Hey, gang! Let’s build a dam across Santa Rosa Creek to create a downtown lake for the city! It sounds a bit like the plot of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie, where the kids pull together to put on a show in the old barn – but yes, a group actually did build a wooden dam across the creek in 1910 to create a sort-of lake. Take a moment to contemplate the federal, state, and local regulatory agencies that would be involved in such a project today, and let’s commission studies and schedule a few year’s worth of hearings first.

Building the dam was the newly-formed Santa Rosa Venetian Club, but don’t make the mistake of presuming members were callow youths who just wanted to make a swimmin’ hole. Heading the group was William H. Lee of Lee Brothers, the largest drayage (hauling) company in Santa Rosa along with contractors Frank Sullivan and Dedrick Albers; others active in the project included the Justice of the Peace, the City Engineer, the District Attorney, the City Health Officer, and many more. Press Democrat editor and Chamber of Commerce President Ernest Finley was an enthusiastic backer and a list of people who donated to build and maintain the dam read like a who’s who of Santa Rosa merchants and prominent businessmen.

Enthusiasm was great because Santa Rosa had no public park – unless you counted the old rural cemetery – a fact that was particularly galling to town boosters. During these early years of the century the Press Democrat frequently ran stories about some property with park potential that might be coming up for sale; leading citizens were polled on what they would like to see in a park. Political candidates dangled before voters the promise that they had the connections to make a park happen. The City Council appointed a five-member Parks Commission that included Luther Burbank. But it always ended the same: The property owners wanted more than Santa Rosa could afford. The closest the town came was in 1909, when the PD floated the idea of a municipal bond to raise the $40,000 needed to buy the Hotel Lebanon, but nothing came of it.

The Venetian Club’s lake was basically three blocks long, from the current City Hall location to the freeway. (It was never identified by name  in the papers, but I’m taking the liberty to assume it would have been called, “Lake Santa Rosa.”) The next phase of work planned included adding electric lighting, which would have made it very similar to the water park proposed in 1905 by architect William Willcox, except his design had the dam just west of Santa Rosa Avenue, creating a lake that extended back to E street. This wooden dam was near the old Davis street bridge. Its location can be imagined today as being under the southbound onramp from Third street where it merges with traffic exiting the highway, where drivers are usually still going 70 MPH because they can’t wait to make the connection over to Farmer’s Lane where they will find their cars unable to inch forward toward their purposeless (yet urgent) destinations any faster than the unsteady crawl of a mewling week-old orange tabby kitten ironically named “Patches.” (Why, yes, I certainly do plan to submit an entry for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest for bad writing, thanks for asking.)

Alas, trouble arose. Where Mickey ‘n’ Judy’s big show in the barn might be threatened by a gruff banker eager to foreclose on the farm, the Venetian Club faced 75 year-old farmer Jones who lived at 111 Santa Rosa Ave, on the corner of First street. John M. Jones filed suit, claiming that his property line extended to the middle of Santa Rosa Creek and the raised water level might dislodge the riprap stones he used to shore up the bank.

In a PD editorial, Ernest Finley vigorously defended the Venetian Club’s lake, reminding that it was always intended the dam would be removed before the winter rains. It had become an important addition to the city, he wrote:

Those who have not seen the lake can have no idea of its beauty and attractiveness. Lined on either side with a wealth of foliage that affords and ideal background, this beautiful waterway is surrounded by ornamental bridges, provided with boat-landings, swimming boards, etc., and numerous pleasure boats, including everything from one-man canoes to large gasoline launches, the property of residents living in the vicinity, ply its placid surface. At all hours its banks are lined with interested spectators watching the sports of the bathers, and the pleasure craft as they glide to and fro.

The lawsuit was just the beginning of their bad luck. Five days later, on May 31, the Levin Tannery burned to the ground. It was the worst disaster to hit Santa Rosa since the 1906 earthquake.

Upstream from the dam, the huge tannery had a history of dumping its waste from leather processing into the creek, including fish-killers such as lime and toxins like cyanide. Just the year before, Santa Rosa had finally passed an ordinance prohibiting them from discharges into the creek after a citizen’s group threatened to sue the city if action wasn’t taken.

While both Santa Rosa papers produced lengthy news articles on the fire, they emphasized the loss of property – environmental damage wasn’t even mentioned. In discussing the lawsuit against the Venetian Club, the PD revealed for the first time “vast quantities of water and tanbark, as well as the contents of certain vats, escaped into the creek” and in another article, “flames caused some of the tanks containing liquid to burst and their contents ran down the creek.” Club members hurriedly opened their dam to allow the poisoned waters to continue downstream. For two weeks the dam remained open. Before rebuilding it, club officers, top city officials and editors of both newspapers traveled the bed of the creek in a spring wagon to inspect conditions. Place on the list of things I dearly would have loved to witness was eight men bouncing along in a horse-drawn wagon down the middle of Santa Rosa Creek.

When farmer Jones’ suit was heard in court at the end of that month, the disaster allowed his attorney to lay claim the lake was a “stinkhole” and submit as evidence a bottle of strong-smelling water. Testifying for the club, City Health Officer Dr. Jackson Temple told the court the water was running clear, but the same article in the PD conceded “it is claimed, some of the sediment lodged in the bottom of the creek bed and on the sides in some places.”

The next day, Judge Denny ruled for Jones. Although he had suffered no damages, the court held that harm to his property was “probable and imminent.” The Venetian Club was ordered to pay $300. Press Democrat editor Finley railed against Jones and the court in a fiery editorial:

…The plaintiff never used the creek bed himself for any purpose whatsoever, and as far as he is concerned it represents no real value. Its use for the purpose proposed, however, does give it a value as far as the public is concerned and without injuring the owner. It would seem that under the circumstances some way ought to be found to let the large and more important interests prevail.  As an abstract proposition, and entirely apart from how the law may or may not read, no man should have the right to do the dog and manger act [someone who hoards or selfishly hangs on to something others need but he doesn’t], either in matters of this or any other sort.

