“Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,” Stan Kenton famously said, and anyone tempted to wax sentimental about old-time Santa Rosa needs to take a closer look, starting with a peek at the maps.

I’ve been spending much of my research time recently with the 1904 Santa Rosa Sanborn maps (project TBA). These maps can be found for many communities in the U.S. and were made for fire insurance assessment. They show the precise outline and some basic details for every building (even outhouses, sheds, and chicken coops), the type of roof and chimney, where the fire hydrants are, diameter of the water pipes, and all those other details an insurance company might think important before insuring the property owner. The maps were updated every few years, so through them you can often watch a town grow. But that’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg; ethnic neighborhoods are sometimes indicated (hello, redlining) as well as redlight districts and other details that would be otherwise lost.

Before diving into the maps, first an update to an earlier post, “When we all met Downtown Saturday Night:” The first item below shows that the free Saturday night entertainment in downtown Santa Rosa not only included band concerts from the courthouse balcony, but also moving pictures and slides of illustrated songs. One of the dials on my time machine is now set for a Saturday midsummer night in 1905 when the whole town’s in the square singing “Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines, Nellie.” The sweet little Iowa town in “The Music Man” was never half as charming.

But come the start of horse racing season, we got trouble right here in River City.

As will be shown in a following post, the saloons and hotels along Fourth Street and Main Street were openly running illegal games, including roulette, craps, faro, and klondike, which apparently was similar to six-card stud. The Santa Rosa Republican, which exposed the gambling that local police apparently had been ignoring for decades, compared the nighttime scene in downtown Santa Rosa to a mining camp.

The Republican expose also revealed that young boys were welcomed at the gambling tables alongside adults. And local youth weren’t just tempted by cards and dice; a few months before, a pair of kids were found in an opium joint on Second street and taken to the police station for a “severe lecture.” Opium wasn’t illegal in 1905 (although smoking it was considered a “pernicious practice as far as white people are concerned” – see Press Democrat, above), and doubtless many boys experimented with the drug, which was widely available in California; former U.S. Congressman Duncan E. McKinlay of Santa Rosa proposed in 1912 to tax opium at $5 per pound, believing it was impossible to stop the smuggling trade. Likewise many locals probably had a lifelong gambling addiction that began in their teens. What shocks is that either vice was entrenched in such a rural town with a population just over 10,000 – we’re not talking Hell’s Kitchen or the Barbary Coast, here. Distances were small; Junior only had to go two short blocks from an opium couch to a barroom poker table, staggering past Courthouse Square, where Ma and Pa enjoyed that Saturday singalong. Was that a scene cut from “The Music Man?”

It’s those insurance maps, however, that reveal more about the rough side of early 20th century Santa Rosa. In that era, whorehouses were indicated with the euphemism of “Female Boarding Houses,” which is confirmed in a newspaper article in the following post that identifies Santa Rosa’s “redlight district.” The heart of the district is shown in the map detail of the intersection of 1st and D streets. On the 1904 map, Santa Rosa had eleven brothels in the immediate neighborhood, and many were also large buildings or had two stories. By contrast, Petaluma, which was about two-thirds the size of Santa Rosa, had two cottage-sized bordellos shown on their 1906 map.

Why in the world did Santa Rosa have such a big redlight district? Like the illegal gambling, town officials obviously had an unwritten policy to tolerate prostitution on a large scale. But there also had to be enough demand to support the business. Even though autos were few, all roads and train tracks in Sonoma County eventually led to Santa Rosa, and nights on those remote farms or deep in those dark redwood forests can be famously cold and lonely. Were there enough locals to keep the red lights burning? Probably not, unless business was also supplemented by steady traffic from San Francisco men, who were specifically mentioned as the driving force behind the gambling problems in racing season. The questions beg: How “wide open” was Santa Rosa in this era? Was backroom gambling offered at the saloons year-round, and were the whorehouses as busy in January as August? Was Sonoma County’s “River City” really the Bay Area’s “Sin City?” (Well, one of them.)

(At right: a gag postcard mailed from Santa Rosa, July 8, 1910. On the back, “Milt” tells Miss Pederson in Napa that he is “feeling blue.”)

Unfortunately, there’s not much more we can learn about Santa Rosa’s redlight district from the insurance maps. The Female Boarding/F.B. nomenclature seems to only have been used for a few years around the turn of the century. The maps were also produced irregularly. The 1904 map was followed by another four years later, which shows two of the 11 bordellos were now residences. But after 1908, the maps were only updated with slips of paper to be pasted over the map. It wasn’t until 1936 that an all-new map was created for Santa Rosa, and by then the neighborhood was almost entirely auto and farm equipment repair shops. Only two of the old prostitution houses remained in this pre-WWII Gasoline Alley, and they were the same buildings that the 1908 map had reported as converted to private homes.

