned to San Francisco and devoted time largely to his business enterprises and to civic betterment work. Well known as a patron of the arts, he generously helped artists and writers and served as California's unofficial host, entertaining distinguished celebrities at his spacious country estate, Villa Montalvo, near Saratoga, California. His estate was built in 1912 and named after Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo, a sixteenth century Spanish author who first used the term "California" to describe a gold-laden island in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandian. Celebrity guests who visited his estate include Edwin Markham, Jack London, Ethel Barrymore, Thomas Marshall, and William Jennings Bryan.
    In the early 1920s, Phelan also traveled extensively and contributed frequently to magazines, writing on a wide range of topics. In 1923 he published Travel and Comment, an account of his 1921-1922 trip around the world when he visited Hawaii, Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Ceylon, India, Egypt, Jerusalem, Paris, and London.
    As one of San Francisco's most prominent citizens, Phelan was honored on many occasions. He served as vice president of the California Commission to the Chicago Exposition in 1893; regent of the University of California; trustee of the San Francisco Public Library; president of the Adornment Association; president of the Art Association; president of the Playground Commission; three-time president of the Bohemian Club; and president of the Hall Association of the Native Sons of the Golden West. Other honors include an honorary Ph.D. awarded by Santa Clara College in 1903; his appointment in 1913 as commissioner to Europe on behalf of the United States Government to support the invitation of the President to foreign countries to participate in the Panama Pacific Exposition; and his appointment in 1914 by the State Department under special authority of President Wilson, to investigate the fitness of the U.S. Minister to the Dominican Republic in Santo Domingo.
    Phelan was on the board of directors of many institutions including California Pacific Title and Trust Company, California Pacific Title Insurance Company, First National Bank of San Francisco, First National Bank of San Jose, Mutual Savings Bank of San Francisco, Pacific Title Insurance Company, Real Property Investment Corporation, Sacramento-San Joaquin Stockholders, Security Bank and Trust Co., Bakersfield, United Bank and Trust Company, and United Security Bank and Trust. He was also involved in many local and national committees including the All-California Highways Campaign Committee; American Committee for Relief in Ireland; Bureau of Historical Research Committee of the American Irish Historical Society; American Red Cross, California Branch Executive Committee; Associated Charities of San Francisco Central Council; Reception Committee Chairman for California's Diamond Jubilee in 1925; California's Water and Power Ad State Campaign Committee; Citizens' Campaign Committee for Hetch-Hetchy Bond Election; Civic League of San Francisco Advisory Committee; Hetch-Hetchy Citizen's Advisory Committee; Japanese Exclusion League of California Executive Committee; St. Joseph's Hospital, San Francisco, Central Committee; and the Western Pacific Railway Company Reorganization Committee.
    On August 7, 1930, after more than thirty years of supporting San Francisco's political and industrial development and artistic advancement, Phelan died at Villa Montalvo at the age of 69 after an illness of three months. He had two sisters, Mary Louis Phelan and Mrs. Frank J. Sullivan; one nephew, Noel Sullivan; and three nieces, Sister Agnes of Carmelite Convent, Mrs. Alyce S. Murphy, and Mrs. Richard E. Doyle. James D. Phelan never married.
    Portions of the biographical sketch were excerpted from "Phelan Distinguished Son of City; Mayor of San Francisco Three Terms." San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 1930.

    Alternate Forms Available

    Part of collection is available on microfilm, BANC FILM 2433, BANC FILM 2590, and BANC FILM 2713,