The club’s attorney vowed to appeal and the group held a meeting to make plans for stringing the electric lights. Unknown to them, however, was that Jones already had gone to Superior Court Judge Seawell and obtained a court order allowing him to dismantle the dam – which he personally did, with a Deputy Sheriff in tow to ensure no one tried to stop him.

And that was the end of Santa Rosa’s water park, created by and for the people and killed in the crib by a spiteful old man. R.I.P. Lake Santa Rosa: May 5 – July 10, 1910.

Santa Rosa Venice Club Formed Last Night

The Santa Rosa Venice Club was organized Thursday night in the office of Lee Bros. & Co. by the citizens living near Santa Rosa Creek and in Ludwig’s addition. The object and purpose of the new organization is the improvement of Santa Rosa Creek by creating a lake and generally beautifying the waterway so as to make it an added attraction to the city.

There were over twenty representative property owners and citizens present at the meeting which [was] organized by selecting W. H. Lee as chairman and F. A. Sullivan as secretary…

…The name of the organization was selected on the suggestion of S. T. Daken, the well known artist, who was present by invitation and who pledged his support and assistance in the effort to beautify the city. He spoke most encouragingly in favor of damming the creek and improving the surroundings so as to make it one of the show places of Sonoma County.

Attorney T. J. Butts explained the benefits to be derived from having a natural water park in the city, and declared that it would result in drawing large numbers of people from San Francisco and the bay cities here during the summer who would not go camping or to the resorts along the Russian river where city conveniences were not to be had…

…It is the determination of the Club to have the dam constructed and the lake filled before the Rose Carnival so as to give those visiting the city at that time a glimpse of what can be done in improving the natural resources of the city. It is hoped that the start now being made will eventually result in the city parking the creek its entire length in the city limits.

Among those present at the meeting…

– Press Democrat, April 22, 1910

Plans for Construction of Dam and the Creating of a Lake Have Assumed Shape

There was a meeting of the Santa Rosa Venice Club Monday evening in Lee Bros. & Co.’s office to further consider the matter of damming Santa Rosa creek and making proposed improvements in that waterway.

City Engineer Newton V. V. Smyth, who had made a survey of the creek, reported that there was a fall in the stream from the E street bridge to the Northwestern Pacific railroad bridge of 14 feet. Olive street being 1 1/2 feet higher than the railroad; Main street 7 feet above Olive; the Island bridge 2 feet higher than the Main street; and E street 5 feet higher than the Island bridge.

It is proposed to place a dam in the creek at some point below Davis street, yet to be selected, and raise the water eight feet…a large amount of work has been done in clearing the underbrush away from the banks of the stream and this will be continued until it is made presentable.

S. T. Daken has offered to make a clay model 15 feet in length of the stream as it will appear after the dam is build and the lake formed. This he will make into a plaster of Paris model and place it on exhibition.

– Press Democrat, April 26, 1910

First Step Towards the Formation of a Lake for Boating and Aquatic Sports Here

The constriction of the dam in Santa Rosa creek proposed by the Santa Rosa Venetian Club has begun and is progressing nicely under the direction of D. E. Albers, chairman of the special committee appointed by the Club to handle the work. The dam is being placed across the creek just at the east line of the Grace Bros. brewery property, and will be a very substantial affair eight feet in height…There is a good stream over the top of the dam and no eddying or cutting of the banks.


– Press Democrat, April 29, 1910

First Craft Launched Thursday Morning on the New Lake Created by Building Dam

Shortly after the noon hour on Thursday the first power launch for use on the waters of Santa Rosa creek was successfully launched, and Johnson Bros., the builders and owners, accompanied by W. H. Lee, P. H. Kroncke, Timothy Shea, F. A. Sullivan and R. J. Bogges took a ride on the pretty little lake, which has been formed by damming the creek near the brewery property line.

– Press Democrat, May 6, 1910

Some Improvements Contemplate by the the Venetian Club of Santa Rosa in Near Future

At this week’s meeting of the Santa Rosa Venetian Club $200 was orders paid on the contract for the erection of the dam in Santa Rosa Creek. The matter of lighting the creek from the Davis street bridge to Main street with a string of incandescent lights was considered…

…Arrangements were made for the appointment of a special officer to maintain order along the creek. As the property is all private it is the intention to keep off all boys who fail to refrain from profanity and ho do not behave themselves as becoming young gentlemen.

– Press Democrat, May 19, 1910

Citizens Urged to Enroll as Members so That Lake and City Be Beautified

The Santa Rosa Venetian Club met on Monday evening in Lee Bros. & Co.’s office and decided upon improving the banks of Santa Rosa Creek and make them more attractive, provide seats for those visiting the lake, arrange for refreshment stands and decided upon regulations regarding privileges of boating, bathing, etc.

The interest in the lake has grown each day since it was thrown open, and as the warm water comes on it is expected that more interest will be manifested in this, the only breathing place and outdoor pleasure place, of the city, by the general public. With the view of preventing accidents to children who visit the creek bank , it was decided to erect a fence in the vicinity of the dam.

There has been some complaint of oil and refuse collecting on the surface of the lake as the result of refuse thrown into the creek higher up the stream, and the members of the club as well as citizens generally, are greatly in hopes that those responsible for the complaint will desist from such practice and allow the city to have some benefit from its natural water way.

The club proposes to increase its membership, if possible, to 200 with 25 cents monthly dues to create a fund for beautifying the creek and control its use. All who have the best interests of the city at heart and desire to see the creek made beautiful and attractive are urged to enroll as members…

– Press Democrat, May 24, 1910

J. M. Jones Begins an Injunction Proceeding

It is no uncommon thing when public spirited citizens turn their attention to and succeed in promoting something that adds materially to the enjoyment of life and attractiveness of a community, to be harassed by individuals fearful that imaginary damage may result to their private interests. Santa Rosa is to experience just such a procedure involving the lake on Santa Rosa Creek which has for several weeks now afforded untold enjoyment to many people, young and old.

Soon after the announcement was made of the organization of the Santa Rosa Venetian Club and the subscribing of money to construct a dam across the creek near the electric railroad bridge, and even before the proposed improvement could be given trial, there were threats and rumors from some of the property owners along the course of the creek that they would invoke the aid of the law, if possible, to prevent the formation of the lake, and the pleasure it would give many people.