However rough the downtown party, Santa Rosa did have a bonafide family-friendly playground in the Grace Brother’s Park, as mentioned in the second item below. Then owned by the local brewery, it was known at the turn of the century as City Gardens, and before that, Kroncke’s Park (and long before that, Hewitt’s Grove). It was about a half-mile from downtown, on the other side of Fourth St. from McDonald Ave, and it wasn’t really very big — deeper than wide, it was only about the total size of an average city block — but it included a bowling alley (they played ten pin, same as today, except they used a wooden ball), a saloon with a beer garden, a large pavilion with a dance floor, and a concession stand that sold ice cream and other treats. Electric lights were strung overhead. Notices about social and church groups renting the park appeared in the 1905 papers regularly. But still, you wonder; as delightful as biergarten bowling and ice cream surely were, the park was still a trek or trolley ride from the brighter lights of the downtown district, where other allurements were only steps away (or at least, for men and boys) — the opium rooms tucked away on Second Street, and the door-after-door whorehouses that beckoned on First.

Today, all traces of early Santa Rosa’s funland, both naughty and nice, are obliterated. The old Chinese neighborhood on Second St. (shown here in blue) – which the bane of Santa Rosa except when it came to cheap labor, chow mein, and the occasional dalliance with opium pipes and lottery tickets – is now the forlorn, always-shadowed walkway between the parking garage and the back of the movie theatre. Most of the redlight district (colored red) between D and E Street is now replaced by the state office building. Santa Rosa also destroyed the park that dated back to before the Civil War, and which was arguably the true soul of the town; the old Grace Brothers Park/City Gardens is now the Creekside Park apartment complex at 1130 4th Street.

Saturday Night Attractions

One of the biggest crowds that have attended Saturday night band concerts in Santa Rosa in the past listened to the music rendered by the Santa Rosa Band in front of the court house and the other attraction provided by the merchants at the other end of the street. It consisted of moving pictures, illustrated songs and other features of entertainment in the Hopper Block. The pictures were thrown on a large canvass [sic] against a building on one side of the street. The crowd of spectators was a dense one, completely blockading the thoroughfare at times. A more interesting program and a complete change is promised for next Saturday night.

Delightful Afternoon’s Diversion

The second concert by Parks’ band at Grace Brothers’ Park will be given this afternoon beginning at 1 o’clock. The first concert last Sunday was well attended, and was highly enjoyable. The program was a pleasing variety of popular airs, classical music and dance tunes. Many of the concert-goers danced in the pavilion and the rest spent the afternoon up on the lawn under the trees, and listened to the music. Many children were there and all sorts of children’s games were in vogue among them. Ice cream, lemonade and similar refreshments will be sold at the park during the concerts. Gentlemen pay an admission of 15 cents. Ladies and children enter free of charge.

– Press Democrat, June 11, 1905

1905 “Wide-Open Town” Series
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I’m currently reading the Santa Rosa newspapers from early 1906 — or rather, trying to. The microfilms are so badly scratched and faded that many pages are illegible because of interest in the Great Earthquake that happened in April. It’s a loss that saddens because it was unnecessary; there’s probably not much about the quake and its aftermath that’s not already been hashed and rehashed in a shelf-full of books and articles.

Parachuting directly into a particular event is also a lousy way to learn about history. Yes, the newspaper accounts of such a day will be rich in who-what-when, and there will be a thrilling immediacy in the telling — but there will be little or no of the why or how behind the event. By analogy: What could be fresh and unique to discover in the Dallas newspapers from the day after Kennedy’s assassination, aside from shocked reactions? If you really want to understand the event, better to settle in with a good history book on the Bay of Pigs.

And if you want to learn about Santa Rosa or any other town, better instead to seek out articles like the one below. There’s hardly any news value in it, and the piece isn’t even well-written — maybe it was a writeup of a presentation made by one of the women in the Saturday Afternoon Club; it reads better if you think of it as a speech to a civic group. Yet this little item about rambling around Santa Rosa’s “South Side” is packed with valuable historic details.

Santa Rosa Creek absolutely defined a north-south boundary for the town in the early 20th century, just as the freeway now creates an east-west barrier. It was like a little river — particularly west of South Main, where it was joined by Matanzas Creek — but it wasn’t just the body of water (or in sometimes in summer, dry creekbeds) that demarcated the old part of town from the “suburbs.” There was also limited access across it; there were only four bridges that a rig or automobile could drive over in 1905. The banks were also abundant with trees and brush, presenting an imposing green wall blocking the view from either side.

