Oh, look, junior’s using the phone. How precious is that? Wait – is he talking to the chief of police?

Today, every family album has an adorable picture of a toddler sitting at a computer, and a century ago, it was too-cute when the little ones spoke on the telephone. It was even newsworthy; in 1908, both Santa Rosa papers had stories about kids using phones. Before Christmas that year, several children asked the operator to connect them with Santa Claus. After a bit of head-scratching at the telephone office, it was decided that their calls were to be transferred to the Chief Operator, who ho-ho-ho’d and took down their present requests. And then there was the five-year-old who called the police chief to report his missing tricycle; unable to understand what the child was saying, an officer rushed to the house to find out exactly why the boy had summoned help.

Telephones were still regarded as cutting-edge technology, and some adults remained uncomfortable or uncertain about how to operate the things; one of the Santa Rosa newspapers had printed articles on telephone use and etiquette the year before (“the undignified ‘Hello’ seems to have come to stay”). The UI was also in flux; although you still initiated a call by speaking to an operator, the procedure of indicating who you wanted to contact was becoming complex and confusing.

Until 1905, it was possible for someone in Santa Rosa to ask for a connection by name: “Get me John Smith.” The proliferation of home and business telephones now required numbers be assigned to each line, which meant that telephone books also had to be printed and distributed. Exchanges were also added at the same time: In Santa Rosa there primarily was “Red,” Black” and “Main,” so someone trying to reach John Smith would be required to provide an exchange and number, such as “Red 333.”

I also found four digit numbers sometimes mentioned in the newspapers around that time; if that many numbers were available there really was no need for an exchange system at all, as Santa Rosa’s population would not surpass 10,000 for a couple of decades. And stranger still, I sometimes saw letters included after the numbers, such as “333Y.” Huh? It was an odd little history puzzle and I probably never would have figured it out, had I not stumbled across the article below.

The core of problem was that there were still many party lines in use, and the operator had to know how many “rings” to send to alert a particular customer. Thus if John Smith expected two rings, his number might be “Red 3332” – the last of the four digits indicated the number of rings needed (it might be better understood as “Red 333-2,” for ex).

Even with the “ring” suffix, it was the direct ancestor of the seven-digit system we use today. Similarly, Oakland and San Francisco were at the time using an exchange+4, such as “Kearny 4444.” As the city grew, this provided the flexibility to create another exchange and be good for another 9,999 connections. But in 1908, some genius at the telephone company imposed a telephone ID system in Santa Rosa that made no sense whatsoever.

Gone were the exchanges; now you gave the operator a three-digit number, followed by the letter R, Y, J, or L. The first two letters corresponded with the old Red exchange, the latter two with the old Black exchange. The particular letter indicated one or two rings. So John Smith – originally “Red 333,” then “Red 3332,” was now “333Y.” The reasoning behind the new system was not explained, although the choice of these particular four letters could have had sadistic racist inspiration; the Asian community might have had trouble expressing Americanized R and L hard consonants through the lo-fi transmitter, as Hispanics might have struggled with Y and J.

Judging by ads in the newspapers, this third mod to the telephone system in as many years was not widely accepted. Some advertisers used the suffix, others held on to the old Red and Black exchanges. Many downtown businesses continued to ignore all of it, providing only their old two or three digit number. Rather than making it easier for the operators, it suggests the customer attitude hardened: t’Hell with it all, I’ll just let the “Hello Girl” figure it out for me.

After November 7 There Will Be No More “Red,” “Black” or “Main,” But it Will Be Easier For Patrons

On November 7, at midnight, the Telephone company will change over to its new system and move into its handsome new quarters on Third street. As a result, a number of innovations will be put into effect. As far as the general public is concerned, however, these changes will apply principally to the numbering of the phones.

The old prefixes of “Red,” “Black” and “Main” will be done away with, and everything except suburb and rural lines will be known as “Santa Rosa.” In the new directory this prefix will precede every number. Local subscribers calling main line subscribers will not find it necessary to use the prefix, but may secure the number wanted by simply asking for “268,” or whatever the number may be. Out of town subscribers will merely have to ask for “Santa Rosa 268.”

Another change that will apply to all two-party lines is that the letters “R” and “Y” will hereafter be used to designate the number of bells in the red, and “J” and “L” in the black, instead of the suffixes 1 and 2 as at present.

Everybody may not know that the last figure in the numbers now in vogue simply indicate the number of bells which should be rung, but such is the case. Take the number “Red 2861,” for instance. The “1” means that in calling a subscriber the operator is to ring one bell. If the last figure were 2, the operator would ring two bells.

