Oh, my stars; the Grace Brothers Brewery steam whistle has turned up. According to a Press Democrat article, a man who identified himself only as “Gary” dropped it off at the Sonoma County Museum along with a note that he had swiped it in 1966, when he and other kids were up to no good and sneaking into abandoned buildings (and a big thanks for doing that and rescuing this artifact as a result).

For generations, as Gaye LeBaron notes, it kept Santa Rosa on schedule, blowing to announce lunch time and quitting time. But in the years around the 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake, the whistle had more important jobs as well.

Santa Rosa’s water system was a mess until it was upgraded in 1907, causing the town to enforce severe conservation measures. Policemen, firemen and city inspectors became water cops, empowered to wake you in the middle of the night if water was heard running. You could be fined $2.50 for a dripping faucet and you were billed a monthly fee for every tub, toilet, and sink in your home. Lawns and gardens could be watered only at certain times and/or certain days depending whether you lived east or west of Mendocino Avenue; in the scheme used following the earthquake, the east side could use a garden hose between 4 and 8 o’clock, while westerners had the hours between 5 and 9. Starting and stopping times were announced by the steam whistle.

The Grace Brothers’ whistle also became Santa Rosa’s fire alarm for a few years after the earthquake, tooting out a code that alerted our volunteer firemen to drop whatever they were doing, jump on their bicycles, and pedal like mad to a specific neighborhood. (The alarm system and codes are described in an earlier article.) Anyone using water at that time was required to turn it off immediately to ensure the firefighters had adequate pressure.

If you’re keeping track, all that meant the brewery whistle was sounding at 12, 4, 5, 8, and 9, plus any time it was needed by the fire department. When that thing started to blast off, I imagine people often just stood still for a moment with their heads cocked, like puzzled dogs, trying to figure out if they were supposed to eat, start, stop, turn off or go home.

 There was also another steam whistle over at the power company used to summon the on-call lineman. In that era, light bulbs were somewhat of a luxury item in many homes, handmade and expensive; instead of buying them, it was more as if you leased them from the power company, or subscribed to its light bulb service. If a bulb burned out – even in the middle of the night – customers expected the company to replace it pronto. Ask nicely and their certified light bulb technician might even screw it in for you.

 (ABOVE: Grace Brothers Brewery, c. 1902. From the Santa Rosa Fire Department Souvenir, 1902)

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Just a dozen steps inside the cemetery gate brings you to the mass grave for some of the earthquake victims. Its nearness speaks to the urgency of the times; it was started two days after the disaster struck Santa Rosa on April 18th. By then, the downtown fires were finally out but exhausted volunteers clearing the piles of brick were still coming upon more dead. So when there was a call for volunteers to bury seven unclaimed (and presumably, unembalmed) bodies, a trench was dug at the easiest available spot.

The mass grave also tells stories of the chaos during the aftermath of the quake. There is someone listed on the tombstone who is not there at all and there is the problem of counting the “unknown,” which suggests there are certainly more people under that great concrete slab than the sixteen claimed.

The most likely explanation for the errors is that few, if any, cared enough to make sure it was right. There was no interest in commemorating Santa Rosa’s worst disaster; it was almost two years before the small monument appeared at the site, with no ceremony held. There was no (known) documentation kept of who was in the mass grave; whomever gave the stone cutter the list of names must have cobbled it together from memories and some of the names painted on boards by a volunteer. The list maker certainly didn’t bother to check it against death certificates and other records; if that person had, he would have discovered that Charles W. Palm was actually buried at the county cemetery on Chanate.

Charles Palm, c. 1900. Image courtesy Pam Mortensen (Enhanced))
Charles Palm, c. 1900. Image courtesy Pam Mortensen (Enhanced))
Historians trust tombstones to be accurate, so it was more than a century before it was discovered Mr. Palm wasn’t there at all. While looking in 2012 for information about her great-grandfather, Pam Mortensen came into contact with cemeterian Jeremy Nichols, who noted that Charles Palm was in the Chanate database. His interment there was confirmed when researcher Sandy Frary found an image of his original certificate of death. Since Palm is not at the earthquake memorial site, who is there in his place? The concrete slab has impressed lines that supposedly outline his grave, along with the initials, “C. W. P.” Was another man mistaken for Palm? As a “traveling man” (salesman) from Los Angeles, Palm might have been a stranger, and there apparently were a great many other traveling men in town that day.

