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THE FORGOTTEN GREAT FIRE OF 1870

In 2017 Santa Rosa suffered the Tubbs Fire and before that, the 1964 Hanly Fire. But way back in 1870, yet another firestorm charged over the mountain towards Santa Rosa. Our ancestors simply called it The Great Fire.

The California fire history maps only go back to 1951 and none of the reports yet published by the state mention the 1870 disaster, although it followed the same pattern as what happened last year. Driven by very high northerly winds, the October 1870 fire started near Calistoga and when it was joined by a blaze from St. Helena it became unstoppable. The Santa Rosa newspaper reported, “soon the flames were beyond control, devouring everything within their reach…and swept along the mountains with such terrible speed that all efforts to check its progress were given up.”

No map was published of the burn area, but the Sonoma Democrat described which properties were hit – see articles transcribed below. A deed search would probably produce a reasonably accurate map, but we know it stopped three miles from Santa Rosa. Measuring from the 1870 city limits, that would mean it burned through Fountaingrove.

Cal Fire map of regional wildfire history since 1951

 

Just as in 1964 and last year, there was also a simultaneous fire on the Sonoma Valley ridge. It burned as far south as Napa City – like the recent Nuns Fire – and on the Sonoma county side the fires also matched the 2017 disaster: “The smouldering stumps and blackened fields can be seen all along the Sonoma road,” reported the Sonoma Democrat in 1870.

The crisis came the night of October 16, the third night of what we now call, “Diablo Winds.” Santa Rosa was on edge because of “the close proximity of the fire on the hills;” a collection was taken up among townsfolk to pay three men to stay up all night and sound the alarm if the fire threatened.

What the Petaluma Argus observed six days afterwards sounds uncomfortably familiar to 2017: “Fires are yet raging through all the vicinity,” and there was “a smoky haze of the atmosphere through this section seldom if ever before seen.”

There were no deaths – aside from 400 sheep – and the properties harmed were remote farms and ranches. That’s probably the reason you won’t find mention of the 1870 fires in any of our local history books – the authors probably thought it was a fluke. (I stumbled across the details only while reading the old newspapers.)

But looking back on the incident now, the Great Fire of 1870 is unnerving to discover. Once can be an accident; twice could be a coincidence.

Three times is a pattern.

 

Forest fire by Paul Landacre (1893 – 1963), circa 1937

 

THE GREAT FIRE.

One of the most extensive and destructive fires of which we have record, has been raging for the past week on the mountains which divide Sonoma and Napa Counties. From all the sources of information to which we have had access, we are enabled to place before our readers the following particulars: Three fires were started at almost the same time – one near the town of St. Helena on the 13th; one at St. Helena on the 14th, and one at Calistoga on the 15th. Shortly after they had been started a high wind began to blow, and soon the flames were beyond control, devouring everything within their reach. The fires of Calistoga and St. Helena formed a junction, and swept along the mountains with such terrible speed that all efforts to check its progress were given up. The following are the names ot the principal sufferers: Jerry Porter—ranch partially burned, fence entirely destroyed, house and barn saved. Mr. Cash—ranch met the same fate as that of Mr. Porter. Bruce Cocknill-ranch entirely destroyed, including out houses and about ten thousand rails. Wilis Cocknill—fence entirely consumed, together with about eight thonsand pickets and a large number of fine sheep. Mr. Coulter—fencing and a large amount of stock burned. Mr. Woodward—ranch on Mark West Creek partially destroyed. As the wind had now ceased to blow so violently, the fire was checked at this place. South of the places above named, the following destruction took place; Jacob Winegardener—ranch, house, barn, out houses, stock and considerable lumber destroyed. Mr. Johnson—ranch and buildings destroyed. Mr, Hoffman—ranch and all he possessed, with the exception of his riding horse, consumed. Mr. Frederick Vent having removed his fencing, saved his ranch, at which point the fire was checked. Nothing is left to mark the course ol the firey fiend but smouldering ruins. The labors of years has been swept away, and many families left in a destitute condition. As to who started these fires in the first place it is impossible to tell, and perhaps will never be known.

