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THE YEAR OF THE ROSE FESTIVAL FIASCO

It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. The 1895 Rose Festival was a perfect example of a Victorian American community celebration, drawing visitors from all over the West Coast, including the mayor of San Francisco and the Governor. Although it’s since been overlooked by writers of local history it was viewed at the time as being something like Santa Rosa’s coming out party – even though it ended up being quite a mess.

Hundreds of our ancestors dived in to make that Rose Carnival (its real name) a success through diligent planning and hard work. It also had a major boost because all of the major San Francisco newspapers – the Chronicle, Examiner and Call – touted it as they might a must-see gala happening in their own city. There were full-page features and front page updates over several days. All papers sent artists here to sketch the street scenes and people involved, and as a result it’s the best visually documented glimpse we have of an event from 19th century Santa Rosa. There are also several portraits drawn from photographs which no longer exist. A sampling of the drawings which appeared in SF newspaper articles can be found below.

Those 1895 doings were also surprising because the first Rose Carnival in 1894 was remarkable only in that Santa Rosa had been able to pull off anything at all. There were less than three weeks from when that one was proposed to the day of the parade. The idea that year was to draw visitors from the “Midwinter Exposition” which was kind of a World’s Fair being held in Golden Gate Park.

With so little time to prepare, about all that could be done in 1894 was to decorate storefronts with greenery. “The merchants were requested to ‘rosify and florify’ their places of business,” reported the Sonoma Democrat, praising the shopkeepers for what they were able to accomplish. “The appearance of the streets beggars description. Fourth street is an avenue of festal floral loveliness. The effect, as seen from above and below, looking down the brilliant aisle, is magnificent. Every store has its improvised greenhouse or conservatory.”

The parade was mainly local residents driving their family carriages with some flowers attached. Lots and lots of carriages. Highlights included mounted knights in armor (undoubtedly refugees from Healdsburg’s very weird May Day Knighthood Tournament), the Santa Rosa Canton of the “Patriarchs Militant” (say what?), and not one, but two little girls’ drill brigades. Afterwards there was a “battle of the roses” where the parade participants pelted spectators with the flowers that had adorned their carriages as the onlookers flung them back. This went on for an hour. Should Gentle Reader ever ponder why Robert Ripley was obsessed with oddball behavior, just imagine what an impression that scene would have made on a four year-old boy.

Despite the floral free-for-all, the Democrat commented, “There is much talk about making the Rose Carnival a permanent thing” and plans for the 1895 Carnival began four months in advance. They included a fundraiser by our hometown racist “All-Star Minstrels” at the Athenaeum (Charlie Holmes did a “Negro impersonation” and warbled, “When Johnnie Comes Marching Home”).

This time the festivities would stretch over three days in May, Wednesday through Friday. Today we might expect a town celebration like that to be scheduled for a weekend, but in those times Saturday was the big market day, when farmers shopped in town and stores stayed open late. On the last day there was to be a high-profile race (which would mean gambling) and heaven forfend such a thing happen on the same day we were all supposed to be piously sitting in pews.

Newspapers began whipping up interest weeks before the carnival. Their main focus was on the Carnival Queen competition, which gave editors an excuse to print lots of portraits of pretty women. The papers framed it as a beauty contest, cheering for different favorites to win.

Over 7,000 votes were cast at 10¢ per, and during the final hours ballot boxes were stuffed with envelopes containing up to $100. Isabel Donovan won with 4,610 votes. She was a leader in planning this carnival and the one before; she was also a working woman (general manager of the Sunset Telephone Company’s office in Santa Rosa) and unlike other nominees, wasn’t part of the society clique.

Three leading candidates for Rose Carnival Queen: Belle Spottswood, Isabel Donovan and Addie Steits. San Francisco Call, April 7, 1895
Three leading candidates for Rose Carnival Queen: Belle Spottswood, Isabel Donovan and Addie Steits. San Francisco Call, April 7, 1895

The publicity spotlight was also on cycling, and not just the race held on the final day. John Sheehy’s Petaluma Historian blog has a great essay on the 1890s bicycle craze and our Santa Rosa Wheelmen Club invited other clubs large and small. The Democrat reported the head of the Reliance club of Oakland vowed their group “…with its large contingent of lady bicyclists, will come up in a body to our Rose Carnival if invited. It is the boss club of the State, and will come uniformed and all together on wheels….Just think of it, one hundred and fifty gentlemen and ladies to enter the town on wheels escorted by our local wheelers, won’t it be a fine sight?”

