The McDonalds were the best known people we knew almost nothing about.

Readership of the previous article, “THE McDONALDS vs SANTA ROSA,” was unusually high and the reaction on social media trended to expressions of shock. I likewise confess to being astonished as I began looking closely at the legendary figure of Mark L. McDonald; after all, historians have told us for over a century about his boundless generosity toward Santa Rosa and everyone here.

But as introduced in that piece, quite the opposite was true. He fought against all efforts to improve Santa Rosa unless it would put a dollar in his pocket and he was given credit for projects he had little or nothing to do with. Modern historians have further burnished his reputation because they haven’t realized how badly it was actually tarnished.

Commenters on social media seemed particularly surprised to learn about the family’s support of the Confederate cause, so more details about that are provided below.

Most misinformation about Mark and his family can be traced to his 1911 profile in the county history written by Tom Gregory and “McDonald Avenue: A Century of Elegance” privately published in 1970 by Ann M. Connor. Gregory’s biographical details came from Mark himself, as was common in all “mug book” local histories. Connor did not cite her sources aside for names collectively mentioned in the acknowledgements.

Some of the McDonald stories fall into the category of probably not true, or at least not completely so. For example, it’s now often said Luther Burbank helped landscape McDonald Avenue. The street was originally lined with only eucalyptus trees, a species Burbank never used (and nor would he have approved of planting such a bland monoculture). Yet Burbank – who arrived in Santa Rosa during 1875, the same year as Mark McDonald – might well have later donated trees or other plants to the McDonalds for the street or their private garden; there are still all sorts of Burbank novelties to be found in the older neighborhoods of town.

McDonald Avenue c. 1900 lined with eucalyptus trees. Photo Sonoma County Library
McDonald Avenue c. 1900 lined with eucalyptus trees. Photo Sonoma County Library


There are some stories that would be interesting to explore but lie outside the bounds of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.

One astonishing claim in Mark L. McDonald’s 1911 profile was he came to California in the early 1850s as the captain leading a wagon train with sixty wagons, fighting Indians along the way. As he was then twenty-something, had never been out west nor seemed to be much of an outdoorsman, there are reasons to be skeptical about his account.

Mark’s San Francisco stockbrokerage went bust at least twice before his adventures began in Santa Rosa, with events in 1871 being so serious that newspapers nationwide were saying he was ruined. That could mean he was not as wealthy as everyone believed and explain some of his bullying and uncivility, as it was critically important to him for investments in Santa Rosa to be highly profitable.

Also in 1871 James McDonald, his lesser-known brother who would come to own quite a bit of real estate here, was principal owner of the Keystone gold mine during a particularly dark moment in early labor conflicts, which included miners setting fire to a mineshaft. Called the “Amador War” by the newspapers, James was acting as manager during the crisis and directing company actions.

The lives of the McDonald children are well documented and not particularly interesting – except for Mabel. She died of pneumonia in Berlin, Germany in 1917, having made it her permanent residence about two weeks after the start of WWI. (She renewed her U.S. passport Aug. 15, 1914 at the U.S. consolate in Hamburg, so she could have gotten out of the country if desired.) Her husband and six year-old son remained in San Francisco. Why she chose to live in wartime Germany was never explained.

What is never mentioned by any of the historians were details of Mark and wife Ralphine’s Southern roots – and how both grew up in families who owned slaves.

According to the federal 1850 “Slave Schedule,” James M. McDonald of Washington Kentucky had seven, three of them adult men and one woman. The youngest child was two years old. Ralph North of Natchez Mississippi had six slaves on the same Schedule, including two adult women and a man. The enslaved children were ages seven (twins?) and nine.

James came to California in Mark’s wagon train (or maybe an earlier train which included two other sons). Ralph stayed in Mississippi and joined the Confederate Army, serving as 2nd Lieutenant in the home guard despite being nearly 50. He organized charity drives to collect clothing – particularly, wool socks – for soldiers, so it’s in character for him to have helped organize Santa Rosa’s 1867 “Southern Relief Fund” mentioned in the previous chapter. Other than that he was a respected attorney and resumed being a judge after he returned to Mississippi, admired for having written what was considered a definitive text on probate law.

Another family mystery is how and when Mark and Ralphine met. Her father Ralph appeared in California quickly after the end of the Civil War; he was admitted to the state bar in July 1865 and in September began advertising as an attorney in the Santa Rosa papers. We might assume Ralphine and her mother went west with him, but it’s possible they came ahead. Given the McDonalds were married in Santa Rosa on January 15 1866, they either had a whirlwind courtship or met in San Francisco before her father joined them.

