“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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