It’s early 1861 and the nation is falling apart. Seven states have seceded from the Union and their troops are seizing local military forts. The New Orleans Mint and Customhouse are commandeered along with $350,000 (equivalent to $18M today). There are widespread worries an attack on Washington D.C. is imminent – yet hope abounds an outright war can still be avoided.

Most Americans could stay reasonably abreast of the crisis without too much effort. There were an estimated 3,000 newspapers and trains, stagecoaches and the post office carried those papers far and wide. News also could also spread quickly via telegrams and letters. It was a wondrously efficient network – at least, as long as you lived east of the Mississippi River.

In the critical months leading up to the Civil War there was no transcontinental railroad or telegraph. Not even a tiny wisp of news from the East Coast could reach California or Oregon in less than three weeks, which was how long it took mail or a messenger to get here via stagecoach from Missouri. And that was only under ideal conditions with the best luck; a lot might go wrong during a 2,000 mile bumpy trip across deserts and mountains on rough trails.


This is not the place to dig into the workings of the Pony Express (there’s an excellent overview on Wikipedia) but know this: Everything you know about it is probably a lie.

The Pony Express is a favorite myth about the Wild West, right up there with straight-shootin’ heroic lawmen and unhinged sinister outlaws. Magazines and novels romanticized the riders as fearless daredevils on stallions racing like fierce winds; instead, the job was monotonous and a tiring plod. In at least one instance the rider fell asleep in the saddle, followed by his mule turning around and heading back to the stable.

The best overall book about the Pony Express is “Orphans Preferred” by Christopher Corbett and a big chunk of it is devoted to debunking falsehoods, some of which had roots in actual events but were exaggerated and then larded up further. After nine Indians attacked an Express station it grew to be a warparty of 500 in the retelling. It’s almost certain the most famous person who claimed to be involved, Buffalo Bill, was never a rider as he had just turned 14 when the Express began. Wild Bill Hickok wasn’t a rider either.

The book takes its title from a famous ad (shown below) that read “WANTED. YOUNG, SKINNY, WIRY FELLOWS. NOT OVER 18. MUST BE EXPERT RIDERS. WILLING TO RISK DEATH DAILY. ORPHANS PREFERRED.” Copies are still popular today, sold online and at souvenir shops, often on antiqued paper or vellum to appear authentic. But it’s a hoax – the text made its first appearance in a 1923 Oakland Tribune Sunday feature.


Thus it came to pass a freight company that supplied western military forts started the Pony Express in April 1860, with the promise that a relay of fast horsemen could deliver mail to California in 7-10 days. But as it turned out, the Pony was only slightly faster than the stagecoaches.

By coincidence, the Pony Express launched just as Sonoma County newspapers were starting to gain wider Bay Area circulation. During the mid-1850s there were two lackluster rural weeklies, the Sonoma County Journal in Petaluma and the Sonoma Democrat in Santa Rosa. In April 1860 the Democrat was bought by Thomas L. Thompson and in May Samuel Cassiday and a partner took over the nascent Petaluma Argus, which was only a few months old and thus far had been published in fits and starts. (MORE on the genealogy of these early newspapers)

There weren’t many places in the West during 1860 that could support three papers, but Sonoma County then had the most people on the coast after San Francisco. Also, the papers offered more than the usual market reports and items on local farmers drunkenly falling off barn roofs. Thompson’s Democrat was rabidly pro-secession, pro-slavery and anti-Lincoln. Cassiday was a “Black Republican” (meaning an abolitionist) and once the war started the Argus offered extensive coverage of Union troop movements along with battlefield reports. The Journal took a moderate stance and advocated for peace until the war began, then often wrote about it with a detached tone as if it were a conflict between two nations overseas.

The Pony Express updates were like catnip to their readers. Columns headlined “EASTERN NEWS – BY PONY EXPRESS” (or similar) were usually at the top of the front pages and it’s easy to understand the appeal; the news in those columns has an exciting immediacy even though the events happened weeks earlier. It reminds me of what it was like following breaking news on Twitter during its heyday: A frothy mixture of solid facts, opinionated guesswork and crazy bullshit.

Should you want to enjoy a vicarious thrill of experiencing the start of the Civil War, you could do worse than scanning for “Pony Express” references in those papers. A selection of excerpts can be read in the SOURCES section below, but here’s a teaser from the Argus, May 7 1861 concerning the infamous Baltimore riot:

The Massachusetts regiments in their attempt to pass through on their way to Washington, were attacked by a mob, who threw stones and discharged pistols at them.

The soldiers fired on the Mob, killing several.

Three soldiers were killed, and several were wounded. The mob increased.

The Mayor tried to stop the riot.

After several hours fighting the mob dispersed.

Military Law has been proclaimed.

The citizens of Baltimore and vicinity have destroyed the bridges and railroads.

The Evening Post learns that Jeff. Davis, at the head of the Confederated Army, was marching on Washington.

There is great activity in the North in consequence. More new companies were being raised.

Washington was filling up with soldiers.

There was surprisingly little overlap in the Pony Express items offered by the three Sonoma County papers. An obvious reason is bias; the pro-Confederate Democrat and pro-Union Argus were not likely to print something negative about their team but were inclined to use items reflecting badly on the other guys.

Their schedules were also a factor. Since the papers were weeklies, editors had to wait another seven days when news came in too close to deadline; by then the item could be considered no longer newsworthy.

A non-Civil War story showed an example of that. There was extremely high interest in a May 1860 prize fight between the British champ and a Californian nicknamed “Benicia Boy.” On the day when details were expected to arrive by Pony Express, “thousands rushed to the bulletin boards” in the windows of the San Francisco Bulletin according to the Sonoma Democrat’s column published on May 10th. Alas, the results were not yet known when the Santa Rosa paper went to press – yet the next day, Petaluma’s Sonoma County Journal was able to print a full account of the boxing match. The following editions of the Democrat never acknowledged who won the fight.

But while the Sonoma County newspapers offered readers exciting weekly updates from the East, here’s the angle that was never mentioned: None of those papers had any association with the Pony Express – the editors were only rewriting Pony material published by other California journals days earlier. Look at the examples transcribed below and note all three Petaluma and Santa Rosa papers deceptively implied the pony riders were swaggering in to their own offices carrying the latest dispatches. Phrases such as, “The Pony Express furnishes us…” and “The Pony has arrived with…” and “The following is a summary of news received by Pony Express…” are found in nearly every column.

In truth, the terminus for the Pony Express was Sacramento, after the Pony rider had passed through Carson City more than a day earlier. That town had a telegraph line to San Francisco, so urgent news – such as the election of Lincoln – could reach the Bay Area ASAP. From Sacramento the letters were sent by boat to the company’s agent in San Francisco, the Alta Telegraph Office. The Daily Alta California would print the news summaries sent by their East Coast agents, often stretching the items out over a few days. (Why sell just one edition when you can sell four?)

Like regular mail intended for Sonoma County sent by stagecoach, the Alta and other newspapers arrived from San Francisco via the Petaluma paddlewheel steamboat, then copies intended for the Democrat in Santa Rosa were forwarded on “up-country” via the local stage. Yes, this last leg of delivery delayed receipt of the Pony Express news for an additional day or two, but it gave our local papers the chance to incorporate news from other West Coast newspapers that had correspondents sending items via the Pony, particularly the San Francisco Bulletin and Sacramento Union. Looking back, aggregating Pony Express material from several sources was what made those columns in the Sonoma County papers such a great source of the latest news. (Well, the latest news from about a month before.)

Those out-of-town papers were also sold to the public in Sonoma County, of course, making the popular Pony Express items available days before the local papers could collect and reprint them. To stay competitive, in the summer of 1861 the Journal and Democrat each began printing a weekly broadside “Extra” of Pony news immediately after it was published in the San Francisco newspapers. That was accomplished by having the items telegraphed from San Francisco to Napa, followed by a speedy rider carrying the text to Petaluma. From there a copy was rushed to Santa Rosa, presumably by another horseman. The collaboration between the Journal and Democrat was surprising, given that the two papers were feuding and name-calling just a couple of years before.

Sonoma County Journal extra of Pony Express news from June 16, 1861
Sonoma County Journal extra of Pony Express news from June 16, 1861

The arrangement only lasted a few weeks. There was no explanation in the Journal why it was cancelled, but the Democrat editor Thompson complained too few were willing to pay 50¢ for a single sheet of paper printed on one side. Many “sponge” readers were passing around the same copy or hearing it read aloud on the street, so he cancelled the service in mid-July. Producing the extras was costing him about $30/week, he wrote, which “was too heavy to be borne, in view of the meagre patronage the enterprise received.”

Even had they been a success, the extras wouldn’t have lasted much longer. In October 1861 the Pony Express was shut down two days after the transcontinental telegraph was completed. It existed less than nineteen months.

Both the Journal and Democrat reported West Coast congressmen wanted to revive it as a federal service, but it’s difficult to understand why. It shaved only a very few days off delivery time, was absurdly expensive, and could only carry a tiny amount of mail (20 lb. was the max, compared to the 2,700 lb. carried by the stagecoach that brought Mark Twain out west).

In later years the Democrat waxed nostalgic about the Pony at every opportunity. It reprinted in 1883 a very interesting history about its origins from the Chicago Times, which is also transcribed below. Bitterness about the failure of the Pony Express extras was mentioned in the history of the newspaper found in the 1892 promotional issue, which deserves every historian’s close attention for myriad other reasons.

But even during its short lifespan, newspaper editors nationwide were painting the Pony Express as if it were a milestone in American – nay, human! – achievement. Near the midpoint of its existence, the Democrat printed a nice homage from the St. Louis Republican:

…His journey lies two thousand miles across a great continent, and beyond the rivers, plains and mountains that must be passed; a little world of civilization is waiting for the contents of his wallet. He and his successors must hurry on through every danger and difficulty, and bring the Atlantic and Pacific shores within a week of each other. No stop, no stay, no turning aside for rest, shelter or safety, but right forward. By sunlight, and moonlight, and starlight, and through the darkness of the midnight storms, he must still fly on and on toward the distant goal. Now skimming along over the emerald sea, now laboring through the sandy track, now plunging headlong into the swollen flood, now wending his way through the dark canyon, or climbing the rocky stoop, and now picking his way through or around an ambuscade of murderous savages. No danger nor difficulty must check his speed or change his route, for the world is waiting for the news he shall fetch and carry. It is a noble enterprise, and as the Express hurries down the street and across the river, and I think of the toil and peril of the way, my heart says, “God speed to the boy and the pony!”

Of such stuff legends are made, and in the 20th century Sonoma County joined the rest of America, reading dime novels and watching western movies about its death-defying riders. Local rodeos would include a mail pouch relay race after the style of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But around here we have good reasons to remember it for something else: As the Civil War approached and tensions rose in our politically divided county, it was the single thing that brought together a flag-waving Union paper like the Argus and the Sonoma Democrat with its Confederacy cheerleading.

It’s doubtful news carried by the Pony Express materially affected the lives of a single person in Sonoma County, but it certainly made our ancestors feel less isolated from loved ones out East and the rest of the nation facing a time of tremendous crisis. Another commentary from the Democrat’s San Francisco correspondent summed it up well:

…All remember how far it seemed from home when we arrived in California, and how the Overland Mail appeared to shorten the distance — now that the Pony Express brings news from home in seven days, we almost cease to be homesick and, when the Pacific Telegraph is completed, we will have no further need to be even lonesome — because we are at home; when time is annihilated, distance is nothing.


(Title image: Detail from “The Coming and Going of the Pony Express” Frederic Remington, 1901. Courtesy Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa )



OVERLAND EXPRESS. – The National [Daily National Democrat] has positive information from Washington, that a “Courier,” or “Pony Express,” will be started on the 3d day of April next, between St. Joseph, Mo., and Placerville, California, to run weekly each way. The route will be via Salt Lake City, Camp Floyd and Carson City, and the trip is to be made inside of ten days.

Between the present extreme eastern and western telegraph stations, St. Joseph and Carson City, the time will be reduced to less than eight days, and parties in San Francisco and New York may communicate by telegraph and express within that interval.

– Sonoma County Journal, March 2 1860



The Pony Express arrived at Carson, Thursday, in less than nine days from St. Joseph’s, bringing news from the East to the 3d inst.