The fire found its way into Sonoma Valley, and considerable damage was done before it could be checked. The first place destroyed was the home of Mrs. Lucy Box, a widow lady, who is left almost penniless. The dwelling, furniture, barn, etc., is now in ruins. This is a sad case, and it is a pleasure to us to learn that our citizens are contributing liberally toward enabling this lady to build up another home for herself and children. The next place it reached was the pasture of the Guilicos Ranch, destroying a great amount of fencing. Mr. Jas. Shaw, an estimable gentleman, was the next sufferer. He lost his house, barn, wagons, and a large amount of lumber. Mr. Shaw is now absent from home, and the news of his great loss has not yet reached him. The smouldering stumps and blackened fields can be seen all along the Sonoma road.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 22 1870

 

Town Watched. —In consequence of the high wind that was prevalent on last Sunday evening, and the close proximity of the fire on the hills, it was deemed advisable to have our town patroled throughout the night. For this purpose a number of our citizens subscribed various sums to a purse for the defrayment of the expenses: Messrs. Park, Metzler, and a person whose name is unknown to us, were appointed to stand guard during the night, and sound the alarm provided the fiery elements approached too closely. There being no necessity to arouse our citizens from their slumbers, the “fire extinguisher” was allowed to remain housed.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 22 1870

 

THE FIRE IN THE MOUNTAINS.– For several days past a fearful fire has been raging in the woods and fields in the region of country between Calistoga and Healdsburg, doing immense damage, especially in and about Calistoga, and producing a smoky haze of the atmosphere through this section seldom if ever before seen. During Friday night and Saturday a very high wind prevailed, driving the fire with fearful rapidity. All of the grain fields, fences and woods from Knight’s Valley to Walnut Station, on the line of the railroad toward Napa City, over a distance of twelve miles, were consumed. The fire is still raging in the woods in the mountains. Further down in the valley, and in the vicinity of Napa City, some ten thousand acres of ground have been burned over, in many instances fences, hay, barns and houses being swept away. In Sonoma county quite an extent of country has also been burnt over, and, in some instances, considerable damage sustained. Among the losses which have come to our knowledge is of a Mr. Coulter, a butcher, of Santa Rosa, whose ranch in the mountains was burned out, and four hundred sheep destroyed. Also, a man named Scalis, living about three miles from Santa Rosa, had his barn burnt, and hay and grain destroyed. Also Mr. James Shaw, Mr. Hoffman, and Mrs. Lucy Box, of Guilicos valley, lost their houses, barns, fences, hay, grain, etc. Fires are yet raging through all the vicinity, and will probably burn until there is a fall of rain.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, October 22 1870

 

St. Helena, (Napa County), Oct. 21, 1870. Editors Alta: …The fires that have raged in the hills between this place and Calistoga, are nearly extinguished; the damages are as yet not fully ascertained, but they will probably foot up $20,000, the losers in every instance being uninsured. In the valley, conflagrations are frequent, and the ranch-holders have been “fighting fire” night and day for the past two weeks; fences are burned for ten miles in every direction, as is also the lumber on the ground to erect new ones. The trunks of the forest trees are so charred that they will be blown down by the first gale. Krug’s wine cellar came very near being destroyed by a fire which broke out in the stubble, on Monday, but with the assistance of the neighbors, the flames were extinguished, a large number of vines being damaged. A cellar, owned by Jock & McCoy, near thia place, was burned a few days ago, and 24,000 gallons of wine lost, together with 100 tons of grapes, crushed ready for manufacture into wine.

– Daily Alta California, October 29 1870

 

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COURTHOUSE SQUARE FOR SALE, CHEAP

It’s too late for the sesquicentennial year, but Santa Rosa should declare every April 15 Gus Kohle Day. On that date in 1868 he became a hero for taking his axe to a building on the town square.

It was the most exciting thing to happen in Santa Rosa that year; as described here earlier, there was nary a whoop of celebration when the town was officially incorporated. Other than a heated debate over proposed routes for the soon-to-come railroad, it looked like 1868 would be completely forgettable.

Then on that mid-April morning, Gus came downtown to open his Court Saloon on Exchange Avenue facing the west side of the plaza (now Old Courthouse Square). There was a commotion because a trio of carpenters and a local farmer were well underway putting up a small wooden building, having worked through some of the night. Gus knew what this was about; everybody in town knew what was going on.