(TOP: Bridge over Santa Rosa Creek connecting Sonoma Ave. to S. Main St, c. 1905
MIDDLE: Santa Rosa Creek from the Main St. bridge looking west, 1909
BOTTOM: Crossing the Main St. bridge driving south, c. 1910. Burbank’s home on Tupper St. seen to left)

Burbank’s home and gardens were right over the bridge at the corner of Sonoma Avenue, but south of that, the only things springing up for the next mile or so were cottages on tiny lots. The east side of South Main was already packed with houses; now builders were filling up the other side of the street. So rapidly was this part of town booming that this 1905 article mentions “Boswell street” (the author must have meant Bosley St.), which didn’t even appear on a map from a year earlier.

These were marketed to families “who are not able to buy homes which are very expensive,” as the writer (rather indelicately) states. Most were around 1,000 sq. ft. or so; an earlier news article posted here describes the interior of a typical home. Some only had outhouses.

The middle portion of this article may have been rewritten or otherwise punched-up by the newspaper to sell some of those houses. Although he was no longer editor, Santa Rosa Republican owner Allen Lemmon was still pushing lots in his “La Rosa Place” subdivision (available on the installment plan for $10/mo), and used to regularly fill space in the paper with oversized ads. Parts of the writing sound much like the sort of advert he often wrote.

This author was also probably the first to state in print that “the Cotati road…will be the main road between here and Petaluma.” Given that there were only 21 automobiles in town and one gas station, it was prescient in 1905 to describe that dirt road south as destined to be anything significant, particularly considering the well-established road south went first through Sebastopol. “Cotati road” eventually became Old Redwood Highway and is now Santa Rosa Ave, but as late as 1918 it was just a dirt road — and the only stretch of dirt road along the route between Sausalito and Ukiah. Oh, how those early motorists must have looked forward to the Santa Rosa leg of their journey, particularly in the rainy season.

Most significant in this article, however, is that it explicitly mentions Santa Rosa’s “redlight district,” which was at the intersection of 1st and D. More about the brothels in the following post.

Trip Through South Side Reveals Many Intersting Facts of Growth in Suburbs

That Santa Rosa is soon the be a great city, and that of fine residences as well, is as certain that she is one of the most beautiful spots on the map to-day. A trip Tuesday through the suburbs of the city established this fact, and one has only to take a ride around through the additions on the South Side to conceive this same opinion. The number of new residences that have recently been erected there is an evidence that the people have confidence in that part of the city and are not afraid to put their money into good substantial houses, and attractive ones as well.

Out Sonoma avenue were found many fine new residences and a number of homes that have been remodeled recently, making this one of the finest residence streets in the City of Roses. And the best of it all is that they have not finished there yet, for there are new residences being erected at the present time. The new water main is soon to be laid there, and the pipe is already on the ground for the same. From here a visit was made to Charles street and then to Boswell street, where the improvements were found to be on a little different plan, though carrying out the same idea of enterprise and improvement. In this part of the city the people are buyng their lots and erecting small but comfortable cottages which will make them good homes. This is especially true of some of the property owners there who are erecting the houses and then selling them to families who are coming here, and who are not able to buy homes which are very expensive.

The most interesting feature of all in the south part of town is the opening up of the extension of A street across the creek. The street commences at the corner where the new grammar school is being built and extends from there south to the city limits, and there is a movement on foot now by some of the parties who are interested in the addition to bring the matter before the Board of Supervisors and have them open the street on through to the corner of the Cotati road. This will give an outlet on A street from the corner of Kopf & Donovan’s store, on Fourth street, to the Cotati road on the south. The Cotati road, as all know, is destined to be the main road between here and Petaluma, and with this new street opened, and the bridge across the creek, as is proposed, there will be no reason why the people who are living south of the city should not have easy access to the City of Roses for their business center.

A large number of the homes which are being erected on the lots in the subdivisions in the South Side, as it is so well named, are being paid for in the building and loan plan, and the loans are either made by private individuals who are able to assist, and thus make good investments for the capital as well.

Another feature of the South Side which should be pushed, and which is to the advantage of the city, is the transforming of the creek banks from the corner of First street at the E street bridge along the creek to Main street, into a natural park. To do this will be necessary to remove all the redlight district, which is now located there, as well as the sheds and barns, but there could be no place within the boundaries of the City of Roses that would be such a natural park as these rustic banks of old Santa Rosa creek if they were cleaned up and beautified as they should be.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 8, 1905

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