– Sonoma Democrat, April 19 1860


CHARGES FOR TELEGRAPHING.- It will be seen by the following, from a Washington dispatch, dated March 29th, that the price of dispatches across the continent is quite an item:

“The managers of the principal telegraphic lines, in connection with the Pony Express, have agreed upon the following price for private dispatches to and from California: For ten words from any Atlantic city, or any other telegraph station, or vice versa, two dollars and forty-five cents; for a similar number of words from the first station on the California telegraph line to any part of California, and vice versa, two dollars; while the charge for expressing the message without regard to length, will be $2.45 each, making the sum total from any station in the Atlantic States, to any station in California, $6.90 for ten words. The charge for each additional word above that number will be 20 cts. for the entire distance.”

– Sonoma County Journal, April 20 1860


Arrival of the Pony Express.

The following is a summary of news received by Pony Express, which arrived in San Francisco on the 29th April: There is every probability of the passage of the Pacific Telegraph bill, by the present session of Congress. — The first Pony Express from San Francisco arrived at St. Joseph in ten days. — The South Carolina State Democratic Convention met at Columbia on the 10th ult. The resolutions reaffirmed the platforms of Baltimore and Cincinnati, and adopted the Dred Scott decision. — The Attorney General justifies the seizure of the Mexican steamers. — The Marshal of Ohio reports that the residents of Ashtabula county are ready to take up arms to resist the taking of John Brown, Jr. before the Harper’s Ferry Committee.


– Sonoma Democrat, May 3 1860


Our San Francisco Correspondence.

…Speaking of telegraphs — how near we would be if we but had a line from San Francisco to Santa Rosa. All remember how far it seemed from home when we arrived in California, and how the Overland Mail appeared to shorten the distance — now that the Pony Express brings news from home in seven days, we almost cease to be homesick and, when the Pacific Telegraph is completed, we will have no further need to be even lonesome — because we are at home; when time is annihilated, distance is nothing…The Pony Express arrived yesterday, bringing dates to the 28th April. When it was first telegraphed from Carson Valley, thousands rushed to the bulletin boards, to see who were the victors in the two great fights; but as the information was exclusive, the Bulletin gave notice that the dispatches would be published in the regular edition of that paper, thus magnanimously keeping everybody in suspense, from 10 a. m. to 3 p. m. in the meantime, various were the rumors that were spread [Editor: This was the Heenan-Sayers prize fight – see article.]…The general impression is, that Douglas has been nominated, and cords of money is offered on that result, with no takers…

– Sonoma Democrat, May 10 1860


The Democratic National Convention.

Since our last publication, we have, by the arrival of the Pony Express, of the 5th May, at San Francisco, received more in detail the proceedings ot this body; but the accounts are still so imperfect, that it is almost impossible to form any definite conclusion as to its action…By telegraph to San Francisco, on Monday last, we have the news, brought by the Pony Express, to the 12th of May. This intelligence throws but little additional light on the subject. But from it we gather that the action of the seceding members in leaving the Convention has by no means received a general approval by their constituents, and is decidedly condemned by the great mass of the Southern Democracy. From the demonstrations of public opinion in the South, we have but little doubt that the seceding members will be compelled to reunite with the Convention when it assembles at Baltimore, or their places will be filled by other men better disposed for harmonizing the party, and that a nomination will be made upon such a basis as will enable us to present an undivided front to the enemy in the coming conflict.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 24 1860


THE PONY EXPRESS. — Much anxiety is felt for the safety of the Pony Express, which is now over due. We learn from the Bulletin that the rider who brought in the last express was compelled, through fear of the Indians, to lie by some thirty-six hours, at Smith’s Creek Station. Although it is asserted that seventy-five well armed men, properly stationed, would afford ample protection, yet it is feared that the express will be stopped until the Indian difficulties are suppressed for the want of means to afford protection to the men at the different stations in the Indian country — some of whom, we learn from the Standard, are already sending in for permission from the Agent to leave. It is to be hoped that the force which has been organized in Carson Valley, will bo able to afford the necessary protection, and that the express which has now become a necessity to California, may not, under any circumstances, be discontinued.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 31 1860


ANOTHER PONY EXPRESS.— The Butterfield Overland Mail Company, it is said, will start a Pony Express as soon as a telegraph is completed to Los Angeles. By that time, it is supposed the line will have been stretched to Fort Smith, and the intervening distance will be traveled in five days.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 14 1860


THE PONY EXPRESS — Dispatches from Carson City under date of June 8th, state that a company of twenty picked men, well armed and mounted, had left with the Pony Express and Salt Lake mail. They will proceed until they meet the express or mail coming this way – re-establishing the route by having men and animals at the stations destroyed, as they go along. It is thought they will not have to go farther than Ruby Valley. If necessary, however, they will go to Camp Floyd.

– Sonoma County Journal, June 15 1860


Our San Francisco Correspondence.
San Francisco, June 19, 1860.

Editor Sonoma County Democrat: The stoppage of the Pony Express at this important political time, is greatly to be regretted; the agent, Mr. Finney, has announced that it will start again next Friday; this, however, does not provide for news coming from the East before the middle of July or first of August — and, until that time, we must resignedly wait the comparatively slow coaches.

POLITICAL. Yesterday, the Baltimore Convention met, and the result of their deliberations will not reach us before the 10th of July — such a delay, how provoking. The Republicans claim to have elected Logan by some 150 or 200 votes; this shows rather an anti-Lane, than a Black Republican victory… [The Southern Democratic Party would nominate pro-slavery Sen. Joseph Lane (D-Oregon) as Breckinridge’s VP candidate. -Ed.]

– Sonoma Democrat, June 21 1860


Another Richmond. – The Democratic National Convention assembled at Baltimore last Monday, and have without doubt ere this decided upon their man for the Presidential race. Who that choice is, we cannot with a certainty, predict, but “rather guess” it is none other than the “Little Giant” of the West, who has once before successfully stood face to face with the “Fence Rail Splitter.” The race now naturally lies between Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, and we believe it is to be made by them.

– Sonoma County Journal, June 22 1860


Arrival of the Pony.

By Pony Express, dates are furnished to July 6th, from St. Louis. We glean the following:

The Democratic State Central Committee of Pennsylvania, by a vote of 19 to 43, refused to adopt a resolution declaring Douglas the nominee. A Breckinridge ratification meeting held at Philadelphia reaffirmed the Charleston platform… Forney’s Press is opposed bitterly to the action of the State Central Committee, and “favors the union of the Douglas, Bell, and Lincoln men, in order to keep the election out of Congress, where Lane would be successful.” The State National Committee of New York issued a call for a convention to nominate Electors. It pledged the State vote for Breckinridge and Lane, who are recognized as the regular nominees…A Douglas ratification meeting at Washington is reported as a decided and mortifying failure…

– Sonoma Democrat, July 26 1860


TO BE DISCONTINUED. – The St. Louis correspondent of the Sacramento Union writes that there is a strong probability the Pony Express will be discontinued after the week ending July 21st. It was pretty well settled that Russell & Co. would get no mail contract, and as the Pony Express was now a total loss, almost to them, there was no inducement to continue it. He adds that the people of California may thank Postmaster General Holt and Senator Gwin for it.

– Sonoma County Journal, August 10 1860


MORE INDIAN TROUBLE. – Intelligence from Carson Valley announces the renewal of Indian hostilities on the route between Carson City and Salt Lake. Two or more of the Pony Express stations had been attacked, and some of the stock run off. Several Indians had been killed by the U. S. Troops, they fortunately arriving at the point of attack just at the right time. Otherwise it is probable the result would have been very different.

– Sonoma County Journal, August 24 1860


…The St. Louis Fair is now being held, and the city is immensely crowded. The Prince of Wales was expected to be present…

POLITICAL NEWS. At Albany, N. Y., on the 25th inst., James T. Brady, candidate for Governor on the Breckinridge ticket, made a speech. He proclaimed war to the knife against the Douglas Democracy, declaring that if Lincoln was elected Seward would be his Secretary of State, and that after this contest Douglas would not be heard of again. This speech is regarded as a final blow to a union of the Democracy in that State…

– Sonoma Democrat, October 11 1860


Our San Francisco Correspondence.
San Francisco, Nov. 12th, 1860.

Editors Sonoma County Democrat: The great battle is over, and although it has resulted in partial defeat, let not Democrats be disheartened, but rather let them organize and prepare themselves better for the next struggle, when the now prevailing party will have been “played out,” as were their immediate successors. Although six days have passed since the election, little is yet known of the result. According to latest accounts Lincoln is about 1100 ahead, but this seems doubtful, as it is strongly suspected that the despatches [sic] are not much to be relied on, having been gotten up more for betting purposes than for the diffusion of reliable statistical information. The news from the East will be sent with the greatest despatch by the Pony, and will be received here the fore part of next week, The telegraphing facilities of the Eastern States will be tested to their utmost, but it is generally expected that the general result will be known by that time. How annoying it is that the knowledge of a great event must be kept from us for days when a few hundred miles of telegraphic wire would put us in immediate possession of the all-desired information…

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1860



The Pony Express arrived yesterday from St. Louis, (Mo.) with Eastern news to the 17th inst., from which we clip the following items: In New York city the fusion has twenty eight thousand. The State goes about fifty thousand majority for Lincoln. All six Union Congressmen are elected in the city. The following States have large increased majorities for Lincoln, viz: Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. In Pensylvania Lincoln’s plurality is between fifty and seventy thousand…

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1860


The Pony Express.— The Sacramento Union learns that Russell, Major & Co. had given orders to the Pony riders on the route that the Pony Express that left St. Joseph Nov. 8th, with the news of the Presidential election, must make the trip over the continent in seven days.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 29 1860



The “Pony Express” has become an “institution.” Very few, however, stop to think of its importance and character. It is nothing much to see a man or boy start off on horseback, but when we go to the extreme western border of civilization, and see a man striking off alone to form a line of communication through an unbroken wilderness of more than two thousand miles in extent, it amounts to the sublime — and this to be traversed in one week ! and surrounded with constant danger. But a curious fact is presented in this, which is, that the Pony Express is a quicker mode of carrying the mails than by steam. It takes from three to four days for the mail to go from Boston to St. Louis, by railroad about 1000 miles, with all the advantages of our admirable system of mailing, and all the aids of the highest civilization. These thoughts have been created by the following spicy extract from the correspondence of The St. Louis Republican, describing the journey of the pony:

“Bang, goes the signal gun, and away flies the express pony, with news for all nations lumbering at his back. But whither flies this furious rider on his nimble steed? It is no holiday scamper or gallop that this young Jehu is bent upon. His journey lies two thousand miles across a great continent, and beyond the rivers, plains and mountains that must be passed; a little world of civilization is waiting for the contents of his wallet. He and his successors must hurry on through every danger and difficulty, and bring the Atlantic and Pacific shores within a week of each other. No stop, no stay, no turning aside for rest, shelter or safety, but right forward. By sunlight, and moonlight, and starlight, and through the darkness of the midnight storms, he must still fly on and on toward the distant goal. Now skimming along over the emerald sea, now laboring through the sandy track, now plunging headlong into the swollen flood, now wending his way through the dark canon, or climbing the rocky stoop, and now picking his way through or around an ambuscade of murderous savages. No danger nor difficulty must check his speed or change his route, for the world is waiting for the news he shall fetch and carry. It is a noble enterprise, and as the Express hurries down the street and across the river, and I think of the toil and peril of the way, my heart says, ‘God speed to the boy and the pony!’”

– Sonoma Democrat, December 6 1860


The Pony Express arrived at Fort Churchill on the 10th, bringing St. Louis news to the 29th ult. We coliate the following, the most important items, from the Alta dispatch:

The papers are filled with rumors abouf the President’s message. All agree that it will take strong grounds against secession, both as a matter of right and propriety…

…Disunion is alarmingly on the increase. Many of the Northern Republican Journals urge the greatest concessions in order to allay the storm.

At a meeting, held at New Orleans on the 22d, an Association was organized to promote concert among the Southern States, and organize military companies throughout Louisiana, with a view to secession…

…A citizen’s meeting of all parties was held on the 26th, in Louisville. It passed resolutions to insist on the execution of the Fugitive Slave law and stay in the Union.

