1905ironbridge

A CITY OF BRIDGES

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

 

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THE BRIDGE QUESTION.
...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.

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

 

THE IRON BRIDGE.
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

 

BUSINESS TRANSACTED BY THE CITY COUNCILMEN

…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

 

AWARD CONTRACT FOR NEW BRIDGE ON MAIN STREET
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

 

TEARING DOWN THE OLD BRIDGE
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

 

THE MUCH WANTED BRIDGE IS ORDERED

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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THE SISTER OF THE WHITEWASH MAN (Hidden Lives II)

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/findagrave.com
 

NEXT: HENRY W. DAVISON
 

sources
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

 

UNCLE POTTER DIES SUDDENLY
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

 

‘UNCLE’ POTTER HAS GONE TO HIS REST
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

 

“UNCLE” POTTER SLEEPS IN SILENT TOMB

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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aprilfoolFB

WHO’S THE APRIL FOOL?

Whatever else is in your family history, you can count on this: Your great -great (-great?) -grandpa probably was a wild little terrorist.

Several articles have appeared here earlier describing the bedlam of Hallowe’en in the years around 1900-1910, as boys prowled the streets in search of opportunities to inflict damage. Most common was removing front yard gates (sawing them off, if necessary) and hiding them some distance away. Other popular vandalisms included throwing paint on buildings, trampling gardens and dismantling a wagon or buggy. One year the Santa Rosa Republican suggested “parental floggings” and Petaluma had “special officers in plain clothes and bicycle police” on patrol. Still, it was worse in other places and some newspapers took to printing tallies of Hallowe’en deaths, which were usually caused by pranksters being shot as prowlers.

Hallowe’en tricks like gate stealing began appearing in the papers in the mid 1890s, but before that Hallowe’en hooliganism was rare; Oct. 31 was all about parties, costumed or not, and there was often dancing as most of these soirées were for young adults. Kids apparently kept to themselves after dark, whispering frightful stories about haunted places and divining their futures with Hallowe’en charms. (“…if you swallow a thimbleful of salt repeat a verse of poetry and go backward into bed, you will see your fate.” – Petaluma Courier, Oct. 29, 1884.)

But these kids in late Victorian America weren’t any better behaved than the ones who followed – they were probably worse. The only difference was that they conducted their mayhem on April Fool’s Day instead.

San Francisco Call, April 2, 1900

 

 

The worst was probably on April 1 in 1897, when about twenty boys ransacked Santa Rosa High School, trashing furniture and lab equipment. They were caught only because they were stupid enough to ring the school bell, drawing the attention of police.

The Petaluma Argus wrote in 1884 that “a mob of young hoodlums” with boys as young as eight were roaming the streets, ripping off front gates, trampling flowers and terrifying residents with tic-tac noisemakers (a homemade gizmo described in depth in one of the earlier Hallowe’en items). The town was being held under siege by its own children: “…A house cannot be left vacant for a short time without having number of windows broken out by boys, and during the fruit season trees are broken and fruit destroyed through pure deviltry.”

In the same issue Carrie Carlton, the Sonoma Democrat’s correspondent in Petaluma, wrote that April 2 was “the day that the Petaluma small boy feels the bad effects of late hours, having sat up until midnight or thereabouts trying to accomplish the big job of unhinging all the gates in town and piling them up promiscuously where least likely to be found; the day that lone women may be seen walking forlornly through the streets looking for that which is lost and cannot be found…”

Most of the April Fool jokes popular back then are still familiar. The victim is tricked into eating soap/something else that tastes foul (or inhaling something that causes a sneeze). A prank letter lures victims into an embarrassing comedy of errors. Coins are glued to sidewalks, or a dollar bill is tied to a string. A load of manure is ordered to be delivered to the victim’s home. A pat on the back means the victim now wears a sign reading, “kick me” (or worse). There is a frightening surprise – an exploding cigar, a mouse in the sugar bowl.

Some of the old tricks are long out of fashion. A passerby is asked to help by picking up a package, unaware that the box is attached to a fire hydrant or other immoveable object. As it was apparently the habit back then to kick hats lying on the sidewalk, jokesters put bricks underneath. And in the horse and buggy days it was considered funny to con a victim into running a time-wasting errand. The latter probably faded in popularity after it was widely reported in 1886 that a guy named Tom Rogers sent a message to the doctor in Kaufman, Texas concerning a woman gravely ill three miles out in the country. The doctor made the trip and discovered he hadn’t been called. Boiling with rage over the stupid prank, he returned to town and viciously stabbed Rogers to death.

