It was nearly dawn when a Boy Scout jumped off his bicycle and burst into the hotel lobby with an urgent message: The building next door was on fire. At about the same time, the driver of the city street sweeper found billowing smoke in the alley behind the hotel and pulled the nearby fire alarm. It was 5AM on May 8, 1936.

Santa Rosa’s Fire Department was there almost immediately with their eight year-old La France “Quad” fire truck, capable of throwing 750 gallons of water a minute. Fire Chief William Muenter saw that wouldn’t be adequate so he also brought on line their older 650 gallon pumper.

(ABOVE: Section of fire photo colorized using The unmodified original of this image and others of the fire can be found below)

Meanwhile, The New Hotel Santa Rosa was being evacuated. Although the building on the corner of Fourth and B (currently the location of the CitiBank office) was best known as Rosenberg’s, the department store only occupied the street level with a mezzanine. The eighty room residential hotel took up the second and third floors, with about 65 people staying there when the fire began.

As soon as that Boy Scout on his newspaper route told night clerk Russell Sutor about the fire he roused his boss Leo Bonalanza, who lived at the hotel with his wife and two kids. Sutor began calling rooms from the switchboard to awaken guests while hotel manager Bonalanza contacted the Occidental Hotel and other places in town to accomodate their displaced residents. An elderly woman was carried to the Occidental but otherwise people gathered in the lobby still in their pajamas (“scantily clad” and “partially clad” were the terms favored by our Santa Rosa newspapers).

Evacuating the hotel was precautionary – the fire was contained at first to the McDannel Building on its east side and besides, the big store-hotel was built with reinforced concrete after the 1906 earthquake and always touted as fireproof.

There were several tenants in the McDannel, most prominently a hat shop and the L. A. Drake electrical supply/paint store. Signs for those businesses can be seen in the photographs below. The fire started in the backroom of Drake’s business, but the exact cause was never determined (as far as I can find). Muenter told the press he thought it might have been a wiring short circuit or spontaneous combustion from flammable dirty rags.

The sequence of events during the early part of the fire are unclear, but by the end of the first hour Chief Muenter realized his two engines weren’t enough, so he reached out to Petaluma and Guerneville for assistance. What we don’t know is whether that happened before or after McDannel’s exploded.

Firefighters from the SRFD were inside when the flames reached the oil barrels Drake used for mixing paint. The massive blast blew the roof off and hurled firemen to the floor or against walls. Fire Captain Lloyd Rhoades was thrown down a flight of stairs. Shards of glass from shattered plate glass store windows sprayed over the crew working outside.

As a classic text on fire tells us, burning embers fly in “swarms of sparks, like a hive of angry bees, to search out spots of weakness.” And so it was here. Flaming ember-bees from McDannel found the Rosenberg warehouse across the alley, which was not constructed of impervious concrete. With firemen distracted by the explosion, fire began tearing through the warehouse before anyone knew it. That was the gateway into the department store proper and the hotel above.

With the fire in the store downstairs, hanging out in the hotel lobby waiting for an all-clear was no longer an option. Hallways started filling with smoke. Some tried to go back to their rooms for clothes, which caused one man to be overcome by it and Bonalanza had to carry him away. Sutor and Bonalanza deserve respect for staying on duty until all guests were safe, but special honor must go to a taxi driver named James Kruze, who helped everyone get out by operating the hotel’s old-style elevator even as smoke was pouring up the elevator shaft.

There was no longer any doubt this was the worst catastrophe to visit the town since the 1906 quake – the only question was how much more of downtown was about to burn. The Argus-Courier predicted the “entire business section was doomed.” Other businesses that abutted the alley began evacuating as well. The Bank of America, which was in the Empire Building with its iconic clock tower, removed office equipment (the vault was presumably fireproof). The Santa Rosa Garage had around fifty cars to clear out fast.

Santa Rosa Republican, May 8 1936
Santa Rosa Republican, May 8 1936

As trucks from the other two stations arrived it unofficially became a three-alarm fire (Press Democrat: “Petaluma’s big fire pumper roaring into the city, rounding corners almost on two wheels”). Guerneville’s fire truck made the twenty mile drive in a record 25 minutes, even with a dozen volunteers aboard. Healdsburg, Sebastopol and Penngrove sent crews but not equipment.


The La France model brought from Petaluma had a 1,000 gal/minute capacity but they kept their two lines at 600 gallons to balance pressure with the other lines, including the one from Guerneville streaming 500 gallons a minute. The PD reported, “During most of the fire nine streams of high-pressure water were being played into the flames, four truck pumpers sending out a total of 2,500 gallons of water per minute.”

Do the math: They were using 150,000 gallons per hour. Santa Rosa’s reservoir had about 1.6M gallons, so the city could be completely dry before suppertime. But wisely, Santa Rosa was prepared for such an emergency. (Of the 2,010,731 words I have published in this journal, this is the first time “Santa Rosa” has appeared anywhere in the vicinity of the word, “wisely.”)

