A segregated school for African Americans in New York City. Engraving, 1870.

JOHN RICHARDS (Hidden Lives I)

With all the interest in correcting the historical record by pulling down monuments to racists and traitors, let’s talk about honoring someone, too: He was Sonoma County’s first civil rights activist and a lonely patriot in Santa Rosa’s swamp of Confederate sympathizers. His name was John Richards and he had a radical notion: African-American children were entitled to receive a basic education.

Nothing apparently was more important to Richards than the “colored school” but under 1860 California law, “Negroes, Mongolians and Indians shall not be allowed into public schools” so parents like John and Philena Richards had to pay for a private school or send their children away to board with someone where a school was available. Petaluma was among six communities in Northern California that bucked the law and created a public school for black children in 1864, and nothing stopped Santa Rosa from doing likewise, if it had the will.1

Since Richards was a man of means, he hired teachers to educate the town’s black children, including his two adopted kids, Ella and Frank – even though he was also paying $70 a year in county taxes to underwrite public schools for whites.2

(This is the first profile in the series, THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA.” It will be helpful to read the introduction for background.)

By trade Richards was a barber, which was one of the better occupations open to African-Americans in 19th century white America. Santa Rosa’s weekly newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, typically flung racist epithets at blacks as a race, white abolitionists and Lincoln Republicans, but Richards was never demeaned in editor Thomas Thompson’s Democrat, likely because his business was a regular advertiser and he was a wealthy man. But just because the Democrat didn’t target Richards does not mean Thompson treated him with respect. In an 1869 screed against the Democratic Party not sufficiently defending a “White Man’s Government,” a contributor sneered he “would rather marry John Richard’s wife, if a widow, than the widow of a democrat.” Thompson added helpfully, “[This is a negro family in Santa Rosa.]”

Instead of openly insulting Richards himself, Thompson ghosted him by ignoring his remarkable deeds. The only time Richards’ school was mentioned in the newspaper was a grudging nod via reprinting a tribute from one of San Francisco’s African-American weekly newspapers. It was written by Judge William Churchman, a local abolitionist – which Thompson exploited by adding a preface claiming it showed the town wasn’t as hateful as everyone said: “It may seem a little remarkable to some intensely loyal people, but the fact is nevertheless true, that Santa Rosa which has long enjoyed the reputation with loyalty of being a perfect hot bed of traitors and negro-haters should afford one of the best schools for the education of negro children to be found in the State.” The Democrat did not even acknowledge, however, that Richards was sponsoring the school.

And, of course, Thompson didn’t reprint another part of the same article that revealed some white Santa Rosans were apparently attending the graduation ceremony looking to pick fault with the children’s learning, yet came up short themselves:

There was quite a number of white friends present, as also a number of ladies and gentlemen of the Copperhead order. One lady that I know is a personal negro-hater, as the writing-book and drawing of the scholars was passing around for inspection, she handed it to a gentleman that sat beside me, and pointing to a map of North America, drawn by the scholars, asked him what kind of a flower that was. I never did believe that our race was more ignorant than any other, nor were beyond redemption; and I now verily believe that there are those whose comprehensive facilities are inferior to ours, and they need education as much as we do. No, we are not alone in ignorance, and never will be.

You may have heard of John Richards before; he was rediscovered in the late 20th century, although most of the nice things written about him weren’t very accurate and continued to skip over his school and other deeds which were truly noteworthy. The most familiar part of the story told today about John Richards is that he was a barber who took in former slaves.

richardsadsRIGHT: John Richards ads from 1857, 1861 and 1873 (top to bottom)

As shown in the fifteen-year series of Democrat ads, his business was mainly a bath house – a far more important service at the time than cutting hair – and also note that the ads quickly turn to mention that the barbering was done by “experienced workmen.” In his later years he also opened branches at Ukiah and Lakeport; the Ukiah operation appears to be only a bath house (although there are too few newspaper resources available from that period to be sure). So calling him simply a barber is like saying an entrepreneur who owns a chain of restaurants is just a cook.

As for hosting ex-slaves, the 1860 census shows two people living in his house from slave states and in 1870 there was one. Eda Sanders, a 19 year-old male from Kentucky was one of the 1860 residents along with a California-born 3 year-old girl and a baby boy, all named Sanders. It was these children who the Richards’ would adopt.

In 1873 Richards also owned 134 acres next to the modern fairgrounds which would later become the South Park subdivision. It’s been claimed in recent years he turned that into some sort of refuge for destitute ex-slaves, but I find no record – and surely the Democrat would have howled in outrage if it were so. An article transcribed below has him describing the crops he grew there and it was legally recorded as farmland at the time of his death. He additionally had a chunk of undeveloped land in Petaluma at East Washington and Baylis streets.

His main property in Santa Rosa was his home and business, which occupied half the corner block facing Main Street between First and Second (where the Bank of Marin building is now). This was prime real estate during the 1860s as it was next door to Santa Rosa House, the saloon/hotel which was the town’s stagecoach stop. Yet all was not smooth for Richards in Santa Rosa; for reasons unknown, in 1862 he spent months trying to sell the business and lease the building through ads in a San Francisco newspaper. He also apparently lived in Lakeport during the mid-1870s, although he remained listed as proprietor of the business here.

1862 drawing by Grafton Tyler Brown showing the east side of Main Street between First and Second, with John Richards' home and bath house on the left. The drawing, presumably commissioned by Colgan as part of a series on notable Santa Rosa businesses, exaggerates the size and position of the hotel, as maps show Richards' corner property occupied three parcels while Colgan had two
1862 drawing by Grafton Tyler Brown showing the east side of Main Street between First and Second, with John Richards’ home and bath house on the left. The drawing, presumably commissioned by Colgan as part of a series on notable Santa Rosa businesses, exaggerates the size and position of the hotel, as maps show Richards’ corner property occupied three parcels while Colgan had two

Richards was born a slave in 1824 Kentucky. According to a sympathetic obituary in another Santa Rosa newspaper, he escaped and went to Massachusetts, where he met his wife Philena. In the early 1850s he bought land in Springfield, Mass. which he still owned at the time he died. He and Philena also lived in Ontario and Michigan (where he had something to do with steamboats on the Great Lakes) before coming to Santa Rosa in 1856.

Richards made a considerable amount of money by heavily investing in U.S. government bonds during the Civil War – a move which had to be motivated by patriotism as much as financial gain, as the government had trouble selling them.3 From the Santa Rosa Times:

…During the war of the rebellion his faith in the triumph of the Union was so strong that he invested nearly everything he owned in the bonds of the United States, at rates of from 35 to 50 cents on the dollar, and held them undismayed through the dark days of the struggle. His fidelity was rewarded in the end by the large gains on his investment…

During the war there was another passive-aggressive swipe at Richards in the Democrat paper, this time concerning the 1864 charity appeal for slaves freed by the Union army sweeping through Virginia and Georgia. Donations were needed to help feed and shelter the “contrabands” and $19 was raised in Santa Rosa (Richards contributed $5, which is about the equivalent to $150 today). The Democrat mocked that abolitionists should be more generous because they “brought those sad calamities upon the unfortunate negroes.” Yet without a fleck of irony, in the same issue and even on the same page, Thompson reprinted a lengthy plea to “collect funds for the relief of the sick and suffering rebel prisoners.”

Between 1865 and 1873, civil rights activism took up much of John Richards’ time, as he traveled around the Bay Area and to Sacramento – but you didn’t hear a peep about those doings in the Democrat or find mention in any of the modern profiles of his life.

He was the Sonoma county representative at many conventions or meetings to advance the cause of equality; he was elected vice president of the Phoenixonian Institute in San Jose, which was the only secondary school in the state for African-Americans (open to male and female students). He was involved with (but apparently did not attend) the 1865 state convention of the “Colored Citizens of California” and an 1872 appeal to the state supreme court for public funding of schools for all races.