April Fool’s Day wasn’t limited to kids, although the age cutoff for gate theft and noisemaking seemed to be about 18. Most famous among the local grownup pranksters was “Doc” Cozad, who once phoned lots of men and told them to don their best suit and rush to the Press Democrat office because the paper wanted photos of prominent citizens. (For April Fool’s Day in 1907 the tables were turned when some of Santa Rosa’s movers-and-shakers surprised him with a perfectly choreographed prank).

What’s surprising is how often adults seemed to attempt actual crimes only to claim, “April Fool!” when caught, like the fellow in Philadelphia who was interrupted during an armed robbery and claimed he was just kidding. On April 1, 1876, a man went to the Santa Rosa Bank to deposit a roll of $20 silver coins in a wrapper from the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa. When the roll was weighed it was found to be slightly lighter than expected, so it was unwrapped and revealed to be simply an iron bar. “Serious results might have followed this very trick,” commented the Sonoma Democrat. In 1910 two autos in Santa Rosa were stolen and driven away for joy rides. Although the cars weren’t returned until one of them got stuck on a country road and had to be towed back to town, “a visit to the police station was threatened, but nothing came of it,” according to the Press Democrat. Try any of those stunts today and see if the “hey, it was just April Fool!” excuse still works.

Hallowe’en and April Fool’s Day switched places as the most riotous children’s holidays near the turn of the century, and April 1 mostly settled down to being more of an excuse for a party or dance – although I’ll bet guests sometimes eyed the refreshments suspiciously, wondering if the eclairs might actually be filled with soap. Aside from ads for such get-togethers, the newspapers most often declared the day passed without incident except for “usual” April Fool pranks.

Likely the last truly original trick happened in 1932 when an Argus-Courier staff writer received an important call. He dutifully took notes and at the appointed time, used a handkerchief to cover his desk telephone and sat back, patiently waiting for the phone company to blow all the dust out of the line.

San Francisco Call, April 2, 1901

 

April Fool. —Everybody was on the look-out on Saturday last, April fool’s day, to victimize any person or persons that came within their jurisdiction. Several very good jokes were perpetrated, the best one of which was the sending of a number of parties to the stable of James P. Clark to see a certain blooded animal which bad been lately imported here. Jim showed the “thoroughbred” to all who applied, and the joke was fully appreciated.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 8 1871
 An April Fool Joke.

All Fools’ Day came as usual and was numbered in the past. Many pranks were played on unsuspecting individuals and which were innocent in their character, but one person whose name has not yet been called to mind, thought to take advantage of an innocent custom and turn an honest penny at the time of creating merriment by the joke. So the said unknown individual procured a bar of iron of the dimensions of a twenty-dollar silver roll and wrapped the same carefully and neatly up in a paper having the card of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa upon it, and passed it in to the cashier of that institution, who in turn passed it to Mr. Prindle and he to Mr. Gray, and he to Mr. Hopper. Mr. Hopper took it to the Santa Rosa Bank to deposit it when it was placed upon the scales and found to be some two or three dollars light. Then Mr. Hopper unrolled the paper and the bar of iron was exposed to open day, and Hopper was hopping mad. Mr. Gray returned it to the Savings Bank, and there the joke ended. This is carrying a joke rather beyond the limits, and serious results might have followed this very trick.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 8 1876

About one o’clock Sunday morning the fire bell commenced ringing, causing the few people who were awake at that hour to hurry out in the streets in order to ascertain where the fire was. The bell had only rung a few times, however, when it suddenly ceased, and a conviction slowly dawned upon the minds of the alarmed ones that they had been sold. “April fool!”

– Sonoma Democrat, April 7 1883
Carrie Carlton’s Letter. Petaluma, April 1st.

The day that the Petaluma small boy feels the bad effects of late hours, having sat up until midnight or thereabouts trying to accomplish the big job of unhinging all the gates in town and piling them up promiscuously where least likely to be found; the day that lone women may be seen walking forlornly through the streets looking for that which is lost and cannot be found; the day that the principal of our public schools generally gets the biggest dose of April Fool! And just here we are reminded by the presentation of another of those ominous little notes that have been fluttering down upon us all the morning, that it is the day in which you are immensely fooled as to the amount of money you owe people…

– Sonoma Democrat, April 5 1884
Malicious Mischief.