Several candidates for the South Carolina Convention repudiate the idea that any free State can join the Southern confederacy…

…It is said the Kansas troubles give the President much perplexity, and they will probably, still further increase the animosity of the Cotton States against the North…

– Sonoma County Journal, December 14 1860



With this number of the Democrat, our readers will find a supplement, containing that all-important paper, the Annual Message of the President of the United States…The Message was telegraphed from St. Louis to Fort Kearny, where it overtook the Pony Express. Its transmittal to the press of the State was effected in the short time of twelve days…

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1860


…The personal friends of the President say it is absolutely decided not to reinforce Fort Sumter, because sending more troops there would tend to produce irritation, and reinforcements are unnecessary…

– Sonoma Democrat, February 7 1861


The Pony Express, with St. Louis dates to February 2d, arrived at Fort Churchill Feb. 15th.

St. Louis, Feb. 2d.
…The condition of compromise is still under discussion in both branches of Congress, but no action has yet been had indicating the probable result, through [sic] chances of compromise are materially strengthened.

On Thursday Seward made another great speech, inculcating the idea of the Union being paramount to party and all other considerations, and denouncing at once secession or revolution, coercion or defiance, and speaking of war as the last resort and one to be deplored. He expressed the opinion that all the difficulties would be amicably settled, in which opinion Douglas concurred.

Mason insisted that Seward’s speech was one of battle, blood and destruction, which was replied to by Seward. Great interest is now attached to the Convention which is to assemble at Washington on Monday next, as most likely to afford a solution of the present embroglio.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 21 1861


The Pony Express furnishes us with St Louis dates to the 5th inst. Notwithstanding the “rumors” relative to the doings of the Secessionists, are strongly tinctured with “sensation,” we yet have a strong and abiding faith in the perpetuity of the Union, and will not abandon the hope that the difficulty will be brought to a close without resort to arms…

…The Mint and Customhouse at New Orleans, and the revenue-cutter Lewis Cass, at Mobile, have been seized by the State authorities without resistance. The matter was made the subject of a special meeting of the Cabinet. There was $350,000 in the Mint.

There are flying rumors, as yet unconfirmed, that there has been fighting at Pensacola; and that Fort Sumter had been reinforced, and attacked by the State forces of South Carolina…

…The Select Committee to-day examined John Forney, Clerk in the Interior Court at Baltimore, touching secret organizations in Maryland for the seizure of the Capital. He denied all knowledge, but asserted that if military companies from the North attempted to pass through Maryland to Washington, to attend the inauguration of Lincoln, they would be stopped…

– Sonoma County Journal, February 22 1861


THE LATEST. – The Pony has arrived with dates From Washington to the 23d of February. Lincoln had arrived safe in Washington. It was rumored, though not generally believed, that a plot was on foot to assassinate him in Baltimore; of which he was informed by Gen. Scott, who advised him to take a special train and pass through that city incog,–which he did, and arrived in Washington unannounced. This spoiled the reception which had been prepared…

…The Senate passed the bill suspending the mail service in the seceding States. Nothing has transpired in the South, since last dates.

– Petaluma Argus, March 12 1861



…The Southern Commissioners have addressed a communication to Seward, and the latter has asked time for consideration. The matter will probably be referred to the Senate; meanwhile everything at the South is quiet.

No important movements are reported…

..The Texas Legislature [?] has passed a resolution authorizing the transfer of State military to a Provisional Government.

The Georgia Convention has made a similar transfer of forts, arsenals, and arms….

…The Southern Congress has adopted a permanent Constitution. The President is to be elected for six years. The officers in the Cabinet during good behavior. Cabinet officers to be eligible to seats in Congress.

No difficulty is said to exist in obtaining the fifteen million loan…

– Petaluma Argus, April 2 1861



The following is a summary of news by Pony Express, to the 23d ult.:

Orders for the evacuation of Ft. Sumter, says the N. Y. Herald, were issued on the 16th March. — No California appointments have been made. — The announcement at Charleston, that Sumter was to be evacuated, produced the most intense excitement, and work was for a time suspended. — A report was in circulation that Baltimore sympathizes with ihe secession movement, and will be the first to offer resistance to the new federal authorities. It is determined to oppose to the last the appointment of Republicans to office at Baltimore. — Business has revived under the prospects of a settlement of the political disturbances. — It is feared that the tariff of the Southern Confederacy will considerably impair the importing and jobbing business of the North. — The President has refused to recognize the Southern Confederacy. — The N. Y. Tribune says that the War Department has received dispatches from Maj. Anderson, endorsed by all the officers of Fort Sumter, saying that the fort cannot be reinforced without 20,000 men…

– Sonoma Democrat, April 11 1861


…The Pony Express Company, have appointed Wells, Fargo & Co. their agents, and reduced the postage on letters to $2 per half ounce; $380 worth went off on Saturday. This arrangement will continue until July; but if these low rates heap many more letters on the poor ponies they will be disposed to say neigh to any further reduction.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 18 1861



St. Louis, April 22.

…The war feeling in Canada is aroused. Six hundred men from Quebec and Montreal are coming to Boston to enlist in the U. S. service.

Lieut. Jones, Commandant at Harper’s Ferry, hearing that 1500 Virginia troops were marching against him, set fire to the arsenal building and burned it all up.

At Richmond, several Northern men were threatened, and had a narrow escape from hanging.

Commodore Pauldin says that the Gosport Navy Yard can be held against ten thousand men.

There has been a great riot at Baltimore.

The Massachusetts regiments in their attempt to pass through on their way to Washington, were attacked by a mob, who threw stones and discharged pistols at them.

The soldiers fired on the Mob, killing several.

Three soldiers were killed, and several were wounded. The mob increased.

The Mayor tried to stop the riot.

After several hours fighting the mob dispersed.

Military Law has been proclaimed.

The citizens of Baltimore and vicinity have destroyed the bridges and railroads.

The Evening Post learns that Jeff. Davis, at the head of the Confederated Army, was marching on Washington.

There is great activity in the North in consequence. More new companies were being raised.

Washington was filling up with soldiers….

– Petaluma Argus, May 7 1861


…The Southern Congress is still in session. The news is unimportant…

…Dispatches from Charleston say that butter is selling at 75 cents per pound, no ham or bacon in the market, and cattle suffering for hay.

It is said that Southern troops are better provided with knives, dirks and revolvers than are the Northern troops, and feel confident of success.

Troops at Richmond have not been paid off, and flour ten dollars per barrel and pork fifty dollars per barrel.

Virginia and Carolina bonds are worth twenty cents on the dollar.

The other day at Lodi, Illinois, a woman cut off the two fore-fingers of her husband while he was asleep, to keep him from enlisting. This disables him by law.

Jeff. Davis, in his late message, confesses that only $8,000,000 of the $15,000,000 loan were subscribed…

– Sonoma County Journal, May 31 1861


New York, May 28.

…Three more prizes, laden with tobacco, arrived here yesterday.

Alexandria is strongly fortified by Unionists.

New York banks hold $10,000,000 in specie belonging to Southern capitalists.

No further invasion of Virginia will take place at present.

Since the blockade of Southern ports, business in the North has greatly revived.

Prospects of a speedy peace are good.

Gen. Butler has Declared negroes belonging to Secessionists, to be contraband of war. Slaves belonging to Union men, if escaped, will be returned…

– Petaluma Argus, June 18 1861


IMPORTANT. — The publisher of the Democrat takes pleasure in announcing, that he will soon have arrangements perfected for the receiving of Eastern news, which will enable him to publish it in an extra Democrat from twenty-four to forty-eight hours in advance of the San Francisco papers. The news will be telegraphed from San Francisco to Napa, and from thence brought to us at Santa Rosa, via Petaluma, by Pony Express. As may be supposed it will be a heavy expense to us. Consequently we shall not be able to furnish the extra to the subscribers of the Democrat gratis. They will be forwarded to our agents in the principal towns, of whom they can be obtained at a fair price, and whose names will be announced in due time.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 20 1861



THE JOURNAL EXTRAS. – At a few minutes after 7 o’clock last Sunday morning, our citizens were aroused from their lethargy by the appearance of the news boys in the streets, crying “‘Ere’s the Journal Extra! Arrival of the Pony! Death of Senator Douglas!” etc. At first a few appeared to question the genuineness of the reported news, from the fact that heretofore the earliest hour of the news by Saturday’s Pony reaching Petaluma had been Sunday evening, – that being the regular time for the appearance of the extras which have been published in this city for a few weeks past. These doubts, however, were quickly dispelled when it became known that the news had been telegraphed from San Francisco (immediately upon its publication there,) to Napa, expressly for the Journal, and thence dispatched by a Pony Express to Petaluma. By this arrangement we succeeded in placing the Pony news before the public from eight to ten hours earlier than would otherwise have been the case, and from thirty-five to thirty-six hours ahead of the San Francisco papers…

– Sonoma County Journal, June 21 1861



[Special dispatch to the Democrat by Telegraph from San Francisco to Napa, and thence, via Petaluma to Santa Rosa by Pony Express.]

The following is the news from the East to the 13th: Government is in possession of many letters from Northern men to Southerners, showing there are yet many traitors in the North.

Marshal Beauford says there are 40,000 Secessionists in Baltimore waiting for a favorable opportunity to rise. The Tribune’s dispatch says Gov. Hicks has warned the Government of the peril menacing their Capital from his State, and requesting that a force be sent to Frederick City, and the reinforcement of the regiments at Baltimore.

Gen. Mansfield received information that the Michigan regiment was fired at in Baltimore. An officer has been sent there to investigate the affair…

…From the best reliable sources, it is believed that the entire secession forces in Virginia do not exceed 50,000 or 60,000 men. It is reported that serious hostilities are threatened at Kansas City, Mo. Both parties are calling forth large forces in that neighborhood…Every man in Virginia from 16 to 60 years old is obliged to be in the Confederate army.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 27 1861


Last Opportunity!

As the readers of the Democrat are aware, the publisher has been maturing arrangements of late, to inform the people of this portion of the county of the latest Eastern news in advance of the ordinary method, and has been so far successful, that it has been put forth to them in EXTRA DEMOCRATS, two days in advance thereof. To liquidate the heavy expense the plan involves he has depended principally upon the sale of copies to the few who were disposed to purchase. He has learned by experience, that their name is not legion, aa there are many who will not buy, but prefer to “sponge” — to use a common expression — off those who do. The enterprise cannot be sustained in this way. He therefore proposes to adopt the subscription system. Those living at Santa Rosa, who desire the EXTRA, can have it left at their residences or places of business for FIFTY CENTS PER WEEK, by leaving their names at the office of publication; those living elsewhere, on the same terms, through the agents announced last week, on leaving their names with them. To liquidate the expenses of the enterprise (all that we ask for,) at least sixty subscribers are necessary. Shall we have them at once, or shall we [be] compelled to abandon the enterprise? This is the first and last appeal. Those out of town who prefer to do so, (including Mendocino county,) can send their names to the office of publication, and the EXTRA will be forwarded by first conveyance.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 4 1861


NO MORE EXTRAS. — The last DEMOCRAT EXTRA, under the new arrangement, was issued on Sunday morning last. The expense that it involved – about thirty dollars per week — was too heavy to be borne, in view of the meagre patronage the enterprise received…

– Sonoma Democrat, July 18 1861


…Since the delivery of secession speeches in Congress, traitors are growing bolder, and treason is uttered on the streets openly…

– Petaluma Argus, July 30 1861



…A battle took place at the Cross Lanes near Summerville, on the 26th, which proves to have been a bloody affair. Col. Tyler’s 7th Ohio was attacked on both flank and in front, at the same time, while breakfasting. Our troops immediately formed and the battle was fought bravely. They saw little chance of success; the enemy was too powerful. Our forces scattered after they had cut their way through, but soon formed again, fired, and received no reply or pursuit. The rebel force was 3,000 infantry, 400 cavalry, and ten guns. Nine hundred of ours were engaged, 300 of whom are missing. Enemy’s colors and two prisoners were captured.

The Secretary of War has ordered the stoppage of all telegraphic dispatches to points south of Kentucky.

Mr. Adams, our Minister to England, writes that the independence of the rebels is fully admitted, as a military and political necessity; that their acknowledgement by England is but a question of time, prudence and courtesy. While England is impatient to get cotton from the South, in exchange for manufactured articles, she is anxious not to lose the Northern market, and is unwilling to part with the hope of breaking down the Morrill tariff; and that two or three more successes like Bull Run would entitle the Confederacy to immediate recognition.