Probably his greatest achievement was his role at a 1873 convention at Sacramento for the purpose of electing delegates to the historic National Equal Rights Convention to be held at Washington that December. He was the co-representative from the county along with Jacob Overton (see the intro article) and elected to the finance and education committees. Richards was among those nominated to be a national delegate.

Richards monument in Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery
Richards monument in Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

John Richards died in 1879. “A number of colored friends of the deceased came up from San Francisco to serve as pall bearers,” the Democrat reported, demonstrating again his prominence in the larger African-American community of the Bay Area. Philena died the following year.

The monument by their graves was so distinctive it became a topic of its own in the Democrat – garnering more column inches than the paper ever spent on Richards. The stonework company even signed its name at the base of the steps, something I’ve not seen elsewhere at the cemetery. From the description transcribed below it has been considerably vandalized; there were urns with doves perched on the rim, all in white Italian marble, with a statue of a “faithful dog” at its base. It surely must have been something to see.

Time is long overdue for Santa Rosa to give John Richards a measure of the respect he deserves for being our own civil rights trailblazer during some of America’s darkest years. It’s probably too much to ask for a street to be renamed, for the city to commission some work of public art or even order an interpretive plaque, but it certainly would be nice if Parks & Rec could find a few dollars to clean his monument at the cemetery. Properly done, it will call out to us like a beacon of hope and courage. (UPDATE: Volunteers have cleaned the monument.)




1 The 1870 state school law loosened requirements slightly: “every school…shall be open for the admission of all white children, between five and 21 years of age…” but for blacks and Indians a separate school if at least 10 students.” In 1876 the Democrat reported, “There is one colored scholar attending the public school here. He is taught separately, during hours of recess, and does not occupy a seat in the building during school hours. His teacher receives additional pay for instructing him. He is reported to be a very smart boy.”

2 Tax payment per John Grider’s Century: African Americans in Solano, Napa, and Sonoma Counties from 1845 to 1925 by Sharon McGriff-Payne, 2009

3 Richards most likely held “seven-thirty” bonds, which paid 7.30% interest compounded annually. (More about the different types of Union Civil War bonds and the difficulties of financing the war.)




On Tuesday morning last, about 10 o’clock, our citizens were suddenly called into the streets by the fearful cry of “fire.” We dropped our “stick,” seized a bucket and hurried to the place of alarm, where we found, as might naturally be supposed, the wildest excitement; for although our citizens will not heed the old adage, “In time of peace prepare for war,” when the enemy is upon us they try to meet him to the best of their ability. The fire, on Tuesday, proceeded from a frame building on the corner of Main and Second streets, owned by a colored man, named John Richards, part of which is occupied as a barber shop. The room adjoining the shop is a bed-room, and a little girl, three years old, the child of one of the occupants of the house, was alone in the room at the time the fire broke out. A box of matches had been left on a table, close to the bed where the child was, and it is supposed that the little one in attempting to light a match, set fire to some articles of clothing, which were on the table, and it was soon communicated to the canvas ceiling. The child ran out of the room, screaming, which alarmed the inmates of the house — and on entering the room to see what was the matter, Richards found almost the entire ceiling in flames. He immediately commenced tearing down the canvas, and that, together with the force-pump and hose, of Mr. Colgan, of the Santa Rosa House, soon extinguished the flames. We could call the attention of those who have ridiculed the idea of having a Fire Engine in this place to the service rendered by the hose of Mr. Colgan, on Tuesday. No particular damage was done to the house, but Richards had his hands badly burned in tearing the canvas from the ceiling.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 20 1860


Mr. John Richards, of Santa Rosa, is in town. Parties wishing to bargain with him for the lease of his Barber-Shop and Bathing Rooms, can see him at our office.

– Pacific Appeal, May 3 1862


FREEDMEN’S RELIEF. Last week one of the Burlingame tribe, who at one time resided in this county, and was an abolition candidate for representative — but didn’t get elected, visited Healdsburg and Santa Rosa, soliciting contributions for the relief of starving contrabands. At the former place he delivered a lecture, but his old friends couldn’t see the point, and the pitiful sum of four or five dollars was all that the miscegenationists of Healdsburg contributed. He came to Santa Rosa next, and although he had been announced to address the public in behalf of his cause, from some reason best known to himself he did not do so, but suddenly took his departure, thereby disappointing a large number of our citizens who would really have been pleased to hear what he had to say. As we are informed by a highly respectable Pub, but not a miscegen, only four gentlemen contributed anything here, as follows: W. A. Eliason, $10; John Richards, $5; Jeff Cocke, $3; and Green, his son, $1; the latter three of African descent. We think Capt. Eliason’s position in the matter is the correct one. It is but just that those who brought those sad calamities upon the unfortunate negroes, should alleviate their terrible sufferings. The Captain is at least consistent. Burlingame and Dr. Haynes lectured at Petaluma on Monday evening and realized from that loyal city only $123.50. Petaluma probably contains fifteen or eighteen hundred persons who have prayed and payed and begged for the abolition of slavery, and yet they only contribute $123 to save half million of their wards from starvation. How unpatriotic! [Ed. note: The same issue contains a lengthy appeal on efforts to “collect funds for the relief of the sick and suffering rebel prisoners”]

– Sonoma Democrat, June 11 1864


School Examination in Santa Rosa.

We have received the following communications, describing the examination of the colored school in Santa Rosa. This school is now in charge of Miss A. E. Vincent, whom all acknowledge is a very capable and efficient teacher. We publish the communications with pleasure, and only wish there were more of the same sort.

Santa Rosa, Feb. 11, 1866.
Mr. Editor:—Permit me through your columns to express the gratification I experienced at an examination of the colored school in Santa Rosa, on Tuesday, February 6th, taught by Miss A. E. Vincent. This is the second examination of the colored school in this place I have attended within the past year, the first being taught by Mr. Amos Johnson, and if pleased with the first (which I was), I was no less delighted with the second; and whilst Mr. Johnson laid the foundation, the superstructure has rapidly advanced under the able and evidently indefatigable zeal of Miss Vincent, to whom too much praise cannot be awarded for her untiring devotion in raising the young minds under her charge to the proper standard, and implanting and cultivating those germs of future usefulness and honor, of which the colored portion of our wide spread population have heretofore been unjustly deprived.

The scholars in Miss Vincent’s school have rapidly advanced, and show a precocity of intellect and an analetic [sic] understanding that is truly praiseworthy, and deserves the highest commendation, as to both teacher and pupils. The examination in orthography was good; in reading, arithmetic, and grammar, better; and in geography and history, best of all; while in penmanship, drawing, composition and declamation, and singing, it was excellent. Miss Vincent certainly has the faculty of imparting knowledge and governing a school to such an extent as to recommend her as a teacher to the colored population of our State, and elsewhere.
W. Churchman

Santa Rosa, Feb. 12.
Mr. Editor :—The protracted quietude of this little town was agreeably interrupted on Tuesday last, February 6th, by an examination of a school under the superintendence of Miss A. E. Vincent, which I had the pleasure of attending. Exercises commenced at 10 o’clock a. m., as follows: Vocal music, orthography, practical and mental arithmetic, and grammar, geography, history, and reading. The scholars answered with rapidity and accuracy the many questions that were put to them. It was interesting to see the different classes take their place at the black-board. The first class worked with a great deal of care and thought, which reminded one much of the old adage, “Slow, but sure” while the second and third classes were not only interesting, but amusing. They were very expert in figures, worked to excel each other, and made but one mistake. After the course of examination was finished most of the scholars lead their compositions. The first subject, “The Scholar’s Hope,” by P. G. Cox, was a well written essay, and read accordingly. The last composition, read by Miss W. J. Cox, subject, “Valedictory.” This young lady portrayed in her composition the love and pride for her instructress and school-mates, exhibited her regret at bidding her teacher and school-mates a long farewell. Her composition was indeed quite interesting, and was based upon facts — knowing the many changes which we creatures of a moment are liable to. The scholars received the most rapturous applause for their compositions. After the reading of the last composition, the scholars sung “Love of School,” and then the declamation of each scholar, which was interspersed with many favorite songs — such as ‘Northern Star,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Glory, Hallelujah,” etc. “The American Union,” by Master F. Richards, the smallest boy in the school, and as heroic I as you would wish to see a boy. If he continues he bids fair to be a man of high intellectual endowment, and useful in society. The children all spoke very well, and received much credit and encouragement. The examination was surprising to both parents and spectators to realize the progress which they have made under their noble teacher, in the different branches of studies, since August last, — Miss Vincent has not only taught her scholars the above, but, after school hours, she has given them many useful lessons in industrial habits, and has made herself generally useful, during her stay with us, in our Sabbath School; so that it is evident that this young lady has not spared her moments.