The threatened legal interference with the enjoyment of boating and swimming on the new lake created on Santa Rosa Creek by the construction of the dam, took form Wednesday, when J. M. Jones, one of the property owners along the creek, owning a place adjoining the Main street bridge, commenced a suit in the Superior Court, asking the Court to grant an injunction pendente lite, and upon the hearing of the case a permanent injunction against the Santa Rosa Venetian Club.

D. E. Albers, William H. Lee and the Santa Rosa Venetian Club are named as defendants in the complaint filed Wednesday. In addition to the injunction prayed for, Mr. Jones, who is represented by Attorney William F. Cowan, asks for damages in the sum of three hundred dollars and costs of suit.

Among other things the plaintiff alleges that the construction of the dam has caused the water to back up and collect a large amount of offensive animal matter, that the water has become stagnant and polluted and emits offensive odors.

Mr. Jones further alleges that the water is likely to saturate and percolate the bank at his place and dislodge the stone that has been placed there and will damage his property. He asks the Court to restrain people from trespassing upon his property and for further relief.

The complaint is a lengthy document and recites the details connected with the construction of the “large and substantial dam” (borrowing the words of the complaint) by a number of Santa Rosa’s public spirited citizens who formed themselves some weeks ago into the Venetian Club for the purposes set out.

Judge Seawell, to whom the matter was presented Wednesday, signed an order directing the defendants to appear in court on June 6 and show cause why a temporary injunction should not be granted, in accordance with the prayers of Mr. Jones’ complaint, pending the hearing and final determination of the suit.

The Santa Rosa Venetian Club, however, does not propose to give up the work it has inaugurated in providing Santa Rosa with something that has been universally praised, except by possibly a few people, and will be on hand, aided by many people in all walks and stations of life here to show why the injunction should not be granted.

If the offensive matter complained of is a menace then, it is claimed the legal proceedings should be directed against the persons responsible for its presence and they should be compelled to clean it out and not allow it to contaminate the creek any more.

– Press Democrat, May 26, 1910


As predicted in these columns some days ago, suit has been brought to enjoin the Venetian Club from maintaining its dam across Santa Rosa creek, the construction of which has resulted in the formation of a beautiful lake for boating and bathing–something the town has always wanted, and one of the most attractive features of which any city can boast.

Those who have not seen the lake can have no idea of its beauty and attractiveness. Lined on either side with a wealth of foliage that affords and ideal background, this beautiful waterway is surrounded by ornamental bridges, provided with boat-landings, swimming boards, etc., and numerous pleasure boats, including everything from one-man canoes to large gasoline launches, the property of residents living in the vicinity, ply its placid surface. At all hours its banks are line with interested spectators watching the sports of the bathers, and the pleasure craft as they glide to and fro. In addition to our own people, many visitors from out of town have visited the lake, all of whom are loud in their praises of its attractiveness and beauty, and of the enterprise and public spirit that made its existence possible.

The complaint that the backing of the water up against the bank will cause it to cave down into the stream can hardly be said to be a reasonable one. The depth is only slightly increased at the place mentioned, and there being no rapid current, there can be no wash against the banks. How does that bank, now in jeopardy stand the fierce rush of the winter torrents? If the lake is the receptacle of polluting drainage from its shores, did not the creek bed before the creation of the lake receive that same drainage? The protesting argument seemed remarkably weak. Moreover, the pretty little lake, lagoon, or whatever it may be called, is only there for comparatively a short time. In a few months the dam will be removed and the stream will be open to the winter rains. The complainant’s half of the creek-bed will be there just where it has been for all these ages.

– Press Democrat editorial, May 27, 1910

Mayor Edwards and Others Traverse Bed of Santa Rosa Creek While Waters are Low

Wednesday afternoon Mayor James R. Edwards, District Attorney Clarence F. Lea, City Health Officer Dr. Jackson Temple, E. L. Finley, Frank A. Sullivan, J. E. Mobley, D. E. Albers and W. H. Lee visited the bed of Santa Rosa creek from the D street bridge to the site of the Venetian Club’s dam, the trip being taken at the invitation of President Lee of the organization above named.

The party met at the court house at 5 p. m., and in one of Lee Bros. & Co.’s rigs were driven directly down the bed of the stream for the entire distance mentioned, in order that they might have a proper idea of conditions there.

After the tannery fire, when vast quantities of water and tanbark, as well as the contents of certain vats, escaped into the creek, it was found necessary to open up the dam and let the water of the lake run out. Wednesday the water had sufficiently cleared to allow the dam to be again closed, and the work of refilling resumed. Inspection of the creek bed showed the same to be in much better condition where the water had stood, than it was where there had been no water. A second dam near the Main street bridge would back the water up beyond the E street bridge, and almost to the eastern limits of the city, affording a stretch of boating more than a mile in length. Every argument appears to be in favor of extending the lake to the extreme eastern limits, and also westward to a point beyond the railroad tracks, so that visitors entering the city by either railroad or crossing any of the city bridges will have a glimpse of its beauty.

– Press Democrat, June 16, 1910


An interesting proceeding in Judge Denny’s department of the Superior Court on Wednesday was the hearing of the motion for a temporary injunction in the suit of J. M. Jones…

…Mr. Jones produced in court at the morning session a bottle of water from the creek, secured on Monday, which was claimed to have somewhat of a strong perfume. Mr. Lee produced a bottle of water which he had taken during the noon recess from the lake, 150 east of dam, which was apparently perfectly clear. The bottles were introduced in evidence and were placed in the custody of Deputy County Clerk Jack Ford, who presides at the desk in Judge Denny’s department.

Dr. [Jackson] Temple testified as to the drive he and others took down the creek bed from the Main street bridge to the dam. They did not go by boat, either, he said, but in a spring wagon. In the lake proper he said the water was running and was apparently pure. As they passed the gas works, he said, he detected the odor of ammonia. Of course, the doctor did not regard stagnant water as being altogether healthy.