A few years earlier, City Manager Fred Steiner insisted Santa Rosa add a second turbine to the municipal water works, nearly doubling the max intake from 1,350 gallons per minute to 2,600. Since both turbines were running on high, the city was adding just slightly more each minute to the reservoir than was being used to fight the fire.

With the explosion, sirens and general commotion, hundreds of Santa Rosa residents flocked to downtown. Several dozen of them volunteered to help pull lines of hose, even inside the burning department store – a public risk which would be never allowed today. Less helpful was a clutch of “sidewalk firemen” who gathered together and were “arguing over which way the fire was going next, and what the fire departments should or shouldn’t do,” the PD noted. Feeding everybody was an issue; the Women’s Auxiliary of the Fire Department brought coffee and sandwiches to the firemen and since most of the looky-loos had skipped breakfast to see the action, downtown restaurants were packed all day.

County physician Dr. S. S. Bogle assigned a doctor and two nurses to be in attendance and there were injuries needing emergency care. Aside from Captain Rhoades being blown down the flight of stairs, Chief Muenter fell on a glass display case in Rosenberg’s when a hose whipped loose and severed ligaments in two fingers.

The fire was finally considered under control by late afternoon. Santa Rosa was lucky it was confined to those two buildings. It was the first day of a heat wave with temps in the 90s, but there was no wind.

Police removed barricades blocking cars from the downtown area once the fire crews began rolling up their hoses that evening. A traffic jam on Fourth immediately followed, as hundreds of out-of-towners sought to drive past the ruins. The fire had been the top news story around much of the state that Friday, even making headlines in Southern California.

The firefighters – many who had probably been on their feet fifteen hours or more – congregated at the station house two blocks away, where they were offered a hot meal of baked ham, spaghetti and coffee hosted by Dr. Bogle.

Early the next morning insurance adjusters swarmed over the burned rubble. That had to be a tough job – judging by the variety of offerings found in their daily newspaper ads Rosenberg’s had a huge inventory, plus they were in the process of switching out stock for summer. Also, that incarnation of Rosenberg’s was quite different from the upscale department store on D Street many of us remember; it was more like a Big Lots (sorry: BIGLOTS!™) selling all sorts of stuff you might not expect from a department store. Some examples: groceries (canned goods and fresh produce), health remedies, liquor (apparently a top seller), toiletries, “novelty underwear” (I REALLY don’t want to know), dishware, etc. etc. etc. At least once they were spotted even selling lawn furniture. Ads for the old Rosenberg’s put an emphasis on their low, low prices. The big fire happened just before Mother’s Day when they were pushing Coty’s Perfume (“All Odors” $1.00) and “Matron Mode Dresses for the Stylish Not-Too-Thin” (sizes up to 52 Stout) for $1.59.

The final settlement was never revealed, but was speculated at the time to be about $750,000 ($17M today). With that money they built the D Street store and turned the burned-out location into a new New Hotel Santa Rosa with the ground floor becoming the largest restaurant in town, capable of seating 350. While the interior was gutted, the concrete walls proved to indeed be fireproof. The story of creating both buildings is told in “TODAY YOU SAW CAL CAULKINS.”

There’s a postscript to this tragedy that’s actually quite touching. Rosenberg’s always had a large display ad on page three of both Santa Rosa papers. On the day after the fire, they offered a full-page statement instead, signed by Max and Fred Rosenberg. It was titled, “We Still Have Faith in Santa Rosa” and read in part:

We extend our most heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the city officials of Santa Rosa. Our fire and police departments. Our neighboring cities Petaluma, Healdsburg, Guerneville and Sebastopol who so promptly responded with their generous, efficient and appreciated help. We also wish to express our sincere thanks to the many, many friends for their generous and thoughtful words of condolence and their willingness to help – all this gives us a greater incentive and adds to our faith in Santa Rosa.

And then a week later – again on page three – was another full-page message, this time from fifty of their employees. “Our Message to Rosenberg’s” was the header, and part of it read:

A message that comes from the heart of all your employees…we, like you, have faith in Santa Rosa, and we have faith in you. We know that in a very short time we will all be housed and happily employed in a BIGGER, BETTER and MORE BEAUTIFUL ROSENBERG’S.


All photos courtesy Sonoma County Library.
Additional images are available on their website


Rosenberg's Department Store fire May 8, 1936
Rosenberg’s Department Store fire May 8, 1936
Smoke rises from the McDannel building shortly after the explosion in the L. A. Drake electrical and paint store
Smoke rises from the McDannel building shortly after the explosion in the L. A. Drake electrical and paint store
Both the Rosenberg and the McDannel building fully engulfed in flames
Both the Rosenberg and the McDannel building fully engulfed in flames


Firemen and volunteer fight the fire inside Rosenberg's Department Store
Firemen and volunteer fight the fire inside Rosenberg’s Department Store



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