It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. The 1895 Rose Festival was a perfect example of a Victorian American community celebration, drawing visitors from all over the West Coast, including the mayor of San Francisco and the Governor. Although it’s since been overlooked by writers of local history it was viewed at the time as being something like Santa Rosa’s coming out party – even though it ended up being quite a mess.

Hundreds of our ancestors dived in to make that Rose Carnival (its real name) a success through diligent planning and hard work. It also had a major boost because all of the major San Francisco newspapers – the Chronicle, Examiner and Call – touted it as they might a must-see gala happening in their own city. There were full-page features and front page updates over several days. All papers sent artists here to sketch the street scenes and people involved, and as a result it’s the best visually documented glimpse we have of an event from 19th century Santa Rosa. There are also several portraits drawn from photographs which no longer exist. A sampling of the drawings which appeared in SF newspaper articles can be found below.

Those 1895 doings were also surprising because the first Rose Carnival in 1894 was remarkable only in that Santa Rosa had been able to pull off anything at all. There were less than three weeks from when that one was proposed to the day of the parade. The idea that year was to draw visitors from the “Midwinter Exposition” which was kind of a World’s Fair being held in Golden Gate Park.

With so little time to prepare, about all that could be done in 1894 was to decorate storefronts with greenery. “The merchants were requested to ‘rosify and florify’ their places of business,” reported the Sonoma Democrat, praising the shopkeepers for what they were able to accomplish. “The appearance of the streets beggars description. Fourth street is an avenue of festal floral loveliness. The effect, as seen from above and below, looking down the brilliant aisle, is magnificent. Every store has its improvised greenhouse or conservatory.”

The parade was mainly local residents driving their family carriages with some flowers attached. Lots and lots of carriages. Highlights included mounted knights in armor (undoubtedly refugees from Healdsburg’s very weird May Day Knighthood Tournament), the Santa Rosa Canton of the “Patriarchs Militant” (say what?), and not one, but two little girls’ drill brigades. Afterwards there was a “battle of the roses” where the parade participants pelted spectators with the flowers that had adorned their carriages as the onlookers flung them back. This went on for an hour. Should Gentle Reader ever ponder why Robert Ripley was obsessed with oddball behavior, just imagine what an impression that scene would have made on a four year-old boy.

Despite the floral free-for-all, the Democrat commented, “There is much talk about making the Rose Carnival a permanent thing” and plans for the 1895 Carnival began four months in advance. They included a fundraiser by our hometown racist “All-Star Minstrels” at the Athenaeum (Charlie Holmes did a “Negro impersonation” and warbled, “When Johnnie Comes Marching Home”).

This time the festivities would stretch over three days in May, Wednesday through Friday. Today we might expect a town celebration like that to be scheduled for a weekend, but in those times Saturday was the big market day, when farmers shopped in town and stores stayed open late. On the last day there was to be a high-profile race (which would mean gambling) and heaven forfend such a thing happen on the same day we were all supposed to be piously sitting in pews.

Newspapers began whipping up interest weeks before the carnival. Their main focus was on the Carnival Queen competition, which gave editors an excuse to print lots of portraits of pretty women. The papers framed it as a beauty contest, cheering for different favorites to win.

Over 7,000 votes were cast at 10¢ per, and during the final hours ballot boxes were stuffed with envelopes containing up to $100. Isabel Donovan won with 4,610 votes. She was a leader in planning this carnival and the one before; she was also a working woman (general manager of the Sunset Telephone Company’s office in Santa Rosa) and unlike other nominees, wasn’t part of the society clique.

Three leading candidates for Rose Carnival Queen: Belle Spottswood, Isabel Donovan and Addie Steits. San Francisco Call, April 7, 1895
Three leading candidates for Rose Carnival Queen: Belle Spottswood, Isabel Donovan and Addie Steits. San Francisco Call, April 7, 1895

The publicity spotlight was also on cycling, and not just the race held on the final day. John Sheehy’s Petaluma Historian blog has a great essay on the 1890s bicycle craze and our Santa Rosa Wheelmen Club invited other clubs large and small. The Democrat reported the head of the Reliance club of Oakland vowed their group “…with its large contingent of lady bicyclists, will come up in a body to our Rose Carnival if invited. It is the boss club of the State, and will come uniformed and all together on wheels….Just think of it, one hundred and fifty gentlemen and ladies to enter the town on wheels escorted by our local wheelers, won’t it be a fine sight?”


