Priorities, priorities: Five days after the catastrophic 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake, bodies were still under the rubble, the town was still patrolled by armed soldiers and dark at night because there was no electricity or gas – and not to mention that the community was still reeling from the marathon of forty funerals held the day before. Naturally, the powers-that-be in town decided that it was a swell time to ram through major civic improvements.
That first salvo appeared in the April 23 edition of the Democrat-Republican: “One of the first things the City Council should attend to is the establishment of the new street lines. All the business streets should and must be widened, and now is the time to do it.”
The proposal made some sense, in a morbid, Albert Speer-ish way. The quake and fires that had killed so many had wiped clear most of the downtown core from 3rd to 5th streets around the courthouse square, as well as much of 4th street down to the railroad station. But why widen the streets at all? The answer came in another Democrat-Republican op/ed on April 30:
For a long time it has been generally recognized that the majority of Santa Rosa’s business streets were too narrow, and now that the opportunity for widening them has arrived it must be embraced. It will only be a few years until electric cars are occupying all our principal streets, and in addition to this the ordinary demands of business must be considered. Third, Fourth, Fifth, A, B, Main, Mendocino and D streets can now be improved in the respect noted without difficulty and practically without cost, and the authorities should see to it that the lines are set back before any of the foundations of the new buildings talked of are laid. We have it in our power to make Santa Rosa one of the finest and most attractive little cities in the whole country, and we will be playing false to our own best interests if we fail to do so.
There was the vision laid out: Santa Rosa would become San Francisco, maybe Manhattan in matchbox scale, a little California town of expansive boulevards with plenty of room for the new electric streetcars to share space with the new automobiles. It would be a town that had the bones to grow, and maybe even sprawl over the entire Santa Rosa plain.
Alas, like other failed schemes to bolster Santa Rosa during this era , it mostly went nowhere. Self interest trumped the common weal. A setback of a dozen feet or more would not have been a hardship for most businesses because the buildings often had behind them a shed, large porch or an open yard that formed an ad hoc alley with other yards. Such a space was even a hazard; on the day of the earthquake, Fire Chief Muther witnessed the fire spread because of empty boxes and crates piled high behind these buildings, and not getting too far ahead of the story, such conditions would become a fire risk again in early 1907.
But aside from a single meeting of 5th street property owners to discuss widening that street, the debate was reduced to widening two blocks on 4th, between Hinton Ave. (the east end of Courthouse Square) and E Street. And even that caused an ugly fuss.
For two months between May and July there were heated debates over who would donate how much and who would be compensated. The man who owned the corner of 4th and D wanted the city to give him $2,800 and part of his neighbor’s lot for “damages,” and a bank demanded over five thousand dollars to move their vault back a few feet. It was suggested that money be drawn from the General Fund (empty, because of the earthquake) or the street improvement bond (impossible, because this was not an anticipated use by the voters). A petition was submitted to the City Council demanding for the frontage on 4th street be taken by eminent domain. Most of these tedious arguments are not reproduced here (you’re welcome).
A potential breakthrough offer came from the Masons on May 23rd, as the lodge volunteered to give up fourteen feet of their lot if other property owners did likewise. No one did, and the fighting seemed to intensify even more. After all this tussle, it was finally agreed that the two blocks of 4th street between Courthouse Square and E street would be widened – slightly. From Hinton Avenue to D, the town’s main drag was just stretched from 66 feet to 81 feet; for the short block between D and E street, it was expanded from 60 to 78 feet.
Goodbye, San Francisco’s Market Street – hello, a little more room for the buggy at the hitching post.
WIDEN FIFTH STREET
The movement in favor of the widening of Fifth street is to be commended. It is not an effort to injure anybody, but to help all having property on that street and the city generally. All our people admit that most of our streets are too narrow. Most of them admit that property values would be increased by quite general street widening. This is especially true of the business and residence portion of Fifth street. At the same time, it is a fact that the interior lots will receive more benefit than those at the corners of blocks. These differences should be adjusted by mutual conference, if possible. If this cannot be done the courts should be called upon to determine damages and benefits. At all events, the street should be widened, and now is the time to do this. It is not a pleasant task to interview people and endeavor to make them see what is best for them and the public generally, but the committees having this matter in hand will certainly do the best they can to bring about the desired result.– Santa Rosa Republican, May 25, 1906
MOTION PREVAILS TO WIDEN BLOCKS
There was a meeting of the commission on widening Fourth street between Hinton avenue and E streets Saturday evening at the city hall, at which many Fourth street property owners were present. These had come by special invitation to discuss the matters in hand. It was stated that the Women’s Improvement Club are willing to give $1000 toward the project, and other encouraging matters were reported. On motion of C. C. Farmer it was unanimously agreed that the street should be widened in the blocks mentioned. The only persons who will be paid damages for their property are Willis W. Gauldin and the Union Trust-Savings Bank. The former asks $2800 for the alleged damages to his property. while the bank wished to be reimbursed in the sum of $5077. The destruction of their vault, and a large slice of property on Fourth street, is taken from the financial institution. At the meeting of the city council this evening it is anticipate that some definite action will be taken toward the proposed widening of the street.– Santa Rosa Republican, June 27, 1906