Santa Rosa could not believe its great good luck in the mid-1870s: A money man of the San Francisco Stock Exchange had taken interest in our little farmtown, quickly launching public works projects and buying 130 acres for an addition to the city. Nearly every issue of the local newspapers had shoutouts to our benefactor or the mansions being built on the grand avenue bearing his name.

Now shift forward twenty years and he’s viewed as less the benevolent tycoon and more like a penny-ante robber baron. He seems bent on suing the city into bankruptcy and is using the courts to bully elected officials and anyone he views as rivals. He’s accused of bribery, coercion and conspiracy as well as being criminally negligent. Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Mark L. McDonald.

Mark L. McDonald c. 1879. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
Mark L. McDonald c. 1879. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

For someone with such a storied name, his life has remained remarkably unexamined. Today there’s a small Wikipedia page on the family and most writers lean heavily on the 1911 profile in the Tom Gregory county history, which is the sort of hagiography that results when the subject is paying for the pleasure.

His connection to Santa Rosa came via his wife Ralphine. They were married in early 1866, just a few months after her family arrived here in the wake of the Civil War. The ceremony was at the home of Thomas L. Thompson, the rabidly pro-Confederate editor of the Democrat. It was perhaps the town’s reputation as a Confederacy enclave that drew the North family here; they had a Mississippi plantation and father Ralph had been a Natchez judge. (Edited to correct: The family plantation story was probably a myth; see the following article.) The following year Ralphine was involved in the ball held on the Santa Rosa Plaza to raise money for the “Ladies’ Southern Relief Fund” which was all or in part organized by her dad.

Although Mark was likely there that evening dancing with his wife to aid the ex-slave states, we don’t know much about where he stood on almost anything. In 1877 he wanted to be appointed to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate and while much was written about his fine character, his views were never mentioned. We do know he was unwaveringly opposed to the Chinese in California; he was chair of an anti-Chinese committee that sent a lobbyist to Washington, refused to hire Chinese laborers and when he became a Santa Rosa City Councilman in 1883, the first resolution he introduced was to wipeout the tiny Chinatown on Hinton Ave.

Ralphine and Mark lived in San Francisco where he mostly made his fortune by savvy stock trading. No mention was made of him being in Santa Rosa until 1875 when he bought the water company, which had struggled to offer even minimal service for years.

During the years 1876 and 1877 he took the town by storm. He bought the big chunk of land and announced he was going to build a home there. Digging began on the pond to be used as a reservoir for his waterworks and would later become known as Lake Ralphine, but when he learned the contractor was using Chinese workers he demanded they be fired and replaced with white laborers, promising to make up the difference of their much higher wages. The next year he started laying rails for a horse-drawn streetcar system.

Those were the dawn of halcyon days. “We consider it fortunate that a gentleman of the wealth and energy of Mr. McDonald has become so largely interested in our midst,” gushed the Democrat newspaper. The water mains reached farther into the town and there was at least enough water pressure to ensure a hearty trickle up to the third story of a building. Santa Rosans so loved his streetcar that they took excursions out to the Rural Cemetery after Sunday dinners.

Besides those good works historians often credit him with establishing the town’s free public library with a donation of his private collection, along with leading efforts to have the city brighten the evening darkness with gaslights. He was a library trustee briefly but if he contributed books (or money!) it was never mentioned in the papers at the time – he was, however, open to putting up bookshelves at the City Hall to house magazine and book donations from the public. And when placement of streetlights was under discussion by the City Council in 1884 he discouraged lighting the downtown plaza but “wanted the lights scattered about where respectable people lived,” i.e. places like McDonald Avenue.

Come the 1890s, tho, the McDonalds – Mark, and to a lesser degree his brother James and son Mark Jr. – were being seen as rapacious, self-serving capitalists who were indifferent to Santa Rosa’s progress and even safety.

Mark’s street railway went from Railroad Square down Fourth street, turned on McDonald Ave. and terminated at Argyle Park (now the Presbyterian Church campus). Well and good for those who had a swank address on McDonald, but the town was mostly expanding on the north side, which we now call the Junior College neighborhood. When another streetcar company began serving that area, Mark McDonald sued them. Another company later tried offering service to Bennett Valley and he sued them too. More about those lawsuits will be discussed in a following chapter.

McDonald undoubtedly lost good will with his petty efforts to stay the streetcar czar, but far more serious were matters involving the waterworks.

Under state law, cities like Santa Rosa which relied upon a private water company had to set rates annually based on the company’s profits. Through most of the 1880s the City Council rubber-stamped McDonald’s proposed rates for the coming year after he submitted a brief summary of his financial statements, sometimes remarking on the record that his prices “were just and fair.” But come 1889, the Council rejected his summary; he resubmitted it and that too was found inadequate, but based on it the city set a lower rate for the coming year. A committee from the Council did get a look at his books, however, and discovered he was apparently trying to short-change investors – he claimed gross revenue was only $8k when it was really over $21,000.1

Two years later the town had soured on Mark McDonald, with rumors going around that he was pulling the strings at City Hall by dishing out bribes. This came up at a City Council meeting with one of the members protesting “He was tired of having it said that Colonel McDonald ran the Council: that the Council men had been wined and dined and driven about by the Colonel.” The others spoke up to declare themselves uncorrupted and incorruptible, although one admitted having “wined with Colonel McDonald, but paid for the wine.”

At that same July 22, 1891 council meeting the main topic was the quality of water McDonald was providing. The Democrat reported one Councilman said “he was heartily tired of hearing Colonel McDonald talk about his pure and limpid streams and exhaustless supplies.” McDonald was supplying customers with untreated pond water, Councilman Tupper said: “Go and look at what passes into your street sprinklers. There is enough crawling vermin in them to fill a bushel basket.”

Mark was present at the meeting and argued he had spent lots of money on the water system and it was against the interests of the city to say it was contaminated – but if they wanted to visit Lake Ralphine and look around they were welcome to do so. He must have thought they wouldn’t call his bluff, but the Council ordered the Board of Health to investigate. There was also talk of offering a bond to either buy him out or build a municipal waterworks from scratch. Spectators at the meeting loudly stamped their feet in approval.

Lake Ralphine c. 1905. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
Lake Ralphine c. 1905. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

The inspection was made by the Board of Health and a City Council committee. Always eager to spin the news for McDonald, the Democrat asked the most sympathetic Councilman what they saw. “We found many things that, it seemed to me, were not right. There were drainages leading into the lake that should not exist, and I am surprised that the management should have allowed such things to exist.”

That was a helluva understatement. The Board of Health report (transcribed below) thought McDonald’s waterworks were “criminally negligent and indifferent to our welfare as a city.” There was no effort to block runoff from surrounding farms (“on the contrary, we saw evidence which went to show that it was rather encouraged”). The Republican newspaper went further and explained “The sides of that pond are a pasture field extending almost to the water’s edge. Every rain carries manure from the stock pasturing on the hills surrounding this pond.”

The creeks feeding the reservoir were also being contaminated by farm runoff: “We do not hesitate to say that as things existed when we visited the creek the health of this community is greatly menaced.”

Besides creating embankments to keep manure from washing into the reservoir, the Board recommended McDonald tap two large springs known as the “Shaw Springs” which fed a creek that passed near the lake. Unfortunately, the report stated, “On its way it flows through a low, marshy piece of ground, on which hogs and other animals graze, and upon which marsh dead animals are often thrown.” The property owner had built a dam to block that creek from polluting the reservoir.

So what was Mark McDonald’s first response to the Board of Health report? He sued the Shaw Springs landowner to remove the dam so the fully contaminated water could enter the lake. Gentle Reader’s jaw should now be picked off the floor.

The Democrat printed the report, but commented “The least said about the indictment of the water probably the better it will be for the city.” Even that paper – which the Republican was calling the “organ of the Water Company” – grudgingly admitted something must be done, either condemning McDonald’s company so the city could buy it or building a municipal plant. Mark told a Councilman that he would be willing to sell out for $250,000.

By the end of the year, however, the Democrat was back to being McDonald’s propagandist, to wit: Mark is making improvements which will increase Lake Raphine’s capacity and laying new water mains, people should remember how bad the situation was before he took over, the quality “is as pure and limpid as the most delicious spring water,” no “disease or prevailing sickness [has] been traced to the unwholesomeness of the water,” yadda, yadda.

To prove how wonderful the water quality was, editor Thompson said he personally took a sample directly from a hydrant and sent it to UC/Berkeley. The analysis by the esteemed Prof. Hilgard of the Agricultural Department showed it was “abundantly good enough” though harder than some people might like.2

Thompson reprinted that analysis over the following year until the Republican pointed out his water sample had obviously come from someone’s well and not the waterworks – the only aspect of McDonald’s water everyone liked was its extraordinary softness. “Soften the water of Ralphine! Ye gods!” Republican editor Allan Lemmon jeered.

In January 1893 it was pretty clear which direction the town was heading. A consultant Santa Rosa hired several months earlier finished his plans for a municipal waterworks which was estimated to cost $165k. The mayor and city attorney also made a field trip to Santa Cruz and gave the City Council a glowing report that their city-operated system was the “pride of the people” and had the lowest water rates in the state.

At the following meeting the Council ordered a special election for approval of a bond to either build a new plant or buy out McDonald. Mark said he would sell it to the city at the slightly reduced price of $210,000. His offer was immediately rejected, as it would additionally cost half again as much to fix all the problems with his water system.

Thus in May 1893 the city enthusiastically voted for a bond to build a municipal waterworks. The 74 percent approval was surely a repudiation of Mark McDonald – in the weeks before the Democrat editorialized and ran letters lamenting all the “prejudice” against him. (The Democrat’s other position before the vote was the city had no guarantee the municipal system “scheme” would find an adequate water supply and anything pumped from underground “would be absolutely dangerous.”)