E. W. Potter said he rowed up the lake on Tuesday night, and while he did not drink any of the water, he did not detect any odor in the lake proper. Asked by Attorney Cowan if his “smeller” was in good shape, Mr. Potter laughingly said it was, as he had just had it fixed in an operation that cost him considerable money.

One of the witnesses for Mr. Jones described the lake as a “stinkhole.”

It has not been contradicted that at the time of the fire at the Levin Tannery the flames caused some of the tanks containing liquid to burst and their contents ran down the creek. The water became polluted and the dam was raised on purpose to let the offensive water pass out. At the time, it is claimed, some of the sediment lodged in the bottom of the creek bed and on the sides in some places.

Attorney Cowan contended the defendants had not shown any claim of right, but Mr. Butts answered that they would do so at the proper time, when the case came to trial on the effort to secure a permanent injunction and not on the temporary showing.

Lawyer Cowan also urged that no matter if Mr. Lee and his associates in the club had made a most beautiful lake, had it stocked with gondolas and erected showy pagodas along its banks, and in fact had increased the value of the Jones property to the extent of $5,000, Mr. Jones could still maintain that they had no right to trespass on his rights and he could refuse to accept the benefits thus thrust upon him without his consent. Defendants had no legal right, and even public clamor could not rule over the law, he said…

– Press Democrat, June 30, 1910


The injunction asked for in the matter of the dam across Santa Rosa creek has been granted, which may ultimately mean that the plans for beautifying the creek bank and providing a boating and bathing space within the city limits will have to be abandoned, and that the time and money expended by those public spirited citizens who inaugurated the movement will go for naught. Such an outcome would be unfortunate from the public standpoint, for the improvements planned promise to mean much to the community.

The bringing of the suit was probably no great surprise to the citizens back of the project. Here as elsewhere the people who try to do things usually anticipate a little opposition, for in every community there is an element that appears to oppose advancement, and the inauguration of new ideas. But it is not always that they find themselves able to call upon the courts to assist them, as in this instance.

As we understand the matter, the plaintiff in this case based his petition mainly upon the contention that he owns to the center of the creek bed, and the backing of the water onto this portion of his premises without his consent constitutes trespass under the law. Probably he is right in this contention, and if so no great fault is to be found with the decision of the court. But the fact remains that the plaintiff never used the creek bed himself for any purpose whatsoever, and as far as he is concerned it represents no real value. Its use for the purpose proposed, however, does give it a value as far as the public is concerned and without injuring the owner. It would seem that under the circumstances some way ought to be found to let the large and more important interests prevail. As an abstract proposition, and entirely apart from how the law may or may not read, no man should have the right to do the dog and manger act, either in matters of this or any other sort.

The entire lake project is largely an experiment as yet, and nobody connected with it has the slightest desire to injure the rights of any property owner, or work anything but a benefit upon the community. If any real property damage seemed likely to result, or any unhealthfulness, as has by inference been charged the citizens interested in the project…

– Press Democrat editorial, July 2, 1910

Plans Discussed at the Meeting Held Last Night

There was a well-attended meeting of the Santa Rosa Venetian Club on Thursday evening in the room of the Chamber of Commerce at which Attorney T. J. Butts presented his report of the result of the action for a mandatory injunction against certain members of the club to prevent the maintenance of the dam and impounding of the water of Santa Rosa Creek.

The report showed that while the injunction had been granted as prayed for, the taking of an appeal would stay the proceedings for the present and the lake would thus be saved for the season and the dam would be taken out prior to the winter rains. The attorney was instructed to take an appeal…

…The Club decided to improve and beautify the bed of the stream by stringing a line of electric lights from the dam to the Main street bridge. M. Saunders has donated a large quantity of wire for the purpose and the wiremen of the city have donated their services to wiring it and connect up the lights so the cost will be only nominal…

– Press Democrat, July 8, 1910

J. M. Jones, Armed With Court Order, Lowers Water in the Santa Rosa Lake

Armed with an order issued out of the Superior Court by Judge Seawell, J. M. Jones, the property owner who last week obtained an injunction against the Santa Rosa Venetian Club, went to the dam near Davis street bridge and removed some boards from the flood gate to lower the water in the lake. This was Friday night. Saturday morning Mr. Jones visited the dam again in company with Deputy Sheriff Reynolds and took off another board or two so as to lower the water a little more. Until it became known that Jones had secured a court order to do as he had done there was considerable consternation among members of the club and the public generally who enjoy the lake. Saturday afternoon the water had not receded sufficiently to prevent boating and swimming. Judge Seawell’s order was as follows:

“…It is hereby ordered that the Sheriff of this county be and is hereby directed and the said plaintiff is hereby permitted to cause the said order and injunction to be enforced and to cause said defendants to desist from interfering with the natural flow of said waters upon the plaintiff’s said lands and to remove and abate the waters now overflowing, flooding or standing upon the said premises of the plaintiff other than such waters would be thereon in the natural flow of said creek…

– Press Democrat, July 10, 1910

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What’s the origin of the name, “Kawana Springs?” It’s far easier to say where it didn’t come from than to pinpoint its source or meaning. For example, if you think “Kawana” is an Indian word, you may be right – except the Indians who coined it were 3,000 miles away.

Let’s start with the simple part: “Springs” is part of the name because it once was a mineral spring resort, with a hotel and bathhouse. A 49er named John S. Taylor had poor luck gold hunting but found his fortune here, homesteading 1,400 acres at the base of that mountain which came to have his name. John was quite the entrepreneur; he planted a large vineyard, raised livestock, and mined a small vein of coal that was discovered on his land. He saw the opportunity to cash in on the harness racing craze and built “Taylor’s Driving Park” at his place, where the 1861 Sonoma County fair was also held. He owned most of the downtown block between Fourth and Fifth streets directly across from Courthouse Square. John Taylor was a rich and interesting guy about whom more should be written.

