Like all good war stories, there’s more than one way to tell this tale. You can spin it as a David and Goliath confrontation between plucky local entrepreneurs and big railroad interests, or you can see it simply as an excuse for rival rail gangs to mix it up in a good ol’ brawl (that interpretation seems to be a favorite among railroad history buffs). But there’s also the perspective that Santa Rosa and Sonoma County transportation issues were the least part of the story — that this was really a proxy war between one of the West’s oldest and most hated monopolies and early Twentieth Century economic and political progressive forces seeking to weaken its grip on the state.

A. W. Foster, president of the California Northwestern, was the railroad baron of the North Bay for over a decade, owning all or part of railroads from Sausalito to Duncans Mills to Willits. He provoked this confrontation by claiming that the electric line had no legal right to cross his tracks, even though that crossing’s location would be made on a public street, and had Santa Rosa’s enthusiastic approval. What he did next would make his name infamous. While the matter was sitting in the courts, a spectacular secret weapon was made just for the battle to come: four train engines retrofitted with nozzles on the front that could blast steam on anyone in the way. With that stunt, Foster crossed the line from an aggrieved businessman to become something like a James Bond supervillain — building siege locomotives is hardly the way to win a nice writeup in the history books. There was even an extra evil-ish twist to his doings: Foster no longer owned the railroad that it appeared he was prepared to kill or maim for — he’d sold it to Southern Pacific in 1902, and was just staying on as president in the interim. (More on Foster can be found in a 1993 Gaye LeBaron column, available in the SSU archives as a PDF.)

That Southern Pacific was the actual owner of the steam railroad line may be the key to understanding the true issues behind the conflict. The electric Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway was founded a year after SP bought the steam railroad, and with money from the San Francisco-based Spreckels group. On the P&SR board was Rudolph Spreckels, who had inherited a deep hatred of the Southern Pacific from his father, “Sugar King” Claus Spreckels. Dad was instrumental in bringing Southern Pacific’s main competitor, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, to the San Francisco Bay area. Rudolph was hard to pigeonhole; less a driven businessman than a reformer and progressive activist who happened to control a great fortune. He personally underwrote the investigation and prosecution of corrupt San Francisco officials after the 1906 earthquake, and true to form, wanted prosecutors to go after Southern Pacific’s top lawyer, who was viewed at the time as the most powerful man in California because he had many state and local politicans in his pocket (a good book on the graft investigations can be downloaded from Google). Rudolph Spreckels waged many other battles against Southern Pacific in the years following, virtually making harassment of the railroad a side career.

(Here’s a Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not aside on Rudolph Spreckels: The man had the worst damned luck with his mansions. Just about a year before this, on March 19, 1904, his grand home in the Sonoma Valley burned to the ground. And just about a year after this, the San Francisco earthquake destroyed his mansion there. Behind privacy screens set up on the lawn, his wife gave birth to their daughter, even as the family was waiting for the dynamite squad to demolish their palatial digs.)

Knowing Spreckels’ combined animus of Southern Pacific and willingness to engage in confrontation invites intriguing questions over who really provoked the showdown. When earlier Foster had refused permission for the electric line to cross the tracks, he said that the trolley was welcome to build a crossing under or over Sebastopol Avenue — a proposal that was dismissed out of hand as being too expensive. But that wasn’t true, given the immense wealth that Spreckels brought to the party, not to mention his family’s record of easily raising vast amounts of investment capital for railway projects. Given the will and the city’s permission, a Sebastopol Avenue overpass probably could have been operable in a few short weeks. Or for that matter, it might have been possible find a spot to cross the steam railroad tracks that would have been agreeable to Foster; if the electric line had detoured to W. Third St. at some point further west, they could have crossed at the California Northwestern/SP branch leading to Sebastopol, and not the all-important main north/south tracks for the entire steam railroad. The trolley could have then reached the depot via a bridge over the creek at Fifth St. — see map in “The Battle(field) of Sebastopol Avenue“.

Then there was the issue of crossing the Grace Brothers’ spur. There were at least two nearby bridges over the creek that the trolley could have used and avoided this additional confrontation with Southern Pacific. But reading the accounts reprinted here, it appears that supporters of the electric railway were really looking for an excuse to destroy the brewery’s little stretch of track, despite General Manager Joseph T. Grace’s repeated insistence that the trolley folks could do whatever they wanted. Maybe the public was irrationally lashing out at anyone presenting any sort of obstacle to the electric, or maybe these were deeper political waters than are apparent today — Prohibition was right around the corner, remember. Who were the “agitators…brought on by outside interference” that Grace complained about in the item below? Perhaps the confrontation drew a mix of Spreckels’ progressive supporters from San Francisco, happy for an opportunity to needle Southern Pacific, and temperance activists, hoping to choke the supply/delivery bottleneck for a brewery.

(Photo to the right: One of two poor-quality pictures that appeared in the Press Democrat, March 4, 1905.)