Now that Santa Rosa was firmly on course to build its own system, one might presume McDonald would stop fighting over the issue. He was a very, very rich man; profits from the waterworks would have been small change to the likes of him. As he still had the control of all the water mains via the old city franchise, wouldn’t it have behooved Mark to make a deal to help ease transition into the upcoming municipal system? After all, his family were residents of the town themselves (at least part time, anyway).

Not on your life. He was also a very, very petty man; witness the lawsuits he waged over streetcar lines that didn’t even compete with his own. Everything covered here was just the prelude to years of expensive, meaningless court fights that strived to beat down and economically cripple Santa Rosa along with personally crushing his town critics.

The takeaway was that no one – no one – could be allowed to brace the wind against the force that was Mark L. McDonald.


1 Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings; fn. 3 and 4, pages 19-20
2 The water sample had about 84 mg/l calcium/magnesium carbonates and gypsum. The USGS classifies 61 to 120 mg/L as moderately hard, 121 to 180 mg/L as hard and over 180 mg/L as very hard.






The Water Company.

During the past week a controlling interest in the stock of the Santa Rosa Water Company was purchased by Mark McDonald, of San Francisco. We are informed that the supply of water will be increased and the reservoir improved. For the present there will be no increase of rates. Messrs. Hahman, Juilliard, Williams, Temple, Latapte, Clark, and others have sold their interests. We hope the gentlemen who have realized from the sale of their stock will now turn their attention to the development of some other enterprise for the benefit of Santa Rosa.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 24 1875



…Colonel McDonald asked the privilege of the chair to say a few words, and, his request granted, he went on to state that while there might be a difference of opinion as to the water system and the manner in which it is conducted, he thought it was prejudicial to the interests of the city to have the impression go abroad that the water is not pure and wholesome. The evening paper he continued, had printed an article attacking the water company, and misrepresenting the quality and quantity of water. The water company had tried to conform to the requirements of the laws made by the Council and desired to do anything and everything to improve the service furnished the citizens. He was anxious the Council should appoint a committee to visit the reservoir and investigate as to the cleanliness and purity of the water. The company had expended several thousand dollars in furnishing the citizens with an adequate supply of water, and many other improvements were in contemplation.

Mr. Tupper was opposed to having any newspaper dragged into the controversy, and he said he was heartily tired of hearing Colonel McDonald talk about his pure and limpid streams and exhaustless supplies. He knew, as all the citizens knew and as Colonel McDonald knows, that the water is impure. [“]Go and look at what passes into your street sprinklers. There is enough crawling vermin in them to fill a bushel basket. The reservoir has not been cleaned but once in ten years, and under a hot sun in an arid country like this the water in a little pond like the Colonel’s is bound to become foul and impure.[“]

Colonel McDonald said, in response to Mr. Tupper, that he had not intended to attack any paper; he was simply criticising what be deemed a misstatement. He was heartily desirous of having the Council investigate the purity of the water. He would guarantee that there was not purer water furnished in any other city of the State.

Mr. Doyle, who had seen what Mr. Tupper referred to when speaking of the crawling vermin from the sprinklers, asked Colonel McDonald if the water taken from the hydrants by the sprinklers was the same as that used by the citizens.

Colonel McDonald said it was, and explained how particles of dirt get into the pipes.

Mr. Berka moved that the Council have the water analysed as to its purity.

A suggestion was made about referring the matter to the Board of Health.

Mr. Berka’s motion was carried.

Mr. Overton thought it would be well for the Council to investigate and find out whether there were any corrals or stock kept along the creeks which supply water to the reservoir.

After some further discussion of a similar character to that quoted above, in which Colonel McDonald explained in what manner the improvements now being made would increase the supply, Mr. Tupper offered a resolution providing for the holding of an election on the question of issuing $80,000 bonds to construct a water works system and $15,000 bonds to construct a lighting plant.

Mr. Doyle did not believe in mortgaging the city or the tax payers to the tone of $95,000 for any purpose.

Mr. Overton said he would not be in favor of voting bonds if the present water company could provide adequate service. Water was needed for fire purposes and the city could not afford to wait until the citizens had been burned out before providing the necessary facilities.

Mr. Tupper went on to show that the citizens had paid the water company over $100,000, and that much of that money could be saved to them and pure and abundant water secured if the city owned its own plant.

The spectators present signified their approval of Mr. Tupper’s sentiments by loud stomping of feet.

Mr. Mailer thought the city should furnish the citizens with an abundance of pure, wholesome water.

Mr. Berka took occasion to say that nothing could be done without money, and that if the city was to improve its water and light facilities it must have money. He was tired of having it said that Colonel McDonald ran the Council: that the Council men had been wined and dined and driven about by the Colonel. But he wanted to say he had not been “it it.” He further stated that he had to pay for his water.

Mr. Doyle did not like the insinuations supposed to be lurking beneath Mr. Berka’s remarks. He wanted it definitely understood that he had to pay for his water and he supposed all the other Councilman did the same. He said he had never been wined or dined by Colonel McDonald.

The Mayor desired it to be distinctly understood that he had not been wined and dined by Colonel McDonald, and if he had he would not have considered himself contaminated. He had ridden with Colonel McDonald, however, and was not injured thereby. He was owned by no one and shaped his official career to conform with his own convictions.

Mr. Overton said he had wined with Colonel McDonald, but paid for the wine.

There was some further talk of this kind and the resolution submitting to the citizens the question of bonding the city for water and light plants was put to a vote and carried, the only negative vote being cast by Mr. Doyle.

– Daily Democrat, July 22 1891



…Mr. Doyle asked how Mr. Tupper expected the $80,000 or $200,000 bonds were going to be paid. He said the bonds could not be paid in thirty years; the first bond could not be paid off where there are two systems to compete in the price of water. The competition must reduce rates, and the income from the city’s works would not equal $5,000 a year. The system would not pay running expenses.

Mr. Tupper contended that the system would pay for itself.

Mr. Berka could not see why if other towns went into debt to carry on their improvements Santa Rosa could not do the same.

As a business proposition Mr. Doyle thought it would be better to condemn the present works and buy them.

Mr. Tupper said it would cost $200,000 to improve the McDonald works after the city purchased them; he would rather construct works on Mark West creek.

Mr. Mailer said he would prefer purchasing the McDonald works, if they could be bought at a reasonable figure.

Mr. Tupper said he had made Colonel McDonald a fair proposition to buy the works and that the latter had fixed his price at $250,000.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 1 1891


…Mr. Doyle is a member of the city council of Santa Rosa, and there has been much talk there of late of that city buying and owning the water works. In all his votes on that proposition as presented, and we have noticed by the Republican that Mr. Doyle was opposed to the proposition, not because he had any interest in the Santa Rosa works, but because he was a large owner in the Petaluma water works and that he was afraid that if the people of Santa Rosa should vote to buy and control its own water, that Petaluma might “follow suit.” And so we made bold to ask him about the matter, and from memory we quote his words. He said: “There has been and is a proposition for Santa Rosa to issue bonds and construct new water works. I have opposed it because I do not know where they are going to get the water. It is all very easy to issue your bonds and get your city in debt, lay miles of pipe, and all of that, but where do the people get off? Suppose they should do so, then they would come in direct competition with the old works whose franchise is still good. And then, where are they to get the water? I will say to you that a few days ago, in company with members of the Santa Rosa Council, we visited the lake where the city gets its water. We found many things that, it seemed to me, were not right. There were drainages leading into the lake that should not exist, and I am surprised that the management should have allowed such things to exist. No, I am not opposed to the city owning its water works. If the Santa Rosa works cannot or will not give the city pure water and an abundance of it, I believe that the city should buy the works, and in failure to do that, to condemn the works under the law…

– Sonoma Democrat, August 15 1891



Every resident of Santa Rosa should read the report of the Board of Health of this city in regard to the water supplied to the people who live here. It is a document that speaks for itself. Mayor Brooks, Dr. R. P. Smith, Councilman Mailer, Marshal Charles and Newton V. V. Smythe, Secretary, consisting all the members of the Board of Health, did not prepare and sign this unanimous report until fully satisfied of its correctness and the necessity for this action. It recites a condition of affairs that calls for prompt and decisive action by the people who live here.

When the REPUBLICAN led in the agitation of this water question some weeks ago it was with sufficient facts to warrant all that was said and more too. We then spoke as mildly as circumstances would permit. Putting the health and welfare of the community above the friendship and patronage of any man or set of men, we urged investigation by a committee of representative men. That investigation has been made and the report will be convincing to every man who reads it.

Now let us have a report from the other committee appointed some weeks ago to investigate water systems and recommend what should be done under existing circumstances. Has that committee employed experts and conducted an investigation that will be of value to the community? Money was appropriated for this purpose and it is of prime importance that the people of this city be informed without delay as to the action that should be taken on the water question.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 17 1891


Report of the Board of Health on the Condition of the Water Works.

To the honorable Mayor and City Council of Santa Rosa,
Gentlemen: At your request the undersigned Board of Health of Santa Rosa visited the water works which supply the city with water, for the purpose of investigating the purity of the same and to see if due precautions were taken by the Water Company to procure as healthful and pure a supply as the circumstances would permit.

We first visited the creek at the place where the Water Company has a dam for the purpose of utilizing the supply above. We then walked for over a half mile up the stream, noting the condition of the bed of the creek and the adjacent banks. We found that with a very little outlay of money intelligently expended, the supply here might be greatly increased – at least one-half more, and possibly as much more as now flows in the pipes. This would add in the summer-time very materially to the purity of our supply as well as to the quantity; also, that owing to farming settlements and other habitations on the banks, that a state of affairs existed that was by no means creditable to the management of the Water Company. A very little care and forethought with some expenditure of money, would entirely remove the causes for complaint on our part. We do not hesitate to say that as things existed when we visited the creek the health of this community is greatly menaced.