The southwest corner of the Santa Rosa Plaza c. 1870, as seen from Third Street. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

 

 

The trouble began a few months earlier around Christmas of 1867, when Julio Carrillo couldn’t get a sack of flour.

Santa Rosa – as every local schoolkid knows – was built on the 2,000+ acres Carrillo inherited from his mother, Doña María, in 1849. Fast forward a mere five years and the town (albeit unincorporated) was now the Sonoma county seat, thanks in part to Carrillo and the three other founders offering to build a new courthouse here for free. They also donated a couple of acres for a central plaza, with Julio giving the entire western half. At that moment in 1854 he was likely the wealthiest man in Sonoma county after his brother-in-law, General Vallejo.

About a dozen years passed. Julio Carrillo had lost all of his land and supposedly gambled away the rest of his inheritance. Gaye LeBaron called him a “born loser” which seems harsh, but he was indeed a pauper thanks to his exceedingly bad judgement and boundless generosity – not to mention having twelve children. Thus he found himself being told by a storekeeper that he didn’t have enough credit left to buy a simple sack of flour.*

“Stung to the quick, in the heat of his indignation he re-deeded half of the Plaza,” wrote historian Robert Thompson. And typical of Julio’s lousy dealmaking, he took the lowball offer of $300 for what would have been the most valuable property in town.

The first news about the “re-deed” appeared in the Santa Rosa paper shortly after New Year’s Day, 1868. Yeah, the plaza was looking a mite scruffy, the editor admitted, but it belonged to the town and “Mr. Carrelio” (his name was misspelled throughout the whole item) can’t un-donate it. The three men who gave Julio the money were all locals – two farmers and a butcher – and they would only “waste their money and make themselves obnoxious to their fellow citizens” by trying to claim ownership, commented the Sonoma Democrat.

In March both sides rattled sabers. A crew from the town repaired the fence and installed gates to keep cows and pigs from wandering into the plaza (an ongoing problem) while a San Francisco lawyer, hired by the three who gave the cash to Julio, ordered the work to be stopped.

A month later came the showdown. One of those who believed he actually had a valid deed was Wesley Woods (often misspelled Wood), a farmhand who worked for Barney Hoen. The small frame building he and the carpenters were constructing probably had no purpose other than to claim possession of the land. Although this was never a “squatter’s rights” issue, Woods and the others could point to the structure as an improvement on the property, which would complicate legal matters considerably.

Whether Gus Kohle knew that point of law or not is moot; what’s important is that he spared Santa Rosa a courtroom headache by taking immediate action. “Procuring an axe, he went into the plaza, and in the course of a few minutes completely demolished the new building, leveling it with the ground.”

Woods and the carpenters were arrested. All but Woods were released by the court because they were simply hired workers, but Woods’ San Francisco lawyer got him a jury trial, where he was found guilty and fined $38.75. “This is the first act in the performance. What will be the next step we are not prepared to say,” remarked the Democrat.

Kohle’s timely intervention earned him a cheery salute in the Sonoma Democrat: “Gus. Kohle, of the Court Saloon, feeling extremely jolly on Tuesday [sic] morning last, over his victory gained in the plaza, like the good, clever man that he is, wanted us to feel likewise – so he brought us a keg of Miller & Fried’s superior Lager. Here’s to you, Gus.” That kind of praise wasn’t unusual, however. His saloon (motto: “Beer at reasonable rates”) was next to the newspaper’s office and he was always plying the staff with free booze for plugs. Another example: “Why is Gus Kohle so fat, prosperous and good looking? That’s what’s the matter, There is only one reason for it, and that is that he always comes into our office with lager at the proper time. Gus is a brick, sure.” (That was a joke because Kohle’s family owned the brickyard.)

The group that thought they owned the plaza did not give up, however. Details are sketchy, but they sued to evict Santa Rosa from its own public park – arguing “the town never formally accepted the gift and furthermore, that the conditions precedent to its taking effect have not been complied with.” (Huh?) The court threw out the case. They filed a lawsuit again, this time from Marin county, and again were “non-suited” by the judge. It was now near the end of 1870, probably about two years after they gave the money to Julio Carrillo.