After the examination was closed, there were some remarks made by Hon. Judge Churchman, Rev. P. Killingworth, John Richards, and your humble servant. Judge Churchman remarked that he was at the examination prior to this, and he supposed might be called a judge in the matter, and that if he should say that the children had not improved he would speak falsely; and that they had improved, and he was surprised and truly gratified to find such an advancement in the children, especially in grammar, arithmetic, geography and history. Too much praise cannot be awarded the young lady for the faithful discharge of her duty as teacher; also, her kind and gentle manner to the children under her charge, by which she has gained the love and affection of her scholars. Judge Churchman was quite lengthy in his remarks, and elicited much encouragement for the education of the rising generation, and how very essential it is that all parents and guardians should endeavor to have their children educated. There was quite a number of white friends present, as also a number of ladies and gentlemen of the Copperhead order. One lady that I know is a personal negro-hater, as the writing-book and drawing of the scholars was passing around for inspection, she handed it to a gentleman that sat beside me, and pointing to a map of North America, drawn by the scholars, asked him what kind of a flower that was. I never did believe that our race was more ignorant than any other, nor were beyond redemption; and I now verily believe that there are those whose comprehensive facilities are inferior to ours, and they need education as much as we do. No, we are not alone in ignorance, and never will be.

On Wednesday evening 7th inst., Mrs. Richards and Mrs. Cox, gave the children a farewell tea-party, which was superintended by Miss Vincent. As some of them were preparing for their respective homes, Mr. Johnson and myself, were invited to participate in the festivities of the evening. Mr. Johnson favored us with good music which was an quite an addition to our little group, and the hours whiled away like minutes. We then marched around the table which was so sumptuously spread, and the children were as merry as birds singing Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” We had a merry time indeed. Miss A. E. V., also looked very sweet and charming.
T. B. Pinn.

– Elevator, February 16 1866


Mr. John Richards has recently refitted his bath-house and barber shop and fixed everything up in first-class style, so that persons wishing baths can be accommodated with as much comfort and style as in San Francisco. College students and others will do well to observe the very liberal terms offered to clubs of six. For further particulars see now advertisement In to-days paper.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 22 1873


A State Convention of the colored citizens of California was held in Sacramento Tuesday and Wednesday, November 25th and 26th. Sonoma county was represented by John Richards and Jacob Overton.

– Russian River Flag, December 4 1873


John Richards of Santa Rosa seems to be doing a good business, his shop occupies a prominent position on the main street of the town.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 18 1874


John Richards now visiting Santa Rosa, informs as that the storm was very severe In Lake county.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 31 1874


John Richards who is down from Lakeport informs us that Jerry Ridgway Jr has purchased the Taylor Hotel in Upper Lake…

– Sonoma Democrat, February 13 1875


Rich Men.
We continue the publication of the assessment roll of Sonoma county, by townships, giving the names of all persons who pay taxes on assessments amounting to $10,000 and over;
John Richards (colored) $10,447… [Ed. note: His highest assessment was in 1887 for $12,685]

– Sonoma Democrat, August 7 1875


There is one colored scholar attending the public school here. He is taught separately, during hours of recess, and does not occupy a seat in the building during school hours. His teacher receives additional pay for instructing him. He is reported to be a very smart boy.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 29 1876


On his way home [Captain T. Bundy] dropped in to see us this week with John Richards and we enjoyed a brief chat with him on the subject of Clear Lake and its picturesque piscatorial and other attractions.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 8 1877


Harvest Notes.— John Richards threshed the grain cut from fifteen acres of wheat and eight acres of barley, and has 138 sacks of wheat, 100 sacks of cheat and 113 sacks of barley. On our inquiring what use the cheat was he informed us that he seeded the low damp land with it for hay, and intimated that it was a common practice among the farmers here.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 27 1878



The deceased came to Santa Rosa about the year 1856, and has resided here ever since. For a few years his health has been failing, and he thought there were premonitory symptoms of paralysis, heart disease, or other troubles beyond the reach of medicine. Not more than a week ago he was on the street, but quite feeble. His death was unlooked for by all but himself. The doctor had been called in and administered a potion, but soon after he sat up on the side of his bed and exclaimed “I am going,” calling upon those present to chafe his limbs. Immediately after he bade all good bye and expired. His death occurred on Sunday, the 20th inst., and his funeral took place on Tuesday following from the Baptist Church, of which he was a member.

John Richards was a notable man in his generation. He was born a slave, in Kentucky, about fifty-six years ago. Escaping from his master, he made his way to Massachusetts, where he soon after married. It is said his estate owns property there yet. He was a man of good common sense and judgement. His manner was inoffensive and quiet and he was much esteemed by all who knew him. During the war of the rebellion his faith in the triumph of the Union was so strong that he invested nearly everything he owned in the bonds of the United States, at rates of from 35 to 50 cents on the dollar, and held them undismayed through the dark days of the struggle. His fidelity was rewarded in the end by the large gains on his investment that made him an estate valued at from thirty to sixty thousand dollars. His wife survives but there are no children. He thought of leaving a fund in some shape for a charity or otherwise, to keep his memory green, but we understand there is no will. His death makes a void in the ranks of good citizens here. But we believe when the recording angel makes up all our accounts that of John Richards, African though he was, will be as free from blots as most others.

– Santa Rosa Times, April 24 1879


Death of John Richards. —The subject of this sketch, John Richards, (colored) the pioneer barber of Santa Rosa, is an illustration of what energy combined with perserverance and integrity will enable even a colored man to make of himself. He was borne in Hopkinsville, Christian Co. Kentucky, April 10th, 1824, in the condition of bondage in which at that time a majority of his race were held in the South. Securing his freedom, he emigrated to Canada, and after remaining there awhile he went to Boston, Massachusetts, where he was married in 1852, and then settled in Springfield, in the same State, where be acquired, and at the time of his demise still owned some of the most valuable property in that city. Leaving them, he went to St. Louis, Missouri, remaining for a short time, and then settled in Windsor, on the northern bank of Lake Ontario, in the province of Ontario. After residing there a year be went to Michigan, and was connected with steamboat running on the great lakes. In 1854 he came to California, settling at Shasta, and in 1856 settled in Santa Rosa — opening a barbershop on the corner of Main and Second streets — and has been identified with our city ever since. The field here not being large enough for his energetic spirit, he opened branch establishments at Ukiah and at Lakeport, running both in connection with his establishment here until he retired from business, a short time since. During a residence of twenty-two years continuously in this city, in which time he accumulated considerable wealth, the deceased commanded the friendship and respect of all our citizens. For some time before his decease, he had been afflicted with dyspepsia, but was not considered dangerously ill until just before his death on Sunday morning, which was sudden and unexpected. He leaves a wife, two adopted children and a brother in Santa Rosa, and a sister in St. Louis, Missouri. The funeral from the Baptist Church on Wednesday, the Rev. S. A. Taft officiating, was largely attended. A number of colored friends of the deceased came up from San Francisco to serve as pall bearers, and the remains, enclosed in an elegant metallic casket, were escorted to their last resting place by many of our best citizens from the surrounding country and from the city.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 26 1879