Taylor also saw $$$ in the stinky creek on his property. Mineral spas and resorts were a big deal on the East Coast and in Europe; people believed the water relieved arthritis and aches if you bathed in the stuff, and even that it could cure kidney disease and other ailments if you drank lots of it. He built a small hotel for guests and when that one burned in 1870, Taylor built a grander, two-story place with hot and cold running boy-does-that-smell-awful.

It’s unclear what ambitions John Taylor held for his mineral water resort. He rarely advertised in the Northern California newspapers (at least, judging from the healthy sample of 19th century papers available online through the Library of Congress) and was leasing the operation out as early as the 1880s. Unlike owners of some other local hot spring retreats he didn’t bottle his “curative” waters for sale. Then there was the potential problem with name confusion: Taylor called his place “White Sulphur Springs,” and when he started there were already “White Sulphur Springs” in Solano (Vallejo) and Napa (St. Helena).

Why was everyone naming their place “White Sulphur Springs?” Because the original W.S.S. in West Virginia was recognized as the standard of excellence for resorts in the latter 19th century. It was the playground for the Washington D.C. elite; presidents took the waters there and Euro royalty, too. “White” apparently was intended to indicate the sulphurous water was clear and not sickly yellow, and it provided an opportunity for other West Virginia hot springs to exploit the name with sound-similars; there were nearby Blue Sulphur Springs, Green Sulphur Springs, Red Sulphur Spring and Salt Sulphur Springs. The water was apparently identical, or nearly so. (A 1870s analysis of Taylor’s water found it contained bicarbonate, iron, magnesia, and, of course, sulphur.)

By the turn of the century, whatever days of sun Taylor’s hotel enjoyed were certainly past. No ads can be found beyond 1899, although we know it remained open because it was still mentioned in the schedules for stage stops. When the 1906 earthquake hit, Taylor’s White Sulphur Springs hadn’t yet opened for the summer season. The hotel and bathhouse apparently escaped without serious damage, but not so the creek – the mineral water stopped flowing after the earth shifted. The place opened again for the 1906-1907 winter season, but that was it.

Come 1910 and the Press Democrat announced a pair of local men were going to reopen the resort, but not as White Sulphur Springs:

It was deemed advisable to change the name of the resort from White Sulphur Springs on account of the fact that there are already two resorts of that name in the state. Luther Burbank was appealed to in the matter of the selection of a name. He chose “Kawana,” and his choice was accepted. The management would have liked to have named the place “Burbank Springs,” but Mr. Burbank preferred not inasmuch as he had declined many offers for the use of his name for other places.

Thus it came to be dubbed “Kawana Sulphur Springs,” the ads shamelessly touting it was “Named by Luther Burbank.” More on Burbank and the Kawana angle in a minute.

The article and ads pointed to a new direction for the spa. It was promoted as the “Headquarters for automobilists and traveling men,” and a clubhouse building was added. The ads also promised “Its waters are unsurpassed,” but without the natural mineral spring working they had to be trucking the water in, or dousing the plain well water with chemicals. Two years later, ads announced “Kawana” (no Sulphur, no Springs mentioned) was under new management.

Kawana-anything disappears from the newspapers until 1927, when a Santa Rosa paper reported the “old Kawana Hotel, at White Sulphur Springs…has been untenanted for several years” as part of a news story about its very interesting recent tenants. It seems a professional bootlegging outfit had gutted the inside of the old hotel and constructed a three-story, 1,400 gallon still for making hootch. Police found the operation only after it was ready to move on, with a hapless steamfitter on the premises to dismantle the enormous rig. Officers were quoted as saying it was the largest bootlegging plant ever found in Northern California.

Old John Taylor was 99 years-old by that time, and the news about his old place must have been quite a shock. He died less than three weeks later and according to Gaye LeBaron’s columns, his daughter, Zana, had the hollowed-out building demolished rather than attempt to repair the heart-breaking damage. In 1931 the ranch became a game reserve stocked with quail, deer and pheasant under a deal with the Sonoma County Sportsmen’s Club. Zana fixed up the old bathhouse and lived there until her death in 1970. The year before, however, she discovered that the 1969 earthquake had jogged loose the creek’s plug, and up to 1,000 gallons/day of mineral water was again filling the creek. An AP wire service story about this appeared in newspapers nationwide. Alas, the water soon again stopped.

Back to Burbank and “Kawana:” Note that the article stated Burbank “chose” the Kawana name “selection,” which strongly implies someone else – the new tenants or John Taylor, probably – gave him a list of possibles after they couldn’t get rights to use “Burbank Springs.” But where did Kawana come from? First, Kawana is a family name in Japan, Hawaii, and elsewhere in the Pacific, and the Taylors had a Hawaiian connection because John Jr. was living there at the time. Maybe John Sr. heard the name and liked it.

Could Kawana be Native American? Some writers have claimed so, explaining it meant “healing waters” or similar. An anthropologist thought it possible it had Native roots, but “it sounded more like a fake Indian word that a PR person would invent.”

If it were an Indian word, it doesn’t come from the Southern Pomo dialect, where kawana means “turtle” (Barrett, 1908) and there are no turtles to be found in that section. And besides, Pomo locations weren’t even named like that; a place would be called something like kawanakawi (turtle-water-place). Further, the “healing waters” nonsense is put to rest by the Taylor Mountain Park master plan, which determined “no sacred sites are known to be located on the property.”

A final option will seem like a stretch, but hear me out. Recall John Taylor named his place White Sulphur Springs after the classy resort in West Virginia. The route taken to reach that famous place in the 19th century was the road known as the Kanawha Turnpike, which followed old Indian trails from Richmond to the Kanawha River Valley. (Believe it or not! Kanawha was considered in 1861 for the name of the new state that would be West Virginia.) Note that Kawana and Kanawha have only the second and third syllables flipped. How likely was it that Taylor would want another name very closely linked to the original resort? And would Taylor have even known about the White Sulphur Springs-Kanawha connection? Of the latter we can be certain: He was born in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, which is at its farthest fifty miles from the old Kanawha Turnpike. He must have traveled it at least once during his boyhood, and certainly knew well the Kanawha name.