The Washington Republican expresses belief that a battle across the Potomac cannot be avoided many days larger…

– Sonoma Democrat, September 12 1861


Washington, Sep. 7. The rebel out posts are now but 5 miles distant from the President’s house, and 3 miles from Arlington Heights.

At daylight this morning, a relief guard of federal troops was fired upon by a considerable body of the enemy, near Hunter’s Chapel, on the Virginia side of the Potomac.

At sunrise two companies of our troops were sent out to reconnoitre, and discovered that the rebels had taken position at Bailey’s Cross Roads, and had thrown forward two regiments during the night. These regiments are now posted along the little creek in a wood, near Hunter’s Chapel.

The enemy’s force on Munson’s Hill is busily engaged in drilling, and occasionally shots are fired from the hill at the Federal pickets…

– Petaluma Argus, September 24 1861


THE PONY EXPRESS. — The Pony Express has been discontinued.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 31 1861


Wells, Fargo & Co. have received orders from the East to stop the Pony Express.

– Sonoma County Journal, November 1 1861


PONY EXPRESS. — The representatives of this coast in Congress, it is said, will endeavor to restore the Pony Express, It is hoped that they will be successful.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1861


The Alta learns that a united effort will be made by the whole of the Representatives from this coast in Congress, together with the Western members, for the re-establishment of the Pony Express.

– Sonoma County Journal, December 20 1861



How the Mails Were Carried Across the Continent a Few Years Ago.
A $80,000 Bet Staked on the Result of the First Trip Across the Desert.

Chicago Times.
Mr. A. B. Miller, the prime mover, the man who prepared the way and kept it in running order from the Missouri to the Pacific, is now a resident of this city, and his hair is only streaked with gray, so fast do things change in the west, In an early day the firm of Russell, Majors, Waddel & Co. were among the largest contractors in the United States, their business sometimes amount to $6,000,000 annually. Mr. Miller was the “Co,” the youngest member of the firm, and in a great measure the life of it. Mails were very irregular, the stage lines taking a weekly mail bag which was sometimes lost – in fact was extremely fortunate to get through. This was conducted at a tremendous cost. There was great rivalry between the stage and ocean lines, the latter struggling for contracts for taking the mails from New York by steamer to the Isthmus, across this, and again by steamer up the western coast. The mall which went overland went by the northern rout through New Mexico and Arizona. The contracting firm above mentioned had the control of the central route by Kearney, Julesburg, Fort Laramie, and Salt Lake. People insisted that this route was impracticable, and the idea of a daily mail over it was pooh-poohed most vigorously. Mr. Miller persuaded his more conservative partners that such a mail could be carried. From this idea grew the pony express, the fame of which was soon world wide. He was given two months, February and March, 1861, to equip the line with stock and stations, whloh he did at a cost of $80,000. It was thought that the line would support itaelf, so the proprietors expected not to be out more than the original investment. It could hardly be said that it did pay, but it demonstrated what could be done, and encouraged the railroad and the wire to follow in its wake. Previous to this time there bad been limited express lines of the kind, but nothing on so gigantic a scale Mr. Miller had been over the route enough to know what had been done. He said that Salt Lake could be reached from St. Joe in ten days and the coast in five days more.

On April 3 the ponies were started from each end of the line. By this time the confidence of Miller had proved infectious and Russell was just as confident. The New York Steamer company were confident, too, but not in the same way. So a bet was made. It was a pretty good-sized bet, being for $50,000 a side.

The race began and was watched with breathless interest. Station after station was passed. Yhe pony from the ocean and the pony from the valley panted toward each other with the hundreds of miles between them, melting away. At each station there was another horse saddled and rider ready spurred. The mall bag was tossed from one to the other and on sped like the wind the fresh horse and the rider. One boy on this first trip was lost in a canyon of snow. For four precious hours he wandered. Then he started on with desperate vigor. Another was lost in the Platte; the horse he rode was drowned. But the rider swam out with his mall and footed it to the next station. Here his relief was waiting, and the flight was taken up again. Would the rider and the horses with their daring and energy win? Would the accident and the strangeness of the trial make them lose? No one could tell. The days passed. The ponies neared each other, they passed, the riders gave a wild hurrah. On and on; whip and spur. Ten days are gone and the ponies have kept up to the mark. Fifteen. At 4 o’clock the westward bound must be in Sacramento. The noon has passed, and the minutes are being counted. Half-past 3. Will the brave rider be on hand? As yet there is no sign. With only thirty minutes to spare Russell want to double his bet. Then a cloud of dust is seen, it grows to a speck. The rider waves his hat. The people shout. The pony express has crossed the great American desert. Victory! There is still twenty minutes grace.

This speed was always kept up just as if there were $50,000 at stake daily. It was the same for months. Then the complications of the war turned everything upside down. The riders went to do battle, the stations were abandoned, contracts went to other hands, and grass grew over the trail. But soon the stage used it and the telegraph line was not far behind, while those who have rushed across the plains by steam know what followed these innovations.

The riders of the pony express were all young wiry fellows, whose very love of excitement and danger had brought them to the frontier. In this occupation they had their fill. The individual adventures would fill a volume. The life, with its exposure and hardship, was a wearing one. What has become of the riders now is a question. Many of them have followed the frontier and will stay on its fore until they died. Many are dead already. One, named Murray, recently died in Salt Lake. From the stripling of the ’60s he came to weigh 220 pounds. He made quite a reputation as a desperate character. As one who knew him said, “he got too big to ride a pony, but had a good build for holding up stages.” One of the most daring of the crowd rode into Salt Lake from eighty miles this side, through the wildest part of the route. It was a hard task, but the lad was equal to it, doing the work of about four men. He afterward joined the Confederate army, and died on a southern battle field.

These riders were of a class similar to the cowboys of the present day, ready for a fight or a frolic, and entering either with the determination to make the most of it. They were loyal to each other and their friends. There was only one mall lost by them, and that happened to be of little value. It was lost in Egan’s canyon, when the rider in charge was attacked by Indians, his horse killed, and he himself wounded. The company tried to get the government to punish the Indians for this, but there was another matter for Uncle Sam to attend to just then. So Miller took seventy-five men, went out and killed a few of the playful savages, and found that they kept out of the way very nicely forever after. The charges for carrying letters were $5 per ounce or fraction thereof. This was afterward reduced to half the amount, and then a sort of paper known as “Pony Express” was invented, its best point being that it weighed almost nothing. The contents of an eight-page paper could be written upon it and sent for $2.50.

The income of the concern while running averaged $500 par day. Some very valuable documents were carried, and in every case arrived in good order. England was at that time having a little argument with China. Reports from the English squadron in Chinese waters to the home government were carried by this route, it being the quickest and safest. One of these official papers weighed so much that the charges upon it were $135.

– Daily Democrat, September 10 1883

[Editor’s note: Most of this was reprinted without credit in the September 15 1890 Alta California]

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It is where you might dream when you dream of Elysium. A gently sloping hill, dappled sun through the wild oaks, trails likely following the paths of cows that wandered there before the Civil War, greenery trimmed (but certainly not manicured) bestowing the peace of woods in its scent and hush.

Today this is the state of Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery but until the late 1990s it was decidedly unlovely, choked with weeds, sapling trees, vetch and poison oak. Stories about the cemetery’s abysmal condition are legion. It was said to be so overgrown at times that a hearse could not reach gravesites and caskets had to be carried in. A worker clearing brush came across someone’s home – a vagrant had burrowed deep into a bramble patch and set up camp.

The cemetery has seen its moments of drama and chaos; there’s the mass grave of 1906 earthquake victims and just steps away is the scene of the 1920 lynchings. But mostly it has been an uneventful place – although it also has mirrored the city’s maddening pattern of chronic mismanagement.

This chapter about the Rural Cemetery tells the story of its changing conditions; the following article covers the extraordinary efforts made over a century by volunteers to document who lies there, and where.

Aden Congleton headstone and nearby graves at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, 1970; Don Meacham, photographer. TOP: Davis family marker, 1964.Both images courtesy Sonoma County Library

 Davis family marker. 1964, TOP: Aden Congleton headstone and nearby graves at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, 1970; Don Meacham, photographer. Both images courtesy Sonoma County Library

In November 1854, Thompson Mize drowned in a small pond near Santa Rosa. He was drunk. Why the 31 year old father of four had brought his children and pregnant wife here a few weeks prior is unknown. Perhaps he was a gold bug who heard the rumors about prospectors mining on the Russian River earlier that year. But there wasn’t much reason for anyone to be in Santa Rosa at the time; it consisted of all of five buildings, including a tavern which probably led to his undistinguished demise.1 Yet Mr. Mize still made a blip in our historical timeline because he was the first recognized burial in the Rural Cemetery. But here’s the Believe-it-or-Not! twist – in 1854 there was no Rural Cemetery, and it would not come to exist until seven years after he ended up face down in (what was most likely) a very large puddle.

Over the next few years “many citizens of Santa Rosa and vicinity” were also buried there, according to an 1859 Cemetery Committee report, although it was still private land owned by a man named John Lucas.2

Although they hadn’t yet committed to buying three or four acres from Lucas, a survey was done on the area where there were already graves.3 Committee chair Dr. James W. B. Reynolds took leadership in approaching Lucas and setting up the deal (in later years Otho Hinton would be falsely credited as being something of the “father” of the cemetery). But the Committee dithered over the price and whether Lucas should give them a discount on parts of the land with existing graves. Finally in late 1861 a portion of what we now call the Rural Cemetery was purchased. (See the sources section below for transcripts of that item and other newspaper articles.)

Ad hoc burials apparently continued until 1866, when the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association was incorporated to legally sell deeds to burial plots. There were no exemptions for those already in the ground; notices appeared in the Democrat warning that unless families of the deceased paid up, “bodies will be exhumed and reinturred [sic] in portions of said grounds set apart for that purpose.” It’s not believed they carried out the threat, however.

But just a couple of years after the Association was formed, an item in the Democrat newspaper revealed the place was already starting to slip into neglect: “The Cemetery has not only been allowed to grow up in weeds, but the fencing around it has received no attention; horses, cows and hogs have been permitted to wander over the grounds and among the graves.”

It seems that when it came to caring for the Rural Cemetery, our Santa Rosa ancestors did a lot more moaning than mowing.

Complaints continued through the 19th century: It was “overrun with weeds and tangled grass” (1878) “if those unsightly weeds that abound in all parts of the enclosure could only be removed, our cemetery would present as neat an appearance as any in the State” (1879) “some plan [needs to] be devised to improve the appearance of the Rural Cemetery” (1896). There are probably more references I missed, and I did not even peek at the Santa Rosa Republican.

In the first half of the 20th century, some years there would be cleanup efforts before Memorial Day to collect tin cans and liquor bottles and make the trails passable, the work done by service groups such as the Woman’s Improvement Club and the boy scouts. But over those fifty years you could count the number of those day projects on your hands – and still have enough fingers left over to hold a soup spoon.

The only significant cleanup during that era was done during late 1931 – early 1932. A crew of about 25 men on Relief worked there for a month or more, being paid in credit for groceries at the food bank. “All weeds have been cleared out, tombstones straightened, rubbish cleared away, garbage cans painted and new grass planted,” the Press Democrat reported.

But don’t take the good news too literally. An earlier PD item on the project mentioned, ” …it is proposed to work similarly at the Stanley cemetery”, so the work didn’t necessarily encompass all gravesites on the hill. That article also stated “only the pathways will be cleaned unless work on the plots is authorized by the plot owners. Those wishing such work are urged to communicate with the relief council.”

That edict about authorization came from the Rural Cemetery Association president and threw ice water on hopes that the cleanup could morph into an ongoing maintenance program. How many owners could give permission? The original owners of those old plots were likely dead themselves; there might not be any family members still in the area or who even knew they had an ancestor in an overgrown grave. It was suggested the families of all those buried there could organize and hire a caretaker (imagine the exciting Thanksgiving dinner squabble over who owes how much for upkeep on Great Uncle Fletcher’s gravesite).

And what was the status of the Association, anyway? The standard expiration for a corporate charter is fifty years, which meant that it should have ceased to exist in 1916. Yet they sold the last new deed in May 1930 and continued to hold meetings to elect officers at least through 1937. The Association’s lack of standing was finally noted in a 1938 Press Democrat editorial:4

Established some time in the ’50s, before the idea of perpetual care had even been heard of, at least in the west, Rural cemetery is now and for years past has been an abandoned child. The association’s charter expired fifteen years ago, and has never been renewed. Nobody owns Rural cemetery, it had no board of trustees, and since no public body holds title, it is ineligible to WPA or other aid of like character.