“Returning immediately to Santa Rosa,” the Democrat reported, “they once more entered on the disputed ground, and shortly after daylight, on Friday morning, another rough board shanty presented an ugly appearance on the plaza.”

The paper stated “an old citizen of the town” tried to smash it up but he “was knocked down and driven out of the enclosure in a very rough manner.” That could have been Gus again, as he still had the Exchange street saloon; but he was 50 years old at the time, and it’s doubtful a reporter would call that elderly (particularly after all the free beer he was pouring down their gullets).

Again the shanty was torn down and the men behind it were arrested (Wesley Woods was still the only one named). A trial was held and this time the case was dropped because the work was done at night and there were no witnesses.

That was the end of the matter; the town council had rushed through a new ordinance explicitly making it illegal to put up a building in the plaza and they did not try again.

Some dangling questions remain. None of those caught in the plaza deal were wealthy, yet they hired San Francisco attorneys – in their last trial, a judge – to represent them. One of the later articles mentions “Wesley Woods, Henry Mutz, and several other parties,” although “A. Berry” was the only other person ever named. Were they selling partnerships to pay for their legal defense?

Also, it seems odd that they spent all that money but did not sue Carrillo for fraud. Perhaps Julio – ever the terrible negotiator – did not get his $300 after all because he agreed that the deal would be contingent upon them perfecting the land title.

Regardless, the plaza that would become Courthouse Square was safe from being carved up – or at least it was until 1967, when the city split it down the middle with a road. And as explained in my article about Santa Rosa’s centennial celebrations, our progress-minded civic leaders also were planning to sell off the eastern half of the square for commercial development. Preservationists blocked that from happening, thank goodness, but it might have been harder to prevent if we all woke up some morning to find Hugh Codding had built a preemptive shack on the place.

* The “sack of flour” angle makes the story seem as if it could be apocryphal, but I think it’s true. Robert Allan Thompson wrote about it just 15 years after the event, and his book was published in Julio’s lifetime. A transcript of the entire passage can be found below.

 

1866 map of Santa Rosa; detail from earliest wall map of Sonoma County

 

 

A RAID ON THE PLAZA.— Several years ago, when our flourishing town was in its infancy, it was the recipient of a handsome and valuable gift of a piece of ground, lying ia the heart of the town, for a public square or plaza. Messrs. Hahman and Carrelio were the generous donors. Our old citizens will recollect the high appreciation in which this liberal act was hold at the time. Under the immediate care and personal supervision of Gen. Hinton, since deceased, the plaza became an ornament to the town, and was regarded with pride and pleasure by old and young. Since the old gentleman’s death, however, less care has been given to it, and our public square, though still both a benefit and an ornament to Santa Rosa, is not what it was formerly. This seeming neglect may have operated on the mind of one of the donors, Mr. Carrelio, for we learn he has actually sold and conveyed to certain parties in town all his right, title and interest in the square, and that they design building upon it, leaving simply room for the running of the main street through the same. Of course they will not be permitted to do anything of the kind. We imagine that the “right, title and interest” of Mr. Carrelio in the property mentioned, after donating it to the town for public use, is neither more nor less than that of any other citizen. The parties to whom he conveyed can take no more than he owned at the date of making the deed, which is simply nothing at all. They may possibly, acting under bad advice, waste their money and make themselves obnoxious to their fellow citizens, but in the long run they will be the sufferers by the operation. Santa Rosa, by virtue of a free gift, and long use and occupation, owns the plaza, and under no circumstances will her undoubted right to it be given up. We advise the parties, for their own sake, and the credit of the town, to abandon this vain and unwarranted undertaking. It is only causing ill feeling and useless expense and trouble.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 4 1868

UNDERGOING REPAIRS. —The Plaza is undergoing repairs, the fence being straightened up, new gates put in, etc. We understand that the parties now endeavoring to deprive the county of its claim upon the Plaza have ordered the work to be stopped, but no attention has been paid to it. Let the work go on, and the plaza be properly improved.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 14 1868

…The attorney engaged for the purpose of taking away the plaza from the town ridicules the idea of the matter being contended, and thinks that all be will have to do for his clients is to go up to Santa Rosa and take possession of it. I think the gentleman will find out that he will meet with more opposition in this matter than be anticipates.