A Handsome Monument, the marble work placed above the remains of the late John Richards in the Santa Rosa Cemetery deserves more than a passing notice. The lot is enclosed with a wall of Folsom granite, two feet in height and handsomely finished. The base of the monument is of Folsom granite two feet in height, surmounted by a moulded marble base eighteen inches high, then comes the die cap, two and a half foot in height, and surmounted by a cap ten inches in height, and above this is an urn two feet two inches in height, the whole forming a most handsome piece of monumental work, and all except the base is of Italian marble. From the base of the monument to the entrance of the lot is something we have not seen in another cemetery in this county, a marble walk forty-two inches wide and thirteen feet in length. It adds greatly to the appearance of the grounds. There are two urns about three feet in height, tastefully disposed about the lot representing a laver. on the rim of each is perched a dove, all of beautiful white Italian marble. At the foot of the grave is a foot stone with the initials “J. R.” tastefully worked, and at the head is one of the urns above mentioned, and a statue representing a faithful dog deposing at the base of it. The whole grounds are most tastefully arranged, the marble and granite work, costing not less than $2,000, and are well worth a visit. The workmanship is that of A. C Thompson. Petaluma, who took the first premium at the recent exhibition of the Sonoma and Marin Agricultural Society.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 25 1879


Sudden Death.—On Saturday evening Mrs. Philena H. Richards, relict of the late John Richards, died at her residence in this city. She had been unwell for some years, and her demise, though sudden, was not unexpected. Judge Brown summoned a Jury to inquire into the cause of her death, and on Sunday last they rendered the following verdict: We, the undersigned, jury summoned by J. Brown, J. P., acting Coroner in and for Sonoma county, State of California, to inquire into the cause ol the death of Philena H. Richards, deceased, do find that she was a native of Connecticut, aged from 63 to 68 years (and that her maiden name was Philena H. Richards); that she died in the city of Santa Rosa, county and State aforesaid, on the 15th day of May, 1880, and that her cause of death was apoplexy…

– Sonoma Democrat, May 22 1880

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There were worst places to live in California than Santa Rosa in the 19th century – there’s always gotta be someplace worse – but if you were an African-American, this town was a really hard place to call home.

There are 24 African-Americans buried at Santa Rosa’s old graveyard, the Rural Cemetery (listed below). We don’t know much about most of them aside from vitals: Birth/death, coroner’s reason why they died, maybe their job. At least four had been slaves, possibly up to seven. Very few had an obituary in any newspaper; what little trace that remains will appear in the revised cemetery book coming out later this year with thumbnail profiles for almost every person there, which will instantly make it the most important work on local history ever published. About half of the African-Americans buried there are lost, meaning the locations of their graves are unknown. Any wooden or temporary markers are long gone.

But four of them have remarkable histories which are explored in the following three articles: John Richards, Edmund Potter and his sister Elizabeth, and Henry Davison deserve to be remembered and honored.

Their stories are intertwined with Santa Rosa as it existed in their day – which is to say, a shockingly racist small town. While it’s always been generally well known that this village was a cheerleader for the Confederacy around the Civil War, little has been detailed about the way black members of the community were treated here in the decades after, often facing routine cruelty and sometimes violence. Yes, Santa Rosa discriminated against the Chinese and like many communities in the West formed an Anti-Chinese League in 1886, but that hostility simmered down. Not so the feelings toward African-Americans.

Other towns in California were sympathetic to the antebellum South, but try and find another place where anger at its defeat burned for decades like a fire which would never extinguish. Read the old Democrat newspaper and enter a world with upside-down racial grievances; everything would be okay if only African-Americans just went away (somewhere); there was sometimes inchoate rage that slaves had (somehow) instigated the Civil War. The Democrat liberally sprinkled its pages with the “n word” and other racial slurs before, during and after the war, often reprinting the most racist filth scraped from Southern newspapers. The hatefulness in that paper was unrelenting and often savage.

The publisher of the Democrat was Thomas Larkin Thompson, and he bears full responsibility for the shameful things that appeared (or did not appear) in his pages. In my opinion he was the most loathsome man in Santa Rosa’s history, and that’s really saying something.

Thomas L. Thompson does not bear the blame alone; he didn’t edit the newspaper after 1882, when he was elected California Secretary of State and moved to Sacramento. After that he was a one-term congressman and after that a diplomat. His name remained on the masthead (and was often the only name mentioned) as “manager,” although the editing and hands-on work was done by his brother Robert, veteran journalist John F. Linthicum and probably others. While there was a sharp drop in the frequency of actual racial slurs after Thomas L. surrendered the editor’s chair, the Democrat never lost an opportunity to applaud Jim Crow or mourn the Lost Cause; there was an 1889 item headlined, “Slavery’s Sunny Side” describing life on a Georgia plantation as “a colored people’s paradise…only kind treatment from Master and Mistress.” A postscript to this series shows the racism in the paper during the 1890s was still as bad as it was in the 1860s, and even followed the same patterns.


1860   33 of 1,637 total (2%)
1870   9 of 2,919 (0.3%)
1880   22 of 3,467 (0.6%)
1890   26 of 5,120 (0.7%)

All data from census field collections except 1890, which is only available in summary. The larger 1860 count included seven black members of the Sampson Wright family, 5 of whom were Wright’s ex-slaves brought from Missouri (see “THE GRAVE OF THE COLORED BOY“) and Elizabeth Potter/Hudson was mistakenly counted twice.

Why any African-Americans chose to live in 19th century Santa Rosa is a complete mystery – and as the summary to the right shows, few did. And having wallowed in the mud pit of the 19th century Democrat by reading it over many years, I still can’t say whether Thompson and the other editors were molding racist attitudes or were only reflecting the hatefulness already ingrained in this particular community. Our hometown race-haters were anything but passive; as shown in the profiles that follow, the cruelty and animus was dished out by the white citizens of Santa Rosa – women, men and children, the city government and city police.

The drawing of Santa Rosa at the top of this page and below was made in the mid 1870s, when Santa Rosa was about the whitest place in the whitest county in the whitest state. Santa Rosa would not exceed three dozen African-American residents for more than a half century after that. It was drawn, by the way, by Grafton Tyler Brown, the owner of a lithography printing house in San Francisco. Besides being a successful businessman and a gifted artist, he was black – which the Democrat never mentioned, even while praising his talent.

That was typical of what the Democrat newspaper did – it erased everything about African-Americans that did not fit racist stereotypes. And it wasn’t just outsiders who were given that treatment; black members of this community were rarely mentioned except when there were opportunities to make fun of them.

The historical record has suffered because of this racial censorship. To profile the three men in this series it was necessary to squeeze out details from papers elsewhere, particularly the weekly African-American newspapers published in San Francisco at that time: The Elevator and The Pacific Appeal.

Those weeklies revealed 19th century black Santa Rosa was far less provincial than one might have expected. African-Americans in Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties were plugged into a network of Bay Area civil rights activists which included storied men such as Underground Railroad conductors J. Madison Bell and William H. Yates. Also out here were the sons of prominent East Coast black abolitionists David Ruggles and James G. Barbadoes. (A h/t for explaining these connections to Lloyd Belton, who is researching black abolitionists for his PhD at University of Leeds.)