Under the new arrangement, as stated, these latter figures will be discarded on all two-party lines, and the letter “R” will stand for 1 bell in the red, while “Y” will mean two bells red. “J” will represent 1 in the black, and “L” will stand for 2 bells in the black. “Red 2742” will thus become “Santa Rosa 274Y,” and “Black 2741” will become “274J” to local subscribers, and “Santa Rosa 247J” to subscribers calling up from other towns. By remembering this subscribers getting hold of an old directory will be able to secure the number desired by merely substituting the proper letter for the missing suffix, although the new directory will be out and distributed several days before the changed conditions go into effect. This directory will be effective on and after November 7, at midnight.

– Press Democrat, October 31, 1908

Youthful Citizen Invokes the Help of the Officers

Alex Trachman, the five-year-old son of Dr. and Mrs. H. J. Trachman, sustained a very material loss on Tuesday, when some miscreant stole his tricycle. For several hours during the morning the little chap endeavored to have his father call up the chief of police and report the loss, but to no avail, and so finally taking the matter in his own hands, he climbed on a chair and reaching the telephone, got the ear of “central” and told her that he wanted the chief of police. The connection was made with the office of Chief Rushmore, and Master Alex told his tale of woe in the ear of a sympathizing chief. The boy does not talk very distinctly as yet, and hearing the youthful voice over the phone the chief surmised that something must be wrong at the home, and after learning from the child that he lived on Humboldt street, Police Officer Nick Yeager was detailed to hurry over there and ascertain what the trouble was.

In the meantime Alex hung up the receiver and went into his father’s office and told him he had reported to the chief the loss of his “wheel.” In a few minutes the door bell rang and Mr. Yeager inquired what the trouble was and why he had been called. Mr. Yeager was panting and all out of breath when he reached the door, having made a “hurry-up” trip around the block, fearing that something was wrong at the home, and that the child had been used to summon help.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 11, 1908
Much Diversion Caused at “Central” by Numerous Messages to the Time Honored Gift Bestower

“Number, please.”

“I want Santy Claus.”


“Santy Claus.”

“All right, just a minute.”

This what has been going on over the telephone line at “Central” during the past few days. The first message came over the wire from a child who could barely lisp her desire.

At first the “Hello girl” at the receiving end was puzzled. Manager Morrill was called into conference and Santa Claus began coming in, and Manager Morrill is one of the most kind-hearted of men. And, like the rest of us, he was a child once himself. He is not very old now, either.

Other messages of inquiry for Santa Claus began coming in, and Manager Morrill not wishing to cause the little ones sending their messages disappointment, suggested that for a few days when such reports came for Santa Claus the Chief Operator might impersonate the gift bestower the children all look for on Christmas morn. Consequently the Chief Operator has been taking down names and list of presents desired by the children.

“Just as well to let the children have a good time anyway. Expectancy is half the fun, too,” said Manager Morrill yesterday after he had taken a call for old Santy himself.

The children phoned for every kind of gift calculated to delight the child heart. In some instances parents took this opportunity of ascertaining what the youngsters wanted most for Christmas. In other instances, doubtless, hearts were heavy while the childish prattle went over the wire to the imaginary Santa Claus at the other end, for perchance the wherewithal to procure the presents was not available.

– Press Democrat, December 24, 1908

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It was probably the first high-tech stock swindle to hit Santa Rosa: the man who had mesmerized the town In 1908 about the futuristic wonders of the “wireless” was actually a con man. Not since a vaudeville magician who called himself “The Great McEwen” convinced many in 1904 that he was a bonafide mind reader had Santa Rosans been suckered wholesale.

Over four nights, audiences packed the downtown Pavilion to see H. C. Robinson, who claimed to be a representative of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, perform “practical demonstrations of sending and receiving messages without wires, including several feats of ringing fire bells, lighting electric lights and operating danger signals through the mysterious agency of Hertzian waves,” as the Press Democrat reported at the time. What the PD neglected to mention was that Mr. Robinson’s real objective was to sell Marconi stock for $20 per share, and several local businessmen jumped on the opportunity.

About a month later, one of these Santa Rosa investors swore a warrant for Robinson’s arrest. His Marconi stock certificates had not been delivered. Worse, he discovered the stock was only worth half that price, the company had never paid a dividend, and wasn’t planning to build a transmission tower that could send messages as far as Honolulu, as Robinson had promised. Arrested at the tony St. Francis hotel in San Francisco, Robinson was brought back here, where he returned the $400 he had received from the investor. Case dismissed.

If the story ended there, it could be explained away as mix-up. Perhaps the investor misunderstood, perhaps Robinson exaggerated and lied, in a salesman-ish way, to close the deal. Perhaps a little of both; it certainly wasn’t clear that there was criminal intent. But thanks to the breadth of newspaper archives now available on the Internet, we discover that Mr. Robinson was a swindler sought by police all over the world.