–  Sonoma Democrat, March 14 1868

ROW ON THE PLAZA.— Late on Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning some parties entered the public plaza of Santa Rosa, and began putting up a small frame building thereon. Daylight revealed the objectionable structure to the gaze of our citizens, and great was the indignation which followed. Marshal Parks proceeded to the spot and arrested Wesley Wood, James Hayward, Edward Minott and William Harrow. Gus Kohle also had a hand in the business. Procuring an axe, he went into the plaza, and in the course of a few minutes completely demolished the new building, leveling it with the ground. The parties arrested were bound over to appear for trial next Tuesday. Three of the parties arrested are carpenters, who were employed to do the work by others who claim the plaza under a bill of sale, as is well known, and have sent to San Francisco for an attorney to attend their case. The people of Santa Rosa have no patience with such nonsense, and those interested in this attempt to grab the public square have made themselves very unpopular.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 18 1868

Gus. Kohle, of the Court Saloon, feeling extremely jolly on Tuesday morning last, over his victory gained in the plaza, like the good, clever man that he is, wanted us to feel likewise—so he brought us a keg of Miller & Fried’s superior Lager. Here’s to you, Gus.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 18 1868

THE PLAZA WAR.—Last Week we mentioned the arrest of Wesley Wood and three others for unlawfully entering and erecting a building on the public square of Santa Rosa. On Tuesday they were brought to trial before Recorder Middleton, charged with violating a town ordinance. J. W. Owen, of San Francisco, appeared as counsel for the defendants, and P. B. Hood, City Attorney, represented Santa Rosa. The first day was spent in endeavoring to get a jury, great difficulty arising from the line of examination adopted by the defense. The Court finally refused to give the counsel the latitude he claimed in this respect, as it was evident that it would be next to impossible to obtain a jury. Mr. Owen thereupon threw up the case, and left the court room. On motion of the Town Attorney, all the defendants but Wood were discharged. They were simply workmen, and had no intention of committing any offense. Next day the jury was competed, the following persons being sworn to try the case… A verdict of guilty was returned against Mr. Wood. The Court then fined him $38.75, the bare costs of the proceedings. This is the first act in the performance. What will be the next step we are not prepared to say.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 25 1868

GUS. KOHLE.—Our old friend Gus. Kohle has taken up the bet that we offered recently, that he could not furnish us with more lager than we could dispose of. The other day he rolled another keg of excellent beer into our office, and announced his determination to come out of the contest victorious, as he had the Healdsburg brewery to back him. All we have to say is, “let the fight go on !”

– Sonoma Democrat, May 9 1868

Why is Gus Kohle so fat, prosperous and good looking? That’s what’s the matter, There is only one reason for it, and that is that he always comes into our office with lager at the proper time. Gus is a brick, sure.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 18 1869

 

More of the Plaza Troubles.

Some two years since our citizens were apprised of the fact that Wesley Woods, Henry Mutz, and several other parties claimed to be the owners of the public plaza of Santa Rosa, basing their claim, we believe, on the purchase of all the right, title and interest of the original owner, who had previously given the land to the town. It is asserted, on the part of claimants, that the town never formally accepted the gift and furthermore, that the conditions precedent to its taking effect have not been complied with. About the time mentioned Woods and others hastily erected a shanty on the Plaza, and claimed to be in possession. Considerable indignation was aroused by this proceeding, and the building was summarily torn down and the parties arrested for violating a local ordinance. Subsequently they brought a suit in ejectment to recover the land, and were non-suited when the case came up. Then a change was made to Marin county, where the matter rested for some time. Last week, however, the case come up in that county, and again the Plaza “jumpers” were non-suited. Returning immediately to Santa Rosa, they once more entered on the disputed ground, and shortly after daylight, on Friday morning, another rough board shanty presented an ugly appearance on the plaza. The parties, this time, appeared determined to maintain their supposed rights, and an old citizen of the town, who attempted to batter down the structure on his own account, was knocked down and driven out of the enclosure in a very rough manner. The town trustees soon after took the business in hand, a warrant was issued for the arrest of the “jumpers,” and Marshal Park ordered to remove the building, all of which was done in a vigorous and summary way. The parties now await trial for breaking a town ordinance, the plaza is once more free from shanty encumbrances, and “order reigns in Santa Rosa.”