At the time, PD editor Ernest Finley and others in the city were begging voters to approve a “Cemetery district” which would create a small property tax for the upkeep of both the Rural Cemetery and the Calvary Cemetery. That idea had been first proposed and spoken of approvingly more than a decade before, but now that it was on the 1938 ballot a loud opposition was heard. It lost by almost a 4-to-1 margin.

After WWII the situation grew steadily worse. Its neglected condition drew tramps and delinquents who trashed it further, knocking over large monuments and smashing marble tombstones. Fine statuary was stolen. It became the meet-up place for drinking parties.

These problems did not go unnoticed, with letters and news items more frequently in the Press Democrat lamenting the terrible conditions. But the city’s position was that nothing could be done – the legacy of the Association was to instill the notion that everything outside of the trails was private property and could not be touched without explicit family approval. City workers could not even spray for weeds.

But by 1951 something had to be done. It was so bad the Santa Rosa City Manager deemed it a fire risk because the matted undergrowth was “about two feet thick.” They decided to do a controlled burn which did not work out so well, as it also destroyed historic wooden markers and blackened monuments (see “BIG BURN AT THE CEMETERY“). There was no followup maintenance so in a few years it was again a thicket, as seen in the photos above. The cemetery was becoming like the village in the musical “Brigadoon,” revealing itself ever so often before again disappearing.

In 1965 the Rural Cemetery Association was reformed under the wing of the Sonoma County Historical Society and the old place saw its first work crew since the Relief men during the Great Depression. This group still lacked support from the city, though, and by the end of the decade the volunteers had drifted away.

The city finally began taking some responsibility for the conditions in 1979 when the entire burial ground was declared eminent domain abandoned property and erected a fence – which was not paid for by the city, but via fundraising. But the restoration didn’t really begin until 1994, when the Recreation & Parks Dept. began providing mowers and other material support for a new crop of volunteers. City crews were also made available to provide heavy labor, such as dealing with fallen trees. This effort is still ongoing.

Despite this being an all-out campaign to restore the Rural Cemetery, things didn’t immediately turn around. Some sections of the weed forest remained mostly untouched for years. Vandalism continued to be a problem and the troublemakers even targeted the newly repaired gravestones. An information kiosk built near the entrance included a Merit Award to the restoration committee from the city – until someone broke into the display and stole the award.

So many people have devoted great amounts of time and energy to bringing the cemetery back to life that even an abridged list would test Gentle Reader’s patience (if such a list could even be constructed). But there are a few who must be singled out for honors.

There can be no question that Bill Montgomery has done more to rescue the cemetery than anyone in its history. He was deputy parks director at Recreation & Parks in 1994 when he put out a call for volunteers and led members of the Cultural Heritage Board and others from the city on a tour. He started the “Adopt a Pioneer Gravesite Program” and drew attention to the cemetery via a couple of featured stories in the Press Democrat. In essence, he reintroduced the Rural Cemetery to the public – it was so little known at the time that the PD felt compelled to add a map illustration to one of the stories to show where it was. Bill continues to be actively involved with everything having to do with the graveyard.

Laurels also must be given to the late Alan Phinney, who managed the volunteer work parties for 20+ years and launched “The Tombstone Trio,” which still meets Tuesday and Thursday mornings to repair and clean markers. Also to be honored is Evelyn McMullen who organized volunteers in the 1960s, continuing to work even after there was no one still interested except for herself and son, Jay. More about her and Alan appear in the following article.

Over the years the cemetery has also drawn mavericks who worked independently on the place just for the love of it. There was Larry Leathers – well known as the spokesman for the County Fair and Fairgrounds in the 1980s and 1990s – who tackled the Fulkerson section by bringing in his own lawnmowers. He wore out three of them.

But a special salute goes out to Roland Gevas, a 55 year-old Spanish-American War vet who worked on the cemetery during the summer of 1929. Roland was none-too-subtle in hinting that he hoped someone would pay him $1,200 a year (!) to work there full time, be it the city, the Cemetery Association, a service club or some benefactor. In a lengthy letter to the PD, it seemed like he might have been expecting donations from the public.5

“I have done all that was humanly possible,” he wrote. “I have put in every day at the cemetery and have cleaned more than 95 per cent of the rubbish away, have kept free water at all times, cleaned all lots free of charge around the main entrance and the approach to it.” After working for six weeks and receiving just $21.50 (from whom?) he was bitter at Santa Rosa’s indifference:

I am sorry to state that the public, unlike myself, are not much interested in the City of the Dead. I have come to the conclusion that all those loving carved words on tombstones and monuments are a living lie to the dead, that forgotten and so pitifully alone, stand as a shame to the living.

“The cemetery is a naturally pretty one, well located and with many stately monuments, some of them real works of art,” he concluded, before begging the public to come see all that he had done:

I would like to have you come to look at the place if you have not seen it since before Decoration Day. You will see some real changes in the view looking up from the McDonald avenue entrance, and if I could only have a little support the Rural Cemetery would not be a disgrace, nor would people have to be ashamed of their home of the dead.

There was nothing more in the newspaper about Roland Gevas at the cemetery, so one might assume that was the end of that. But when the census-taker came around the next April, Roland opened the door of his Olive street home and answered the questions about what he did for a living. Industry: Cemetery. Occupation: Sexton.

How long that lasted we don’t know and it’s unknown who paid him – or if he was even paid at all. But at least for awhile the old sailor was at the cemetery he cared about, doing what he could. A small victory is a victory still.


1 Although the streets were already platted out in their current layout, there are no reliable descriptions of Santa Rosa in the key year of 1854. Almost all sources blur together 1854-1856 as being the years the village was formed. Confounding matters further is that some of the housing stock was being moved in from Franklin (such as Sterling Coulter’s building) so some places could have been in both towns during the same year. Aside from an 1876 sketch, there are the two books Robert Thompson wrote about Santa Rosa and the county. His most detailed description is in the 1877 county book, not the 1884 book on the town. See: Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Sonoma County, California, pp. 72-75

2 In 1850, Julio Carrillo sold 640 acres near the Carrillo Adobe to Oliver Boulieu, who established the short-lived village of Franklin. Boulieu sold parcels to Commodore Elliott (100 acres in 1853), Richard Fulkerson (94 acres in 1856), Emmanuel Light (11 acres in 1856) and the remaining 435 acres to John Lucas in 1857. Source: “Oliver Beaulieu and the Town of Franklin” by Kim Diehl, 2006; pg. 19

3 Surveyor W. A. Eliason surveyed part of the cemetery (at least) three times, in 1859, 1872 and 1879. The 1859 survey is lost but probably just showed rough boundaries, as the Cemetery Committee had not yet made a decision whether to purchase 3-4 acres from Lucas. After having purchased an additional 3½ acres in 1867, the survey of 1872 was apparently to plat out the lot lines.
4 Press Democrat, September 11 1938
5 Press Democrat, August 11 1929



Inquest. — We learn from the Sonoma Bulletin that an inquest was held at the town of Santa Rosa, on the body of a man named Mize, who was found dead in a pond of water a short distance from town. He was intoxicated, which accounts for the accident verdict accordingly.

– Sacramento Daily Union, December 5 1854


Santa Rosa Cemetery.

Ed. Democrat — Dear Sir: I am glad that you anticipated me in your remarks about the Cemetery, in last week’s issue. It is high time something should be done by the citizens of this place and vicinity, in regard to this matter. While we are continually taxing both head and hands in efforts to secure homes for the living, and spending our time and money for public and private convenience and show, let us not forget the spot, beneath which, sleep our silent dead! True, their spirits rest not in the cold, cold clay; nought but the mouldering forms which contained them are left behind. But, we cherish a daguerrotype or painted likeness of the dead. Then, how much more should we revere the sacred resting place of the loved companions, whose smiles cheered us on in the race of life — or the dear child, that sat in prattling innocence upon our knee.

But I know it is unnecessary to make any appeal to the sympathies of the generous hearted citizens of Santa Rosa, to induce them to assist in securing, and suitably embellishing a home for the dead. Indeed, my principal object in writing this article was to suggest the propriety of immediate action, and the necessity for having a general meeting of the people, so as to arrange some definite plan.

In a conversation with Mr. Lucas, who owns the land on which the present burying ground is situated, he informed me that he would willingly sell to the citizens any number of acres they might require for the purpose, and for a lower price than he would dispose of it for any other object. He also informed me, that under the existing state of affairs, he was deprived of the use of 150 acres of pasturage; and, unless something was done by the citizens, soon, ho would be compelled to turn the graveyard out of his enclosure. As it is, every grave, not specially protected by a railing, is liable to be trampled upon by cattle and horses.

Having understood that Mr. Eliason has surveyed the premises, and now has a complete plot of the same in his office, there remains but little to be done, but to raise a sufficient amount to pay for the land — the expense of surveying and enclosing it, and ordering a public sale of lots; or, by placing them in the hands of Trustees to sell privately.

But, I am anticipating, and giving a detailed opinion, which would properly belong to the citizens when they meet, which I respectfully suggest, may be next Saturday evening, the 3d of Dec., at the Disciples’Church, at 6 1/2 o’clock, p. m.

Santa Rosa, Nov. 28. J. W. B. R.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 1 1859



Met pursuant to adjournment on the 13th of December, 1859, at 7 1/2 o’clock P. M.

On motion of Otho Hinton, S. T. Coulter was elected chairman of the meeting, Whereupon the committee appointed at the previous meeting, make the following report, the same being read, and on motion accepted:

The committee to whom was referred the duty of ascertaining the most suitable location for a Cemetery, the price of the land, and any other information which they might deem pertinent to the subject, beg leave to submit the following report, viz:

Whereas, the present grave-yard, (on the land owned by Mr. Lucas) is a beautiful site for such purpose, not subject to overflow in time of high water — is in a reasonable distance of the town, easy of access — and more particularly, as many citizens of Santa Rosa and vicinity already have relatives and friends buried there — we do not hesitate to give this location the preference over all others.

We have ascertained on inquiry, that the present owner (Mr. Lucas) of the ground in the vicinity, is willing to sell any number of acres the community may require for a Cemetery, at Fifty Dollars per Acre. And your committee would recommend the purchase of four or six acres of said land at the sum above specified – excepting one acre, including the present graves, for which your Committee are of opinion the owner should take cost price, and reasonable interest on the same to the time of purchasing.

As to the mode of purchasing, &c., your committee recommend that eight responsible citizens of Santa Rosa and vicinity be appointed by the present meeting, who shall organize under the general corporation law, with instructions to purchase such quantity of land as may be agreed upon, and to give a joint note of the company. — Therefore, payable at such times, and in such installments as may be mutually agreed upon between them and the owner of the land. Said company shall be known and designated by the name of the “Santa Rosa Cemetery Company.”

It is further recommended by your committee, that said company, after organizing, shall appoint three or five of their number, whose duty it shall be to have the grounds surveyed, and a plot made thereof; provided, said plot shall be drawn in such way and form as to preserve the natural character of the scene; and provided, further, that said plot shall in no wise interfere with the graves already on said grounds.

Finally — Your committee would recommend that said company be requested to organize, and fulfilling their duties at as early a date as possible, report to an adjourned meeting at such time and place as may be agreed upon.

All of which is respectfully submitted.
James W. B. Reynolds, Chairman.

On motion of Wm. Churchman, the proceedings of the meeting and copy of the report of the committee as accepted, be published in the Santa Rosa Democrat, and that the meeting stand adjourned until next Tuesday evening, Dec. 20th, 1859, at the Baptist church, and that the ladies be especially invited to attend.

S. T. Coulter, Ch’n. Wm. H. Bond, Sec’y.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 15 1859


Efforts are making to purchase a tract of land near Santa Rosa, a part of which has been used as a burying-place by people of that town, to be set apart exclusively as a Cemetery. Those who favor this excellent project will please call at Gen. Hinton’s office.

– Sonoma County Democrat, November 21, 1861


CEMETERY. The grounds for the Santa Rosa Cemetery having been purchased, it is particularly necessary that the friends or connections of the deceased buried there previous to the purchase should secure lots immediately. Such and all others who desire burial lots in the Cemetery may secure them of Gen. Hinton.