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Two sketches from the San Francisco Chronicle, May 9 1895
Two sketches from the San Francisco Chronicle, May 9 1895

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa buzzed like a beehive as final arrangements were underway. Three arches were constructed downtown out of greenery; Chinese lanterns were strung above Fourth Street; plans were made for a flower show at Carnival Park (otherwise known as Kroncke’s Park/City Gardens); homemakers were preparing to make 5,000 sandwiches and the same number of Victorian America’s favorite junk food, doughnuts; hammers and saws were busy constructing parade floats, fourteen in all. Santa Rosa was ready.

Santa Rosa wasn’t ready.

Visitors unexpectedly started showing up the day before the doings were going to start. The SF Call noted that on May 7 “Strangers are already beginning to arrive. The noon train on the Southern Pacific was loaded with visitors. It is plain that the full capacity of the city to provide lodgings for the guests will be put to the test, but it is confidently believed that all who remain over night will be cared for.”

1895rosead(RIGHT: 1895 Rose Carnival announcement. Sonoma Democrat, May 4 1895)

(In a Believe-It-Or-Not! twist, Ernest Finley, future editor of the Press Democrat might have burned down the city that night. A kerosene lamp exploded in his Fourth Street printing shop and he threw the burning fragments into the street, where workers were still putting up the paper lanterns and bunting.)

Wednesday was the first day of the Carnival and the only event scheduled was the evening queen’s coronation at the Athenaeum and as such, it was expected to be more of a community event. The theater could hold an audience up to 2,500 in a pinch but the crowd outside was so large few could even get near the building. “The rush for seats was terrific. Two able-bodied men stood at the portal after the theater received its complement and refused admittance to the clamoring multitude” (SF Chronicle).

Not that they missed much. The featured orator was Attorney Albert G. Burnett, who began by noting the committee asked him to speak for no more than five minutes. He droned on for about half an hour, saying nothing (“…As we contemplate the picture before us we can not be justly charged with extravagance in the declaration that no imagination could be too bold nor copious nor creative, and no fancy could be too affluent to conjure tbe invisible spirit of beauty that dwells in these radiant blooms from our gardens…”). Then there were various classical music selections performed by locals.

The coronation was ersatz pageantry and pomp, the most high school-y part of the carnival. But as described by the Chronicle, there was one moment that seemed rather sweet: “…the hundred little boys and girls who had been halted in the main aisle were given the word to advance. On they came in pairs with their curly heads just showing above the tops of the chairs. Each tiny maid had her proud, or otherwise, escort by the arm and the whole band got up the steps without mishap. This in itself was a creditable performance and provoked much applause.”

After the ceremonies the crowd filed out of the theater to find an actual spectacle awaiting them: “Hundreds of Chinese lanterns bobbed and blinked from the same level above the street for fully a mile. While the exercises were in progress inside the merchants had lowered away on the lanterns and lighted them. The effect of the illumination was novel in the extreme – The red glow lit up the vivid bunting on the front of the buildings and gave the whole place the appearance of being in flames” (SF Chronicle).

The next day was the parade. “When the sun rose this morning it found the city fully dressed for the festival,” a Call reporter wrote. “Bunting and flowers and green things streamed over and bedecked everything, softening the hard lines of business blocks and quickening the long stretch of the streets with lively color.”

No one in Santa Rosa realized the first signs of the coming troubles were popping up at the Ferry Building in San Francisco shortly after dawn on that Thursday morning.

Because that was typically a slow day for travel, the SF&NP railroad offered a special $1.00 excursion rate for a round trip between San Francisco and Santa Rosa. The SF Call even promoted it with a little spot item headlined, “A Cheap Excursion – Ample Facilities Furnished to See the Rose Carnival.”