We then visited the reservoir. Here the same negligence and indifference to the public welfare was exhibited. No effort is, or has been made to prevent surface water from running into the reservoir; on the contrary, we saw evidence which went to show that it was rather encouraged.

We then inspected the open ditch which has been dug by the company from the extreme eastern end of the reservoir toward two large springs on the Hillman ranch, best known as the “Shaw Springs.” We believe that if this water could be got in its purity at the springs, and brought down unadulterated, that it would be a valuable acquisition to the water supply of our city, but as it is now it is an abominable nuisance. On its way it flows through a low, marshy piece of ground, on which hogs and other animals graze, and upon which marsh dead animals are often thrown, and we think it is a blessing that, for reasons best known to the owner of the land through which these waters flow, dams were placed by her to prevent the Water Company from appropriating the water.

In conclusion, we would earnestly urge your honorable body to take steps to ameliorate the conditions of affairs at the fountain heads of our water supply, for we believe the Water Company to have been criminally negligent and indifferent to our welfare as a city, and to their trust and own interests.

[Board of Health]

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 17 1891



Immediately following the report of the Board of Health telling of the filth that has been permitted to find its way into the water furnished the residents of Santa Rosa, the Water Works Company appears with a statement to the effect that the things complained of have been corrected. That corporation now declares “No stagnant or impure water finds its way into the city. The water comes from a living stream and is pure and healthful.”

The REPUBLICAN doubts the truth of the above statement. It is in line with the other falsehoods that have been going out from the Water Company from time to time. The person that looks through a glass of city water knows that it is impure. Whoever smells or tastes this water that many people here are almost compelled to use, knows that the Water Company is guilty of unblushing and impudent misrepresentation. The Board of Health of this city has declared the belief of its members that the Water Company has been CRIMINALLY NEGLIGENT in permitting the befouling of the water furnished our people, and the City Council, by unanimous vote, has endorsed this sentiment.

But says the Water Company “The water comes from a living stream and is pure and healthful.” Instead, the water comes from an artificial pond into which filth has long been running. The sides of that pond are a pasture field extending almost to the water’s edge. Every rain carries manure from the stock pasturing on the hills surrounding this pond into the receptacle for the water furnished by the Water Company. Then there is the filth that has been coming from the hog pens, the water from too close proximity to dead animals, and other things that caused the Board of Health to declare that the “health of this community is greatly menaced.” All these things have long been dumped into that pond from which the supply of water from this city must come and yet this mendacious company declares the water “pure and healthful.”

How long will the people of Santa Rosa submit to this outrage? How long will they consent to this villainous condition of affairs? Will they wait until a pestilence touches hundreds of homes? Shall we consent to see our town ruined by an avaricious, grasping, soulless corporation that knows no principle but greed and that is so silly as to be continually sending out statements that many know to be false? Shall we continue the quarrel with this unenterprising and unreliable combination of capital or, as a town put in our own water system? The future of the city will largely depend on the action the people here will soon take in this matter.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 18 1891


The report of the Board of Health supplemented by the report of a sub-committee of the Council, together with the endorsement of each of these reports by the unanimous vote of the Council, settles the issue between the Water Company and the city authorities. The water, the company, and the business methods of the latter, have been condemned in language that cannot be misunderstood. It is not necessary for us to recapitulate what has been said in the reports. The least said about the indictment of the water probably the better it will be for the city. It now remains for the Council to proceed at once within the scope of its lawful authority to provide an abundant supply of pure water. This may be done either by forcing the existing company to increase its supply and the care of the water, by condemnation and purchase of the works, or by building new works and bringing in a supply from other sources. The Board of Health say that the main stream now running into the reservoir “with a very little outlay of money intelligently expended might be greatly increased — at least one-half more, and possibly as much more as now flows in the pipes.” We have no doubt that an ample supply of pure water may be obtained from the Santa Rosa, Alamos and other streams flowing from the Guilicos range of mountains, but we would not set our opinion up against the estimate of a water engineer such as should be consulted by the Council at once. We would prefer to see the people own the works, believing that by proper management they could be made to return to the city a handsome revenue besides affording the best care of the water. The Council has adopted a resolution to submit a proposition to bond the city for $80000. This sum will no doubt have to be increased and ought to be if the city is to build new works, because they should be of the most substantial character in every respect. It would be economy to make them so rather than such as the official reports show we now have. The Council have acted wisely in taking time for mature consideration of the subject. Now that it has arrived at a definite conclusion the sooner it consults a competent expert and engineer as to plans the better.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 22 1891


Water Rights.

The Santa Rosa Water Works Company has brought suit against Mrs. James Hillman and J. Hillman for damages in the sum of $2,500 and for an order of court to compel the defendants to remove certain dams from a channel dug by the plaintiff from the springs on defendant’s property known as the Shaw springs. In the complaint the plaintiff alleges that the springs have been used by him for the last 14 years and that by the obstruction of said channel the plaintiff has been damaged in the sum of $2,500.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 26 1891


The Republican refers to this paper as the “organ of the Water Company.” We are not the organ of the Water Company, nor of any other special interest. Our mission is to build up the business interests of this community. The Democrat is a newspaper. It gives the current local news impartially, promptly and more in detail than any other paper. No one knows this fact better than our neighbor, but he could hardly be expected to proclaim it.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 3 1891


Their Magnitude and Importance to the Improvement of the City.

Residents of some time back are in a better position to realize the important part the water works have played in the development of the city and in increasing its residential attractions than those who have never known Santa Rosa except in its present state. It may be said without fear of contradiction from those who have the fairness to institute comparisons with other towns in the State that our water system both in supply and quality of water is one of the best in the State. All public institutions naturally come in for their share of criticism, much of it that is captious and less that is warantable, but when it is considered what money and labor have been and are being expended to make the works as perfect as possible, credit cannot be denied the company and its projector. Our older residents will remember what the works were in 1877 when Col. M. L. McDonald, president of the present company, purchased them from Messrs. Juilliard, Temple, Farmer and Davis. The present reservoir, which is even now undergoing extensive improvement, had not been constructed and the supply was drawn from the old reservoir farther up the canyon. The system was entirely inadequate to the needs of the city, even at that time and its rapid development made it necessary to expend a great deal of money in the improvement of the works. Soon after the purchase was consummated work began on the new reservoir, which cost over $15,000. Its capacity is 100,000,000 gallons. New pipes were laid and everything was done to render the service satisfactory to the patrons. Accordingly for years the supply was adequate and the consumers were supplied with an abundance of fresh, sweet and pure water for domestic and irrigation purposes. But with institutions of this kind the stage is never readied when it can be said the work is finished. Pipes wear out and new ones must be laid; miles of streets are opened through the city and it becomes necessary to extend the mains to meet the increasing demand, and as the town grows in size and population expenses for the company for improvement are piled up in a corresponding ratio.

The new main down Sonoma avenue extension entailed the expenditure of several thousand dollars and similar improvements go to swell the aggregate amount necessary to be expended in keeping up a plant of the kind. Not including the cost of the work now underway, the amount spent for improvements and developments by the present company since 1877 is $153,000. The work of raising the dam will cost between $10,000 and $15,000, and from 100,000,000 gallons the storage capacity will be increased to 230,000,000 gallons, a supply adequate, with the streams which are running into the reservoir all seasons of the year for the needs of a city of 50,000 inhabitants. Estimating the cost of these improvements it makes the valuation of $250,000 set upon the plant appear small. The site of the reservoir if fashioned by the hand of man could not be bettor adapted to the purpose, both as to elevation and distance from the city; and the topography of the land is such that in years hence, should it become necessary to increase the storage capacity, another reservoir could be constructed farther up the canyon. The main supply is derived from Santa Rosa and Los Alamos creeks, a dam being constructed at their junction, two miles above the main reservoir. The water as it flows over the pebbly beds of those creeks down from their fountain head in the mountains is as pure and limpid as the most delicious spring water. From the dam it is conveyed to the reservoir in closed pipes with screens at intervals to prevent impurities and foreign substances from contaminating its purity. At the reservoir the same care is taken to preserve the purity of the water, and with what success is shown by the fact that never in the history of the works has any disease or prevailing sickness been traced to the unwholesomeness of the water. And in this connection it is proper to state that the editor of the Democrat, in order to satisfy himself as to the chemical purity of the water, when the matter was under discussion several months ago, forwarded samples of it, taken by himself from a hydrant directly off one of the largest mains, to the State University for analyzation. In reply the following was received:

Berkeley, Oct. 9, 1891.
Thomas L. Thompson,
Dear Sir: —Inclosed find analysis of your well water, which proves it to be as good as any water need be for general use, and rather remarkable for the small portion of soluble salts it contains. This also shows it to be free from sewage contamination. If harder than you wish, boiling or mixing with about one-twentieth of its bulk of clean lime water will correct that; after mixing let stand a few hours, when a white sediment containing both the lime originally in the water, and that of the lime water will be at the bottom of the tank. For most uses, however, the water is abundantly good enough just as it is.

Very truly yours,
E. W. Hilgard.

Following is the analysis…

…The city owes much to Colonel McDonald, the president of the company, not only for his efficient management of the extensive works, but for the public spirit he has displayed in many other respects. The beautiful avenue bearing his name, lined on both sides with umbrogean trees and handsome residences was a grain field without a house or shrub upon it when he came to this city fourteen years ago. He bought the plot of 153 acres comprising McDonald’s addition and opened the avenue, planted the trees along its wide promenades, and soon afterwards constructed the street railway connecting the depot with the cemetery. Nothing can he fairer than judging a man by his works, and, taken on this evidence in the light of his liberality and enterprise in forwarding the interests of the city, his station is certainly among our most valuable and substantial citizens. He has ever taken a prominent part in forwarding schemes looking to the further development of the city, and many of the important measures which have been carried out during the last ten years bear the stamp of his pressing energy and rare good judgment.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 2 1892



The Democrat ends a long tirade of insinuations against the common council of the city of Santa Rosa with what it would have the people of this city believe is an analysis by Prof. Hilgard of the water of the reservoir from which this town is supplied.

