Ever been to Santa Rosa? You know; it’s that charming village in the middle of a forest. Too bad about their second-rate courthouse, however.

Those are among the surprising observations made by a writer traveling by stagecoach from Petaluma to Healdsburg in June, 1865. Although not very long (the whole essay can be read in less than five minutes) the article is richer in detail than other descriptions I’ve read from that era.

It appeared in the Daily Alta California, the leading newspaper of the time, and the author was named only as “S. D. W.” The Alta regularly offered items from such “an Occasional Correspondent” without any further personal details; it is possible the author was a woman, although an earlier article using the same initials was written from a Nevada mining camp.

Travelogs and “rural letters” like this often pop up in the old papers but are almost always painful to read, like an eighth-grader’s required book report (“…the valley is some fifty miles long and about five miles wide at the southerly extremity, thence it narrows down gradually as you proceed northerly… – Daily Alta, July 14, 1876). While the prose gets a bit flowery at times, S. D. W. delivers the true story of what (s)he saw, warts and all.

The roads were terrible, causing “the bounding of the stage from rut to rut, keeping us passengers clinging to the sides for dear life.” And although the scenery was spectacular, the people living in the country had shabby farmhouses and only wanted to “cram their pockets at the expense of comfort and every social amenity and pleasure.” By contrast, the farmers in Napa were “less avaricious and more full of the generous love of the beautiful.” The author was told our places were dumps because the farmers were squatters and any improvements would be for naught if they lost their land claims in court. As it was then 1865, some of the properties had been in limbo for over a decade.

Santa Rosa, “nesting in the bosom of a forest of grand old oaks,” gets a mostly rave review as a place with “many a garden of blooming roses, full of troops of rosy-cheeked laughing children.” But the courthouse was something of a disgrace although he doesn’t explain why – only joking (?) that maybe Santa Rosa doesn’t want to fix it up because they could be in litigation like the squatters.

Given that the author only spent a day here, some of his remarks are astute and even prophetic. Years before Luther Burbank dubbed our county the “chosen spot of all this earth” this essay described the valley as “the garden spots of the Pacific” and “a perfect Eden,”  remarking once the people of the state “will be sobered down” from get-rich-quick silver and oil schemes, they will “study the nature of the soil, the adaptation of plants to it, and every waste acre of land will bloom with a rich and lucrative vegetation.”

Even more accurate, he specifically predicted a bright future here for grapes. Calling Windsor/Dry Creek region by its old nickname “Poor Man’s Flat” he noted, “soil in this section is not very fertile, but is said to be admirably adapted to the culture of the vine.” He was probably unaware Cyrus Alexander had already established a pioneer vineyard not far away in the valley to the east.

Otherwise, the writer was impressed with the Russian River’s “bed of beautifully colored pebble stones” and the “quiet and peaceful village” of Healdsburg. As for Petaluma, the less said; S. D. W. mainly complained about the slowness of the brand-new Petaluma & Haystack Railroad, which carried passengers the two-and-half miles from the steamship wharf to downtown. “Their speed resembles more the limpings of an old lame horse,” he griped, and if that’s good enough for the people of Petaluma, “they must have a dull and stagnant public mind.” He was less grumpy after a good meal at the American Hotel, thank goodness.

Photo taken on February 20, 1875 showing the Sonoma county courthouse, jail, Hall of records and corner of the Plaza.  Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library


(from an Occasional Correspondent of the ALTA.)

In Petaluma Valley.

HEALDSBURG, June 29, 1865.