But what of A. W. Foster? Has history given him a bum rap as the supervillain? Foster may well have viewed the efforts to cross “his” rail lines as a challenge to his legacy before he retired from railroading the following year, but he insisted in the run up to the battle that he was fighting for the cause of safety. That may seem like feeble excuse-peddling today, but the electric train acknowledged this really was an issue once the trolley began to cross the tracks: “When a car approaches the crossing the conductor runs ahead and if there is no steam train in sight he waves to the motorman to go ahead” (Press Democrat, Mar. 3). We learn why from a May 23 a city council item: the the rail crossing was almost three feet higher than the grade of Sebastopol Avenue, and was considered hazardous; the Street Commissioner then suggested that the town should have California Northwestern lower their tracks.

The other half of Foster’s safety argument was that the trolley line was welcome to either build a bridge over the Sebastopol Ave. double track or dig an underpass beneath — again, it sounded like the old man was just being obstinate. But Foster was responsible for all north coast rail to the San Francisco Bay area, and suddenly there appeared workers of unknown skill sawing through the rails and intending to install a homemade section of train tracks on a critical section of the route. If this were your responsibility, wouldn’t you be alarmed at the danger this presented?

When Foster finally personally showed up at the March confrontation, he insisted the railroad didn’t want trouble. His appearance on stage with 150 “big husky fellows” sounds undeniably thuggish, but appears to have been a clever ruse: Only a glimpse of some men — and presumably, from just one side of the train — were seen before the windows were covered. The most detailed version appeared in the Republican: “The windows of the other coach containing the ‘fighting men’ were pulled down, and no glimpse could be gained into that coach. That it was filled with men was apparent, for before coming to a standstill and having the blinds pulled down according to orders there were heads sticking out of every window in the coach….”

Instead of a legion of thugs, Foster brought forth only a silent pair of Marin County junior sheriffs to back him up. Then he made a speech threatening to arrest everyone including the local cops and the missing Sheriff Grace, waved a telegram revealing that he had actually lost the fight the courts, ordered the trains to back off, and by the way, declared that he loved Sonoma County so much that planned to retire here. It was a remarkable surrender and anti-climax.

Analyzed together like this, Foster’s actions seem decidedly undemonic, and well-deserving of a positive historical view. That is, if it wasn’t for the Killer Locomotives.

Foster’s name is forever linked to the use of steam train engines outfitted as “war machines,” and as the contemporary reports attest, it was a remarkable Thing To See. But were the rigged-up locomotives actually deadly, or even very dangerous? Obviously not; there were no injuries reported. When the Petaluma & Santa Rosa director Frank Brush threw himself on the track, “[his] head was directly in line with this steam, and the position becoming unbearable, he finally got up from the ground.” Unfazed was the crew closest to the discharge: “…the workmen of the electric railroad were unmindful of the steam, and worked ahead in the blinding steam as if nothing had happened.”

If this had been the the high-pressure, superheated steam direct from the boiler, Director Brush would have had been killed or had the flesh of his face peeled off his skull. The workmen would have been burned horribly through their clothes. In short, whether the steam was intended to be lethal or not, it was ultimately only a deterrent to frighten and harass.

(No historic train aficionado am I, but it appears that there were at least a couple of ways that a locomotive of that era could be retrofitted to temporarily produce the stagecraft of a really menacing cloud of steam as described. The easiest way was likely to divert from the steam manifold, which heated the cabins in cold weather and also provided the toot for the whistle. Another candidate would be using some of the low-pressure steam from the cylinder exhaust. Whatever really happened, it appears that loud and scary — yet relatively safe — blasts of steam could have been produced without extensive modifications.)

And what was Southern Pacific’s role in all these doings? Telegrams were undoubtedly flying fast and frequent between them and Foster. It’s interesting that he was immediately handed a telegram as his private car arrived in Santa Rosa, when the Republican’s reporter overheard him say, “Tell them no.” (It should be noted that the Press Democrat stated that this was the telegram notifying him that the railroad had lost in court, but Foster certainly must have known that before boarding the train to Santa Rosa.)

Enhanced detail from a snapshot of “The Battle of Sebastopol Avenue,” March 1, 1905. Five workers from the California Northwestern are shown standing on a flat car and shoveling dirt and gravel on electric line workers below. The man second from right appears to be aiming a sprayer attached to a hose, which is not mentioned in either contemporary newspaper account.

Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s safe to presume that Southern Pacific wanted the crossing defended at any cost. The most hard line statement actually came not from Foster, but from California Northwestern general manager James L. Frazier. Only an overpass or tunnel would be acceptable, he told the Republican, and “…he further stated that it would be only a question of time when all states would adopt legislation compelling this in railroad circles. He stated it had already been done in some eastern states.” That may have been true or no (surely there’s a rail history buff that knows the answer to this trivia question), but it’s doubtful that a regional general manager dreamed up this claim. Far more likely he was parroting a Southern Pacific policy; interurban systems were popping up in towns across the country, and the company had much to lose when precedents were set.