– Sonoma County Democrat, November 28, 1861


THE CEMETERY INCORPORATION. —An adjourned meeting of citizens, for the purpose of incorporating the Cemetery Grounds, was held at the Court House, on the evening of Dec. 3rd., H. P. Holmes acting as Chairman and Thos. H. Pyatt Secretary, pro tem. The meeting agreed to incorporate under the name of “Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association.” The number of Trustees was fixed at seven, and the following gentlemen were duly elected as such…

– Sonoma Democrat, December 8 1866


SANTA ROSA RURAL CEMETERY ASSOCIATION. —That such an organization has had an existence in the past we, of Santa Rosa and vicinity, do most positively know, but that it now exists we cannot speak with so much certainty. For several months nothing has been done by this Association — a meeting has not even been held. The Cemetery has not only been allowed to grow up in weeds, but the fencing around it has received no attention; horses, cows and hogs have been permitted to wander over the grounds and among the graves. But worse than all no steps have been taken to give the owners of lots deeds of the same, so that improvements could be made and the graves properly taken care of. The evil can be remedied, and the necessary steps in that direction should be taken at once. In this connection, we are requested to say that a meeting of the citizens will be held at the Court House on next Saturday afternoon, the 26th inst., at 2 p.m., for the purpose of taking this matter in hand. We hope to see every one interested turn out, as something must be done.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1868



THE TRUSTEES OF THE SANTA ROSA Rural Cemetery Association, having, in company with W. A. Eliason, surveyor, and G. Kohle, sexton, visited the grounds and tied by location the numbers of the lots, down on the adopted plat and survey — now all persons having paid for lots in said grounds will, within forty days of the date of this notice, file with the Secretary of this association his evidence of purchase and payment, and receive the necessary title. Persons who have buried their dead in said grounds, and not yet purchased or paid for their lots, will, within the above period, pay the Treasurer of the association, J. M. Williams, for the same, and file his receipt with the Secretary. A neglect of claimants or purchasers to comply with either of the above requisitions, for the above period, will be deemed a voluntary abandonment of all claim to lots in said grounds, and in isolated interments on single lots the bodies will be exhumed and reinturred in portions of said grounds set apart for that purpose.
By order of the Board of Trustees.
Attest: W. Churchman, Secretary.
Dated this 21st day of September, 1872.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 28 1872

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Come August it’s Sonoma County Fair time in Santa Rosa; you can set your calendar by it. Even if you don’t attend the Fair anymore it’s one of those milestones that stubbornly refuse to be ignored, like Thanksgiving in November and Christmas in December. One morning the checkout line at the Cash & Carry was taking forever because the people ahead of me were mostly paying with crumpled one dollar bills. Then I noticed what was on their warehouse push carts: The cheapest cooking oil, bags of sugar heavier than a five year-old child, gallons of colorful fruit syrups. Ding! August. County Fair.

But it wasn’t always in August, or in Santa Rosa, and the fairgrounds has a very spotty history of even being a fairgrounds. Nor was there something every year which could be called the Sonoma County Fair; draw a timeline between 1883 and today and randomly pick a year – about a third of the time you’ll come up fairless.

This is a history of how the “Sonoma County Fair” evolved, but just like every evolutionary tree there was no clear, inevitable path from when it took root to where it is now; what we have today is just one branch that won out among several of its kin that didn’t happen to do as well. Some were organized by locals who created an association or society for that purpose; some were an official event of the state’s agricultural district for the North Bay. But even whether the fair was independent vs. government-sponsored doesn’t fully explain how things developed – at different times, what became the “Sonoma County Fair” has been both. The district fairs were mostly exhibits to promote local livestock and produce; the private fairs usually featured professional/semi-professional horse racing. And again, the “Sonoma County Fair” embraced both.

Rightfully Petaluma’s Sonoma-Marin Fair should probably have the County Fair monicker, as it has a longer record (starting in 1867) and has been held most consistently. Even older was the San Pablo Bay District Fair, which began in 1859. It was held in both the town of Sonoma and Vallejo and morphed into what was called the first “county fair” in the newspapers – the fascinating “Sonoma-Napa Mechanical Fair,” which drew Victorian nerds from all over the state (lots of wine drinking, too). That one will get an article here of its own, someday.

But while those other towns were earnestly trying to establish and maintain their annual festivals, in Santa Rosa there was tepid interest in fair-making, and what did exist proceeded in fits and starts for decades. What the City of Roses really wanted was to become the City of Races.

Whenever a town in the Old West rose out of the dust to become something better than just another stagecoach stop, it seemed there was always one guy who did ten times more than anyone else. In Santa Rosa, that was James P. Clark.

Clark arrived here with his brother in 1852, the year before the town was born. Over the next three decades he would be a founding member of the volunteer fire department, sheriff and mayor. As the latter he cast the tie-breaking vote to establish a public library here, the 1884 City Council being split between those who thought libraries were a waste of tax money or not. (Oh, Santa Rosa…) He bought Julio Carrillo’s “stall and buggy shed” and turned it into the Fashion Livery Stable, which became the hub for anything related to horse travel – an operation so big it took up the entire city block where the Roxy movie theater complex is today. He also bought from Julio the first house that was ever built in town, plus another 180 acres which he subdivided into (what would become much of) the West End Neighborhood and Railroad Square.

James Preston Clark (1820-1886) Image courtesy Sonoma County Museum
James Preston Clark (1820-1886) Image courtesy Sonoma County Museum

But what interests us here most about J.P. Clark is his interest in building racetracks and founding fairs.

In 1860 a group of local men formed a jockey club – which is to say, they agreed to pay dues of $25/year to construct a racetrack and organize several days of races. Clark built the track near the future Railroad Square depot location (no trains here yet in 1860, remember). Gamblers and horse breeders from all over the Bay Area came to that race, which was a big deal; $1900 in prizes were awarded – about $83k in today’s dollars.

Meanwhile, another group – the Sonoma County Agricultural and Mechanical Society (no connection to that Sonoma-Napa fair) – was starting to organize something like a proper fair for Sonoma county, with livestock exhibits plus a pavilion where locals could show off handiworks and things they grew. The first was held in Healdsburg in 1859, Petaluma the next year which was followed by Santa Rosa, where the fair included the second jockey club event. That 1861 fair was the marred by violence, due to the gamblers who came here for the races. The paper reported there was “but little drunkenness, comparatively, but whiskey has been the cause of several fights; among them one in which a deadly weapon was used.” A local man was shot in the leg outside the fairgrounds and “a fight occurred at the race track on Tuesday. One of the combatants was badly whipped.”

That violence may have been why interest wained in sponsoring big races here, as the jockey club disbanded and the racetrack was plowed under. No matter, really; there were similar clubs popping up frequently in those years and there were always private tracks where horse lovers could watch the racers train or compete in ad hoc meets. A few years later Clark built a half-mile track at his own ranch, which was close to our modern Costco shopping center.

1867southernfundThe unofficial title of Sonoma County Fair passed between the Agricultural District fairs after the Civil War, switching from Sonoma-Napa to Sonoma-Marin. The Sonoma county fairs were held in Petaluma for years thereafter, although Santa Rosa tried to hijack the name in 1867 for a fundraiser for the “Southern Relief Fund” – in other words, collecting money to send to the former Confederate states. (Everyone together, now: Oh, Santa Rosa…)

There were very few Santa Rosa faces to be seen at the Petaluma county fair meetings, but James P. Clark was Fair Marshal several times during the following dozen years. I can’t determine exactly what that position meant at the time but it was listed directly after president of the society, so apparently it was an important hands-on job and not ceremonial.

Our present Santa Rosa fairgrounds has roots that go back to 1878, when members of the racing crowd formed the “Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association” to buy the original 80-something acres (every account differs as to the exact size). And there was Clark again, not only as treasurer – and later president – of the group but also building the mile track. They began hosting races the following year.

There’s quite an extensive description of the place from 1881 (transcribed below) when JP Clark led a tour. The original grandstand was nothing like we imagine today; it was basically a large 3 bedroom house with dining room, living room, two fireplaces plus a bar room. Upstairs there was seating for 300, but it’s unclear whether this was cantilevered like a typical grandstand; it might have been a big open-air gallery, as the reporter also mentions a deep veranda on the ground floor.

Santa Rosa (or at least, the Democrat newspaper) again claimed the County Fair title in 1883, but it was formally the “first annual exhibit of the Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association.” The title really didn’t matter at that point, I suppose, as the fair in Petaluma continued as always, held a week earlier. Newly built at Santa Rosa that year was a big pavilion for a “pumpkin and turnip show,” as such produce and handiwork exhibitions were nicknamed.

Here I must confess to Gentle Reader that I suffer an OCD weakness to completely read every list of entries from those exhibitions; I am equally fascinated by discovering long lost 19th century arts and crafts along with my amazement at some of the absurd stuff people wanted to show off. Among the offerings at that 1883 fair were Mrs. R. McGeorge’s wax dowers (fake pearls or flowers molded out of sealing wax); corn on a stalk from William Moss; Frank White’s mangel wortzels (sic: mangelwurzel, an inedible beet); and from E. W. Davis, brooms. How I could go on…

Even the Petaluma papers tacitly conceded that Santa Rosa’s doings were now the “Sonoma County Fair,” so peg 1883 as the birth year for the Sonoma County Fairgrounds – although it wouldn’t be that for very long.

The latter part of the 1880s were boom years in Santa Rosa, the town propelled forward by easy money and a frenzy of construction. James P. Clark’s racetrack was now called the fastest in the state and the Association joined the northern racing circuit, which meant that almost all of the horses running at the track were from out of the area, and maybe out of the state; gone was any pretense that it was still a county-centric event. Part of the scene was also the opening of “Kroncke’s Park” in 1886, giving Santa Rosa its first real park – albeit one that charged admission. The park often had novelty events on weekends and underwrote fares on excursion trains from San Francisco, which brought up daytripping city folk as well as hoodlums wanting to get drunk and brawl. It’s likely no coincidence that the worst violence seemed to come when an excursion coincided with race week at the fair, as it did in 1887.

It was around this time that Santa Rosa’s history took a dark turn. The professional horse races brought in professional gamblers and the town came to welcome them by throwing out state and city betting laws. By the time this was exposed in 1905, Santa Rosa was a corrupt “wide-open town” where police tolerated criminal activity. Even though local children were found gambling at roulette wheels and crap tables in the backrooms of downtown saloons and hotels, this illegal gambling was condoned, even encouraged, by the City Council – as well as by the Press Democrat. For more, see the “WIDE-OPEN TOWN” series.

1899raceThe racetrack and fairgrounds were privately owned for most of that time, the Association having sold it in 1890 to Ira Pierce, a wealthy San Francisco horseman. Locals bemoaned this meant the end of horse racing in Santa Rosa, as Pierce was mainly interested in using it for training his own stable of horses at first. After several years he began hosting annual Breeders’ Association races around the turn of the century (1898, 1899, 1901, 1904, 1905, 1907 and 1908, if anyone cares, with races at the District Fair filling in the gap years 1900 and 1903).

He formally renamed it the Santa Rosa Stock Farm in 1900. That year the Sonoma-Marin Fair – which had not held since 1896 – was revived and hosted in Santa Rosa, but not at the fairgrounds. Pierce allowed his track to be used for races that one year, but the exhibitions were at Ridgway Hall on Third Street and the livestock were shown at the Fifth street stockyard. The fair repeated in 1901 and 1902 but without the races, and now it was called a “big street fair.” Fourth street was spanned by a canvas tent for free concerts and vaudeville shows.

Pierce and his brother sold the (old) race track (and stock farm) (at Agricultural Park) – among the name variations used by the Press Democrat – in 1911, and the next year it was owned by two local men: C. C. Donovan and his brother, Ney. Their first plan was to subdivide it for homes; it hadn’t been a fairgrounds for nearly a quarter century at that point.

That could have been the final end of this evolutionary branch, but the Donovans had incentives to restore it as a racetrack and fairgrounds. There was $1800 being held by the District Agricultural Fair Association ever since the last one, and the legislature approved even larger appropriations to promote District fairs with Sonoma county getting $4k of that money. So once again Santa Rosa hosted the Sonoma-Marin District Fair in 1913.