Two sketches from the San Francisco Chronicle, May 9 1895
Two sketches from the San Francisco Chronicle, May 9 1895

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa buzzed like a beehive as final arrangements were underway. Three arches were constructed downtown out of greenery; Chinese lanterns were strung above Fourth Street; plans were made for a flower show at Carnival Park (otherwise known as Kroncke’s Park/City Gardens); homemakers were preparing to make 5,000 sandwiches and the same number of Victorian America’s favorite junk food, doughnuts; hammers and saws were busy constructing parade floats, fourteen in all. Santa Rosa was ready.

Santa Rosa wasn’t ready.

Visitors unexpectedly started showing up the day before the doings were going to start. The SF Call noted that on May 7 “Strangers are already beginning to arrive. The noon train on the Southern Pacific was loaded with visitors. It is plain that the full capacity of the city to provide lodgings for the guests will be put to the test, but it is confidently believed that all who remain over night will be cared for.”

1895rosead(RIGHT: 1895 Rose Carnival announcement. Sonoma Democrat, May 4 1895)

(In a Believe-It-Or-Not! twist, Ernest Finley, future editor of the Press Democrat might have burned down the city that night. A kerosene lamp exploded in his Fourth Street printing shop and he threw the burning fragments into the street, where workers were still putting up the paper lanterns and bunting.)

Wednesday was the first day of the Carnival and the only event scheduled was the evening queen’s coronation at the Athenaeum and as such, it was expected to be more of a community event. The theater could hold an audience up to 2,500 in a pinch but the crowd outside was so large few could even get near the building. “The rush for seats was terrific. Two able-bodied men stood at the portal after the theater received its complement and refused admittance to the clamoring multitude” (SF Chronicle).

Not that they missed much. The featured orator was Attorney Albert G. Burnett, who began by noting the committee asked him to speak for no more than five minutes. He droned on for about half an hour, saying nothing (“…As we contemplate the picture before us we can not be justly charged with extravagance in the declaration that no imagination could be too bold nor copious nor creative, and no fancy could be too affluent to conjure tbe invisible spirit of beauty that dwells in these radiant blooms from our gardens…”). Then there were various classical music selections performed by locals.

The coronation was ersatz pageantry and pomp, the most high school-y part of the carnival. But as described by the Chronicle, there was one moment that seemed rather sweet: “…the hundred little boys and girls who had been halted in the main aisle were given the word to advance. On they came in pairs with their curly heads just showing above the tops of the chairs. Each tiny maid had her proud, or otherwise, escort by the arm and the whole band got up the steps without mishap. This in itself was a creditable performance and provoked much applause.”

After the ceremonies the crowd filed out of the theater to find an actual spectacle awaiting them: “Hundreds of Chinese lanterns bobbed and blinked from the same level above the street for fully a mile. While the exercises were in progress inside the merchants had lowered away on the lanterns and lighted them. The effect of the illumination was novel in the extreme – The red glow lit up the vivid bunting on the front of the buildings and gave the whole place the appearance of being in flames” (SF Chronicle).

The next day was the parade. “When the sun rose this morning it found the city fully dressed for the festival,” a Call reporter wrote. “Bunting and flowers and green things streamed over and bedecked everything, softening the hard lines of business blocks and quickening the long stretch of the streets with lively color.”

No one in Santa Rosa realized the first signs of the coming troubles were popping up at the Ferry Building in San Francisco shortly after dawn on that Thursday morning.

Because that was typically a slow day for travel, the SF&NP railroad offered a special $1.00 excursion rate for a round trip between San Francisco and Santa Rosa. The SF Call even promoted it with a little spot item headlined, “A Cheap Excursion – Ample Facilities Furnished to See the Rose Carnival.”