Bordered by Santa Rosa on the north and Stockton on the south, this extended 19th century African-American community organized clubs, societies and committees working on equality issues; we can trace activist travels in the black weeklies and resources such as the 1919 book, Negro Trail Blazers of California. As far as I can tell, there is no historical research into this important chapter of the American civil rights movement; should any historian be looking for an original dissertation topic, this is very fertile territory.

Civil rights organizers from Santa Rosa included John Richards and a man named Johnson, who was considered a particularly good orator.* As discussed in his following profile, Richards’ activism took him to San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento. Much of that happened before the train arrived here, making this no easy undertaking for any of them, nor cheap; they started doing this back when stagecoach trips from San Jose to Sonoma county took at least a couple of days each way.

Coming up here regularly from the Bay Area was Jacob Overton, whose visits to Santa Rosa can be traced over 35 years. He spent much of his time, energy and money as a civil rights activist with his wife, Sarah, who became an important black speaker during the 1911 suffrage campaign. They traveled around the state and Nevada lobbying for African-American schools and joining seemingly every group backing state and national equality causes, forging bonds within black micro-communities such as Santa Rosa. Overton was also a minister and a highly popular restauranteur and caterer around San Jose. He is prominent in two of the profiles that follow.

All three men profiled here had obituaries in the Democrat, and each contained details which revealed the paper knew a good deal about the deceased and his interesting past. Yet none of the obits mention a word about any connections to the civil rights movement, either locally or prior to coming here – even in death that was a forbidden topic in Santa Rosa.

Read through the following profiles and discover the Democrat was guilty of far uglier things than printing rehashed articles tarnished with “n words.” It disappeared African-American townsfolk by not writing obituaries for most of them and avoided mention of any of their doings, not just those which would cast them in a favorable light. Weddings, deaths, births, arrivals and departures were largely ignored. By hiding the lives of our small town’s black neighbors, the paper scrubbed away their identity until all that was left for the rest of the community to see was color.

After 150 years (more or less) time is long overdue to remember who they were, what they did and say their names.


* “Mr. Johnson, a young colored man from Santa Rosa” was identified as an eloquent speaker in The Elevator, July 21 1865. It was probably Amos Johnson, the schoolteacher for the Santa Rosa “colored school” 1864-1865 who was a correspondent to The Elevator and mentioned lecturing at the Phoenixonian Institute in 1867. After 1866 he lived in Stockton, then Sacramento. In 1868 a Henry Johnson was mentioned in Santa Rosa, likely the Henry C. Johnson who was president of the “United Sons of Friendship” at the end of that year in Sacramento (Amos Johnson was the group’s secretary). Amos was mentioned only once in the Democrat, and that in a 1866 reprint of a letter to The Elevator written by Judge Churchman about the “negro school.”



William H. Carter (1877-1913) location unknown
Henry W. Davison (1819-1899) Main Circle 237
Jane Davison (1822-1890) same
Maude G. Johnson (1877-1878) location unknown
Elliott Jones (1892-1960) location unknown
Henry Jones (1840-1879) location unknown
Martha Jones (1845-1879) location unknown
Morgan Kinkead (1872-1941) location unknown
Joe Lee (1886-1934) location unknown
Dolphus Milligan (1874-1944) location unknown
Inez B. Milligan (?-1940) location unknown
Ruben Milligan (1924-1924) location unknown
William Milligan (1879-1938) location unknown
Edmund Potter (1817-1908)) Main Circle 1
Elizabeth Potter (1826-1876) same
Louisa Potter (1843-1895) same
Martha Potter (1811-1880) same
John Richards (1824-1879) Western Half Circle 60
Philena Richards (1812-1880) same
Loretha Robertson (1962-1962) location unknown
James R. Safford (1872-1915) Western Half Circle 240
George Washington (1816-1886) location unknown
John Williams (1880-1911) location unknown
Davis Wright (1853-1865) ) Main Circle 118


Detail of Santa Rosa panorama c. 1874 by Grafton T. Brown (Bancroft Library). The view is approximately from the modern intersection of Morgan and Ninth streets; the tall building with cupola is the Christian College built 1872 at B and Tenth street
Detail of Santa Rosa panorama c. 1874 by Grafton T. Brown (Bancroft Library). The view is approximately from the modern intersection of Morgan and Ninth streets; the tall building with cupola is the Christian College built 1872 at B and Tenth street

Mr. C. C. Kuchel, the well known lithographer of San Francisco, has just completed a lithographic view of the town of Santa Rosa, a copy of which we have received. The sketches were taken by Grafton T. Brown, Mr. Kuchel’s traveling artist, and the scenes are very correct. Mr. Brown, we understand, will visit Petaluma soon, for the purpose of taking some views in that vicinity. His presence in that city will afford an excellent opportunity to her citizens to get a correct view of Petaluma, as they could not procure the services of any one more competent to perform the work.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 31 1862

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Imagine if the Golden Gate Bridge was never built – engineering issues couldn’t be solved, perhaps, or maybe there were insurmountable economic hurdles, or just not enough political will. What would Sonoma County be like today?

The only way to get here from San Francisco is by ferry, for starters, so Santa Rosa is a much smaller place. There was no population boom after World War Two; it’s a rural county seat somewhat like Ukiah, and the courthouse is still in Courthouse Square because they patched up the mostly cosmetic damage from the 1957 earthquake instead of tearing it down. Stony Point Road is the Highway 101 bypass, its two lanes swelling to three at the stoplights where there is cross traffic and turn lanes. Tourists clog the Redwood Highway on weekends because the winery events, resorts, spas and casinos in the countryside make this a popular getaway destination for the rest of the Bay Area, while the weekly Press Democrat is always pushing for year-round motocross and horse racing at the fairgrounds in order to draw visitors downtown. “Sonoma County? Sure, it’s a nice place to visit, but no, I…”

Building the bridge was never a sure thing, but it wasn’t because there was formidable opposition. Yes, there were efforts to slow or stop the project but it wasn’t ongoing, popping up only when the project neared a funding or construction milestone. None of those challenges posed serious threats, but were more like pesky nuisances.

Yet when the project launched in 1923 it seemed delusional to believe it would ever pass beyond the blueprint stage. Not only were there some engineers who thought it was folly to attempt constructing the longest bridge of its kind at that particular place, but its promoters had to run an incredibly complex political gauntlet, convincing Washington and Sacramento to back it enthusiastically – all before doing the basic studies which would prove the concept was viable. And even after construction began in January 1933, a retired geologist made a splash by predicting the south end could never be made stable, requiring months of further testing to prove him wrong.

All in all, it took almost 20 years to get to ribbon-cutting day. This is not the place to tell that whole story; the Golden Gate Bridge District has history pages for further details on the critical years of 1928 and 1930 (although some of the information on bridge opponents is wrong). A version of the original 1916 article proposing the idea is transcribed below.

The original 1922 design for the Golden Gate Bridge by architect Joseph B. Strauss, who said it could be built for $17,250,000 and opened by 1927. The final cost was almost exactly twice as much and took until 1937 to complete. Most of the credit for the appearance we know today goes to Charles Ellis, who was the prime designer of the bridge 1929-1931
The original 1922 design for the Golden Gate Bridge by architect Joseph B. Strauss, who said it could be built for $17,250,000 and opened by 1927. The final cost was almost exactly twice as much and took until 1937 to complete. Most of the credit for the appearance we know today goes to Charles Ellis, who was the prime designer of the bridge 1929-1931

Local folks probably know that the key part of the origin story concerns doings in Sonoma County by two men: Frank Doyle, president of the Exchange Bank as well as the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, and Press Democrat editor/publisher Ernest Finley. Although Doyle modestly said he was “just one of the hundreds who helped to put the bridge over,” he always will be remembered for kicking the project off by organizing the January 13, 1923 conference in Santa Rosa which brought together over 250 bankers, business leaders and politicians, which earned him his spot standing next to the governor and the mayor of San Francisco when the bridge was officially opened. Finley was the indefatigable champion for the cause, turning the Press Democrat into a soapbox for promoting funding and construction, cheering every nugget of good news and booing every bit of bad.

