Crazy Sutro: Engineer with tunnel vision


They called him crazy, but he contributed significantly to the success of the early West. In San Francisco, the name Adolph Sutro stirs memories of the spectacular Sutro Heights, Cliff House Restaurant and the cavernous Sutro Baths. But in the silver mining lore of Virginia City, Nev., Sutro is associated with the Comstock Lode’s famed Sutro Tunnel, a 19th-century engineering marvel.


Mining Engineer Adolph Sutro | Courtesy Bancroft Library

Adolph Heinrich Sutro, son of a Jewish clothing manufacturer, was born in Aachen, Germany, on April 29, 1830. As a boy, he studied mechanics at a technical school in Prussia, and he held responsible positions in his family’s textile mills while in his teens. The Sutro children enjoyed privileged lives in a 22-room mansion until their father died following a tragic carriage accident. In 1850, Mrs. Sutro took all but one of her 11 children to America.


“A hero to the Comstock miners and benevolent benefactor for San Francisco’s working class, Sutro helped open the West with generosity and grand vision.”


Adolph spent only one week in New York City before gold fever struck, and the 20-year-old booked passage on a California-bound steamer. Sutro shipped into San Francisco on Nov. 21, 1850, with little money, but he planned to sell European luxury items that he had brought along with him. The handsome engineer was in for a major disappointment. San Francisco was suffering from a financial depression. Miners had spent all their gold dust during the summer and fall panning seasons and were now holed up for the duration of the winter rains. They were more concerned with eating and drinking than buying fancy European soaps, perfumes and knickknacks.

Although the city’s main economy had dried up for the season, Sutro remained undaunted and he displayed the persistent hustle that would become his trademark. Within two weeks, he had sold the merchandise and earned his profit. Over time he opened several tobacco stores. A friend said that in an argument Sutro “was as obstinate as two mules.” Another acquaintance noted: “Adolph Sutro didn’t beat you, he wore you down.”

In the mid-1850s, Sutro obtained United States citizenship and married Leah Harris. Leah had no dreams of a life of grandeur, but her energetic husband did. In 1858, Sutro lost most of his savings in the Fraser River gold rush in British Columbia, but the following year he heard about the discovery of silver and gold in western Utah Territory. Sutro sold his tobacco stores in San Francisco, said goodbye to his wife and joined the “Rush to Washoe.” He tramped over snow-covered Carson Pass south of Lake Tahoe and stumbled down into the desert. From now on the lure of the Comstock would never release Sutro’s indomitable spirit, and despite his love for his wife Leah and their six young children, Leah would forever be a Washoe widow.

The ambitious businessman and engineer arrived in Virginia City and Gold Hill with every intention of carrying on his cigar business. While he searched for a suitable storefront, he befriended a rookie newspaper reporter named Sam Clemens, who would succeed on his own as Mark Twain. As mining on the Comstock expanded, men with technological expertise and managerial ability were needed to supervise the increasingly large and often absentee-owned mining companies.

Despite the overwhelming optimism that brought champagne and oysters to Comstock saloons, there was a serious problem developing. As the miners burrowed deeper into the earth, they inhaled toxic air and breathing became nearly impossible. Candlewicks burned with a faint blue-green flame and at the deeper levels, the rocks heated to temperatures exceeding 130 degrees. Subterranean water flooded the most lucrative veins and mining shares plummeted in value. Untold riches would go to the engineer who could solve the riddle of the Comstock.

The visionary Sutro soon had the answer. He determined that a horizontal tunnel bored into the mountain below the mining operations would ensure drainage, ventilation and facilitate the work. His momentous idea earned him the sobriquet, “Crazy Sutro,” but the famed Sutro Tunnel emerged from this ambitious dream.

Sutro successfully petitioned the newly seated Nevada Legislature for a right of way to build his tunnel, but the Bank of California — a powerful force in Comstock operations — was worried that Sutro would gain too much control once his tunnel was completed. He ran into resistance at every turn. William Sharon, Nevada agent for the Bank of California, warned everyone against investing in the project.

But Sutro didn’t quit, and he eventually acquired congressional support and financial investors. Even so, the 4-mile-long tunnel took nine years and $6.5 million to complete. Unfortunately, by the time the Sutro Tunnel reached the vertical shafts, the Comstock mines were already in decline. Sutro sold all the shares of his tunnel stock and quietly pocketed $1 million in profit. After 20 years of hard, passionate work, his love affair with Nevada’s Comstock Lode had finally run its course.

Sutro returned to his wife and family in San Francisco and invested his tunnel profit in real estate. He bought thousands of acres between downtown San Francisco and the ocean, a treeless expanse of shifting sand dunes, which, like the tunnel, was considered another Sutro folly. But over the next 15 years, Sutro built some of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks. He utilized classical Greek statues and urns, transplanted trees and manicured lawns to transform the wild bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean into the magnificent Sutro Heights. The Sutro Heights were not reserved for the rich and famous. In fact, Sutro wanted to provide wholesome entertainment for the working class, so he opened his beautiful gardens free to the public.

To help families enjoy the bounty of the Pacific tidewater, Sutro constructed a large natural aquarium north of Fisherman’s Cove. The Sutro Baths were his last great public building project. Opened in 1894, the complex was an enormous glass pavilion enclosing six saltwater swimming pools and one freshwater tank. Sutro often offered free admission for schoolchildren and expressed hope that the baths would provide “health-giving amusement to them and hardworking citizens.”

Sutro served one term as mayor of San Francisco and later died at age 68. His Jewish service was led by a rabbi who stated that Sutro was “one of the most striking figures in the procession of personages that has made the history of the Pacific Slope.” A hero to the Comstock miners and benevolent benefactor for San Francisco’s working class, Sutro helped open the West with generosity and grand vision.


Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You may reach him at Check out his blog at or read more at