But the first statement in Prof. Hilgard’s letter gives the lie to the entire proceeding. He says: “Inclosed find analysis of your WELL WATER,” etc.

Now Prof. Hilgard knows the difference between well water and that which runs or stand upon the surface of the ground. He is an exact scientist and would not call the few feet of material that stood at the bottom of Lake Ralphine in the autumn of 1891, when our people were denied the privilege of sprinkling their door yards and lawns because of the scarcity of water, we say he could have known that stuff was not WELL water and would not have applied that term to it.

Again, Prof. Hilgard referred to the hardness of the water sent to him and told how to soften it. Soften the water of Ralphine! Ye gods! We have been told time out of mind that its waters are soft and yet the corporation organ would like to have its readers believe that the only criticism Prof. Hilgard had to pass on those waters was in regard to their hardness.

Now there can be nothing clearer to anybody who knows the conditions of things here in the autumn of 1891, and who knows about Prof. Hilgard and his standing as a scientist, than that attempt was made to do a fraud.

Who furnished the Hon. Thomas L. Thompson with the water he sent to Prof. Hilgard? Out of whose WELL did it come? Let the facts come out. If Mr. Thompson was imposed on he owes it to the community to expose the imposter. It is evident that Prof. Hilgard detected the attempted imposition at once and hence his analysis of well water.

Again, if the Hon. Thos. L. Thompson was not altogether certain a fraud had been practiced on him or by him in this water, why did he not publish the analysis at the time it was made? Then the people were carrying water from wells blocks distant from their homes because they were afraid to drink the material that came from the water mains. Then an analysis of that material which would have shown that it was not charged with disease and death would have been a boon in the homes of hundreds of users. Why, we repeat, was the analysis not given to the people then?

Did Mr. Thompson discover the fraud? Has somebody dug up the report in his absence and published it without detecting the fraud on its face? Who furnished the water that was analyzed? Who paid for the analysis? There are a number of interesting questions to be answered in regard to this transaction that the Democrat will have to answer of stand before this community in most deplorable light.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 11 1893


A communication was received from the Santa Rosa Water Works Company, offering to sell their works to the city for $210,000, and the following resolution by Councilman Berka was introduced and passed declining the offer:

Whereas, The Santa Rosa Water Works Company having been requested by the special water committee to submit a proposition to the Santa Rosa City Council for the purchase of said company’s water works, and

Whereas, Said company has submitted a proposition, naming therein the sum of $210,000 as the price of said works, be it

Resolved, That the thanks of this Council are due and hereby tendered to said water company for the submission of a proposition to purchase their works, but in the judgment of this Council $210,000, the amount named as the price of said works, is far above its true value. Competent experts estimate that it will require $125,000 for a system of new and durable piping to distribute the water, that all parts of the city may have a proper service, to elevate the reservoir and properly clean, enclose and roof the same, to protect the water from continual pollution by man and beast and the festering rays of the summer suns. Therefore, be it

Resolved, That this Council could not in justice to the people they represent ask you to vote bonds to the amount of $335,000, necessary to purchase and improve said water works, and the proposition as submitted by the Santa Rosa Water Works Company is herewith respectfully declined…

– Sonoma Democrat, April 8 1893

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Should you find yourself in 1876 Santa Rosa, don’t expect too much. The pretty little courthouse in Courthouse Square wasn’t yet built; neither was the McDonald mansion. It was a frontier village of no particular interest except for one thing – it had the only iron bridge in the West.

I don’t usually give away the ending of an article, but bridges aren’t the most riveting topic for most, and I fear Gentle Reader might otherwise drift off to other entertainments. So here’s my Executive Summary:

Santa Rosa’s current downtown plan calls for demolishing the city hall complex and restoring Santa Rosa Creek to a natural condition. With the creek exposed the roadway will have to be rebuilt as a bridge. It would be appropriate to model its appearance after the “Iron Bridge,” Santa Rosa’s first famous landmark and early tourist attraction.

When the Iron Bridge was built the local newspaper commented that Santa Rosa was “a city of bridges.” Today there are dozens of places where city streets cross over our many creeks. If the city is serious about creek restoration, it could re-embrace that old slogan and draw better attention to the more important bridges that stretch above them.

The Iron Bridge in 1879, over a completely dry creek bed. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
The Iron Bridge in 1879, over a completely dry creek bed. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

Until the first train entered town in 1871 and stopped at today’s Railroad Square, travel to Petaluma and points south could be iffy during bad winters.

The first bridge over Santa Rosa Creek was built in 1859, after a year of twisting arms at the Board of Supervisors – they didn’t want to spend any money on “improvement” until the county was completely debt-free (oh, how things have changed).

Up to that point, there were fords on the creek where the banks were worn down enough for a wagon or stagecoach to cross the usually shallow waterway. Even after that first bridge was built, attorney T. J. Butts recalled some avoided using it:

I was in Santa Rosa when the first iron bridge in the state was built over the creek on Main Street. It had been the custom up to that time for farmers to drive down the bank and ford the creek when coming to town instead of crossing the old wooden bridge. When the matter of building the new bridge came up before the Board of Supervisors, one old gentleman, who was a well-known man in this town and was a trustee of one of the colleges here went before the Board to protest against the bridge, and in his speech he said: “We don’t need no bridge and if you put that bridge thar, whar are ye goin’ to set yer tire, and whar are you goin’ to water yer critter?”

The Santa Rosa newspaper assured readers the wooden bridge was high enough “the water can never actually rise to the bridge.” They were wrong. Two years later in 1861, a big storm took out the middle pilings causing a dangerous sag, while approaches on both sides were washed away. The same thing happened again in 1864.

A replacement was built in 1865 and the Sonoma Democrat promised it would be a “bridge that will withstand the floods, and be an ornament to the place rather than an ‘eye sore,’ such as was the old one.” But wooden bridge II had its own problems and by 1868 it was also unsafe, the deck having holes and planks worn thin.

Each round of repairs cost nearly as much as (and in one case, possibly more than) the cost of building a new bridge. And after Santa Rosa was officially incorporated in 1868 the question of who owned the bridge was first raised; neither the town nor the county wanted to pay for expensive maintenance and repairs. A judge finally decreed that it belonged to the town in 1875, after the Petaluma road was reborn as “Santa Rosa Avenue” and new additions on the other side of the creek were unofficially dubbed “South Santa Rosa.” (I swear, if there’s ever a version of Trivial Pursuit Santa Rosa, I’m gonna slap a paywall on pages like this and really clean up.)

By then the bridge was in such rough shape only pedestrians were allowed, the horse-drawn traffic going over the new (1872) bridge on Third street just west of the railroad tracks. While Santa Rosa was hand-wringing over what to do about repairs, into town came Mr. R. Higgins, a salesman with impeccable timing.

Higgins was from the King Bridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The company mass manufactured arch bridge parts that were shipped by rail and assembled on site.* Thousands of their wrought iron bridges were erected in the late 19th-early 20th century, but by 1875 none had been yet built west of the Rockies. The Santa Rosa bridge was to be their West Coast showpiece.

This caused the little town’s poobahs to flip with joy; Santa Rosa would at last have a tourist attraction (of sorts). And while they would still pay full $4,000 price for the iron bridge they would save a fortune by not having to rebuild the damn thing every few years – “it was as imperishable as time itself.”

A City of Bridges: Portion of 1876 Santa Rosa map
A City of Bridges: Portion of 1876 Santa Rosa map

Even better, “before the season is over Santa Rosa will be entitled to the name of the city of bridges,” gushed the Democrat newspaper. Counting this bridge, the Third st. bridge, the railroad bridge and the one about to be constructed at E street, Santa Rosa would have four bridges within a nine block area. So yeah, no matter where you were in 1876 Santa Rosa a bridge over the creek was only a few steps away.

The sections of the bridge arrived a few weeks later, but assembly was soon halted because of a serious accident. After the first arch was raised and temporarily held in position by guy ropes, the second arch was being hoisted into place when a guy rope knot failed. The first arch tipped over onto the one being raised, and that arch fell into the creek. Higgins – who was supervising the workers – jumped into the creek to avoid being hit and struck his head, knocking him unconscious. Damage to the iron arches was repaired by a blacksmith and Higgins walked with a limp from a badly sprained ankle when work resumed about three weeks later.

Dedication ceremony for the Santa Rosa Iron Bridge, March 11, 1876 (J. H. Downing, photographer). Image courtesy Healdsburg Museum
Dedication ceremony for the Santa Rosa Iron Bridge, March 11, 1876 (J. H. Downing, photographer). Image courtesy Healdsburg Museum

There was a grand turnout for the dedication ceremony in March, where “a test of its strength with such force as could be improvised for the occasion would be made.” The description in the Democrat suggested some weren’t sure the unusual-looking bridge was safe – and given their past history of funky bridges at that location, who could blame them.

The highlight of the festivities was Jim Clark racing a team of four horses over it. Clark, who was profiled here earlier, was a key player in Santa Rosa’s early history and much admired as a horseman. “The bridge having been cleared, Mr. Clark drove his team at full speed across the bridge, but it did not effect it in the slightest degree.”

A couple of weeks later, however, there was a sign on the bridge warning anyone riding faster than a walk would be fined $20 (equivalent to about $500 today). “It is a common habit to drive across at full speed to the detriment of the bridge,” the paper reported, so maybe they still weren’t certain it was safe.