Editors Alta:— In my last we parted just as the little steamer was coming in sight of Petaluma. From that point we here resume our journey. Reaching the wharf we changed to the little cars that were waiting our arrival, and soon were under way to the city. These cars, running between the Embarcadero and Petaluma, are not representative ones by any means. Their speed resembles more the limpings of an old lame horse than the lightning speed of the locomotive. They are an insult to the energy and enterprise of any live people; and if the spirit of the Petaluma people only keep pace to such slow coach affairs as these, they must have a dull and stagnant public mind. At last, however, we reached the depot, and were soon made welcome to the hospitalities of the place by the polite and gentlemanly proprietor of the American Hotel. If there is a man in California who will win the regard of the traveller by his kind and assiduous attention, and by heaping before him every comfort and luxury, that man is Mr. P. Emerson. After a dinner rich in viands, culled from the fatness of the land, and bearing no evidences of the Fast Day, we mounted tbe driver’s box on the Healdsburg stage, and at the crack of the whip away we went, leaving dust and city far behind. After driving three or four miles from Petaluma there opens to view one of the most magnificent valley scenes in the State. The long level plain of

The Petaluma Valley

Extends as far as the eye can reach, lying with its feet to the sea, and pillowing its head among the mountains; it lies in beauty like a reclining queen, the solemn mountains around the decorations of her couch, beautified by the hue and shade of their forests and over all these bends the arching beauty of a smiling sky. It is a lovely picture of natural scenery; a fit cradle for the inspiration of the poet or the painter. From the bases of the mountain ranges that bound it on every side, the valley extends like the waters of some great inland sea. These mountains, irregular and wild in their contour, are clothed with forests of all kinds peculiar to the soil and climate of California. At their bases sheltered in their mighty shadows, the oak and madrona flourish in their freshness and beauty, while the higher elevations are clothed with the shades of tanged wildwood, composed mostly of the chimesal and chaparral shrubs peculiar to the mountains of the Pacific slope. The loftier peaks are crowned with forests of gigantic pines, or, in places bald and bare, lift themselves to the clouds, open to the sun and stars. Although the sides of this great Valley are covered with dense forests the central portions are totally destitute of them — hardly a lone tree rises out of its bosom to rest the eye or please the desire.

Lack of Taste.

Wonderful as is the beauty and fertility of this Valley, and susceptible of the finest artificial polish, yet in travelling between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, a distance of sixteen miles, and this too along the principal highway of the country, there it hardly to be seen a farm house worthy such a country and such an age of improvements. Their style of architecture shows no study of the Grecian or Egyptian art, but seems to have descended to them by tradition from the aborigines of the contry. The great fault in the farmers of Sonoma County seems to be their total destitution of any love for the beautiful, even when moulded into symmetry and harmony with the useful and practical. Their prime desire is, or at least seems to be, to wring from the soil every drop of productive gain, to cram their pockets at the expense of comfort and every social amenity and pleasure. The general appearance of the Valley compares poorly with that of her sister, Napa. There the farmers have some love for the ornamental and ornate, are less avaricious and more full of the generous love of the beautiful, while they nourish a healthy desire for the necessary and practical. The reason, however, given by the farmers of Sonoma, when questioned on this point, is that their lands are in litigation, and with a defective title they are fearful lest in improving they build only for their antagonists. If this it a true reason, it bears upon it a plausibility which cannot be gainsaid: but it is a huge block in the path of improvement for the county. While these apologies may satisfy the practical man, they do not affect the ideas of the tourist, who travels through unacquainted with the reason why a county is not attractive and beautiful.

The Roads in this County,

At present, are not very pleasant ones, at least in some parts of the county. This arises from the nature of the soil, it being the black adobe. In the winter it becomes very soft, and by the passing vehicles is cut up into ruts and deep grooves; in the summer, by the hot sun, it becomes hardened almost into adamant, leaving all the irregularities and roughness to be smoothed down by travel, and the bounding of the stage from rut to rut, keeping us passengers clinging to the sides for dear life, gave us no very pleasant idea of the smoothing process. Time and enterprise will remedy these peculiarities, and Petaluma Valley will become one of the garden spots of the Pacific, a second Mohawk or Wyoming; but needing ever the rolling tide of a splendid and majestic river to beauty and fertilize. After driving sixteen long miles, we reached

Santa Rosa,

A pleasant village, nesting in the bosom of a forest of grand old oaks: its white cottages are fine, in contrast to this wilderness of green. As we drove through we caught sight of many a garden of blooming roses, full of troops of rosy-cheeked laughing children. As you well know, this is the county seat, but a stranger would hardly conceive the fact if his knowledge was born out of a vision of their Court House. For one of the largest and wealthiest counties in the State, it is a poor public building. Taking advantage of their stereotyped apology, it may be in litigation and “they don’t feel like improving.”