This was the first Sonoma County Fair that would seem familiar to today’s fairgoers. From the Press Democrat:

The pavilion in which the great agricultural and horticultural display will be made will be brilliantly lighted, as will the other exhibit stands and places and grounds. There will be something to entertain the crowd all the time. Hoffman of Sacramento will have some good attractions for the “Midway Plaisance.” Spectacular features will be pulled off each night, and two nights of the week an added attraction will be a grand display of fireworks. The electrical effects on the grounds and at the entrance arch are to be something very fine.

This would have been one of the great fairs to attend in a Wayback Machine. Both Jack London and Luther Burbank were on hand (showing cattle and “famed creations,” respectively). The centerpiece of the pavilion was an illuminated globe covered with dried apples and prunes, for some reason. The exhibits included Pomo basketry collections, A. C. Hessell’s corn on stalk, Mrs. G. R. Unzelman’s jabots, Mrs. Hawley’s crochet tidy, and Mrs. Edith M. Davis’ angora and persian cats. There was a “Better Baby” contest. (“There will be no prizes for mere prettiness. The babies will be judged by scientific methods. Not only will they be judged but an endeavor will be made from year to year to raise the standard of babies.”) On closing night there was a “Mardi Gras” on the Midway.

That incarnation of the County Fair lasted until 1916. It was revived with great enthusiasm in 1920; the fairgrounds received a major facelift and they even built a new grandstand which could hold 2,000. That year proved to be ill-fated. On Saturday a stunt pilot crashed his plane and died in front of the audience; on Sunday two race car drivers were killed along with a 7 year-old boy watching outside the fence. And just prior to that Sunday accident a man working at a concession stand noticed flames were licking up one of the support posts of the grandstand, a fire presumably started by a cigarette dropped in the sawdust under the newly-built stands. Quick work by him and a Deputy Sheriff put out the fire with none of the audience the wiser. “Had it become known among the crowd that an incipient fire was burning under the stand it is considered almost certain that there would have been a panic,” commented the Press Democrat.

Those incidents may have contributed to moving the fair to the Cotati Speedway in 1921, followed by two years back in Petaluma as the Sonoma-Marin Fair (featuring Egg Day!) but after that there were no more fairs here by any name for more than a decade. In 1931 the grandstand in Santa Rosa was razed again and a golf course constructed in the middle of the race track. The property was primarily used by a riding club, for horse boarding, and rented by visiting circuses.

And finally came 1936, the year that the Sonoma County Fair & Exposition, Inc. considers Year One, ignoring everything that had happened up to then.

Reviving the fair was a team effort of the Chamber of Commerce and all the other booster groups, with leadership from Joseph T. Grace and Ernest Finley, the PD’s editor-publisher. Finley made it clear in an editorial that there would be no more of this “Agricultural District Fair” crap – this was to be branded as the Sonoma County Fair, by god, and it was gonna make Santa Rosa a force that would command R.E.S.P.E.C.T. His obit said Finley regarded this as his finest achievement along with the campaign for the Golden Gate Bridge.

That fair was unabashedly an excuse for horse racing; there was surprisingly little else to see or do, although there was – significantly – a floral show, where Mrs. H. J. Holtorf of Graton took home an astonishing number of ribbons. Some local bands played concerts (see photo at top, courtesy Sonoma County Library) and there was a talent contest that stretched over several days, the big winner being Vera Potapoff for her dead-on impersonation of Popeye.

How things have changed since then; the races have increasingly taken a back seat to all other entertainments at the Sonoma County Fair in the decades since, and as the Press Democrat recently noted, interest in horse racing has particularly declined sharply over the last decade, and betting along with it.

But there’s still one year back then worth revisiting: 1945. When the gates opened on September 22 to the “Victory Fair,” the air must have been electric with excitement. The fair went on hiatus in 1943, when the fairgrounds were used as Regimental headquarters for the Ohio National Guard 107th Cavalry, which patrolled the North Coast that year. There was no fair in 1944 either, but come September 1945, the war had ended just weeks before; returning soldiers and sailors by the thousands were stepping off ships and airplanes nearly every day in San Francisco. Over 10,000 were jammed into the fairgrounds on the afternoon of that first day and over 11k the next, both remarkable because Santa Rosa’s population was about 15,000. The Press Democrat offered a picture of the grandstand looking down from the high back wall: “Like Sardines,” was the photo caption. “City Overflows With Visitors,” was another headline.

Alas, the PD chose to focus almost entirely on the races – which horse had the best odds, was scratched from the racecard, won the biggest purse. Stuff that no one cared about even a day later. What a lost opportunity; that was surely the happiest Sonoma County Fair in its history, and an unforgettable moment in the lives of everyone there. How rare it is that we can point to a spot on the calendar and say, yeah, that really was the best of times.

Press Democrat, September 22 1945
Press Democrat, September 22 1945


Jockey Club. — All persons who are interested in, or lovers of, Fine stock are requested to meet at the Court House in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, Feb. 22d, at 2 o’clock, p. m., for the purpose of forming a Jockey Club.


Mr. Clark, of the Union stable, is preparing an excellent track, and putting up the necessary buildings to accommodate trainers and their stock, which he will have in readiness by the time the sporting season comes on.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 9 1860


A VISIT TO THE RACE TRACK. — We had the pleasure a few days since of a visit to the Santa Rosa Race Course, where the Fall races of the Sonoma County Jockey Club are announced to take place in September. The track is a new one just being made by Mr. Clark, of this place. The location is excellent and the grounds good, and the proprietor has displayed both good taste and judgement in the selection. Mr. Clark has erected twelve excellent stalls and is progressing rapidly with the other work in and about the course, and by the time the races come off everything will be in excellent condition….

– Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1860


CROWDED BUT LIVELY. — Since the Fair commenced, Santa Rosa has been crowded, and presents a lively appearance. The gambling fraternity, as was expected, are largely represented. We have noticed but little drunkenness, comparatively, but whiskey has been the cause of several fights; among them one in which a deadly weapon was used. On Wednesday evening a difficulty occurred in a gambling house between several persons. Harry Howe interfered on behalf of a friend in settling the affair, and after, as Howe supposed, the matter had been arranged, and he was walking down Main street, he was fired upon with a pistol, it is thought in the hands of the person with whom his friend had been quarreling. The ball entered the calf of his left leg. The wounded man was attended by Dr. Green of Napa, who extracted the ball from the instep of the foot. Howe was at last accounts, “doing as well as could be expected.” A fight occurred at the race track on Tuesday. One of the combatants was badly whipped.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 26 1861


RACE TRACK.—The race track which we spoke of as being under headway a short time since, on James P. Clark’s ranch, about a mile and a half from town, is now finished and in good condition for training purposes. The track is a circle one, half mile in length, and the soil of such a nature that there is no danger of injuring the feet of horses. A number of gentlemen are training their horses at the new track, and it is rumored that in about two weeks the first races will come off. We hope this may prove a success, as it will encourage the raising of fine stock in the county.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 29 1869


THE CLARK ADDITION.—This property, belonging to James P. Clark, Esq., consists of some forty acres of as rich land as can be found in the county. It is close by the depot, and has been surveyed and laid off in town lots, the dimensions of which are 40×100. In a short time all will be disposed of, as we understand they are to be offered for sale at a very liberal figure.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 19 1870


Race Course and Fair Grounds. —A movement is on foot to establish a race course and fair grounds near this city. The location spoken of is on the lands of Mrs. Hendley, three-fourths of a mile south east of the plaza. The track will be one mile in length, and nearly elliptical in form. A diagram of the grounds and proposed location of the buildings and stands has been made by Captain J. T, Kingsbury.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 11 1877


The Agricultural Park.

The talk that has been indulged in for so long by our citizens relative to the construction of an Agricultural Park, has at length culminated in the purchase of a tract of about ninety acres from Mrs. Headley for that purpose. The land was surveyed on Saturday and the bargain closed.

That such an enterprise will be of incalculable benefit is a self-evident proposition, and now that the movement seems to be fairly inaugurated, we hope it will be carried on successfully and to the satisfaction of all.

The probable expense of getting the matter under way, and of fitting up the grounds, can hardly be estimated. A mile track is to graded, leveled and fenced; the entire grounds must be enclosed; a number of sheds for the stabling of stock and storing of feed must be provided; and last and greatest expense of all, a pavilion must be erected.

The means taken to raise the money for the purchase of the land, was by circulating the following petition: We, the undersigned, hereby agree to pay, in gold coin, the respective amounts set opposite our names for the purpose of raising $7,000 tor the purchase of 95 acres of land of Mrs. Hendley, to build and erect an agricultural park. Said land being situated on the south side of the Bennett Valley road, one-fourth mile east of the Petaluma road, and being distant from the Court House three-fourths of a mile. The following fourteen Gentlemen and firms have subscribed $500 each…

No plan for the erection of the buildings and completing the other improvements has been matured. The gentlemen above mentioned will doubtless hold a meeting soon to inaugurate some system, and then let their plans be submitted to our citizens.

We feel assured that the institution will be a success, and we hope that our citizens will aid in the advancement of the enterprise, and hope that the “Sonoma County Agricultural Society” will be one of our best and most promising County institutions.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 7 1878



The first races over on Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association’s track were held on Thursday, in spite of the short notice and in consequence the meager amount of advertising the races were well attended. The arrangements were not perfected until late late week, and the whole affair may be considered impromptu and by no means the formal opening of the track. The track is still heavy not having had the benefit of a winter’s rain, but is other* wise in excellent condition. ..

– Sonoma Democrat, October 11 1879


Agricultural Park Association.

Prominent among the important enterprises which have been started in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association deserves mention as being one much conducive to business interests and the welfare of our city generally. It was incorporated on January 11th, 1879, the charter members being… During the month of January, 1879, 60 acres of land south-east of Santa Rosa, and lying partly within the city limits, were purchased for $6,000, and work immediately commenced on the construction of a race track and for the beautifying of the grounds. The present stockholders are… The officers are: President, James P. Clark: Treasurer, Geo. P. Noonan; Secretary, Chas. Hoffer…

Last Wednesday, through the kindness of Mr. J. P. Clark, behind Lake and Black Jimmy, a spanking team, we had the pleasure of a drive over the track and grounds of the Association. Leading from the Petaluma road eastward, a short stretch up Bennett Avenue brought us to a drive, having on each side a row of poplars and at the end of which is the main entrance to the grounds. The track, which is one mile in length, and the soil of which consists of loam and sand has been so thoroughly worked that it has remained in good condition, notwithstanding the late very severe storm, is said by experts to be the best in the State, Among the many whose opinions are worthy of note are… all of whom concur in proclaiming that it is unequaled anywhere and is all that could be desired by the most exacting horseman….The grand stand which is a model of architecture, was completed yesterday by our well known builder. Hank C. Paul, at a cost of $2,500. It is situated on the east side of and 50 feet from the track and covers a space of 36×60 feet. It consists of two stories, having an elevation of 28 feet. In the upper portion of the building are comfortable seats for 300 spectators and from which an excellent view of all points of the track may be had. In the lower story on entering the main hall, which is six feet wide, the first room on the right is the sitting room 12½x14 feet; then there are three bedrooms, each of which is 12 feet square; on the left a dining-room 12½x26, a kitchen 12½x14, and a bar-room 12×21 feet go to make up the complement. Besides these there are wide halls throughout the building. The ceilings and walls, the former of which are 10 feet high in the clear, are constructed of grooved lumber. Two fireplaces lend to the comfort of guests and a porch 18×60 feet serves to protect spectators from any inclemencies of the weather. The whole, painted white, surmounted by a flag-staff 32 feet high, and so thoroughly constructed as it is, is one of the most beautiful and substantial buildings in our city and an honor to the contractor, Mr. Paul. There are about the grounds large numbers of trees—ash. maple, poplar, locust and evergreens in abundance, which as yet have not attained a full growth, but which in time will make the whole a handsome picture. Mr. Clark informs us that it is the intention of the Association to plant 2,500 Monterey cypress trees about one foot a part from the first quarter pole to opposite the third quarter pole, and around the fence of the entire grounds an evergreen hedge. North-east of the track there are fifty stables of an improved pattern, having every convenience for attending to the racer in a proper manner. There are two large tanks used as reservoirs for supplying water for sprinkling. A handsome building for the judges has been erected opposite the grand stand and from which an excellent view of the track can be obtained. The drainage system, now very good, is to be improved, and here we might also remark that the City Council propose widening to 60 feet Bennett Avenue, which leads to the grounds…

– Sonoma Democrat, March 5 1881


Sonoma County Agricultural Course.