That iron bridge served Santa Rosa for about thirty years but not much about it appeared in the papers – nobody cares about bridges when they do their job. But come late 1905, it was decided to replace it. That was during a brief window when Santa Rosa was fielding all sorts of ideas to improve the town, including turning part of the creek into a water park. Alas, the 1906 earthquake knocked down all those wonderful plans (for more, see “SANTA ROSA’S FORGOTTEN FUTURE“).

Perhaps weakened further by the quake, it was deemed “dangerous” in 1907. “The old span wobbles much when a team passes over, and for some time heavy loads have been taken to the other bridges.” As it was being torn down, the Press Democrat told a charming story about how circus elephants needed to ford the creek instead, then decided they liked being in the water so much they wouldn’t budge:

A little boy remarked to another yesterday that when the circus comes the elephants will not be able to cross. The other reminded him that they hadn’t crossed there last year, either. “They didn’t try it,” he said. “If they had, I guess the fellers would a’ had to buy new elephants, ’cause the bridge wasn’t strong enough, and they’d all been killed.” Last year the elephants forded the creek at Davis street, and the drivers had a “time” in getting them to leave their wallowing in the bed of the creek.

The City Council authorized construction of a new steel bridge with a concrete deck and the iron bridge was dismantled in August, 1907. By the end of the year the new bridge was open, but not before the driver of a large touring car with four passengers ignored the warning lanterns and almost pitched the auto into the creek.

The arches from the iron bridge were stored for a couple of years, then were repurposed to be the bridge over Pierson street. That bridge has subsequently been replaced, and the arches are presumably lost.

The steel bridge built in 1907, often called the iron bridge in error. Image: Sonoma County Library
The steel bridge built in 1907, often called the iron bridge in error. Image: Sonoma County Library

Snapping back to our modern day, Santa Rosa has grand plans to transform the downtown area, outlined in the current draft of the Downtown Station Area Specific Plan. (If you’re interested at all in this topic, I suggest downloading that PDF – I had a devil of a time finding it on the city’s website, and I don’t trust staff not to move it somewhere else.)

Top priority is adding thousands of housing units “to satisfy unmet demand,” in spite of the major obstacles to constructing tall, high density buildings in the downtown area – inadequate parking, earthquake risk (an active fault line blocks away) and lack of services (no place to buy an apple or an aspirin, as there are no grocery stores or pharmacies around there). The document also calls for the city hall complex to be moved and the site developed for housing, with the portion of Santa Rosa Creek now hidden in a culvert to be daylighted and restored.

When (if) that happens, the existing roadway must be changed from a graded surface street into a bridge – and that would give Santa Rosa a unique opportunity to acknowledge our past by making it a replica of the historic Iron Bridge.

Until it was hidden in its culvert about 55 years ago, this section of Santa Rosa Creek was the most popular stretch of the waterway, being easily accessible and close to Courthouse Square. Now so long buried it’s been completely forgotten; if the city really wants to draw attention to the very existence of the creek beneath, it needs to make a dramatic statement.

LonLasOgwen1(RIGHT: The replica Lôn Las Ogwen bridge in Wales. Photo: The Happy Pontist)

My proposal is NOT to construct an actual “bowstring” bridge but to artistically add fake arches to either side. Many communities have similarly made faux arches in honor of demolished old bridges, some versions even modernist (examples here and here) if that’s what the artistic set deems appropriate.

When it comes to all things concerning the creeks, the city document defers to the “Creeks Master Plan” (another difficult to find PDF you might want to download). Although it discusses trail bridges at length – and nothing wrong with that – only a short section on pg. 19 deals with vehicular bridges, which is the way that most of us interact with the creeks on any basis.

By my rough count there are at least forty bridges over Santa Rosa, Matanzas, Paulin and Spring creeks. Some are no more than culverts, of course, but I imagine there are at least 25 that are recognizable bridges, with railings and a potential overlook.

While full creek restorations and building trail footbridges are going to be expensive long-term tasks, Santa Rosa could begin by drawing more attention to its creeks without spending all that much. Larger and better signage on the bridges would be a good start; railings could be painted in a distinctive color – or even better, swapped out for more picturesque see-through guardrails, such as seen in the Welsh example.

Anyone who’s read this journal over the years knows that Santa Rosa’s great folly is its failure to define itself. Just before the 1906 earthquake it dreamed of becoming a great tourist destination, attracting state and even national conventions; after the Golden Gate Bridge was built it was hoped that it would become the northern metropolis of the Bay Area, on par with San Jose or Oakland. It has tried parasitically attaching itself to Luther Burbank and Charles Schulz; its Chamber of Commerce has called Santa Rosa the “Gateway to the Redwood Empire,” “The City Designed for Living,” and in the worst $80,000 ever spent, paid experts to come up with idiotic motto, “California Cornucopia.”

Santa Rosa’s greatest asset has always been what it has most ignored and abused – its nearly 100 miles of waterways. Let’s do something to remember the Iron Bridge and paint the other railings while we’re waiting for the city to get around to building trails around the restored creeks. And while that’s underway, let’s ditch the silly slogans and call this place what it really is: “Santa Rosa, a City of Bridges.” Works for me.

* The Democrat identified the bridge as “Z. King’s Patent Wrought Iron Tubular Arch Bridge,” technically better known as a bowstring-arch bridge. A Google search will turn up a surprising number of academic papers explaining the mechanics behind these structures and the Wikipedia page has a good overview of how they work along with photos of various examples.

Top photo credit: “Santa Rosa, California in Vintage Postcards” by Bob and Kay Voliva




...As neither party claims it, and neither regards it as property, then we must find some other solution of the dispute.

It — the bridge — must be treated, not as property, but as a burden to be borne by the party legally responsible for It.

The facts as shown by the submission are substantially as follows:

The bridge was built by the plaintiff before the incorporation of the defendant, out of the county funds, at a cost of $2,875, prior to the 23d day of March, 1872, and is on what was then a county road, mainly traveled, leading from Petaluma to Healdsburg. That up to the present time this road, not included within the city limits, is a public county road, and no order has ever been made abandoning any part of it. That the county has continuously repaired all that portion outside of the city limits, but has not repaired that portion inside the city limits, since the 28th of March, 1872. That the town of Santa Rosa was incorporated under the general laws for the incorporation of towns on the 23d day of February, 1867, and lay north of, and did not include Santa Rosa creek or any part of the bridge. That on the 28th day of March, 1872, the said town was reincorporated as the city of Santa Rosa by special act, which extended the limits north of the creek and bridge three quarters of a mile, and south one quarter of a mile, including said creek and bridge. That the defendant, the city of Santa Rosa, is now, and has been, fully organized since its reincorporation, with full set of officers, including a Board of Trustees. That the portion of thoroughfare from the southern limits of the city to the bridge, formerly a portion of the county road, is known now, and was designated by the trustees as “Santa Rosa Avenue,” and has been, as well as other portions of the same road, inside the city limits, continuously worked on and kept in repairs by the city since its reincorporation. That said bridge stands in the middle of, and connects “Santa Rosa Avenue” and the thoroughfare from the creek to Mendocino street. Since the reincorporation, the city has repaired the bridge under protest.

The land on both sides of the avenue, and also on both sides of the thoroughfare to Mendocino street, has been laid out into lots and streets, approaching at right angles.

Santa Rosa creek is 138 feet wide, and is not a navigable stream.

The business portion of the city is north of the creek; on the south, it is occupied by business men for residences. The bridge is the only thoroughfare across said creek, connecting the north and south portions of the city, and is constantly used by the people in traveling to and fro…

…1. My conclusions are, that the county has no control over, or connection with the bridge, and it is not its duty to repair or rebuild the same.

2. That the bridge is under the control of the City of Santa Rosa, and if the same is to be repaired or rebuilt, it must be done by it.

3. That this Court has no power to issue a mandate to the city authorities requiring it to repair or rebuild said bridge, in the absence of proof that the city has money applicable to such purposes. Let judgment be entered accordingly.
Wm. C. Wallace,
Sept 8, 1875.
District Judge.

– Daily Democrat, September 16 1875


Positively Unsafe.

We are informed by Mr. R. Higgins, agent for the contractors for the new iron bridge over Santa Rosa creek, that the old bridge is now positively unsafe for crossing. Mr. Higgins says he will make it so that it will be safe for pedestrians to cross in a day or two, but that no vehicle can cross it without the greatest danger. Those desiring to cross the creek in vehicles, will have to pass over the bridge on the Sebastopol road, near the depot.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 8 1875


Iron Bridge.

We think our City Fathers have acted wisely in the adoption of a plan for an iron bridge over Santa Rosa creek. From what we can learn the cost will be but a trifle more than a wooden Howe Truss Bridge, taking all things into consideration, The plan adopted is one of the King Bridge Company’s circle arch, whose principal offices are in Cleveland, Ohio, and in Topeka, Kansas. Mr. Higgins their agent on this coast is now in the city and has already telegraphed to Mr. King to forward the bridge with all dispatch, and he says there is no unnecessary delay he will have it up ready for use within 60 or 65 days, this being their first bridge on this coast Mr. Higgins says they are going to give us a first-class Job, with a few extras thrown in, as they are going to make it their advertising bridge on the Pacific and establish an agency here…

– Sonoma Democrat, December 8 1875


A City of Bridges.

Before the season is over Santa Rosa will be entitled to the name of the city of bridges. A splendid iron bridge will span the creek at the crossing of Main street. It will be the first iron and the handsomest bridge of its size in the State. A wooden bridge is in course of construction at the crossing of D street to connect with Sonoma avenue. This will be a handsome structure. But the most unique and neatest bridge will be a short distance further up the creek, at the crossing of Second street, connecting with an avenue laid out on the opposite side of Santa Rosa creek, parallel with Sonoma avenue. This will be a wire suspension bridge of a light and elegant pattern. All these bridges have been contracted for and two of them are now under way. We learn that the spring beyond the reservoir, known as the Tarwater spring has been sold and the property is to be improved. The opening up of the section, on the opposite side of the creek is one of the most important improvements ever undertaken in this city. It has been here ofore [sic] unnoticed on account of its inaccessibility. The building of these bridges will put it within a few minutes walk of the centre of the town.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 15 1876


Accident at the Bridge.