The Chronicle described the resulting chaos: “The crowd at the Tiburon ferry in San Francisco in the morning was immense. The approaches to the entrance of the wharf were packed with people. So dense was the throng in front of the ticket windows that persons who had provided themselves in advance were unable to get to the door. The streetcars kept arriving every minute with additions to the crowd. The attire of the ladies was disordered in the struggle to get through the ferry doorway and reach the boat.”

Packed to capacity, the steamer finally left the pier to cross the Golden Gate. Immediately a second ferry pulled into the slip and it, too, quickly filled with tourists. (And don’t forget hundreds of these passengers were bringing along their bicycles.) The sheer numbers were so unusual the Governor mentioned it at the top of a letter he wrote for the Examiner, and he wasn’t even on either of the ferries.

Once in Tiburon, the first excursion train had twelve cars that were likewise jammed full. The regular morning train followed and then there was another special with 15 cars. At that point, the ticket office in San Francisco closed its doors. That had never happened before.

“Very large crowds of people from other parts on Thursday were counted upon as a certainty, but the most sanguine were amazed at the multitudes which came pouring in from all directions by the regular and special trains,” the Democrat said.

And that was just the swarm of humanity descending upon Santa Rosa by rail. “They came from all directions and in all sorts of vehicles,” reported the Chronicle. “A six horse stage drove over from Calistoga with a load of decorated passengers and all the farmers within twenty miles of the carnival hitched up and came to town. The side streets were blocked with wagons.”

The flaw in all their planning was that they did not anticipate anything near such a great success. The 1894 carnival had 5,000-7,000 visitors, and they expected this year would be about the same. The San Francisco Examiner thought there were 15,000 visitors. The Sacramento Bee estimated there were twice that many, which would have made the crowd 5x the population of Santa Rosa.

From the SF Call: “The city has been thronged with visitors, taxing to the very limits the ability of its citizens to make provision for them. All the morning before the parade and all the afternoon after it had dispersed and the excitement of the time was at an end men and women, especially women with children, thronged the streets, resting upon the steps and doorways of stores and dwellings. The halls and stairways of all the hotels were peopled in this way, women and children were crowding into those little greenrooms that are ordinarily given over to the quiet game of poker, which game was forced thereby to suspend. All of this indicates the tremendous descent upon the little city and an overflow beyond the capacity to accommodate.”

The parade was scheduled to start at 12:30 but was delayed for nearly an hour, no reasons given. To fill the time, two hundred cyclists performed some sort of drill on Fourth Street.

Viewing the Rose Parade on Fourth Street. San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895
Viewing the Rose Parade on Fourth Street. San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895

Once the parade finally began the newspaper descriptions were surprisingly light, often tossing off a sentence or two for even the most elaborate floats. The Santa Rosa and Petaluma papers usually identified who was in the parade and reported – sometimes in great detail – what women were wearing.

Yet there was no question that the amount of decoration went far beyond what appeared the year before. Everything that could have a flower or just a ribbon attached was adorned – hats, parasols, wheel spokes on floats and carriages, bridles on horses, ceremonial swords and guns…you name it.

Queen of the Rose Carnival float. San Francisco Call, May 10 1895
Queen of the Rose Carnival float. San Francisco Call, May 10 1895
"'Sunshine' in the parade was represented by a large yellow float, studded with stars on a blue background. At the back a rising sun sent its golden rays upon the earth. Miss Grace Tuttle posed as the Goddess of Sunshine." San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895
“‘Sunshine’ in the parade was represented by a large yellow float, studded with stars on a blue background. At the back a rising sun sent its golden rays upon the earth. Miss Grace Tuttle posed as the Goddess of Sunshine.” San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895

Sadly, there was no illustration of the award winner for best decorated float, which was the entry from the Petaluma’s Young Ladies’ Mandolin Club: “…The fairy ‘boat’ was covered with pure white flowers, and within it were ten beautiful and charming young ladies who are numbered among the social favorites of the City of Hills, and who are members of the young ladies’ orchestra. All were exquisitely attired in snowy white, and each of the fair passengers of the dainty craft held and played upon a stringed instrument thus creating an effect pleasing in the extreme to both eye and ear” (Sonoma Democrat).