In 1875 Mark bought the waterworks and announced he was selling lots in his new subdivision. After that things happened fast. T. J. Ludwig, the town’s premier builder, constructed at least four houses on McDonald Ave in 1877, four more the next year, and in 1879 built “Mableton,” also known today as the McDonald mansion. Additionally, it seems to be lost history that the architects for Mableton were Townsend & Wyneken of San Francisco, who specialized in the “modern” Eastlake style.*

There are several muddled parts of the early history of the street, aside from the unlikelihood of Burbank planting eucalypti. One of the early houses built by Ludwig was #1104, a stately house with a classical portico. Modern writers think the McDonalds lived there when in Santa Rosa before Mableton was finished. It could be true, but it was sold in February 1879 to Thomas L. Thompson – editor of the Democrat newspaper, and in whose earlier home Mark and Ralphine were married. That sale was at least six months before Mableton was ready, so they would have needed to put furniture et. al. into storage for the duration. Everything about this story falls into the possible-but-unlikely bin.

Then there’s the story of Mableton being modeled after the Mississippi plantation home of Ralphine’s childhood. While that may have been the kind of place she always wanted, there’s no evidence the North family ever had such a lavish house; he was a circuit judge, briefly a member of the state legislature and the family didn’t appear to be especially outgoing in Natchez social circles.

Also, it’s a bit of revisionist history to now settle on the name as “Mableton.” The place was surely named after their youngest child, Mabel; the family moved in around her second birthday. (Be thankful construction didn’t lag until her baby sister was born a few months later, or we might be calling it “Edithon.”) For decades it was spelled interchangeably as Mableton and Mabelton; the first mention in the Sonoma Democrat was in 1883 where it was identified as “Mabelton Villa.”

I’ll accept their practice of naming things after children and use it to posit a theory: Lake Ralphine was not called that to honor Mrs. McDonald, but rather in memory of their deceased daughter. While the reservoir was being dug in 1877, seven year-old Ralphine died in San Francisco.

Perhaps there’s an unpublished memoir or diary out there that could sort out some of these questions but we work with what we have. Should any further details appear I’ll gladly correct them here or elsewhere, as needed.


* San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 1887





(All sources from the Daily Democrat or weekly Sonoma Democrat except as noted.)

Application of Ralph North. On motion of Hartley, and filing affidavit, ordered that applicant, late of Mississippi, be admitted to practice law in all the Courts of this State. (Sacramento Daily Union) 12 July 1865

T. J. Ludwig has a contract to build four more residences on McDonald avenue. 19 May 1877

T. J. Ludwig has commenced building a two story residence for Capt. Frasier on McDonald Avenue. (It was really David R. Fraser) 10 September 1877

J. T. Ludwig commenced hauling lumber for the construction of two new houses on McDonald avenue. 21 February 1878

Mr. Ludwig will commence the erection of another residence near the northern extremity of the Avenue, and Col. McDonald has given him a contract to erect another, so that two more elegant structures will soon adorn that thoroughfare. 27 July 1878

Work will be commenced on the new summer residence of Col. M. L. McDonald the first of next week. Mr. Ludwig informs us that he will push it right ahead. 25 January 1879

Summer Residence.- Messrs. Ludwig and Duncan commenced work on the foundation of Col. McDonald’s summer residence on McDonald Avenue, on Monday. We have seen the plans, they were designed by Townsend and Wyneken, of San Francisco, and the building will evidently be most elegant in design, commodious in its appointments and beautiful in finish. It is located almost opposite Col. Rue’s residence. 5 February 1879

False. — A rumor has been in circulation that Col. M. L. McDonald has ordered work on his summer residence on McDonald Avenue, discontinued. We are assured by the contractor, T. J. Ludwig, that there was never anything done to warrant any such statement, and that the work will be pushed to completion. 26 April 1879

Going Ahead.— Work on the McDonald summer residence is going right ahead, and Mr. Ludwig expects to have it completed in about sixty days. 17 May 1879

A ROSEBUD PARTY – One of the most Pleasant juvenile parties that has ever been held in the City of Roses, transpired at Mabelton Villa, the handsome residence of Col. M. L. McDonald, on Wednesday evening, the occasion, being the sixth anniversary of the birth of Miss Mabel McDonald. About fifty of the juvenile friends of the little Miss were present, and the evening was spent in the most delightful manner possible for the youthful participants. A sumptuous repast was thoroughly enjoyed, and a magic lantern exhibition delighted all the spectators. Miss Mabel received a number of handsome presents. 8 September 1883

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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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