So there you have it: “Kawana” was a clever variation – or perhaps, the slight misremembering of an 82 year-old man – of a name created by the Piscataway, Delaware, or Shawnee tribes of modern-day West Virginia. Or it’s Hawaiian. Or maybe it was mashed-up mumble of vowel sounds created by a marketing whiz who also dreamed up the phony “healing waters” legend. But this much is certain: You can search every inch around Kawana Springs and not find a single kawana.

Obl. Comstock House connection: Daughter Zana Taylor, who returned to the ranch and remodeled the old bathhouse, was a close friend of Anna May Bell, the young woman who was something of a godchild to Mattie and James Wyatt Oates. The Taylors threw more than one party in Bell’s honor at their home at 512 Mendocino Ave (currently the Trek Bicycle Store). Zana’s many doings at the Oates house can be found in our archives.

Detail of White Sulphur Springs postcard, c.1896. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

UPDATE: There isn’t much left of the old White Sulphur Springs/Kawana resort, so it’s no great loss at the present time (2013) there is no public access to it without special permission. No sign of the hotel remains at all except for a few low stone retaining walls which terraced the grounds, as seen in the1896 postcard above.

The original gazebo, shown at right, still has the cradle-sized fountain basin from which the mineral water bubbled to the surface. The decorative icicles and fish scale shingles are typical of the  Carpenter Gothic style popular in the 1880s. Note the railing is low enough to serve as a seat; those who believed drinking the warm mineral water was healthful would sip as much of it as they could bear over the course of a day.

The bathhouse shown below is believed to have been built in 1876 and is surprisingly small, about 1200 ft. in a “T” floor plan. In front is a raised concrete fountain that probably offered another chance to drink the foul-smelling water before it was piped inside. Not shown to the left of the bathhouse is a stone-lined catchment with a rough pile of cemented stones in the center. The size and shape suggest a hot tub although its original use is unknown. Near the bathhouse is a dilapidated structure that may have been an automobile barn built around the 1930s which will not be preserved.

The county’s plan for the area includes plans to convert the bathhouse into a small visitor center and possibly build a facsimile of the hotel as a bed and breakfast inn/hotel. Plans for the surrounding Taylor Mountain Park include an outdoor classroom/amphitheater, large picnic areas, camping grounds, a dog park, Frisbee golf park, and more.

Under Name of “Kawana Springs” the Old White Sulphur Springs Resort to Be Made Popular Place

Under Name of “Kawana Springs,” the well known summer resort known for years as “White Sulphur Springs,” owned by John S. Taylor, and which has been closed for a long time, is to be reopened and an endeavor made to regain the old time popularity the place once had and to add to its attractiveness.

The springs property, with the addition of twenty acres of fine timbered woodland, making the grounds forty acres, instead of twenty, has been taken over by “The Kawana Springs, Incorporated,” headed by M. N. Winans and Thornton P. Preston. Mr. Winans is a well known insurance manager, who has made his home in Santa Rosa for some time, and enjoys an extensive acquaintance throughout the state, and Mr. Preston needs no introduction, as the former proprietor of the Hotels Lebanon and Overton in Santa Rosa, with a legion of friends among the traveling public.

Messrs. Winans and Preston have been negotiating for the acquisition of the Springs property for several weeks and have finally arranged the details. The big hotel building will be refurnished throughout and the grounds will be made most attractive. Another building in close proximity to the hotel will be fitted up as a clubhouse, and the bathhouses will all be remodeled and improved. In fact the gentlemen mean to have everything as neat and comfortable as possible for the accommodation of the large number of patrons they expect to entertain their this summer [sic]. Already they have a good-sized list of applications for accommodations and they expect to be ready to open the Kawana Springs resort on May 2.

Nature has been lavish and the place affords so many possibilities for the spending of a delightful vacation outing there, as well as its offering in the way of medicinal springs whose waters have been found to contain excellent curing qualities for various ailments. The analysis made by Dr. Winslow Anderson shows the Springs to be very valuable in the treatment of kidney diseases.

In addition [illegible microfilm] will also cater to the people of Santa Rosa and their friends by providing an excellent cuisine and other attractions. The Springs are located about two miles from the Court House and are of easy access over a well kept road, just a nice spin in an automobile or drive by carriage.

It was deemed advisable to change the name of the resort from White Sulphur Springs on account of the fact that there are already two resorts of that name in the state. Luther Burbank was appealed to in the matter of the selection of a name. He chose “Kawana,” and his choice was accepted. The management would have liked to have named the place “Burbank Springs,” but Mr. Burbank preferred not inasmuch as he had declined many offers for the use of his name for other places. It is needless to say that everybody wishes Messrs. Winans and Preston the greatest possible success in their big undertaking, and they mean to leave nothing undone to achieve success and make their place deservedly popular. The resort will be open winter and summer.

– Press Democrat, April 13, 1910

A plant for the manufacture of illicit liquor, declared to be the largest ever uncovered in the north Bay region, was seized in a raid conducted by County Detective Pemberton and members of the sheriff’s office late Tuesday, when the old Kawana Hotel, at White Sulphur Springs on Taylor mountain, was raided.

A still with 1400-gallon capacity was discovered in the place, along with 50 gallons of “jack,” and boilers, mash tanks, cooling coils and other equipment. Two smaller stills were also taken in the same raid–one with a 250-gallon capacity and the other with a 150-gallon capacity.

George Darnell, 50, the only man at the place, was seized  as operator. Darnell claimed that he was a steamfitter from San Francisco, and had been hired to clean up the works and dismantle the place. The mash tanks bore out his testimony, as they were clean and the still was not in operation.

Threaten Tear Bomb

Darnell at first barricaded himself in the attic and was only forced to come down when the officers threatened to throw tear bombs into his hiding place. Although they had no bombs with them, the ruse worked.

The main still was three stories high, and the seven 200-mash tanks were so connected up that the fermented mash could be pumped directly into the still. The plant was estimated to be worth $10,000.

In the opinion of the officers, the place belonged to a group of wholesale San Francisco bootleggers, who made the pure alcohol in the plant and turned it into gin for the San Francisco trade.