– Sonoma Democrat, December 3 1870
The Plaza Case.

The trial of Wesley Wood and others, for breaking down the Plaza fence, etc., came up before Justice Brown on Tuesday last. Judge Tyler, of San Francisco, appeared for tbe defendants, and Barclay Henley and James McGee for tbe city. After an interesting and protracted trial, defendants were discharged. Although several persons were present at the time the fence was removed, not one could be found who had actually seen who did it, or even knew at whose instigation it was done, Tbe impression prevails that it was a put-up job, one party taking down tbe fence before daylight, and the other going to work to erect tbe building shortly after. So far as the merits of the claim to the Plaza go, tbe case remains just where it did before. The City Trustees, however, have passed an ordinance which will make any attempt on tbe Plaza more certain of conviction and punishment hereafter.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 10 1870
Gus Kohle.

There are in all cities and towns some peculiar persons who are well known by reason of some phase of character to all inhabitants. Such a person was the late August Kohle, who died on Friday last and was burled on Sunday. He was born in Hanover, Germany, Dec. 10th, 1820, and was therefore at the time of his death in his fifty-ninth year. When a youth he shipped from Bremen as a cabin boy and went to Havanna, [sic] where he remained twelve years. In 1849 he came to California and in 1859 settled in Santa Rosa, where be subsequently married and has since resided. By industry as a laborer, brick manufacturer, etc., he accumulated considerable property and at one time owned most of the frontage on the west side of the Plasa. At an early day he took great interest in the improvement of the Plaza, and as Sexton did most of the work in laying out and improving the Cemetery grounds. He was also an original member of the Fire Department, and served many years as Steward of Engine Co. No 1, being at all times one of its most active and efficient members. To attend meetings, and wear the uniform on gala days, was not with him the whole duty of a fireman. Be took hold of whatever would promote the efficiency of his company, whether in the heat of battle with the flame, or in work about the engine and its appurtenances, that it might at the first tap of the alarm bell be ready for any emergency. Gus Kohle had his faults—who has not? but during his long residence here made for himself a good name. He was industrious, charitably disposed, honest in dealing with his fellow-men, and always made good his Word. His sphere was humble; his opportunities were slight; but in spite of these drawbacks he died respected by all who knew him, as was evidenced by the very large attendance at his funeral of the citizens of Santa Rosa, without regard to creed or nationality. He has laid aside the burden of life. His memory, like his face, will soon fade from the minds of men, but he will be remembered by all who have been associated with him in the department as a faithful fireman. He was also a member of the Pioneer Association of Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties, and of the German Club of this city. The companies composing the Fire Department, and the German Club, in a body, escorted his remains to the Cemetery. At his special request his funeral was conducted by Santa Rosa Engine Co. No. 1. At the grave the German Club united in singing “Des Freundes Abschied”—The Friend’s Farewell—and the remains were committed to the grave. A wife and three children mourn the loss of a kind and affectionate husband and father. As an old citizen and member of the Fire Department we pay this tribute to his memory.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 27 1880

…One day he sent [sic. went] to a prominent merchant of the city, and was refused credit for a sack of flour. Stung to the quick, in the heat of his indignation he re-deeded half of the Plaza to Henry Mutz, Wesley Wood and A. Berry for $300 in cash. These parties endeavored to take possession of the property, but were prevented. The matter finally got into the courts, and was decided in favor of the county, to which Carrillo had originally given the land. He claimed, when he re-deeded it to Mutz, Wood and Berry, that the conditions of the gift to the county had not been fulfilled. The case was tried in Marin, and the title of the county to the land was fully sustained.

– Central Sonoma: A Brief Description of the Township and Town of Santa Rosa …
By Robert Allan Thompson 1884 pg. 69-70

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