Unidentified girl on butterfly float and some of the 30 floral equestrians, "smothered in flowers, moss and ferns." Image San Francisco Examiner, description San Francisco Chronicle, both May 10 1895
Unidentified girl on butterfly float and some of the 30 floral equestrians, “smothered in flowers, moss and ferns.” Image San Francisco Examiner, description San Francisco Chronicle, both May 10 1895

Watching the parade was undoubtedly a joy, whether you lived here or not. But as the hours passed, spectators found that all those sandwiches and doughnuts, meant to feed a much smaller crowd, were gone.

“Those citizens here who had food and drinks to sell found themselves sadly pressed for supplies before the day was over. So great was the demand for victuals in any form that everything in sight was devoured. The hotels and restaurants were eaten out of house and home and the lunches set by the ladies in vacant stores vanished like dew before a summer sun. More than one able-bodied man who came late had to bear up under the heat and burden of the day with no other sustenance than hard-boiled eggs and angel cake. The country people who brought large tubs full of doughnuts, fried pullets and jam were well fitted to stave off famine and arouse envy” (Chronicle).

While nothing was mentioned in any of those Victorian-era papers, I shudder to think what the toilet situation must have been like during those Rose Carnivals. At the time Santa Rosa’s sewer system was notoriously undersized, with sewage sometimes oozing out of manholes even during normal conditions.*

To out-of-town cyclists and enthusiasts the bike race the next day was far more an attraction than the parade. Promoters expected a large crowd (it was later estimated there were 7,000 race spectators) because newspapers were hyping it as potentially a milestone event. The Democrat breathlessly told readers, “…it is expected that if the weather is not too windy the world’s record for the mile and half mile stands a good chance of being broken.”

Problem was, all the hotel rooms in town were already taken by the day of the parade, further adding to the stress of a large portion of our visitors. Since the excursion trains were just sitting in the railyard waiting to take people back to the ferries that evening, it was decided the railroad would run special reverse-excursion trains from Santa Rosa to Petaluma, where hopefully the bicycling crowd could find lodgings. That was also something that had never happened before.

The only photo supposedly from the 1895 Rose Parade, although there was no description in any newspaper of a group of children as seen here. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
The only photo supposedly from the 1895 Rose Parade, although there was no description in any newspaper of a group of children as seen here. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

Parade day wound up with an “illuminated” repeat that evening, although all that meant was the dim arc streetlights were turned on. And yes, afterwards there was another stupid battle of the roses.

On the last day the main events were that bike race at the Pierce brothers’ race track (now the county fairgrounds) where no records were set. There was a baseball game between Santa Rosa and the team from Stanford and a grand ball at the Athenaeum that night.

The only real excitement of that Friday was a runaway hot air balloon: “Professor George Weston made an unsuccessful balloon ascension from B and Ross streets. The aeronaut was to drop from a parachute when well up in the clouds, but his hot air balloon did not rise rapidly enough, and floating too low over the top of a house near C street, just a block away from where he started, he was compelled to let go to save himself and clung to the roof. The balloon rose some distance and returned to earth” (SF Call).

And thus the 1895 Rose Carnival was over and despite the many snafus, it was considered a great success. They didn’t lose money and actually ended up with a small profit. Plans immediately began to make the next one even grander.

Later Carnivals/Festivals are better remembered than the one in 1895, but in their day it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. The amount of decoration was over the top and there’s no question that it set the baseline for every Rose Parade that has since followed.

In a historical context it’s worth noting it represented the sort of progress found in the Gilded Age, when women were making gains (albeit small) in being recognized for leadership roles. Unlike the first Carnival, half of the 1895 committee chairs were held by women.

Sure, it could have been planned better, but it was impossible to predict the turnout would be so enormous. It was something new and exciting and despite the huge crowd was probably great fun as long as you brought your own sandwiches, didn’t mind sleeping in a doorway and weren’t too fussy about bathroom facilities.


* At the time Santa Rosa had a sewage farm on the north bank of Santa Rosa Creek, about where the Stony Circle business park is today. Any overflow of the ponds due to heavy rains or excess waste sent raw sewage into the creek. For more see “The Sewage of Santa Rosa” by John Cummings.

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