Santa Rosa’s quite the plucky little town, according to this press release from the newly-created Chamber of Commerce: Less than five months after the devastating 1906 earthquake, all signs of damage were cleaned up, stores were back in business, and industrious workers were constructing “stronger and more handsome structures” that complied with the strictest building codes.

It was mostly a pack of lies.

All that new construction was being approved at a reckless pace, with the single building inspector reviewing a dozen plans at once and five major structures given the go-ahead at a City Council meeting. Many of those “temporary business buildings” mentioned by the Chamber were lean-to sheds or wooden roofs to shade open-air tables, and any shoppers who dared visit Fourth street had to navigate a dangerous obstacle course of construction materials and broken sidewalks. Contrary to the Chamber’s claim, there was plenty of debris around; the hulking wreckage of the old courthouse still loomed over the downtown area, and it would be another two months before the demolition contract would even be awarded. Most galling is their claim that Santa Rosa generously “housed and fed, despite her own distress, hundreds of refugees from San Francisco.” Despite tons of donations piled in a warehouse, Santa Rosa stopped food aid after three weeks except to “widows, orphans and the sick” – even refugees were expected to find a job, if only shoveling rubble for $2/day.

But most interesting in the Chamber’s press release is that the earthquake isn’t even mentioned once. Here the Chamber followed the lead of business interests in San Francisco that insisted the great city was destroyed by fires that followed a minor tremor. The story is detailed in one of the best books about the quake, “Denial of disaster” by San Francisco city archivist Gladys Hansen:

As part of this public relations strategy, James Horsburgh Jr., General Passenger Agent of the Southern Pacific Company, wrote to chambers of commerce throughout the state to candidly detail the railroad’s efforts to “set the record straight.” Essentially, the Southern Pacific Company began to rewrite the entire history of the disaster – a simple and sanitized version – to diminish the impact of the earthquake, and to assure easterners that investment in California enterprises would continue to be good business.

The scope of the Southern Pacific Company’s reworking of the history of the catastrophe was, and is, breathtaking. The company’s point of view was that there was barely an earthquake.

Published a few weeks later and widely distributed nationwide, Southern Pacific’s travel magazine, “The Sunset” became a primary source of the fire-not-earthquake (mis)information about what happened in San Francisco. Horsburgh’s letter to the chambers of commerce went further, urging anyone from the groups speaking about the disaster should emphasize “how quickly and wonderfully San Francisco and California recovered from the effects, and how thoroughly and systematically they began the work of reconstruction.”

That, of course, was exactly the myth peddled by Santa Rosa’s Chamber, which was joined at the hip with the two local newspapers, particularly the Press Democrat: A gleaming new 20th century phoenix was arising overnight from the old farm town’s ashes. Variations of that fairy tale are still told today, but in truth it took another year before the professional businesses moved out of the emergency shantytown at Fifth and Mendocino, and it wasn’t until 1908 before Fourth St. again became something like the town’s social hub. Also not mentioned in the Chamber’s PR was that many were still fighting an ongoing battle with the insurance companies. Some appeals dragged on for another five years, and ultimately fewer than ten companies paid their losses in full.

The railroad may have provided the Chamber with free spin, but it didn’t pay to have it printed. In November, the Chamber held a fundraiser at the roller skating rink to pay for the production of brochures. The entertainment that evening was a match between Santa Rosa’s “ladies’ polo team” (hockey on skates) and competitors from another town.

Sends Out Bulletin Regarding Santa Rosa’s Progress

The newly organized Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce has sent out its first bulletin throughout the east regarding the conditions here, and the upbuilding of Santa Rosa. Among the facts covered in the bulletin are these:

The vast amount of work accomplished in the reconstruction of the business portion of our beautiful City of Roses, which had been laid low by the awful devastation of April 18, 1906, is the wonder of every visitor.

All debris was removed from burned area [sic] within weeks’ time of the disaster.

Temporary business buildings were immediately erected surrounding the old business section, and merchants having secured stocks from adjoining towns resumed business with courage and success.

Business buildings partially destroyed were immediately repaired and occupied by former tenants[.]

Residential section, slightly damaged, was soon repaired, and our yards and homes now seem more beautiful than ever.

A stringent building ordinance was adopted by the City Council before any permits for permanent buildings were granted. In the two months this ordinance has been in effect permits over $400,000 worth of business buildings have been granted and the same are now under actual construction, in fact, it is estimated that over one-third of the business area destroyed is in course of rebuilding, with stronger and more handsome structures.

It is noteworthy that less than one-half dozen families left Santa Rosa owing to the calamity, and praiseworthy that she housed and fed, despite her own distress, hundreds of refugees from San Francisco. The Southern Pacific and California Northwestern railroads have been compelled to put on additional freight trains to handle the merchandise required, and materials for reconstruction.

Hotel accommodations are only temporary. Enterprising capitalists will find here a splendid opening.