As early as 1860 the citizens of Santa Rosa wore impressed with the idea that a race course would be an advantageous adjunct to the permanent improvement of the town, as well as the improvement of stock in the country around. Accordingly in the Fall of that year through the liberality of James P. Clark, who owned the land about where the depot now stands, and a few enterprising citizens, a course was built and a set of purses given to be contended for, to which contest the neighboring counties of Sonoma, Napa and Marin were invited. During that year, Orphan Bay, owned by Dr. Williams of Mendocino, Dashaway, owned by Achillis Grigsby of Napa, and several running celebrities put in an appearance. The track was kept up until the next year, 1861, when the second Agricultural Fair was held, when it was used as the Fair track and several very creditable races were run. The track was only of a temporary character, not fenced, nor graded, and the public spirit of the citizens not proving adequate to the expense of keeping up a good track, it was allowed to go into decline and was plowed up and turned into a grain field. Afterward it was laid off into lots and now forms a beautiful portion of the incorporated city of Santa Rosa. Scarcely a year has passed since that time, that the subject of the importance of a good race course has not been broached by some of our citizens, until in 1878, a few individuals formed themselves into a joint stock company and inaugurated an enterprise which has culminated in the establishment of one of the finest running and trotting courses in the United States. It is known as the Sonoma County Agricultural Park, is situated about one mile south of the Court House, is equal to and not surpassed by any course in the State. The Association have made arrangements for a meeting in August next, for two and three-year-olds owned in the District, composed of Sonoma, Napa, Solano and Marin, in each of which there are already nine entries. A visit to the Park on Sunday last, took us somewhat by surprise, not only at the conveniences of the track but the number that have taken advantage of them for the purpose of training. We found there the following: In the stable in charge of Guadeloupe Carrillo, a beautiful blood bay, five years old by Bayswater, owned by John Merritt…

– Sonoma Democrat, May 21 1881


Our Exhibition.

Frank H. Swett, Superintendent of the pavilion informs us that applications for space are coming in thick and fast, each day, and every arrival of the mail brings new ones. Sufficient applications have already been made to assure the success of the pavilion exhibition. We learn incidentally that Mrs. C. E. Pope is engaged in making a handsome satin and silk bedspread which will be placed on exhibition, and our Artist M. Schramm is prepared to cover over 200 square feet with an exhibition of oil paintings, crayons, etchings and every variety of photographic art. The entries to the races are filling rapidly and will be ready for publication in a few days. Mr. Laughlin Superintendent of the stock exhibition thinks there is not enough stalls to accommodate those desirous of exhibiting. We have already mentioned the fact that Sylvester Scott will place some of his pure bred stock on exhibition, and Wm. Bihler has sent up for space of nine stalls. Many others are coming in. Mr. Laughlin says that Uncle Jerry Beam is keeping a register of persons applying for space in the stock yards, for the convenience of all, as he resides in Santa Rosa and can be readily found at any time.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 11 1883


The Opening — Prospects of a Successful Fair — Large Number of Exhibits — Banquet in the Evening.


Santa Rosa, August 16th. – The morning of the first day of Fair week dawned deliciously cool and refreshing. The remnants of the heavy fog of the night previous lingered till long after breakfast hour. Nature seemed to smile in her happiest mood as if to sanction the efforts being made at our beautiful fair grounds for the propagation of the industry of our county. Early in the forenoon the carriages and vehicles of all descriptions began wending their way out to the grounds. As we approach the large enclosure the eye is struck with the beauty of the surroundings as viewed from the avenue. In the foreground is the large line of stalls with their coat of white, almost blinding to the eye. As we near the entrance the soft, mellow lowing of the kine, reminding one of the old-fashioned barnyard they love so well to recall. Further on a glimpse of the track is seen now and then, dotted here and there with the flyers destined to afford the visitors so much pleasure in the days to follow. Then there is the pavilion and grandstand looming up high above the surrounding tents and booths. As we near the gate the whole panorama-like scene, alive with busy life, bursts upon the view. At the gate the familiar face of “Gee Whack” meets our gaze, dispelling all sentimental thoughts occasioned by the lovely morning. But, stop! No entrance fee is charged this morning. “Has the enchanting morning rendered the Directors generous?” No, it’s the first day, and things have not settled down to their natural groove — business has not begun. Once inside, one begins to question within himself, which way first. The horses are being exercised, and the question is soon answered, as we find ourself gradually approaching the spectators that are congregated near the grand stand watching the noble animals as they whirl by, and on around the course. The familiar names of the noted trotters are called out as each favorite passes and is followed with glowing eye, until followed by another, and another. Even the horses seem to feel the magical influence of the perfect morning. Their nostrils dilate as they quaff deep draughts of the pure air, direct from the heavens. After watching the course and its occupants for some time we wander on and enter the pavilion. The exhibitors have just begun to arrange their goods, and one is not able to chain his attention to any one thing, so great is the hurry and bustle…

– Sonoma Democrat, August 21 1886


The Circuit Is Still Open.

The question has been asked whether, if the Agricultural Park is sold, Santa Rosa will be assigned a position in the northern circuit as formerly. One of the Directors of the Association says that it was only by special request that the Santa Rosa track was given a place in the circuit two years ago, and that it will be admitted on the same conditions if Mr. Pierce, the purchaser, carries out his intention of holding annual race meetings, concerning which there seems to be little doubt.

– Daily Democrat, March 22 1890



We quote from the Breeder and Sportsman: “An item under the heading of Turf and Track, informs the public that the Directors of the Santa Rosa Association have had their annual meeting and elected new officers for the ensuing year. So far so good, but there is a line or two at the end of the item which calls for comment. ‘The sentiment of the Board is opposed to holding a fair or races this year, unless a disposition different from that of former years is manifested by the people in this part of the country.’ It seems a shame that such a resolution was passed, and yet the Directors were compelled in justice to themselves to let the people of Santa Rosa know that there would be no more racing at that point, unless the citizens are willing to financially assist the gentlemen who usually have to put their hands in their pockets and pay a deficiency each year. During the year 1889, Napa made money, and Petaluma scored a financial success, but Santa Rosa lost. There Santa Rosa people at the Petaluma race track on one certain day, than there were Santa Rosa residents on any day at the track during the late Santa Rosa Meeting. They seem to have lost all interest in their own town and are all looking for the almighty dollar, without giving the requisite support to those who are trying to keep up the sport of the kings at that point. From the present outlook, Santa will be dropped from the circuit and it is nothing more than is due to the Santa Rosans for the lukewarm manner in which they have supported the late Directors in their efforts to secure good sport. What is to he done in the matter?

It is hardly possible that our horsemen, with all the eclat attaching to them through the fame of Anteeo and his progeny, with other promising developments, will allow the well improved Park course to deteriorate back into a grain field, or be cut up into town lots.

The stock of the association consists of 2,500 shares, the par value of which is $10 per share, making a capital of $25,000. The property embraces eighty acres of land, well improved, part of which is within the corporate limits of the city, 300 stalls for horses and cattle, a grand stand with seating capacity for 3,500 people, a commodious pavilion, water tanks and pipes, a growing park of nut and evergreen trees, and a cypress hedge around three-fourths of the track… Here, it seems to us, is an opportunity for some good conductor of a racetrack to make an investment which properly managed,should pay handsomely. Something should be done at once and we hope our local stockbreeders will give the matter serious consideration. If they do not then, Mr. Breeder and Sportsman, it will be in hand for you to send somebody with capital up to look into the matter.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 25 1890


Highly Probable That the Matter Will Be Carried Through.

Santa Rosa horsemen are much interested in the proposed races to be held here, Frank Burke, one of the most prominent members of the Breeder’s Association, has signified bis intention of seeing what arrangements can be made about securing the track and giving Santa Rosa a first-class race meeting. There is not time enough for the local horsemen to arrange for the meeting, but the Association, being in the business, could handle the muter with more ease and facility.

The track is in good shape, and but little work would be required to place it in prime form.

There is not a question of the feasibility of the proposition. The races heretofore have always been satisfactory from a pecuniary point of view and the receipts from the meeting would leave a comfortable sum over the expenditures.

A large number of our business men would help raise the necessary money. Every one interested in racing speaks of the favorable condition for a race meeting. The failure of Petaluma to bold the annual race meeting leaves a vacancy in the racing circuit that we can easily fill with the assistance of the Breeder’s Association, who, it is believed, will be willing to take the matter in charge.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 3 1895


Fine Horses and Trainers are Arriving Here Daily
Magnificent String of Racing Stock at the Track Ready for the Great Meet

A good many people were out bright and early at the Santa Rosa stock farm track yesterday and found much pleasure in watching the trotters and pacers work, training for the race meet.

A look at the fine animals at the track now from many places in the state, is sufficient to warrant anyone in saying that the race meet which opens here on Saturday afternoon, will be successful from start to finish.

The track gossip among the trainers and drivers already here is that some records will be established at the meet on a fast track, records which will cause the grand stand to open up with applause… There is no question but that next week will be a great occasion for Santa Rosa and Sonoma county.

– Press Democrat, August 17 1898


Nearly Two Hundred Horses Already at the Track
The Fastest Trotters and Pacers in the State Will Start at the August Meeting Here

A scene of great activity is to be witnessed at the Santa Rosa race track every morning when the light harness horses are brought out for their regular work preparatory to the races to be given by the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Breeders Association which will commence on August 14th and continue for one week. More interest is being taken throughout the East in harness racing this year and the meetings on the Grand Circuit there are drawing the largest crowds of people that have attended the races for many years past. With the district fair appropriations restored in California a prosperous racing season is assured fur those interested, and more horses are in training this year than for several seasons past. The prospects are that the meeting at Santa Rosa will show some of the most exciting contests to capture the big purses offered, that have over taken place on this coast…

– Press Democrat, August 2 1899



All roads and all trains will lead to Santa Rosa during Fourth of July week, and with the double attraction of a grand celebration on the Fourth and the races to be given by the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Breeders’ association the county seat of Sonoma county will contain several thousand more people than its regular residents. The California Northwestern railway will run excursions from all points on its line to Santa Rosa on the Fourth of July at half fare. The day will certainly be a gala one and a red-letter event in the history of the county…

– Press Democrat, June 27 1900


Good Day’s Sport At the Local Track
Auspicious Beginning of the First Annual Meeting of the Santa Rosa Racing Association

Lined up against the infield fence at Pierce Bros.’ track yesterday afternoon were most if not all ot Santa Rosa’s swellest turnouts. The occasion was the opening of the first annual meet of the Santa Rosa Racing Association, and the local admirers of the thoroughbred were out in good force.

The ladies were especially in evidence and the fluttering of ribbons and summer fineries added much to the gaiety of the scene. The day was ideal and the track was fast. Music by Parks’ full orchestra filled in the time between heats and, taken all in all, the occasion was a very auspicious one. The attendance was fully up to the average first day’s turnout and considerable money changed hands, the bookies, it is said, quitting losers.

This is the first time in twelve years that Santa Rosans have had the privilege of witnessing running races at the local track, and the interest taken in the bang-tails showed that the oldtime tendency of the public is still there…

– Press Democrat, August 13 1901


The World’s Record Breaker Was Born, Raised and Trained at the Santa Rosa Stock Farm

When the news was received here Monday and displayed on the Press Democrat bulletin board that Lou Dillon, the Santa Rosa mare, had lowered the world’s record to two minutes at Readville, Mass., enthusiasm ran high among the horsemen and citizens generally, who were greatly pleased at the worldwide reputation the City of Roses had gained in producing the fastest trotter in the world.

Lou Dillon, in her wonderful race on Monday, greatly exceeded what the world of sport expected she would do. During the afternoon and evening men gathered in knots of twos and threes and later in greater numbers, and the mare’s achievement was the one topic of conversation. It seemed like a dream to the horsemen. At first it seemed too good to be true.

– Press Democrat, August 25 1903




– Press Democrat, June 12 1904


A fine entrance to the race track and stock farm where the big district fair will be held is being erected, and when completed it will be most attractive. During fair week it will be a blaze of electric globes. In fact, it is planned to string lights from Fourth street to the entrance of the grounds as a part of the exterior decoration.

– Press Democrat, July 26 1913

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