The Portola Festival: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

Any San Franciscan will recognize the name Portola. The City features the Portola district, Portola Drive that extends west from Market Street, and many businesses that incorporate the Portola name. Hopefully, most San Franciscans know that the Portola name honors Spanish explorer and Military Governor of the Californias Don Gaspar de Portola, who is credited with the “discovery,” European discovery that is, of the San Francisco Bay on November 4, 1769, when his expedition spotted it while crossing Sweeney Ridge, which separates San Bruno and Pacifica.

In 1909, three years after the devastating earthquake, San Francisco was looking for a way to celebrate the rebirth of the City and show that it was ready for large events and tourists again. They hit upon a festival to honor Portola as a way of demonstrating this.

Portola Festival parade at Market and 7th Streets, circa 1909.Parade at Market and 7th Streets, circa 1909. (wnp37.01867; C. Lind Photo, Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

The first Portola Festival occurred October 19-23, 1909. The first day featured “Portola” entering the Golden Gate and “landing” at Pier 2. A parade proceeded down Market Street from there featuring military members from several countries and the Portola “dragoons.” While we don’t have a date for the image above, it is likely from the Portola Festival military parade given the men dressed like Portola’s dragoons on horses. They estimated crowd size was nearly a million people.

Italian float in front of Old Mission Dolores during Portola Festival parade, October 21, 1909.Italian float in front of Old Mission Dolores during Portola Festival parade, October 21, 1909. (wnp37.01958; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

On October 21, 1909, there was another parade that started at the Ferry Building, went down Market Street and ended by wandering through many streets in the Mission District. 25,000 people marched in the parade which featured many floats. A million people came out to see this parade according to newspaper reports. A Chronicle headline announced it to be the “Greatest Parade In History Of The City”1.

Ferry Building and Market Street decorated for Portola Festival, October 1909.Ferry Building and Market Street decorated for Portola Festival, October 1909. (wnp4.1361.jpg; Martin Behrman image, Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

Day 4 of the 1909 Portola Festival featured an auto parade. The festival was then capped on October 23, 1909 by Carnival Day, including yet another parade, this time at night with lighted floats, fireworks, and “Portola” departing at midnight. The consensus was that the Festival proved San Francisco had rebounded from the 1906 earthquake.

Portola Festival Princess, October 1913.Portola Festival Princess, October 1913. (wnp30.0039; Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection / Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria.)

The Portola Festival was supposed to be an annual event, but other civic events took precedence over the next few years. In October 1913, another major Portola festival was held. Although still called the Portola Festival, this time it honored the 400th anniversary of Vasco Nunez de Balboa becoming the first European to lead an expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1513. The 1913 Portola Festival was shortened by a day and only drew a half-million people to its big parade. The festival then disappeared for 35 years.

WACS marching in Portoal Festival at Market and Kearny, October 17, 1948.WACS marching in Portoal Festival at Market and Kearny, October 17, 1948. (wnp14.3709; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

Spurred by a local civic club, the Golden Gate Aerie of Eagles, San Francisco revived the Portola Festival in 1948, which the City intended it to be a Mardi Gras-like celebration. The week-long Festival took place October 17-24, 1948. The night before the festival, four different “Portolas” arrived, three of them from San Diego–one by horseback, one by sea, and one by air–each a representation of Don Gaspar de Portola’s expedition from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay. The Festival began on October 17, 1948 with a parade down Market Street from the Ferry Building to the Civic Center. The San Francisco Chronicle estimated that 750,000 people watched the parade, which it stated was the longest and most viewed parade in San Francisco history2. Apparently the Chronicle either forgot about the viewing size and length of the 1909 Portola Festival parades or their 1909 estimates were overstated.

Glittery, lighted float in Portola Festival parade, October 23, 1948.Glittery, lighted float in Portola Festival parade, October 23, 1948. (wnp100.00230; Lumir Cerny, Morton-Waters Co, photographer – SCRAP Negative Collection / Courtesy of SCRAP.)

Over the next week, the Portola Festival moved to the neighborhoods with small local parades, pony rides, band concerts, and street festivals. The Festival returned to Market Street on Saturday night, October 23, 1948 as it mimicked the 1909 festival with a night-time electrical parade featuring lighted floats. Feeling the hyperbole, the San Francisco Chronicle once again called a Portola Festival parade “the greatest in the history of San Francisco, a city noted for its parades3.

After the festival was done, Cyril Magnin, the president of the festival, declared that it had exceeded all expectations and that he hoped it would become an annual event4. The following year though, San Francisco decided to instead focus on its upcoming 1950 centennial as a California city. Once again, the Portola Festival faded into memory, never to occur again.


1. San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 1909, page 1.

2. “750,000 Turn Out For the Mighty Portola Parade,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 18, 1948, page 1.

3. “Portola Spectacle: City’s Greatest Parade Brings Greatest Crowd In History to Downtown Area,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 24, 1948, page 1.

4. “The City Has A Time,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 25, 1948, pages 1, 12.