There is a great demand for laborers, both in building trades and crop harvesting.

Sonoma county conditions are excellent. Fruit crops are large, and marketing at good prices; grape crop short but prices unusually high; hop crop a record breaker, prices above expectation. Large shipments of poultry continue to San Francisco and Nevada daily; likewise dairy products.

There is a feeling of courage and hopefulness alike by our enterprising merchants, property owners and residents.

– Press Democrat, September 7, 1906

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Santa Rosa had about 100 social groups for women in 1906 according to gossip columnist “Dorothy Anne,” but Mattie Oates belonged to only three: The Married Ladies’ Card Club – the first post-quake party in Santa Rosa was a get-together at Mattie’s house – the Saturday Afternoon Club, and “The Bunch.”

The Saturday Afternoon Club was the most intellectual club in town; in the excerpt below, Mattie presented a paper on early 19th century German poets. The highbrow group could also be snooty; an item from 1904 found a member denouncing Sunday newspaper comics as “a bad influence on children.”

But at least twice a year, “The Bunch” rented a lodge hall and held a dance, which was usually a highlight of Santa Rosa’s social season. Particularly wonderful in this newspaper item below is the lyric phrase of dancers spending “happy hours in the mazy whirls.” According to citations in Google Books, “mazy whirls” dates back at least to the 1840s.


The dance at Germania Hall Thanksgiving evening by the popular “Bunch” crowd was one of the jolly reunions of these young people. For some time past the dances have not been frequently held, and the absence of the terpsichorean events during the past few months made the dance Thursday evening all the more pleasant. The hall was elaborately decorated. The orchestra was partly hidden beneath branches of holly, which were dotted with tiny red, white and blue electric lights. Streamers of the national colors, with purple and yellow added were effectively used across the ceiling and hall.

The dances held until morning and every one present spent happy hours in the mazy whirls. Delicious refreshments were served. The patronesses were Mesdames John P. Overton, Allen B. Lemmon, James Wyatt Oates and E. F. Woodward.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 30, 1906

…The Saturday Afternoon Club met at the residence of Mrs. Dr. Thompson yesterday afternoon, Mrs. James Edwards presiding. The large attendance testified to the extent of the interest taken by the members in the subjects discussed: Mrs. James W. Oates read an interesting paper upon Goethe and Schiller, their Friendship and Relative Importance. Mrs. John B. Davis entertained the club with a sketch in the life of Mendelssohn, while Miss Hahman and Mrs. Hall gave selected readings from the Faust legend…

– “Dorothy Anne” gossip column, Press Democrat, November 18, 1906

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Violent deaths were almost weekly news in Sonoma County a century ago, but I’ve never encountered a story quite as disturbing as this. Usually the cause is accidental death by stupidity (falling asleep on the railroad tracks) or gruesome suicide, such as the lumberjack and father of five in Occidental who chopped his head open with an axe then disemboweled himself (yet still lived for two days). This tale, however, reminds me of Frank Norris’ great novel “McTeague,” as a situation pinwheeled completely out of control.

In summary: A Santa Rosa carpenter and his wife visited a man near Cloverdale. They all drank a few glasses of wine. Mr. Cloverdale offered beer, which his guests refused. That made Cloverdale angry, and he threw the glasses and cussed at them. A fight ensued, and the carpenter smashed the other man’s skull with his fists. Amazingly, the coroner’s jury ruled it to be self defense.

Bilderdack Will Probably Not Be Prosecuted For the Fatal Beating He Gave J. McMillen

It is probable that there will be no prosecution of J. Bilderdack, the Santa Rosa carpenter, who administered a beating to J. P. McMillen, from which the latter died on the Brown ranch, a few miles from Cloverdale last Sunday night. At the inquest it was shown by evidence that Bilderdack had to fight for his life before he beat McMillen into insensibility. The Coroner’s jury found that McMillen died from the blows inflicted by Bilderdack. At the conclusion of the inquest Bilderdack was allowed to have his liberty, and he has left the scene of the occurrence. At the inquest he was represented by Attorney George W. Hoyle of Cloverdale.

According to the statements made by Bilderdack and other witnesses they had gone to the carpenter’s cabin to have some wine and several toasts were proposed. Finally when Bilderdack refused to drink any more McMillen poured out two glasses of wine and demanded that he and his wife drink it anyway. In order to have harmony they drank the wine, and then McMillen is said to have seized a bottle of beer and filled the glasses with the beverage. This the Bilderdacks say they positively declined to consume and this angered McMillen more than ever and he is said to have thrown both glasses and its contents at Bilderdack and to have followed it up with some abusive language directed towards Bilderdack and his wife. Then the fight was on and Bilderdack avers that he had to defend himself. McMillen died several hours after the beating. The injuries causing death were blows beside the head.

– Press Democrat, September 14, 1906

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