Saturday afternoon, at about six o’clock, an accident occurred at the iron bridge from the following cause: The men engaged in its construction are inexperienced hands and one of them had tied an insecure knot in one of the guys supporting the first arch. When the second arch was being hoisted into position this knot gave way, which allowed the standing arch to fall upon the one being raised, throwing it into the creek. The first arch fell upon the trestle work. The iron used in the bridge is wrought, and the only damage it sustained was in being slightly sprung, which can be easily remedied by blacksmiths. Mr. Higgins, the Superintendent of the work, was standing upon the trestle at the time the accident occurred, and jumped into the creek. In his fall he was struck upon the head by a piece of timber and rendered senseless. His right ankle was badly sprained and his system received a severe shock, however, his internal injuries are thought not to be serious. The accident will delay the construction of the bridge about one week. Geo. E. King, General Western Agent for the bridge, had arrived in Santa Rosa a short time previous to the accident and the work is going on under his supervision during Mr. Higgins’ illness.

– Daily Democrat, February 28 1876


Dimensions of the Iron Bridge.

“Can the Democrat give the cost, width, span and material of the bridge now being constructed across Santa Rosa creek, with the address of the contractors? And oblige bridge and other subscribers. John Knight. Sanel, Mendocino county.”

[ln reply to the above inquiry we will state that the cost of the iron bridge being constructed across Santa Rosa creek is $4,000; the width is 16 feet; span, 125 feet: the material used is rolled and hammered iron. For further information, address Geo. E King, Santa Rosa. —Eds. Democrat.]

– Sonoma Democrat, March 3 1876



The new bridge across Santa Rosa creek was completed last Saturday in the forenoon. It was the same day formally turned over to the Board of City Trustees. The plan is what is known as Z. King’s Patent Wrought Iron Tubular Arch Bridge, manufactured by the King Iron Bridge Company, at Cleveland, Ohio. It consists of the arches, lower chords, upright posts and diagonal counter braces, and the bottom and overhead lateral bracing. The material used consists entirely of wrought iron, which is erected and trussed perfect in itself without any woodwork whatever. When the frame work of iron is complete then the pine flooring is laid. The length of the bridge is 125 feet, in one span, a carriage way 16 feet wide, and a footway five feet wide, on each side of the carriage way and outside of the supporting arches. The plan of the bridge seems to combine comparative lightness of material with strength and beauty. There are over three thousand of these bridges now in use in the Atlantic States, but to Santa Rosa belongs the credit of the first iron bridge west of the Rocky Mountains. The bridge is cheap and durable. Wherever used the company have certificates recommending them in the highest degree. We think the Trustees are entitled to the thanks of the community for the excellent judgment they displayed in the matter of the bridge across Santa Rosa creek.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 8 1876

Raising the Arches.

Contrary to general expectation, Sunday morning dawned dark and threatening, with the promise of a heavy storm. In view of this fact, Mr. King and Mr. Higgins determined to raise the arches of the iron bridge across Santa Rosa creek, notwithstanding it was Sunday. In the forenoon it commenced to drizzle, and by 1 o’clock it had settled in a steady and continuous fall of rain. In the midst of it the work of raising the arches of the bridge progressed with dispatch, and we are glad to say with no untoward accident to delay its progress or mar the beauty of the structure. Sunday morning, in view of the inevitable rise in the creek, the arches were in a very insecure position, They lay upon a temporary framework built in the bed of the stream and liable to be carried away by the high water. In which case the arches would have been thrown into the river. Mr. King determined to raise them and succeeded in doing so and securing them before dark by braces so that there was no danger from the water. The arches are very handsomely turned, and the bridge will be when completed, the only structure of the kind in California, and it will be the most ornamental bridge of its size in the State. Mr. Higgins, though lame from a fall, stood all day in the rain and assisted by giving directions to the men, who were mostly new in that kind of work. Sure enough, Monday morning the creek was booming, but over the frail under structure the iron arches rested secure upon their stone foundation.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 11 1876


Formal Dedication of the King Bridge – Grand Turnout of the Citizens — The Band — Wine and Wit — Jim Clark the First to Cross — A dashing Four-in-Hand Team.

Saturday, March 11, 1876, will long be remembered as the day of the final completion and dedication to public use of the Santa Rosa iron bridge. In the forenoon the City Trustees were advised of the fact that the finishing touch had been given and at 2 p. m., a test of its strength with such force as could be improvised for the occasion would be made and that the “popping of bottles” would intersperse the exercises.

The Santa Rosa Band, ever ready to add to occasions for Santa Rosa, was out and discoursed soul stirring music as only the Santa Rosa Band can. J. P. Clark, the prince of drivers tendered his services and with his “coach and four” dashing horses conveyed the officers of the city […and city officials…] followed by the Band and a large number of citizens of the city and county in vehicles, horseback and afoot, arrived at the scene of the festivities. Mr. Clark drove his team immediately upon the bridge and was followed in close order by the band wagon and other vehicles and the people, everybody having the utmost confidence in the capacity of the bridge to stand the pressure.

After some delay Messrs. Downing, Rea & Rauscher, photograph artists of this city, from a position on the grounds of Mr. John Ingram, photographed the bridge.

The Band played and toasts were drank and after calls for the City Attorney Campbell, he responded in a few brief remarks as follows:

He thanked the City Fathers and those present who had conferred upon him the honor of responding to the grand occasion, but that as he had not expected to be assigned the position was illy prepared to do justice to the subject. He said, “We are here to-day to witness the formal opening and dedication of the new bridge and at the suggestion of his friend, Mr. Thornton, he would name it the ‘Santa Rosa Iron Bridge’ and who could look upon it now in its finished state without admiration. It had strength and beauty, and would stand for years as a monument to the genius and industry of its builders. It was as imperishable as time itself, and would not go down and dissolve even with the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, but with the great globe itself. He said the City Fathers were here, and had witnessed the completion of this undertaking, and they could justly feel proud of what they had done. We are in the midst of a beautiful city, whose limits had recently been extended, with beautiful houses in the midst of beautiful yards filled with sweet scented flowers, and inhabited by the industrious mechanics, business and professional men, and fair and lovely women; and — God bless them! — they too were here to honor the ceremonies of this dedication. And we now have the finest bridge on the coast!

In concluding Mr. Campbell introduced Mr. George E. King, the architect and builder. Three rousing and hearty cheers were given for Mr. King, after which he responded as follows:

Mr. King thanked the people present for their manifestation of good will towards him personally; indeed he was proud to acknowledge that since his arrival in Santa Rosa he had received nothing but kindness and hospitality at the hands of the people, and he never could forget it. To-day, in looking over this assemblage of people who had come spontaneously to testify their appreciation of the bridge just completed, he could hardly find words to express his gratitude. He referred to the turnouts and fine horses here, and said they could not be excelled on this or any other coast. He gave a history of the iron bridge and the opposition it had met on Its first introduction, and said this was the first and only bridge of the kind on the coast, and that time would demonstrate that it was all that could be desired. The Band played several lively airs. Three cheers were given to Mr. Higgins, also to the City Trustees, the Santa Rosa Band and James P. Clark. The bridge having been cleared, Mr. Clark drove his team at full speed across the bridge, but it did not effect it in the slightest degree. The sparkling wine being exhausted, the merry crowd dispersed to their homes well pleased with what they had seen.

Mr. R. Higgins,the agent of the firm of King & Son, obtained the contract from the city and displayed great energy in making preparations for and in carrying on the work. Mr. George E. King, of the firm, arrived with the materials from Cleveland, and since then has superintended the work personally, and it is the universal opinion that the structure is complete in all its parts. This is the first and only iron bridge on the Pacific Coast, and Santa Rosa has reason to be proud of it.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 18 1876


The Iron Bridge.

Parties traveling over the new Iron Bridge will take notice there is a sign which calls for a fine of twenty dollars if they drive faster than a walk; and the city authorities say they are determined to carry out the law. We have been informed that it is a common habit to drive across at full speed to the detriment of the bridge.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 1 1876


What is the Name?

The street leading northerly from the plaza is called C or Mendocino street, at the option of the caller. The continuation of the same street on the south side of the plaza is called Main street as far as the iron bridge, and then, we believe, Santa Rosa Avenue. The two streets fronting the east and west sides of the plaza are called C street, Hinton Avenue, Commercial Row and perhaps by other names. This is calculated to bring about some confusion, and we hope the Mayor and Board of Aldermen will settle the name or names authoritatively, if it has not been done heretofore.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22 1876



Fast Driving.

We learn that some persons continue to violate the ordinance forbidding fast driving or riding ever the iron bridge, and that the penalty will hereafter be strictly enforced.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 27 1876



…City Engineer Ricksecker gave a verbal report on the three styles of bridges before the Council. The iron bridge, he said, was a strong, substantial structure, but the plans and specifications failed to provide any foundation of piles, stone or concrete. The re-inforced concrete bridge he considered as good, but not as ornamental as a solid stone structure. He recommended that the foundation be four feet under the water line instead of two feet. He suggested that the approaches might be made from the timber of the old bridge for temporary use, and fill in later from the street and lot gradings. Architect Willcox explained his plans for a re-inforced concrete bridge from street to street, with a driveway and walks on each side of the road. Mr. Willcox estimated the cost of the re-inforced concrete bridge at $9,200; re-inforced concrete bridge with stone facing $10,700; all stone bridge, $12,000. After further consideration the plans were adopted with the suggestions made by Engineer Ricksecker, and the clerk was instructed to advertise for a steel bridge in addition to the three kinds of bridges already named…

– Press Democrat, November 14 1905


A fine steel bridge, with concrete flooring is to take the place of the old iron structure on Main street, which has been adjudged dangerous for all but light loads….