Short Time Only

Officers also believed that the plant was set up for only a short time in each place, a quantity of alcohol made and the plant dismantled and moved to another place before officers found it.

Pemberton has had the place under surveillance for some time, spending several nights in the vicinity in order to make sure of the activities before he staged the raid.

Kawana Springs was a well-known resort in the old days, but has been untenanted for several years, except for two or three short openings by minor companies, who could not make the place pay.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 2, 1927

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Robert L. Ripley was the most famous man born in Santa Rosa, and the town really should apologize for that.

The first-ever biography of Mr. Believe It Or Not! is out (A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley by Neal Thompson, Crown Archetype 2013) and our hometown boy is revealed to be quite a piece of work. He was a roly-poly (yet athletic) bundle of wild contradictions; he repeatedly said he abhorred “freaks” yet made his fortune exploiting what he called “oddities,” such as the baby with a cyclops eye and the man who smoked cigarettes through a hole in his back. He was probably the most well-traveled man of his day to exotic lands, yet refused to utter a single word in a local language, presuming that everyone could understand English if he only spoke loud enough. For a man in his racket, he was curiously incurious; he didn’t seem to care what caused a weird medical peculiarity or why someone would inflict tortuous pain or mutilation upon themselves (“their folly is my fortune,” he said, “I’ll get rich off the ridiculous yet”). He was a real-life Charles Foster Kane mixed with eccentric Howard Hughes, employing a team to search out priceless objects for his mansion as he obsessively kept redecorating it, spending part of each day personally moving furniture, objets d’art, deformed skeletons and whatnot from room to room in the quest for the perfect spot.

With such rich material available, you’d think this bio would be impossible to put down. You would be wrong. Much of this book is a slog and sometimes hagiography. (“Ripley was becoming the country’s know-it-all professor of history, geography, science and anthropology. His offbeat lessons gave people hope.”)

(RIGHT: Image courtesy, A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley)

Leroy Robert Ripley was born in 1890 on Glenn street, the family moving three years later into a house on Orchard street (no longer existing) built by his father. The characteristic that defined him was his appearance – his upper teeth flipped outward in a disturbing manner; biographer Thompson references him looking like “Dracula,” but it was more like a kid wearing a pair of absurdly comic wax teeth. His buck teeth were so bad that you can enter variations of “worst example overbite” into a Google images search and not see anything nearly so extreme, even in Photoshopped pictures that are supposed to be horrible. As a result of his disability he was unable to form certain sounds. Being insecure because of that and stuttering made his childhood even more miserable. He escaped his problems by drawing.

In high school he gained a measure of popularity through his caricatures and skill at baseball, even playing for the local semi-pro team and dreaming of a career with the New York Giants. His education lagged because he was a poor writer and turned into a stammering train wreck when required to speak before the class. His salvation was English teacher “Fanny” O’Meara, who allowed him to turn in drawings for homework instead of written reports, even posting his sketches in the classroom and using them as teaching aids. Still, he dropped out of school in the middle of his senior year. Later he floated the excuse that he had to go to work to support his family, but it appears he mainly played ball. (Much more below about this book’s problems concerning his Santa Rosa years.)

Five days after the rest of his class of 1908 graduated, his first cartoon was published, LIFE magazine paying him eight dollars, which was nearly a week’s pay for most Santa Rosans. Also that summer, in a true believe-it-or-not coincidence, the Ripley family rented a room to a journalist writing a feature on Luther Burbank. Impressed with the drawings of her landlady’s son, she took his portfolio back to San Francisco and by early 1909 he was hired by the San Francisco Bulletin as a cartoonist for the sporting page. He was fired after four months but quickly found a new position at the Chronicle (see item below) while taking art classes for the first time in his life.

Ripley’s talent blossomed at the Chronicle, and a year later he was given the coveted assignment to cover the Jim Jeffries-Jack Johnson “fight of the century,” where he rubbed elbows with Jack London and top newspaper writers and cartoonists from New York. Emboldened to ask for a raise, he was fired instead.

(RIGHT: Ripley illustration from “Joe Taylor, Barnstormer”)

Hoping to parlay his connections into a position with one of the big New York papers, “Rip” prepared to leave the West Coast for the first time. His last work here was a freelance assignment illustrating an autobiography, “Joe Taylor, Barnstormer.” Ripley’s biographer passes over that event quickly dismissing it as a job to earn a much-needed $100 for the cross-country trip, which makes it doubtful he ever saw the book. As an artist, the Robert L. Ripley we knew from the Believe It Or Not! columns was a very skilled draughtsman, but nothing more; as illustrator of that book, Ripley demonstrated his originality and depth of talent for caricature. The drawings remind of the brilliant Edward W. Kemble illustrations for the first edition of Huckleberry Finn (which received mixed critical reviews for the story, but universal praise for the art). A better biographer – one less determined to shoehorn Ripley’s life into a simple rags-to-riches story – would have recognized this work as Ripley’s moment at the crossroads. He was 21 years old, unmarried with no obligations and about to depart for the publishing capitol of the world. Had he considered a career in book and magazine illustration, we might well be speaking today of Ripley as a memorable artist of the early 20th century. Or, he could have arrived in New York City and sought another gig drawing fearsome boxers and baseball sluggers. Guess which path he chose.

At the prestigious New York Globe, Ripley’s star was ascendant. His cartoons were featured several times a month and his paychecks grew fatter as the paper began promoting his name. His was the life of a minor celebrity; evenings spent salooning with pals, dinner dates at nightclubs. He lived at the New York Athletic Club in a closet-sized room large enough for him to change his clothes and sleep, at least when he had no better offers for the night.

He married a chorus girl in 1919 but the relationship quickly fell apart. Ripley refused to move out of his lodgings at the Club, the couple spending increasingly fewer evenings together at nice midtown hotels. Ripley was always off on assignment somewhere, chasing baseball teams or boxers in training camps. He went to Europe without her to cover the 1920 Olympics. He was also producing the very first cartoons with the Believe It or Not! title, most of them about sports history, with a particular interest into the quirky and odd events. By their first wedding anniversary they had been apart more often than not. She filed for divorce about a year later citing cruelty, excessive drinking, and “fondness for other young women.” Ripley did not contest the charges – she had caught him in a hotel room with a woman.

