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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