Note also that while Foster threw plenty of obstacles in the way to stop or slow the electric railway, he pounded no war drums. All of his statements — the public ones, anyway — had a complete lack of bluster, along with the apologetic tone of someone who felt pressured to do something unpleasant. In his two telegrams (transcribed below) and speech in Santa Rosa, Foster declared that cutting through the railroad tracks was dangerous and illegal, the electric railway was waging a dishonorable PR war against his railway, and Santa Rosa’s reputation would suffer if anyone ended up injured or dead.

So does Mr. A. W. Foster merit a gentler historical appraisal? Probably yes, particularly if it can ever be shown that he didn’t intend for the tricked-out locomotives to be vengeful, potentially lethal payback for California Northwestern losing its monopoly (and particularly if there’s evidence that Southern Pacific, not Foster, was behind the scheme). All of his other actions were benign, even cautious. But unless a trove of original documents surface, we really can only make educated guesses as to his intent; just maybe the worst interpretation was true, and he was really headed to Santa Rosa to find out why there were no casualties from the steam weapons and/or to lead an out-and-out assault by stevedores against the locals. Or for that matter, we have no idea whether the telegram he received as he stepped off the train was sent by Southern Pacific, the court, or even related to the matter at hand; it might even have been from his nine kids back at the sprawling family manse outside of San Rafael, begging Pops to pick up some ice cream before heading home from the mayhem.

A final note of interest is the closing line of the Santa Rosa Republican’s feature: “The King of France marched his men up the hill and down again.” The writer’s intent was to mock Foster with the line from the old nursery rhyme about an ineffectual general. But the verse was more appropriate than they knew; it actually referred to a 14th century showdown between England and France, where British archers using the powerful Welsh longbow kept French calvary from advancing. It was a classic example of new technology trumping the old; a fine metaphor for the 20th century lighter, nimble, electric trains besting that old steam-belching iron horse.


The Battle of Sebastopol Avenue

Prelude to the Battle of Sebastopol Avenue

The Battle(field) of Sebastopol Avenue


The following telegram was received from President A. W. Foster at an early hour this morning:

To the Editor of the Press Democrat and the people of Santa Rosa:

I regret to learn of the unseemly and unlawful conduct of the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railway Company. I am satisfied the thinking people of your city are law-abiding citizens and will not countenance such proceedings. If any innocent party be injured as a result of their action the good name of your community will suffer. We ask nothing but fair play. Your community should know that they have invoked the aid of the court and that they have been delaying action thereon for the purpose of creating an unfair public sentiment against our company. Such action is cowardly, to say the least, and does not reflect credit on their corporation.

Apologizing for trespassing on your space, I remain sincerely yours, A. W. Foster

– Press Democrat, January 4, 1905

In view of the ill advised action of the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway Company people we cannot afford to yield to force and regret that any of the people of Santa Rosa should fail to recognize in our effort to resist vandalism that we are only protecting our property until the court passes upon question involved. Their conduct justifies us in exposing the invalidity of their franchise and consequently their lack of right to occupy the streets of Santa Rosa. They have understood our position since the first of August last and should have taken steps to legalize their own.

– A. W. Foster telegram, January 4, 1905, to general manager Frazier of the California Northwestern, reprinted in both newspapers

“If some of the outsiders who are trying so hard to run things for the new electric road will just confine their attention to their own affairs for a few days,” said General Manager Joseph T. Grace of the local brewery last night while discussing the switch proposition. “Things will straighten themselves out very nicely. Most of the new road’s troubles have been brought on by outside interference,” he added, ‘and it is about time for it to stop.”


Another well-known citizen gave expression to an opinion pretty much along the same line as Mr. Grace yesterday when he said: “Very little of the talk that has been heard on the streets recently has come from the electric people. It is all outsiders who have been stirring up all the fuss. I have noticed that whenever the electric people have wanted anything here in the way of franchises or anything else and have come up here and said so, they have got it, and simply for the asking. The street talkers who keep themselves so busy stirring up trouble and making and making people mad are only hindering the completion of the [electric railway].”

– Press Democrat, January 12, 1905

Our morning contemporary, in publishing a letter from Manager Bowen of the electric railroad to Joseph Grace, concerning the dispute over the spur track crossing on second street, takes an unseemly fling at what is pleased to term “agitators” meaning the gentlemen who appeared Tuesday night at the meeting of the council to ask that the council take some action with reference to the spur. If men who stand for legitimate public improvements, who pay taxes regularly, who wish to see the city progress, and who are earnestly striving to do what, from their point of view appears right and just are “agitators,” then let’s have a whole town full of “agitators.” Indeed, in that company of gentlemen who attended the council meeting were some of the leading business men of Santa Rosa. They are sane, sensible citizens and would not have appeared unless they believed their cause just. Sneers at such manifestations of public spirit do no good and should be rebuked. Surely this is a free country and men may possess convictions and state them, too, without being called names by newspapers.

– Santa Rosa Republican editorial, January 12, 1905

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