After Finley’s death in 1942, however, the story shifted; it was said the newspaper suffered by losing subscribers because of its bridge advocacy and Finley was a warrior editor battling powerful railroad, logging and farm special interests opposed to the bridge. This version has taken root over the years in the PD and elsewhere; here’s the version from the Media Museum of Northern California: “…In this particular crusade, which spanned at least two decades, Finley stood almost alone…he was opposed by nearly everyone. His business suffered as he lost advertising accounts and subscriptions. But he continued the campaign, insisting, ‘Damn the circulation! The bridge must be built!’” That’s now his legacy quote although it’s probably apocryphal.1

The problem with that narrative is it’s not really true.

The only special interest actually fighting bridge construction was (surprise!) the ferry companies, which were controlled by Southern Pacific – their astroturf citizen’s groups and 11th-hour courtroom posturings were widely viewed as transparent attempts to delay the inevitable clobbering of their businesses once cars and trucks could drive the bridge. More about that in a minute.

What irked Finley and the other boosters far more was the 1927-1928 pushback from a scattered group of Sonoma County property owners whose anger was whipped up by an anti-tax rabble-rouser.

Ladies and gents, meet Cap Ornbaun, fulltime crank.

Casper A. Ornbaun was always identified in the newspapers as a San Francisco lawyer and he indeed had an office in the landmark Spreckels Building on Market Street, although it seemed he didn’t use it much – on the rare occasions when his name appeared in the papers for doing something attorney-ish it was almost always about handling a routine probate estate, usually in the North Bay. While he lived in Oakland he told audiences he was fighting the bridge as a Sonoma County taxpayer; he owned the 18,000 acre Rockpile Ranch above Dry Creek valley which was used as a sheep ranch. (In a rare non-bridge court filing, he sued a neighboring rancher in 1937 for briefly dognapping four of his sheepdogs, demanding $6,000 for “tiring them and causing them to become footsore and unable to go through the regular shearing season.”)

Why Ornbaun so loathed the idea of a bridge across the Golden Gate is a mystery, but he turned the fight against it into a fulltime cause – maybe it was his midlife crisis, or something. Starting in 1926 it seems he was in the North Bay almost constantly, arranging small group meetings where he could bray and bark against the bridge project.

At least once Mark Lee of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce was invited to formally debate with Ornbaun, but otherwise his speaking engagements were rant-fests attacking anyone or anything connected to the project, including the Press Democrat. At one appearance in Sebastopol he came with dozens of copies of the PD which he handed out to prove the paper was “the bunk.”

The Santa Rosa papers mentioned him as little as possible (no need to give him free publicity) but his appearances in small communities like Cloverdale were newsworthy and the local weeklies often quoted or paraphrased what he had to say. Here are a few samples:

Only San Francisco weekenders would ever use the bridge
Strauss is a nobody; Strauss only knows how to build drawbridges; Strauss realizes it will be impossible to actually build it and is just looking to make a name for himself
It will cost over $125 million, or about 5x over estimates
Safeguarding against earthquakes will cost an additional $80-100 million
Maintenance costs would be $5,707,000 a year; it will cost $300,000/year to paint it
It will be impossible to get enough cars across the bridge to have it pay for itself
It would run a deficit of $4,416,230/year
It will take too long to cross it
Nobody knows if people would prefer driving across a bridge rather than crossing the bay by ferry
If it collapsed during construction we would be out our money with nothing to show for it
It would be a high profile target during a war and if it were bombed the Navy fleet would be bottled up in the Bay (that was actually a 1926 Navy objection)
The Board of Directors are not “angels”

His main accomplice in bridge bashing was James B. Pope, a civil engineer who once worked for the Southern Pacific railroad. Ornbaun praised him as “a consulting engineer of prominence” and “the boy who knows the bridge business” (Pope was 61 years old at the time) because he had once built a 310-foot wagon bridge in San Bernadino county. The wacky cost estimates above likely all came from Pope, who finally decided the bridge would cost exactly $154,697,372 based on his analysis of geodetic survey maps. Strauss had, by the way, offered to share with him the studies prepared by his engineers, but Pope declined to look at them because he “did not need it.”

Ornbaun, Pope and a couple of others had been busy fellows in 1926-1927 and collected about 2,300 signatures of property owners who wanted to opt-out from the proposed Bridge District.2 This meant court hearings in each of the counties with sizable opposition – a process which delayed the bridge project by a full year. But hey, the hearings gave Ornbaun a chance to strut his stuff in courtrooms and cross-examine Strauss, Doyle, Finley, and other project leaders, seemingly fishing for someone to admit the whole plan was a scam or at least that true cost would be closer to Pope’s absurd estimates.

What did come out in testimony was that the booster’s motives were far less altruistic than expressed at the 1923 conference, where it was said the high-minded mission was uniting the Bay Area into “one great thriving populous community,” and bridging the Golden Gate “cannot be measured in dollars and cents.” They were very much using dollars and cents as their measuring stick; Doyle and others who testified were clear their primary objective was jacking up Sonoma and Marin real estate, and they originally wanted Strauss to build something fast and cheap.

Although the 1927 PD headline below says property values might double, some of the actual testimony on that day predicted it would shoot up to 400 percent. And even if the bridge couldn’t built for some reason, they were already ahead – speculators had been buying and selling Marin and Sonoma land on the promise of the bridge almost immediately after the 1923 conference.

1927realestateSorry, Casper – despite all your efforts, the court threw out your case at the end of 1928. That meant the Bridge District could be formed and impose a small property tax to pay for tests and studies to see if the bridge could be built at all. Ornbaun continued to rattle around for a couple of more years making threats to sue, but no one paid much attention.

Flip the calendar ahead and it’s 1930, time for the District’s six member counties (San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Del Norte, parts of Napa and Mendocino) to vote on a $35 million bond measure to pay for construction. And suddenly there are new bridge opponents: The Pacific American Steamship Association and the Shipowners’ Association of the Pacific Coast. They’re saying the bridge might be too low for safe passage, and there should be first an independent investigation by the state – never mind that the War Department had already approved it as having enough clearance for any ship in existence or under construction.

The Press Democrat and ads by the Bridge District fired back that the “Ferry Trust” was using the associations as front groups to confuse voters, but never explained the connection. Perhaps they didn’t know at the time that the two associations were essentially the same company, in the same offices and the president of both was the same man: Captain Walter J. Petersen – a man who apparently had no familiarity with steamships except as a passenger. The “Captain” in his title referred to his Army service in WWI, or maybe because he was also a captain in the Oakland Police Department in the 1920s (he was Police Chief for awhile, and always referred to as “former Chief” in print except when the reference was to the associations).

Sorry, Captain/Chief – the bond passed with overwhelming support, and nothing more would be said about those serious threats to navigation which were keeping you awake nights. To celebrate, Santa Rosa threw a “Victory Jubilee” parade which included a huge bonfire in the middle of Fourth street, with an effigy labeled “Apathy” thrown into the flames.