Those “unknowns” present other confusing questions. The earthquake monument specifies “FOUR PERSONS UNKNOWN NOS. 1-4-6-7” with lines in the concrete slab outlining four suitcase-sized burials, each with a number. The coroner’s records also lists four “unknowns” and where they were found, all with the notation, “nothing but burnt bones and ashes.” Yet on April 30, the newspaper reported, “Coroner Frank L. Blackburn held inquests this morning over the remains of Joseph Woods, Smith Davidson, Mrs. Heath and child, [Robert] Richard[s], C. W. Palm, T. B. Ward and six unknown persons [emphasis mine] whose remains were found in the ruins…” Huh? Why did the coroner issue four death certificates for six unknowns? And what’s with the “1, 4, 6, 7” ID system?

The solution, I believe, is that the earthquake monument is again wrong. There are not “four persons” there; instead, I think it’s the cremated remains of seven, as the numbering scheme suggests.

“Unknown 1” actually represents three people, which aligns with a death certificate for remains found “near Moody’s shoe store.” The newspaper reported that “The bodies of three unknown persons were brought to the Morgue late Monday evening [April 23] having been found in the stairway of the Princess lodging house. Nothing could be learned of their identity. It is supposed to be a man, woman and child.” The “Princess”was above the shoe store.

“Unknown 4” has to be associated with the separate death certificates for remains found at “Mrs. Ware’s lodging house” and in Dignan’s Drug Store at 500 Fourth street. Most likely these two individuals do not have their own burial numbers because their ashes and bones were commingled by accident.

“Unknown 6” is probably the man whose bones were found in the ruins of the Eureka Lodging house on April 25, a full week after the quake. It would be another week still before the last reported body was found.

“Unknown 7” is more complicated. Read again the account of the April 30 inquest and note that the coroner ruled on the death of Mrs. Heath and child. There is a death certificate for Ceile Heath (the vaudeville performer who called herself “Miss Excelsia”), but none recorded for the child.

Mrs. Heath and the girl appear to have been linked by a newspaper error. Two days after the disaster, the combined Democrat-Republican reported, “The remains of Miss Excelsa [sic], the Novelty actress, and a little girl, identity unknown, were found this morning and taken to the morgue. The body of the latter was taken from the ruins of the Ramona lodging house.” In the casualty list that appeared in the same edition, there were separate entries for “Excelia, Miss, Novelty actress,” and “Little girl (unknown), Ramona Lodging House.” But the following lists counted the child twice – both as “Little girl” and as part of “Excelsa  [sic], Miss, Novelty actress and child.” (Note that the misspelling of her stage name reverted to the version used in the original news item.) Apparently everyone forgot that the only connection between the two was that they were found on the same day. Whether the child was buried with Heath or elsewhere is anyone’s guess, but she is certainly another overlooked victim of the tragedy.

For information on the estimated death toll, please see the “Body Counts, Part II” essay.

(This article was revised October, 2016)

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article discussed the possibility that local pharmacist Michael H. Dignan was among the “unknowns.” The list of fatalities published the day after the quake included “C Trudgeon, with M.H. Dignan”. Two days later the next list specified, “Trudgen, C., drug clerk, M.H. Dignan”. That April 21 listing expanded identifiers to include employers, but it was unclear if Chester (“Al”) Trudgen, who worked at the Digman drug store, died with his boss. “M. H. Digman” was also named as an earthquake fatality in several pharmaceutical trade magazines. In truth, he survived the earthquake and moved to San Francisco, where he lived until the 1930s.

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Looking back on it, James Wyatt Oates probably recognized the end of his world began that Christmas night in 1909, when his mother-in-law missed a step and fell. She would soon die as a result, and a few months later his beloved brother was gone. Next his wife’s heart began to falter, leaving her a semi-invalid. By the time five Christmases had passed since the accident, Wyatt found himself with no family at all, except for a nephew in Alabama he didn’t much like.

Until the accident, 1909 had been an uneventful year for Wyatt and Mattie Oates, marked only by his boyish enthusiasm for all things related to automobiles. There were no grand parties at the home that would become known as Comstock House, no anticipated trips away to visit friends in San Francisco or Southern California. When they were mentioned in the papers it was for a small dinner party or family outing, and it was almost always noted they were accompanied by her 75 year-old mother, Mrs. M. S. Solomon.