First, his name wasn’t “H. C.” as reported here; it was Horace Greeley Robinson – “Harry G,” as the chummy NY Evening World nicknamed him – and just days before he appeared in the Santa Rosa court, authorities in New York shut down his offices at 80 Wall Street, charging that the firm of Robinson & Robinson existed only to sell bogus Marconi stock. Scotland Yard was chasing him, as was an investigator from the Marconi company. By the time the coppers finally caught up with Harry in May, 1909, it was estimated that he had cheated investors worldwide out of $1,500,000 – worth up to half a billion dollars today, it was a sum that would make even our modern Wall St. bandits sit up and mew.

Given the international scope of his crimes, it may seem surprising that he spent almost a week in Santa Rosa, but he apparently did a crook’s tour of the entire Bay Area; another suit against him was for $800 cheated out of someone in San Jose (UPDATE HERE). Likely the smaller places appealed because news of his scam might not travel very far or draw the attention of sophisticated investors. Police in New York even had a complaint from a victim in Box Hill, New South Wales, a village outpost of Sydney that currently has a population of under a thousand.

He was finally caught by a stroke of luck – a New York City police detective was tipped off that Harry had recently appeared in night court for a drunken brawl with a hotel detective. According to the newspapers, he told officers that he was a banker who had just returned from a trip abroad on government business.

For a man who sold fake stock in cutting-edge communication technology, there was irony in that he evaded arrest for years thanks to poor communication by police nationally and internationally. He never varied his shtick, which should have made him easy to find. As the New York Times reported in a front page story on May 1, 1909:

Robinson’s method was to travel from place to place, lecturing on wireless telegraphy and asserting that it was desired to prove more valuable stock than Bell Telephone or Standard Oil.

“After each lecture, says the detective, Robinson received subscriptions for stock in the Marconi Company, giving in return receipts for the money and the assurance that the proper certicicates of stock would be sent forthwith…”

J. S. Rhodes of This City has H. C. Robinson Arrested on a Charge of Obtaining Money Falsely

As a result of a warrant sworn out in Justice Atchinson’s court here by J. S. Rhodes, a well-known local merchant, H. C. Robinson, who spent some time here in June exploiting wireless telegraph stock, was arrested in San Francisco Wednesday, charged with feloniously obtaining money under false pretense, and will be brought back today to face trial.

According to the complaint of Rhodes, Robinson represented to him that the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co., Limited (of England) which he represented, had fixed the market value of its stock at $20 per share and that in 1907 the company paid 12 per cent dividends on its stock. It was further represented that the company was engaged in erecting a station in San Francisco, and would be ready by November of this year to transmit messages between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Rhodes asserts that he purchased 20 shares, or $400 worth of stock on these representations, but no learns and alleges that the company only holds its stock at $10 per share, has never paid a dividend, and is not engaged in erecting a station in San Francisco, and has no expectation of doing so at present. As a result of these facts Rhodes believes he gave up his coin on false pretenses, and seeks to have Robinson tell the wherefore in court.

Constable Sam Gillam goes to San Francisco this morning to bring the man back to Santa Rosa. The arrest was made in the St. Francis hotel by an officer who had been informed of the issuance of the warrant after Rhodes had pointed his man out.

It is stated that Rhodes is not the only one who bought stock here, and in many different places in the state on the same representations as those made to Rhodes.

– Press Democrat, July 30, 1908
H. C. Robinson Returns $400 to Santa Rosa Man and Case is Dismissed Here on Thursday Afternoon

H. C. Robinson, the broker and seller of Marconi Wireless Telegraph stock, who was arrested in San Francisco at the St. Francis Hotel last week on a complaint sworn out by J. S. Rhodes of the city, charging him with obtaining $400 under false pretenses on account of his failure to deliver stock and in non-fulfillment of alleged representations regarding the same, paid Rhodes back his money in Justice Atchinson’s court Thursday afternoon and Justice Latimer of Windsor, sitting for Justice Atchinson made an order dismissing the case.

Rhodes had a number of witnesses subpoenaed from this city and San Francisco, but when Attorney W. M. Sims announced the intention of Robinson to pay back the money, as he had originally promised to do if Rhodes became dissatisfied, they were not wanted. In fact the proceedings were a very informal nature in the Justice Court. Rhodes having stated that all he wanted was a return of his money and if he got it further proceedings would not be taken, there’s nothing left for it but for a dismissal of the case.

When Justice Latimer called the case, Wm. M. Sims, attorney for defendant, addressing the court, said:

“I will state, may it please your honor, that this transaction between the defendant and complaining witness was made in good faith and that the defendant had no intent whatsoever to make a statement that was not correct…”


Robinson was naturally much pleased with the outcome of the case and in company with his attorney left for San Francisco on the afternoon train. Before he left he stated that he had done exactly what he promised he would do and declared that he had acted in good faith all the time.