– Press Democrat, April 10 1907


Main Street Bridge Being Removed to Make Way for New and Modern Structure Across Creek

Not many more travelers will pass over, and not much more water will flow under, the old iron bridge across Santa Rosa creek at Main street. Yesterday the workmen began to tear it down. The footpath on either side has been removed, and pedestrians must now keep in the middle of the road. The old span wobbles much when a team passes over, and for some time heavy loads have been taken to the other bridges.

A little boy remarked to another yesterday that when the circus comes the elephants will not be able to cross. The other reminded him that they hadn’t crossed there last year, either. “They didn’t try it,” he said. “If they had, I guess the fellers would a’ had to buy new elephants, ’cause the bridge wasn’t strong enough, and they’d all been killed.” Last year the elephants forded the creek at Davis street, and the drivers had a “time” in getting them to leave their wallowing in the bed of the creek.

The old bridge was built in 1877, [sic] and was regarded as a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It was a good bridge, too. But it has severed [sic] its purpose. The new steel bridge will require sixty days or thereabouts in its construction. Meanwhile, teams will go around, and foot-travelers will have a little plank bridge for their use.

– Press Democrat, August 22 1907



Contractor W. L. Call was awarded the contract to erect the bridge at the end of Pierson street across Santa Rosa Creek, by the Board of Supervisors on Thursday morning….The city donated the old Iron bridge that formerly stood on Main street and this will be reconstructed and shortened and will be just the thing…

– Press Democrat, January 8 1909

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Quiz: Name the woman in 1870s Santa Rosa who was a successful real estate investor. Answer: It’s a trick question (sorry!) because we don’t know her real name. Oh, and by the way: She was a former slave.

On her tombstone at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery she is Elizabeth Potter. Legally she was C. E. Hudson, which was the only name on her will and how she bought and sold land – except for once when she identified herself as Charlotte E. Hudson. The 1860 census named her as Elizabeth Hudson, and her death notice in the local newspaper stated she was known as Lizzie Hudson. Whatever her name, Elizabeth/Charlotte Potter/Hudson was a remarkable woman. The reason you’ve never heard of her before is certainly because she was African-American and Santa Rosa’s 19th century Democrat paper had a single-minded determination to erase the presence of its black citizens, only mentioning them when there was a shot at grinding them down with ridicule.

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

Most of what we know about her comes from her tombstone and mentions in her brother’s obituary (there was no obituary for her – she received only that two-line “Lizzie” death notice, which appeared for a single day). From real estate transactions we can guess her net worth was about $7,000 before she died in 1876; at that time in Sonoma County, $10k was the threshold for being considered wealthy.

Her birth name was almost certainly Elizabeth Potter and she was born a slave in Maryland, 1826. Bondage ended when she escaped a slaveholder in Virginia and somehow made her way to Santa Rosa, California. Speculate if you want that “Hudson” was related to a deceased husband, but note she never once used “Mrs.” with any form of her name, as was the custom at the time for widows.

We first meet her locally as Elizabeth Hudson in the 1860 census, where she is part of the household of civil rights activist John Richards, counted as a servant. (A servant was defined as a paid domestic worker.) She was listed as 37 years old and from Maryland. But a few days later, she was listed a second time as a servant for John H. Holman – but this time from Virginia. A double-count mistake like that is unusual, but not all that rare; the respondent for the household was almost certainly one of the Holmans and not Elizabeth herself.

potterplotRIGHT: The Potter family plot at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

After the Civil War she managed to reach her older brother who had remained in captivity until emancipation, having been sold four or five times in his fifty-odd years. At her urging, Edmund joined his sister here in 1872 and two years later, they became co-owners of 50+ acres north of town next to the county poor farm. Presumably all or most of the $1,200 price was contributed by Elizabeth (this land deal was the only time she used “Charlotte”).

There Edmund and his wife, Martha, made a small farm. Elizabeth may have lived with them as well; it was where she died in 1876.

Elizabeth knew she was dying and a few months prior sold one of her investment properties for the first time, getting $1,700 for a downtown parcel. She also tried to lure more of her family to Santa Rosa; in a poignant bequest in her will, she offered 13 of an even more valuable lot to “any cousin of mine who may come out from the East and attend me in my last sickness and may be here before my burial.” No one came. When she passed away just before Thanksgiving, her 59 year-old brother Edmund – who could read but not write – inherited everything.

Edmund and Martha’s sunset years looked secure. The parcel he inherited was at the foot of Fifth street (where the Post Office would be built decades later) and sold in 1879 for $3,100, which should have been enough for them to comfortably live on for the rest of their lives. The next year the Potter farm was valuated at $1,600, although they had made no improvements – it was still all meadowland. They had a pig and a couple of dozen chickens.

Tragedy struck as Martha died in a 1880 fire (she fell asleep while smoking) and the Democrat newspaper described her agonizing death in lurid detail. This was not at all unusual – the paper routinely spared no ink in describing how African-Americans died; in the following profile it was even reported the old man was found “partially undressed.” It was another routine exercise in racism, as deaths of white members of the community were almost never treated in such a demeaning manner. And it wasn’t limited to the 19th c. Democrat; the same treatment can be found in the Press Democrat as late as 1911.

whitewasherRIGHT: Illustration from “City Cries: Or, a Peep at Scenes in Town” Philadelphia, 1850

What happened during the next few years is a mystery, but apparently he lost his farm and everything else. No legal notice of the property being sold can be found in any newspaper, nor was there any clue as to what happened to his sizable nest egg. He was next spotted in 1884, when the city paid a bill he submitted for $4.02. That likely meant he was now the whitewash man.

Whitewashing was among the lowest menial jobs traditionally held by 19th century African-Americans. It was messy work particularly as ceilings were often whitewashed but it was not dangerous – ignore internet claims that old-time whitewash contained lead – though there were several variations in the formulas (PDF).

He was now living in town at 528 First street and married again in 1890 to Louisa Hilton, a woman 25 years younger who had four daughters. The minister in the ceremony was Jacob Overton (see intro), one of the Bay Area civil rights activists who had earlier kept John Richards and others here in touch with the movement’s progress. There’s no evidence that Potter or his sister (under any of her names) were actively involved in the fight for equality, but it’s still noteworthy he had some sort of connection with a man as hooked-up as Overton.

Living in Santa Rosa proper exposed the Potters to the unquenched racial hatred that still burned here thirty years after the Civil War. In his collection of character sketches “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley recalled being sent on an errand to ask Potter’s daughter for help with housework at his parent’s house. Finley didn’t know the neighborhood and asked Judge Pressley for directions. (Pressley was the Superior Court judge at the time and an outspoken racist, having infamously once said he came to Santa Rosa “to get away from the carpet-baggers, scalawags and ni***rs of South Carolina.”) Naturally, the judge used the boy’s simple question as an opportunity to throw in a racial slur:

One time while a small boy I was sent down to Uncle Potter’s house to notify the aforesaid daughter that her services would be required at our house the following morning. I had difficulty in finding the place, and as Judge Pressley lived in that neighborhood I rang his doorbell and when he appeared, made inquiry. I must have been somewhat embarrassed or confused, for I said, “Judge Pressley, is there a negro lady who lives somewhere near in this vicinity?” Judge Pressley, a southerner of the old school, replied somewhat testily, “There are no negro ladies living around here, but Uncle Potter’s house is just around the corner and I think you will find Mandy or her mother at home.”

His “Uncle Potter” nickname probably emerged soon after he moved to Santa Rosa, and make no mistake, this was not a term of endearment or respect as “Tío” is used in Spanish-speaking cultures. In Jim Crow America, addressing an older African-American man as “uncle” was just the flip side of calling a younger adult “boy.”

As noted in the intro, racism in Santa Rosa’s Democrat newspaper during the later 19th century was usually passive – ignoring the existence of people like Elizabeth Potter and less often flinging around “n word” type slurs. Not so with Edmund Potter; the paper portrayed the 80 year-old man as the town’s laughable resident character.

“Uncle Potter” first appeared in the Democrat on April 13, 1895: “De trouble wid de ladders ob success in use now-er-days,” said Uncle Potter at his home on First street, “am dat they ain’ strong enough in de j’ints. When yoh gets pooty clos ter de top, dey’s liable ter break and drap yer.” Over the following 2½ years there would be dozens more of these aphorisms, metaphors and snarky quips about politicians, all written in pseudo-plantation patois – Gentle Reader may be justly skeptical that a literate man born in Maryland would speak like a Mississippi field hand. More examples:

“De man dat calls hisself a fool will nebbah forgive another for agree!n’ wid him.” “When yoo poke a toad philosophically you can’t tell which way he will jump nor how far, an’ its about the same way wid de avrage jury.” “Politicians am like corkscrews, de mo’ crooked dey am, de stronger their pull.” “De man ain’t been born dat kin live an’ love on bad cookin’. Good cookin’ keeps lub in de house much longer’n good looks.” “Political economy seems to me it’s a sickness kinder like the grip. It comes on with a weakness fer office, and you can’t get shet of it, no way. Bime by it brings on a third-term fit — that’s skeery, I tell you, and there ain’t no economy in that fer po’ folks who do the votin’, and there ain’t no economy for the other fellow, for he ginrally gets beat any way.”