Maria S. Solomon had been a widow for 46 years and apparently had resided always with Mattie, her only living child. No photos survive and nothing personal is known about her except that she was very well liked. Both Santa Rosa newspapers gave her accident, fading condition and death the sort of coverage one would expect for a civic leader. In her honor the Saturday Afternoon Club canceled a meeting even though she was not a member. The Fork Club likewise postponed a get-together and when the card sharks of the Fork Club pass up a chance to win mismatched cutlery, you must be someone really special.

We know more about her husband, who died in 1863 when daughter Mattie was six. Perrin L. Solomon was a soldier at the very end of the Mexican-American War, serving as a Major in the Third Regiment of Tennessee Volunteers. They were in Mexico for six months and saw no combat. After that he joined the multitudes headed for the California Gold Rush, where he found a new career in law enforcement, taking in 1851 the role of marshal in a “people’s court” vigilante murder trial. A couple of years later, he was the sheriff of Tuolumne County.

Perrin was described as “quiet, low-voiced man of easy and even elegant manners, whose coolness, tact, and desperate courage had proved equal to every emergency, and who had made several hairbreadth escapes” in a 1853 account of his capture of a desperado. Solomon and his posse of twenty men brought the man into the town of Sonora, where they were confronted by “…More than a thousand men, many of them drunk or half drunk…yelling like demons, [who] pressed close upon them.” Through his “coolness and courage” Solomon saved the man from being hanged by the mob. In a similar incident, Solomon stopped a lynching by having a young lawyer distract the crowd with a grandiloquent speech as he and his deputies hustled the suspect away. From 1857 he served as the US Marshall or Vice-Marshall for the Northern District of California until he was removed from office in 1861, presumably because he was a Rebel sympathizer; Solomon was active in Tuolumne’s Democratic party and even on the cusp of the Civil War, there was a contingent calling for compromise with the Confederacy and peaceful separation. He died in 1863 in San Francisco, where he was buried.

James Wyatt Oates never met Perrin Solomon, who passed away while he was still a 13 year-old boy in Alabama. But when his long-widowed mother-in-law died in 1910, the old lawman was probably much on his mind. The family owned a burial plot in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco, which presumably was by Perrin’s side. Should she join her husband there, or stay in Santa Rosa, where he and Mattie would eventually be laid to rest?

Oates had Maria Solomon’s coffin placed in the temporary receiving vault at the Rural Cemetery, where it would stay for the next six years. Her daughter’s body would be likewise stored in the crypt in 1914 because no grave was supposedly ready, although Oates owned a large and prominent plot at the cemetery.

What he originally planned to do with them is unknown, but after Wyatt himself died the following year, he left instructions that the entire family – including the long-buried remains of Perrin and Mattie’s siblings who had died in childhood – be cremated together and their ashes scattered. It seems to have been an impetuous decision made just a few months before his death, around the time he amended his will to disinherit that unpleasant nephew in Alabama. The man who had been left with no family must have decided to take as many as he could with him into the winds.

Fell From Porch and Tore Ligaments Loose

Mrs. M. S. Solomon, mother of Mrs. James W. Oates, met with a bad accident on Christmas night, which will cause her to be confined to her apartments for some time to come. The lady suffered a fall, and struck on her right hip in such a manner as to tear loose many of the ligaments of that member, besides severely bruising and contusing the limb. Mrs. Solomon and Judge and Mrs. James W. Oates were guests at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Blitz W. Paxton at Christmas dinner. During the evening Mrs. Solomon stepped from a slight eminence on the porch of the Paxton home and was precipitated heavily to the ground.

Dr. S. S. Bogle was called and attended to the injuries, and Mrs. Solomon was placed under the care of a trained nurse.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 27, 1909

The many friends of Mrs. M. S. Solomon, who sustained a bad fall while leaving the home of Mr. and Mrs. Blitz W. Paxton on Christmas night, will be very glad to know that she is not as seriously hurt as was at first supposed. She was resting nicely on Monday and hopes in a few days to be able to be out again. At the time of the accident it was feared that there might have been a fracture of the hip bone. Dr. S. S. Bogle was summoned and ascertained that there was no fracture. Mrs. Solomon, who has lived for many years with her son-in-law and daughter, Colonel and Mrs. James W. Oates, is one of Santa Rosa’s most highly esteemed women, and at the Oates residence since the accident the home has been besieged with anxious friends and many messages of inquiry have been received. Naturally Mrs. Solomon suffered very much from the shock caused by the fall.