– Press Democrat, August 7, 1908

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A century before the Ridgway Historic District was recognized, there was a burst of construction between 1905-1908 that defined the neighborhood.

Mendocino Avenue was shaping up to be a boulevard of grand homes, even mansions, that could rival the best offerings on McDonald Ave. There were already two houses designed by Brainerd Jones: The Lumsden House (currently the Belvedere), and the spectacular, lost Paxton House. In 1905 another Jones design was added with the construction of Comstock House, and in 1908, the Saturday Afternoon Club, on the Josiah Davis street extension of Mendocino. The same year the James R. Edwards family, good friends of the Oates’, built the fine brown shingle Craftsman style house that still stands at 930 Mendocino. And although not new, across the street from the Edwards family was a stately three story Queen Anne that was a jewel in its own right.

(RIGHT: Frank Todd home at 1101 Mendocino Avenue, as seen in 1915. A few years later it was demolished to make way for the new high school. CLICK on images to enlarge. Photograph courtesy Sonoma County Library)

The real activity, however, was taking place in the streets west of Mendocino Ave. Bungalows and cottages were popping up on once-vacant lots, and older properties were being remodeled. Some of the new cottages were being built specifically for the tourist trade: “It is expected that there will be a good demand for first-class, modern-built homes…to accommodate the rush of California-bound Eastern tourists this Spring,” the Press Democrat reported.

Only a few houses built in this period survive, including the trio at 1217, 1219, and 1221 Glenn St. described in an article below. The builder was W. E. Nichols, a contractor whose name can still be found pressed into sidewalks throughout older parts of Santa Rosa. Nichols, who lived at 414 Carrillo Street, has appeared before in this journal, including a 1907 pitch to the City Council that they should strongarm homeowners into laying sidewalks (and presumably, hire him to do it). He also placed an unusual ad in the paper after the Great Earthquake, announcing that he was “open to any kind of legitimate business proposition.”

The oddball in this neighborhood is the circa-1880 Greek Revival two story house at 1290 Glenn St. The block between Benton and Berry Lane (now Ridgway) was once part of a small farm, and this was the farmhouse. Originally it faced the other direction, with an address on Healdsburg Ave. (which became Mendocino Ave. in 1906). At some point, probably around WWI, they moved it nearly a block west – typically with mules pulling a platform over rolling logs – while spinning it completely around. Quite a trick, that.

The James R. Edwards are now comfortably installed in their handsome new residence on Mendocino avenue. They have certainly good reason to be proud of their new home and the friends who have been privileged with an inspection of the interior furnishing and arrangement cannot say too much in compliment of the taste displayed.

– “Society Gossip”, Press Democrat, November 22, 1908

Many Changes Noted Which, When Completed, Will Add Much to the Looks of Things

Henry C. Colwell, of 1109 Morgan street, is dividing his property into lots for sale, and will move his residence forward, placing it on cement foundations and will make a number of other improvements.

Burton H. Gilkey, of 1009 Morgan street, is completely remodeling his home and making a modern cottage home with all the latest improvements for comfort and health.

H. O. Malott, of Morgan and Tenth streets, has gravel on the ground will have cement walks laid on both streets along his property at once. Considerable new cement walk is being laid in that vicinity.

The concrete foundation has been laid for an eight-room, two-story home for Mrs. M. L. Waters-Thorne at Morgan and Berry lane. The concrete blocks for the basement will be laid next week.

Several of the old cottages on Davis street, near Ninth, are being remodeled, and made into attractive homes, while one new one [sic] has been built adjoining them. The improvements add to the appearance of the street greatly.

Cement walks are being laid on Carrillo, College and Tenth streets, where not already laid, from Healdsburg avenue to the railroad. Property-owners on cross streets are preparing to do likewise as soon as the work is completed. This will make that portion of the town very attractive for residence.

– Press Democrat, August 9, 1908


Glenn Street, between Carrillo and Howard streets, which has recently been put in order and macadamized, is to be built up and improved. W. E. Nichols has already erected three large and commodious cottages of six rooms each and basement story containing all modern and up-to-date improvements and accessories for comfort and convenience. He will continue to erect more houses on the adjoining property. The present cottages are good and strongly built in the Mission Renaissance style of architecture and consist of three distinct and separate styles. The inside finish will be of natural woods polished. H. O. Tiffany and Co., Santa Rosa painters, have the contract for this work and it will be finished first-class.

It is expected that there will be a good demand for first-class, modern-built homes of this description and Mr. Nichols is ready to fulfill the demand by erecting cottages to accommodate the rush of California-bound Eastern tourists this Spring.

– Press Democrat, December 20, 1908

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