From the 1920s onward, Ripley’s name and fame became legend. The Globe made him a globetrotter with the popular syndicated series, “Ripley’s Ramble ‘Round the World.” William Randolph Hearst made him one of the highest paid journalists in the world when he lured Ripley to his newspapers for $100,000 a year. Book collections of his Believe It Or Not! columns made him richer still. Newsreel and radio appearances further established the Ripley brand. He became a millionaire many times over. He bought an island north of New York City with a 28-room mansion.

The wildly successful years from 1929 to his death in 1949 are densely covered in the book, thanks in part to that era of his life being so thoroughly documented as one of the most well-known men in the world. What emerges from those years is a private portrait of a man that is less one of Horatio Alger’s plucky heroes and closer to a villain in a Dickens novel, such as Mr. Quilp of The Old Curiosity Shop – a creepy, manipulative jerk that seemed to fundamentally dislike people, probably himself most of all.

Hearst-like, he was unable to control his passion for collecting. “Friends assumed there was something chemical at work,” biographer Thompson writes. “Ripley was neurotic and compulsive, perpetually sophomoric and impetuous, that he simply couldn’t help himself or control his urges. Empty floor or wall space? It seemed to make him uncomfortable and needed to be filled with a stature or a weapon or a chair or a painting.”

(RIGHT: Ripley and Frances O’Meara during his 1936 visit to Santa Rosa. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library)

More disturbing was that he also collected women. In the island mansion were always found a few models, starlets, and other pretty young things who were titularly his “secretary” or “research assistant,” signing a waiver acknowledging they were staying there voluntarily. “One writer speculated that Ripley stocked his life with women so he wouldn’t have to choose just one,” writes his biographer. A member of his inner circle commented the mansion “looked just like a harem,” and later said Ripley “lived in open concubinage.”

Ripley himself told interviewers, “women are wonderful, simply wonderful–in their place” and “the only time women are happy is when they are completely under the domination of men.” Yet at the same time Ripley had women buddies, apparently fell deeply in love at least three times, and was utterly devoted to his high school teacher, Frances O’Meara, whom he called “mother.”

Which brings us back to the deeper problems with “A Curious Man” – its portrayal of Ripley’s years in Santa Rosa.

“A few years past its cowboy-and-Indian days, Santa Rosa and nearby Sonoma and Napa could be dangerous and deadly,” the book exclaims, quoting an incident reported in the Sonoma Democrat about drunk Indians on a “wild debauch.” Huh? When was Santa Rosa ever mistaken for a Wild West cowtown like Dodge City? What does the Indian story – which the author concedes dated back to “when Ripley was a toddler” – have anything to do with him? The misportrayal continues:

Also full of debauch were the newspapers. LeRoy learned to read in a lively two-paper town whose editors practiced what would soon be called yellow journalism. The Democrat and its rival, the Santa Rosa Republican, cackled with stories of murderous deeds and accidental deaths, divorces, suicides, and all variety of lunacy, a daily ‘news of the weird.’ People plunged off railroad trestles, lost limbs beneath train wheels, became mangled by farm machines. They shot each other over card games, stole horses, robbed banks. The Democrat was especially poetic in its depictions of death, offering vivid descriptions of ‘putrescent’ bodies ‘lying in pools of blood.’

Boy, I’d like to go back and read them excitin’ papers! Wait a sec – I have read every single page of those newspapers on microfilm starting from 1904, when Leroy was fourteen, and I can assure you that the debauch was far and few. Yes, odd and horrible things sometimes happened, but it’s a gross fabrication to call the Santa Rosa papers “a daily ‘news of the weird,'” or even “yellow journalism,” for that matter. The author is confusing the Press Democrat and Republican with the more lurid big city papers such as the San Francisco Examiner and Oakland Tribune (although it’s quite possible Leroy did see those sensationalist newspapers, which were always for sale at the newsstand in town).

Ripley had a lifelong fascination with all things Chinese, which author Thompson traces back to his childhood explorations of Santa Rosa’s Chinatown, “where he’d peek into the laundries, restaurants, and shops.” Well, when Ripley was growing up, the maps show the town’s Chinese district on Second street was a half block long, with two laundries, a single restaurant and a building used as a temple. Unless he was barging into their residences (and presumably speaking loudly so they would understand his English), there wasn’t much at which to peek, but if Ripley claimed otherwise, it would be interesting to know what he really experienced.

But next to the Chinatown that Ripley supposedly prowled was another neighborhood that the book doesn’t mention at all: The red light district. When Ripley was growing up, there were eleven bordellos in Santa Rosa and when he was seventeen, the town legalized Nevada-style prostitution. If you’re writing about a guy whose personality is greatly defined by seriously conflicted views about women, it seems important to ponder what influence the proximity of dozens of local prostitutes might have had on the teenage boy.

But my teeth-grinding gripe with this author is that there are no notes, so Gentle Reader has no idea where he’s pulling some of this stuff from. Yes, there are endnotes, but they are generalized by chapter and not connected to specific assertions on specific pages. The promise that “more information on sources” is available at the author’s web site yields only reviews (the favorable ones) of his book and a short Ripley bio with pictures.

The endnotes do show, however, that too much of the book is drawn from newspapers and magazines, and much of the details specific to his early years comes from secondary sources published decades later. This is particularly maddening because the author had unrestricted access to Ripley’s extensive archive with his journals and diaries, as well the papers of his long-time agent and others confidantes.

As a result of these failings, the book tells us much about where Ripley went and what he did, with precious little insight into why he was how he was. It would have been better if author Neal Thompson had stuck to writing about NASCAR and high school football and spared us this poorly researched, sketchy biography.


Ripley With the Chronicle

Leroy Ripley of this city, who has been doing some creditable work as cartoonist for the Bulletin, has severed his connection with that paper to secure a much better one with the Chronicle. He has been here this week visiting his mother and enjoying his home.

– Press Democrat, June 25, 1909

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