On the Road Again.

After leaving Santa Rosa the route lies through one of the loveliest tracts in the county. The position of the country, the fertility of the soil, and the extent of forest, all conspire to make it a perfect Eden. We drove through it late in the afternoon, and the whole scene was worthy the pencil of a master, it was so expressibly beautiful. From his western goal the declining sun poured a rich flood of light, lighting up the forest, and the waving fields of yellow grain, till the whole glowed in the sunshine as if it had been bathed in gold. About six miles from Santa Rosa on the bank of Mark West Creek, we had pointed out to us the old mansion of the late Mark West, an early settler in this part of the country. The farm and mansion has an antiquated look, it being one of the oldest buildings in the State. The widow and family of the deceased gentleman still occupy the homestead. On the opposite side of this creek, lying in the direction of Healdsburg, there is a large extent of country, bearing the very expressive name of

“Poor Man’s Flat”

I am not able to give the history of the title, but will say it is a most expressive one, and apropos to the general appearance of the country. The soil in this section is not very fertile, but is said to be admirably adapted to the culture of the vine. In time, if this is the fact, it will be occupied by extensive and productive vineyards. For the times are coming to this State when the irregular and erratic energy and genius of her people will be sobered down, and agriculture and manufactures occupy their minds instead of silver and petroleum. Then will they study the nature of the soil, the adaptation of plants to it, and every waste acre of land will bloom with a rich and lucrative vegetation. Beyond this region, the valley gradually grows more narrow, the soil more fertile and productive, and the scenery more beautiful and interesting. The mountains are brought into nearer view, and in the distance the bright line of timber, extending in circuitous windings, marks the course of the famed

Russian River.

This name was given to this stream in commemoration of the fact that a number of years ago a party of Russians encamped for some time upon its banks. It is a clear, sparkling stream, very shallow, and flowing over a bed of beautifully colored pebble stones. The level river bottoms which lie along its banks, varying in width from a few hundred yards to half a mile or more, comprise some of the richest land on the coast. Corn here in some places grows ten or twelve feet high, and smaller grains even too luxuriantly for the convenience of the farmer. On the western bank is situated the beautiful and lovely village of


And, with due consideratlon for the feelings of others, I shall say this is the most enchanting town and region on the Pacific slope. We drove into town just as the sun was sinking behind the western hills, and before us was a picture too beautiful for any description: to feel it is to see it. The setting sun, flinging his farewell to valley and stream, the deepening shadows of the mountains, the glowing forest, and the quiet and peaceful village, were parts of a splendid and bewildering picture, graceful in combination and beauty. The evening shadows closed the further vision of scenery, and we waited in patience till the morning again invited us by his light to the feast of eye and soul.

After a night’s sleep, made deep and refreshing by our tired limbs and the quiet of the country, we rose in the morning eager as ever for the visions of beauty. Thirsty as may be the mind for them, here will they find living fountains thereof, at whose lips they might stoop forever. The first prominent object of interest close at hand is a noble mountain peak, rising from the bosom of the valley just in front of the town, standing like a watchlul guardian over the beauty that lies at its base. This has been christened Fitch Mount, in honor of the late Mr. H. D. Fitch, the first American settler in these parts, well known as locator of the celebrated Fitch Grant. The old homestead of the family lies directly at the base of this peak: it contains a body of some six or eight hundred acres of rich bottom land — a princely looking farm. I shall write my next from the mountains.
S. D. W.

– Daily Alta California, July 8 1865


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