The last challenge to the bridge happened in 1931-1932, just months before construction was to begin. This time it was a suit in federal court charging the Bridge District was a “pretended corporation” so the bond was null and void. This time the ferry companies convinced two businesses to act as fronts for them.3 This time the ferry companies used their customary law firm to represent their proxies in court. This time it was so transparent that the ferry companies were behind this crap the American Legion and other groups demanded a boycott of the ferries as well as the Southern Pacific railroad. This time the ferry companies gave up in August, 1932, rather than pursuing their nuisance suit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What’s truly amazing about all this was the contemptuousness of the ferry companies, no matter what. Sure, our lawyers are representing those companies in the anti-bond lawsuit, but so what? We’re not actually a party to the suit! No, the bridge is not necessary – our ferries are more than capable of handling the traffic demands across the Golden Gate! Never mind that there were routinely hours-long backups on the auto ferries during peak times. At the end of the 1926 Memorial Day weekend there were eight thousand cars in Sausalito queued up for a spot on a ferry. Many gave up and parked their autos as far away as San Rafael so they could get a seat on a ferryboat and make it in to work the next day. It took three days working around the clock just to clear the line of people who were still patiently waiting with their cars.

It was because of these crazy bottlenecks that everyone, everyone, hated the ferries so much that the North Bay was ready to consider a ferry boycott, even though it would have cut us off from nearly all connection to San Francisco – we might have been forced back to the pre-1870 heyday of Petaluma riverboats.

Without its monopoly, the ferry was doomed. Where they had earned a 25 percent profit a year (!!) in the mid-1920s, they lost $1,000,000 in 1937 after the Golden Gate Bridge opened. The company slashed fares. They tried to sell the franchise to the Toll Bridge Authority for $3.75M. Finally in July 1938 – 14 months after the first car drove across the bridge – Southern Pacific closed the ferries to the public.

But during the days of opening celebration, the ferries were never mentioned. On that 1937 Memorial Day weekend the public could not wait to be on their new bridge. During the preview “Pedestrian Day,” 202,000 came to walk the bridge, so many that the turnstiles couldn’t keep up; they opened the barriers and put out tin buckets for people to throw in the nickels. The Press Democrat reported bands played from the San Francisco shore as bombs burst in the clear, deep blue sky.

In Santa Rosa there was a breakfast held in honor of Frank Doyle – who insisted he was the “stepfather” of the bridge, not its father. Mark Lee – the former Chamber of Commerce guy who debated Ornbaun a decade earlier – reminded the audience that the prize was still boosting the town: “…you face great opportunity. The tourists’ dollars, as well as those of business investors and home seekers will find a place in your community, now made so accessible to the thousands who will come into northern California.” Ernest Finley spoke of the “untold advantages and development for Santa Rosa” brought by the bridge.

On the editorial page Finley also reminded that thousands of people would be driving through Santa Rosa enroute to the ceremonies, and the governor of Oregon and other officials were being given a reception in Juilliard Park that afternoon. “Never before has Santa Rosa, destined to be the focal point for population and industry after the mammoth span is opened,” he wrote, encouraging residents to greet the cavalcade by lining Mendocino and Santa Rosa Avenues, showing “a proper display of enthusiasm.” There was much to cheer with enthusiasm that day, particularly if you were a Sonoma County realtor.

1 The “Damn the circulation” story first appeared as an afterword to “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” a collection of Finley’s thumbnail descriptions published in 1942 after his death. There Press Democrat Publisher Carl R. Lehman wrote that Circulation Manager McBride Smith approached Finley at his desk and told him the paper was sometimes losing 50-100 subscribers per day. “We can’t keep going at this rate. Our circulation will be ruined if this keeps up.” Lehman continued, “without looking up from his desk, Finley replied in his quiet but determined voice: ‘Damn the circulation. The bridge must be built.'” Smith recounted the story himself in a 1949 PD tribute to Finley but added, “he pounded the desk with his fist” as he said it. While the quote certainly matches Finley’s sentiments, it seems like an odd thing to blurt out to an office employee.

2 The anti-Bridge District count was 823 property owners in Napa and 902 in Mendocino. There were originally 574 signatures from Sonoma County, knocked down to 555 by the time the hearings began in November, 1927. That’s likely close to the number of Press Democrat subscribers who cancelled.

3 The two companies in the 1932 federal suit were the Del Norte Company, Ltd. (identified in the press only as “a large Del Norte property owner” and a “lumber firm”) and the Garland Company, Ltd. real estate firm of San Francisco led by Robert E. Strahorn, one of 92 property owners who had joined a taxpayer’s anti-bridge group as part of the 1930 opposition to the bond. The president of Southern Pacific-Golden Gate Ferries, Ltd. S.P. Eastman admitted in court he had sent a letter to Del Norte Company asking them to file the suit and promising to pay all legal fees (wire service story in Press Democrat and elsewhere, Feb. 20, 1932). Their involvement, combined with a September 3, 1925 editorial in the San Francisco Examiner, “Bridge No Foe to Lumbermen”, has led modern writers to claim there was substantial bridge opposition from logging interests, but I don’t find that mentioned in any of the voluminous coverage of all things related to the bridge in the Press Democrat, Ukiah papers, or elsewhere.



‘It’s the Bunk,’ Ornbaun Says In Discussing S.F. Bay Span

…Ornbaun was armed with many generalities, few if any figures, and an armful of Press Democrats. He spent most of his time asserting that the Press Democrat was the bunk and seeking to explain how the newspaper had sold itself to the bridge project. Incidentally, he asserted also that the bridge project was “the bunk.”

“The bridge can’t be built. I know it can’t be built. It is impossible to build it. And after it is built it will cost $300,000 a year to paint it. Such, in effect, was his reference to the proposed span from San Francisco to Marin county.

“I am interested in this fight only because I am a Sonoma county taxpayer,” he asserted. He referred to the fact that he represents 20,000 acres of Mendocino and Sonoma county land, but did not mention that it was sheep land.

“I have not been promised money by the railroads or timber interests, he continued. “When the bridge is built it will take too long to cross it.”

The speaker took occasion to flay Joseph B. Strauss of Chicago, one of the country’s foremost bridge engineers, by saying Strauss is “guessing” in his Golden Gate bridge design. He praised one Pope, who in a Humboldt county meeting admitted he was not a bridge engineer, as “the boy who knows the bridge business.”

“I hope to address more people next time I speak,” concluded Ornbaun, speaking to a crowd which had dwindled to about 50, about half of whom were from Healdsburg and points other than Sebastopol…

– Press Democrat, March 17, 1926



THERE IS AN OLD SAYING to the effect that the luxuries of today are the necessities of tomorrow. We also have the necessities of today that must be met without wailing for the tomorrows. With these must now be classed the bridge across the Golden Gate, once regarded merely as an idle dream.

San Francisco, cooped up as she is with a land outlet in only one direction, has come to realize that a bridge across the Golden Gate is necessary to her further growth and development. We of the North Bay counties know only too, well that this section of California can’ never come fully into its own until we have been brought into direct connection with the metropolis.

Engineers agree that the bridge can be built. Financiers assure us that the necessary funds will be forthcoming. Under the circumstances, no time should be lost in putting the project under way. With such a spirit back of the movement as was manifested here Saturday, there seems to be no good reason why actual construction should not begin at a very early date.

Then watch us grow!