– Press Democrat, December 28, 1909
Mrs. Solomon Better

Mrs. M. S. Solomon continues to improve from the effects of the fall she sustained on Christmas night, and her many friends are delighted to hear of the improvement.

– Press Democrat, December 30, 1909

Mrs. M. S. Solomon has almost entirely recovered from the effects of her bad fall on Christmas night.

– “Society Gossip,” Press Democrat, January 10, 1910

The many friends of Mrs. M. S. Solomon continue solicitous for her welfare. She is still quite ill from her recent fall and a specialist from San Francisco has been required. Hope for speedy recovery is held out for her.

– “Many Social Events in City of Roses,” Santa Rosa Republican, December 30, 1909


The many friends of Mrs. M. S. Solomon will learn with much regret that her condition is very critical. A change for the worse occurred yesterday.

– Press Democrat, January 20, 1910
Greatly Beloved Woman Passes Away at an Early Hour This Morning–Death Universally Regretted

Shortly after two o’clock this morning death came very peacefully to Mrs. M. S. Solomon at the home of her son-in-law and daughter, Colonel and Mrs. James W. Oates on Mendocino avenue.

The news of the passing of this estimable woman will be received with deepest sorrow by a legion of friends in Santa Rosa. To know Mrs. Solomon was to love her.

The esteem in which she was universally held was shown incessantly during his illness in the inquiries of friends and the great solicitation and hope that her life might be spared.

It will be remembered that on Christmas night Mrs. Solomon sustained a bad fall and injured her hip. At first it was hoped that the injuries were of a slight nature but later it developed that they were very severe. Intense pain manifested itself and it was soon realized that Mrs. Solomon’s condition was serious.

Everything that human skill and loving attention could devise was done for her. Several days ago it was apparent that Mrs. Solomon long life was shortly to close. She relapsed into unconsciousness and the slumber that lengthened on into the final sleep which has its awakening in the brighter and better world and the perfect life for which she was so well prepared.

The death of her mother is a terrible blow to Mrs. Oates and Colonel Oates. The ties that bound them together were most affectionate. For twenty nine years Mrs. Solomon’s home had been with her son-in-law and daughter, her husband having preceded her to the grave many years ago…In the hour of bereavement the family is remembered in tenderest sympathy.

– Press Democrat, January 21, 1910

The funeral of the late Mrs. M. S. Solomon will take place on Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock from the residence of Colonel and Mrs. J. W. Oates, on Mendocino Avenue, and it will undoubtedly be very largely attended by her friends.

Temporarily the casket will repose in the vault at the cemetery and there will be no interment on Sunday afternoon.

Seldom has there been a more general expression of regret than that felt at the passing of Mrs. Solomon, and yesterday the Oates residence was besieged by friends desirous of extending their condolence with those bereaved.

– Press Democrat, January 22, 1910

The death of Mrs. M. S. Solomon has cast a gloom over everything of a social nature in this city. She was dearly beloved by all who knew her and there exists a general feeling among her hosts of friends that no pleasure can be experienced close upon her death. Owing to the love the officers and members of the Saturday Afternoon Club hold for her, although not a member herself, that club postponed the meeting it had scheduled for today. Mrs. C. C. Belden, for like reason, postponed entertaining the Fork Club from next week to the week following, and other affairs that were expected for next week, the week but one before the beginning of lent, will not occur. Many friends of the deceased and of Mr. and Mrs. James W. Oates have called at the Oates residence and offered their services in any way they may be used in this hour of bereavement, and they are thoroughly appreciated by Mr. and Mrs. Oates.

– “Many Social Events in City of Roses,” Santa Rosa Republican, January 22, 1910
Large Gathering of Friends at the Funeral of the Late Mrs. M. S. Solomon

Scores of magnificent floral tributes, each bearing its message of devotion and loving sympathy, surrounded the casket containing the mortal remains of the late Mrs. M. S. Solomon, as it reposed in the spacious drawing room at the residence of Colonel and Mrs. J. W. Oates on Sunday afternoon, at the time of the impressive funeral services.

There was a very large gathering of old friends of the deceased despite the heavy storm. In the company were those who had known and loved Mrs. Solomon for many years. Then there were those of younger years to whom she had been friend and counselor and always deeply interested in their welfare. It was a very sad afternoon for all.

The funeral service was conducted by the Rev. William Martin, and at its conclusion the beautiful casket was conveyed to the cemetery and there placed in the receiving vault. The active pallbearers were…

– Press Democrat, January 25, 1910

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