It has been the habit for several years past, in this city, on the eve of April 1st for a mob of young hoodlums to parade through the principal residence streets and commit misdemeanors that should not be allowed to go unpunished. On Monday evening last a large number of boys, ranging from eight years up to eighteen, were out until a late hour taking gates from their hinges and carrying them several blocks from where they belonged. They also rang door bells, played tic-tac and similar tricks. There is nothing funny or smart in any of these April fool jokes and this sort of nonsense has been allowed to go unpunished so long that the boys pay no regard to personal rights or property of others. No one objects to boys having all the fun they want so long as they confine themselves to harmless sports, but when a band of young hoodlums go around unhinging gates, tramping through flower gardens and indulging in like malicious mischief it is time that they be stopped. There is certainly a law against this sort of mischief and it should be enforced. It would be a very salutary lesson if a few of the boys engaged in this business were arrested and fined. If parents will allow their children to run around at night and indulge in all sorts of mischief unrebuked, it would be fitting for the City Marshal to attend to that branch of precocious youths’ educations. A house cannot be left vacant for a short time without having number of windows broken out by boys, and during the fruit season trees are broken and fruit destroyed through pure deviltry. It is a poor protection to persons trying to beautify their premises to allow every small boy in town to steal gates and carry them away and tramp among the flowers like a wild animal. There was once an ordinance in this city compelling boys under eighteen years of age to keep off of the street after eight o’clock, evening, but it must have been repealed as the boys are out in full force every night long after that hour.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, April 5, 1884

“April fool’s” day was an inglorious one for many. It was from morning till night that people could be seen doing decoy errands or carrying attractive placards on their backs. These idiotic jokes might have provoked a little fun in the days of the royal jester, but in this age of civilization it is amazing how many unhung sots there are who made themselves conspicuous figures on the first of the month by their silly, chestnutty and daft perpetrations.

– Healdsburg Tribune, April 4 1895
SOME WERE WISE OTHERS FOOLISH
SOME APRIL FOOL JOKES HAVE BEEN PERPETRATED ON THE UNWARY
Many Citizens Saw to it That Their Front Gates Were Moved to a Place of Safety

On Thursday evening many citizens mindful of the coming of the April fool joker removed the front gates leading into their yards to a place of safety until the time when the old time declaration, “April Fool’s Day is past,” etc., should arrive and the danger of molestation should have passed. Others forgot the advent of the joker and in consequence they may find their gate in somebody elses back yard.

Early Thursday evening some jokers must have been at work in the vicinity of the High School building, judging from the appearance of a buggy on the porch over the basement entrance to the building. No one seemed to know how it got there.

A well known citizen on Humboldt street chancing to go into his yard for a moonlight stroll discovered that had unawares become a florist. On the front lawn a sign had been reared bearing the legend, “Pansies for Sale.”

At Fifth and Humboldt streets some one found a chair suspended from a pole.

On Humboldt one of the street cars left outside the barn was propelled by hand power at a quicker clip down the track that the equine strength usually forming the motive power could have done.

A great many people and the officers on the outside beats kept on the lookout for the enacting of jokes which partook of too serious an aspect. It is reasonable to suggest that after the first few moments after the discovery of a missing gate or what not, the discomfiture of feelings will give way to the realization that “boys will be boys.”

– Press Democrat, April 1 1904

The usual trick April fool packages decorated the sidewalks in the business streets on Thursday and quite a number of local people “bit.” The brick in the hat was also very much in evidence.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, April 1, 1909

A well known local man ate some soap on Monday under the impression it was candy. Another man tried in vain to talk through the telephone which had been doctored up so that he could not get central. Numerous other pranks were played.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, April 1, 1909
APRIL FOOL JOKE TURNS ON JOKER

Some time last night two automobiles were found to be missing by their respective owners. A hunt was made for the machines. It transpired that after all the supposed theft was an April fool joke. Two jubilant youths took the cars for the joke of the thing, invited friends to accompany them and drive out into the country. The joke was turned on one of them, at least. His machine “got stuck” out on the Sonoma road, and a telephone message had to be sent to town for some one to come out and haul the car in. At first a visit to the police station was threatened, but nothing came of it.

– Press Democrat, April 2 1910
POLICE HAVE ORDERS TO ARREST DISTURBERS

Chief of Police Boyes has issued orders to his officers to see that the law is strictly obeyed in regards to the interference of private property particularly on April Fool’s eve. The practice of past years in removing gates, etc., will not be tolerated and the police department wish the public to take heed to this warning as it will he strictly enforced. A great many complaints have been received regarding this practice and the officers are going to put a stop to it.

– Press Democrat, March 30 1917

 

 

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