The blame for this shameful “humor” falls entirely on Robert A. Thompson, brother of the paper’s founder and Confederate flag-waver, Thomas L. Thompson. Robert was editor and publisher of the Democrat in those final years before it was sold to Ernest Finley & Co. in 1897. He’s since been portrayed as a serious scholar for having written two important early histories of the county and town.*

What Robert was doing in the mid-1890s was just an updated version of what his brother did with racially-charged language a generation before – titillating the white supremacists in the paper’s audience. Readers would have recognized the “Uncle Potter” dialect and backwoods insights as being in step with the popular “Lime-Kiln Club” stories of the 1880s, several of which appeared in the Democrat and were collected in a 1882 top-selling book, “Brother Gardner’s Lime-kiln Club”. With foolish characters such as Pickles Smith, Boneless Parsons and Elder Dodo, the stories portray African-Americans as dimwitted and/or childlike, seeking (and failing) to mimic whites and white society. And, of course, watermelons were stolen. When teaching about the history of Jim Crow, the destructive impact of this white superiority crap in popular culture merits far more attention than it gets, in my opinion.

potterportraitRIGHT: Drawing of Edmund Potter from the Sonoma Democrat, July 25 1896

While the Lime-Kiln Club was fictional, “Uncle Potter” was not. Edmund Pendleton Potter was a very real, very elderly man trying to make a subsistence living to support himself and his stepdaughters – his second wife had died in 1895, just a week after the first “Uncle Potter” item appeared. Everybody in this small town would have known the whitewash man by sight, and it seems likely the clever sayings attributed to him would have made him target for cruel boys and mean drunks seeking to bully someone for sadistic kicks. Any torment could only have gotten worse after the Democrat printed a drawing of him the following year along with a description that “…He has a keen wit which he punctuates with the apt originality pertaining to his race… He is quite a character and an entertaining talker. Like all his race he has a lively imagination and a highly developed emotional nature…” It was an invitation for people to expect him to perform on request.

Edmund Potter lived to be 91, dying in 1908 and continued whitewashing up to his final day. Obituaries appeared in both the Republican and Press Democrat, although neither paper could be bothered to get his first name right. He is buried in the Rural Cemetery, Main Circle 1, next to Elizabeth and his two wives, although he has no grave marker. His funeral service was conducted by Jacob Overton, the rights activist who had a recurring role in his life which was never explained.

* Robert A. Thompson, brother of Thomas L. Thompson, was County Clerk 1877-1884, then appointed U.S. Merchandise Appraiser in San Francisco 1885-1892. He ran for Secretary of State in 1898 and lost by 0.7% of the vote; he said he would call for a recount but nothing became of it, perhaps due to the expense or because Democratic party officials wanted no part in would have been the first contested office in state history. He first edited the Democrat in 1871 and apparently continued to be involved sporadically until it was sold in 1897. Robert authored two well-regarded local histories and an essay on the Bear Flag Revolt, all of which are available online. At his death he was working on a history of California. Thompson had a renowned library which supposedly contained many unique diaries and other primary sources, but what happened to it is unknown (my personal belief is the family donated it to the California Historical Society in San Francisco and it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake). He died Aug. 3 1903 and is buried in the Rural Cemetery Main Circle 184.

Top photo: Pamela Fowler Sweeney/


HUDSON-Near Santa Rosa, Nov. 21, 1876, Lizzie Hudson (colored), aged about 50 years. Funeral from her late residence tomorrow (Tuesday) at 2 o’clock. Friends are requested to attend.

– Daily Democrat, November 20 1876


BURNED TO DEATH.—On Sunday afternoon, May 23rd, Mrs. Martha Potter, wife of Edward Potter, a colored man who lives on a ranch near the Poor Farm, fell asleep with a pipe in her mouth, from which her clothes caught fire, burning her so severely that she died from the effects on Saturday evening. Her husband, who was asleep in an adjoining room, heard her struggling with the flames and going to her assistance, tore the clothes from her person, but she was so severely burned about the abdomen that death resulted as above stated. She was sixty-nine years of age,

– Sonoma Democrat, June 5 1880


Mrs. Potter’s Birthday Party.

Mrs. E. Potter celebrated her fifty-second birthday, at her home on First street, Wednesday night. About twenty of her friends and neighbors were present and sat down to a fine supper. Mrs. Potter’s health was toasted and every one wished her many happy returns of the day. Afterwards music and songs were rendered. All those who were fortunate enough to be present at this birthday party will long remember the happy occasion.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 6 1895


The above is a picture of Edmund Potter, better known as “Uncle Potter”, a highly respected citizen of Santa Roaa, from an excellent pen sketch made by our artist. Uncle Potter is 76 years old and black as coal but his mind is bright and his heart is as kind as any white man. He has a keen wit which he punctuates with the apt originality pertaining to his race. Uncle Potter was born in Maryland and came to California soon after the war set him free. He has lived in and around Santa Rosa for a number of years. Many of his bright sayings have appeared at various times in the “Gossip” column of the Democrat. He is quite a character and an entertaining talker. Like all his race he has a lively imagination and a highly developed emotional nature, if he had his way he would colonize all the colored race in Africa where they could work out their own destiny by themselves. Uncle Potter is wonderfully well up in the Scriptures and is a strict constructionist of the word. He has built his house of faith upon the rock and not upon the shifting sands of doubt.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 25 1896


Edmund Potter, the gentleman of color, better known as Uncle Potter, wants to go to Liberia in Africa, where many men and women of his own race and color are located, who speak the English language. Potter thinks he can do them good and he is circulating a petition to raise money enough for transportation. On his arrival in the dark continent he will devote himself to missionary work.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 13 1897


Well Known Negro Lived to be 91 Years Old

Edwin Pendleton Potter familiarly known about this city as “Uncle Potter,” the well known negro, passed away suddenly at his home on First street Thursday morning. He was in his usual good health early in the morning and had arisen and was about the house when he was taken with a pain in his back just over the heart. He lay down for a time and seemed to be getting better when he was taken with an attack of coughing and attempted to rise up, but sank back, and his step daughter ran to his side, but it was seen that the end was near. He died in a few minutes and before Dr. G. W. Mallory, who was hurriedly sent for, could arrive.

Deceased was born in Caroline county near Denton, Maryland, and was 91 years of age. He came to California and settled in Santa Rosa in 1872 and has resided here ever since. At the time of the war he had a sister who had been a slave in Virginia, but had run away, and after everything became righted he got into communication with her from this city and it was on her account that he was brought here. He was a slave himself and was sold some four or five times. He was twice married and both his wives were buried in the local cemetery and it was the old man’s wish that he be laid away by their side.

At one time “Uncle Potter” was one of Santa Rosa’s wealthy men and formerly owned the site where the new postoffice is soon to be built. He was also owner at one time of the ranch which is now the county farm and hospital. he was a very active man and right up to the time of his death was engaged in business. He was planning for another job of whitewashing on Wednesday and would have made some of the arrangements about his spray machine today.

“Uncle Potter” was of the Baptist faith but had joined the Holiness band here and was one of Elder Arnold’s great admirers. Hie was a great hand to attend church and took a great interest In religious affairs.

The arrangements for the funeral have not yet been made but will be announced in a day or two.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 4, 1908


Aged Colored Man Who Was for Many Years a Resident of Santa Rosa Dies Thursday Morning

“Uncle” Edward Pendelton Potter will no longer be seen trundling his little cart and its whitewash outfit along the streets of Santa Rosa on week days. Neither will he be noticed, dressed in his best black suit and wearing his silk hat, tottering along towards the little Holiness Chapel on Humboldt street where for years he was one of the most regular of Pastor Arnold’s flock on Sunday.

The old colored man, for so many years a noted character about town, is dead. His life of ninety-one years ended suddenly at his humble cottage on First street Thursday morning where a step daughter has kept house for him. A sudden fit of coughing came on, Dr. Mallory was sent for, but before he could reach the house, “Uncle” Potter was no more.

The deceased had lived In Santa Rosa for almost thirty-seven years. Years ago he owned considerable property, but it all slipped through his hands. He was a good old man. and no one could be found about town on Thursday. but what spoke of him kindly, and with words of esteem. He was a Christian and in his humble way he lived his religion. He was a native of Maryland and in the days of slavery he knew what it meant to be sold as a slave four or five times. He was twice married and in the local cemetery he has a family plot where on Sunday afternoon he will he burled. The funeral will take place from Moke’s Chapel at two in the afternoon.

“Uncle” Potter was a very poor man when this world’s gifts are considered. Dr. J. J. Summerfield. as the representative of many of the old man’s friends, who are anxious that he shall be given a decent burial in his own plot, last night started out with a subscription list to collect enough money to have everything neat at the funeral. The people Dr. Summerfield approached last night were only too glad to give a donation towards the burial expenses.

– Press Democrat, June 5 1908



In the family plot in the old cemetery on Sunday afternoon they laid “Uncle” Potter to rest. Many old-time friends of the venerable and respected man gathered at the graveside to witness the last rites. The casket was covered with flowers and these in turn were laid on the newly made grave. The funeral took place from Moke’s chapel and the services were conducted by Elder J. M. Overton.

When the band accompanying the Woodmen’s parade met the funeral procession a halt was called, and while it passed by the band played “Nearer My God to Thee.” The sentiment of the hymn was particularly appropriate in view of the Christian character of the deceased and also because it was one of his favorite hymns.

– Press Democrat, June 9 1908


The colored citizens of Santa Rosa offer their heartfelt thanks to Dr. Summerfield and the friends of our departed and much respected fellowman “Uncle Potter,” who so kindly respected his memory with flowers, subscriptions and by giving him a good Christian burial.

The tribute paid by the Santa Rosa band and the W. O. W. touched our hearts. Trying to emulate the life of that grand old Christian, we are, very gratefully.
The Colored Citizens, by
Willis Claybrooks, John W. Dawler, Committee.

– Press Democrat, June 9 1908


At the Holiness Chapel at 11 o’clock this morning there will be a memorial service for the late “Uncle” Potter.

– Press Democrat, June 14 1908

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