– Press Democrat, January 14, 1923


You Can’t Convince Him

Arguments heard from time to time against the feasibility of the Golden Gate bridge project represent for che most part a set mental attitude of those who do not want to be convinced. You cannot discuss projects of this character with men who begin by sweeping aside with one breath all the arguments in its support, and attempt to start from there-There is the man, for instance, who sets his judgment against that of the worlds foremost engineers and says the bridge cannot be built at all. We also have the man who has heard somebody opine that the cost will not be twenty-five millions as has already been carefully computed by experts, but sixty or eighty millions, and who knows it will really cost a lot more. We have also the individual so constituted that upon his mind facts already established and details actually accomplished make no impression. He does not want to take them into consideration and so ignores them or else calmly denies their existence There is also the man who is devoid of imagination. He cannot possibly see how connecting this part of the state with the rest of California and cutting out the troublesome ferries, could improve conditions, add anything to our population or increase property values The bridge cannot be built, because nobody has ever built one like it up to the present time; if possible to construct such a bridge, its cost would be many times that estimated by people engaged in the business, and therefore prohibitive; the cost would not be met by the collection of tolls, as planned by its projectors, but from the pockets of the taxpayers; it is a county matter rather than a district undertaking, as set forth in the law, and consequently if the bridge should be constructed and finally prove unsuccessful final responsibility would rest with the counties making up the district and perhaps with some one county alone, with the result that that county would be wiped off the map; there is no way one can prove that people would cross on a bridge in preference to crossing the bay by ferry, or that more people would travel up this way if they could do so more conveniently than they can at present, because that fact has not yet been demonstrated; if the bridge should be built and something should happen to it later on, or if it should collapse during time of construction, the bonding companies might net pay and we would be out our money and have nothing to show for it these are some of the arguments of the man who is against the project for reasons of his own, but does not care to come out and say so. Talking with him is a waste of time.

– Press Democrat, August 1, 1925


Great Engineering Feat Proposed to Connect Marin-San Francisco Counties by Bridging the Golden Gate

Mr. James H. Wilkins, one of the eldest residents of San Rafael and a man who has the best interests of the county at heart has interested himself in the great scheme of connecting Marin County with San Francisco county by the construction of a massive bridge across the Golden Gate.

Would Extend From Lime Point to Fort Point Bluffs

A lengthy article accompanied by a map was presented in last Saturday’s Bulletin. It is not a new scheme but has been talked of for a great many years. Nothing, however, as definite as the plan therein presented by Mr. Wilkins has been advocated. This great project should appeal not only to the residents of Marin County but the residents of the entire northern part of the State.

Quoting from Mr. Wilkins communication the following plan is outlined:
From Lime Point To Fort Point Bluffs

“To give a general descriptive outline, the abutments and backstays would be located, respectively, on the rocky blue of Lime Point and on the high ground above Fort Point. The breadth of the “Gate” here is 3800 feet. The towers over which the cable pass, would be so located as to give a central span of 3000 feet, and side spans of approximately 1000 feet. The catenary, or curved line formed by the suspended cable, would have a central dip of approximately 65 feet. Therefore, the elevation of the towers must be 215 feet to secure the clearance required.

“From the southern abutment the railroad line would descend by a threequarters of 1 per cent grade, bringing it precisely to the elevation of the intersection of Chestnut and Divisadero streets, a block away from the site of the Tower of Jewels, that marked the main entrance to the never-to-be-forgotten Exposition. Just a few blocks farther is the belt railroad that traverses the entire waterfront, the business heart of the city, ready to be a link of the great commercial carrier of the western world.

Pedestrian Promenade Across Strait
Novel Idea

From this plan might be omitted the upper or promenade deck, with material reduction of cost, leaving only rail and automobile roadways. The promenade is, indeed, more or less of a matter of sentiment. Crossing the Golden Gate in midair would present, perhaps, the most impressive, emotional prospect in the world. Why should not those enjoy it who are, by unkindly circumstance, still constrain travel on their own legs? Moreover, it would be best observed leisurely, not from a flying train or automobile.

“After the shock of the bare statement, the first and preliminary inquiry arises, Is the project practicable—and practical?

“Beyond cavil or question, yes—far more so than the proposed five and a half mile bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. This is not a guess. I do most things in life indifferently, I am a graduate civil engineer, know a thing or two about applied mathematics and am familiar with construction work from building pigsties to building railroads—I have built both. The proposed suspension bridge—the central span—would be longer than any other structure of its kind in the world. But that only means stronger material, extra factors of safety. And nowhere in the world has nature presented such an admirable site. Bluff shore lines and easy gradients on either side —no costly approaches and still more costly right of way.

Idea Was Old As as State’s Railroading

The idea is almost as old as railroading in our State. When the Central Pacific made its entry into California, the original route via Stockton, Livermore Pass, Niles canyon, with its long detour and heavy grades was found to be impracticable. The company, therefore surveyed a more direct low-level line, departing from the present route east of the Suisan marshes, passing through the counties of Solano, Napa, Sonoma and Marin. In 1862 I was present at a session of the Marin Supervisors when Charles Crocker explained his plans, among which was a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate. Detail plans and estimates for such a bridge were actually made by Central Pacific engineers. But, along came a man with a newer idea—the transfer of trains across Carquinez straits by steamer and the extension of the Oakland mole to tide water. And so the suspension bridge project died.

“The length of the proposed bridge from Oakland to San Francisco is approximately 27,000 feet, as against approximately 5000 feet from abutment to abutment of the suspension bridge. The former, if constructed on arches, could not fail to interfere seriously with navigation of the upper bay. One serious objection seems to be that the projectors do not know where to land it on our side of the bay. One engineer gives it a terminal on the summit of Telegraph Hill!

Cost Ranging From 25 to 75 Millions

“The estimates of the cost of the San Francisco-Oakland bridge range from 25 to 75 million dollars.

From such data as I have, and by comparison with the cost of similar structures, a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate could be built for less than ten million dollars. This is an extreme estimate, accepted by several engineers to whom this article was referred.

“But as a final and fatal stumbling block, the foolish jealousy between the rival towns will never permit them to join in a great constructive enterprise till human nature has materially changed. That will not be in my time or yours.

“Of course, it will be objected to at once that both terminals of the suspension bridge would necessarily be located on military reserves of the government. But such an objection could hardly stand. Indeed, it ought to be an immense strategic advantage to have the two great defensive points of the harbor connected up. Doubtless the government would gladly grant the easement. It is in inconceivable that any government would arbitrarily block one of the greatest and most significant undertakings ever attempted by civilized men. Certainly no hostile attitude was assumed at Washington when the plan was materially considered over forty years ago.

Financing of Project a Community Investment

“Still as the intimate concern of San Francisco and the North Coast counties, the undertaking should be properly financed by these communities, as a public utility concern. Having only a sincere desire to be closely united, this ought to be simplicity itself, for the extremely simple reason that a bond issue of $10,000,000 would take care of itself and speedily retire itself. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad alone spends half a million dollars a year to maintain a line of steamboats between San Francisco and Marin county points, which is extremely wicked interest on the total cost. Very small charges for its use would soon pay interest, principal and all.

And if, from a financial standpoint, it were a total loss, still San Francisco would be far ahead. The city could well afford to pay $10,000,000 or more for the greatest advertisement in the world—for a work never before surpassed by the imagination and handiwork of man. Whether viewed from its lofty deck, commanding the contrasting prospect—to the west, the grand old tumultuous ocean; to the east, the placid bay; or from incoming ships; or from the landward hills: it would bid fair to remain forever the most stupendous, awe-inspiring monument of our modern civilization. And it could have no rival, for there is only one Golden Gate in the world.

Greatest Of World’s Harbor Improvements

“Even in remote times, long preceding the Christian era, the ancients understood the value of dignifying their harbors with impressive works. The Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos of Alexandria were counted among the seven wonders of the world. The same tendency appears in our own times, witness the cyclopean Statue of Liberty at the entrance of New York harbor. But the bridge across the Golden Gate would dwarf and overshadow all.”

This proposition has created more enthusiasm in San Rafael than any other for some time. Mayor Herzog and the City Council have all endorsed it enthusiastically. The Central Marin Chamber of Commerce is expected to act at their next meeting and the County Supervisors will also probably act at their meeting next week. While the cost of such a bridge would be enormous it is not insurmountable as pointed out in Mr. Wilkins’ article. Such a proposition if constructed would undoubtedly double the value of real estate in Marin county in a short time and no doubt in a few years the population of Marin county would increase five-fold. This proposition is not a wild-cat dream and deserves a lot of consideration.

– Marin County Tocsin, September 2 1916

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