The Chronicle described the resulting chaos: “The crowd at the Tiburon ferry in San Francisco in the morning was immense. The approaches to the entrance of the wharf were packed with people. So dense was the throng in front of the ticket windows that persons who had provided themselves in advance were unable to get to the door. The streetcars kept arriving every minute with additions to the crowd. The attire of the ladies was disordered in the struggle to get through the ferry doorway and reach the boat.”

Packed to capacity, the steamer finally left the pier to cross the Golden Gate. Immediately a second ferry pulled into the slip and it, too, quickly filled with tourists. (And don’t forget hundreds of these passengers were bringing along their bicycles.) The sheer numbers were so unusual the Governor mentioned it at the top of a letter he wrote for the Examiner, and he wasn’t even on either of the ferries.

Once in Tiburon, the first excursion train had twelve cars that were likewise jammed full. The regular morning train followed and then there was another special with 15 cars. At that point, the ticket office in San Francisco closed its doors. That had never happened before.

“Very large crowds of people from other parts on Thursday were counted upon as a certainty, but the most sanguine were amazed at the multitudes which came pouring in from all directions by the regular and special trains,” the Democrat said.

And that was just the swarm of humanity descending upon Santa Rosa by rail. “They came from all directions and in all sorts of vehicles,” reported the Chronicle. “A six horse stage drove over from Calistoga with a load of decorated passengers and all the farmers within twenty miles of the carnival hitched up and came to town. The side streets were blocked with wagons.”

The flaw in all their planning was that they did not anticipate anything near such a great success. The 1894 carnival had 5,000-7,000 visitors, and they expected this year would be about the same. The San Francisco Examiner thought there were 15,000 visitors. The Sacramento Bee estimated there were twice that many, which would have made the crowd 5x the population of Santa Rosa.

From the SF Call: “The city has been thronged with visitors, taxing to the very limits the ability of its citizens to make provision for them. All the morning before the parade and all the afternoon after it had dispersed and the excitement of the time was at an end men and women, especially women with children, thronged the streets, resting upon the steps and doorways of stores and dwellings. The halls and stairways of all the hotels were peopled in this way, women and children were crowding into those little greenrooms that are ordinarily given over to the quiet game of poker, which game was forced thereby to suspend. All of this indicates the tremendous descent upon the little city and an overflow beyond the capacity to accommodate.”

The parade was scheduled to start at 12:30 but was delayed for nearly an hour, no reasons given. To fill the time, two hundred cyclists performed some sort of drill on Fourth Street.

Viewing the Rose Parade on Fourth Street. San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895
Viewing the Rose Parade on Fourth Street. San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895

Once the parade finally began the newspaper descriptions were surprisingly light, often tossing off a sentence or two for even the most elaborate floats. The Santa Rosa and Petaluma papers usually identified who was in the parade and reported – sometimes in great detail – what women were wearing.

Yet there was no question that the amount of decoration went far beyond what appeared the year before. Everything that could have a flower or just a ribbon attached was adorned – hats, parasols, wheel spokes on floats and carriages, bridles on horses, ceremonial swords and guns…you name it.

Queen of the Rose Carnival float. San Francisco Call, May 10 1895
Queen of the Rose Carnival float. San Francisco Call, May 10 1895
"'Sunshine' in the parade was represented by a large yellow float, studded with stars on a blue background. At the back a rising sun sent its golden rays upon the earth. Miss Grace Tuttle posed as the Goddess of Sunshine." San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895
“‘Sunshine’ in the parade was represented by a large yellow float, studded with stars on a blue background. At the back a rising sun sent its golden rays upon the earth. Miss Grace Tuttle posed as the Goddess of Sunshine.” San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895

Sadly, there was no illustration of the award winner for best decorated float, which was the entry from the Petaluma’s Young Ladies’ Mandolin Club: “…The fairy ‘boat’ was covered with pure white flowers, and within it were ten beautiful and charming young ladies who are numbered among the social favorites of the City of Hills, and who are members of the young ladies’ orchestra. All were exquisitely attired in snowy white, and each of the fair passengers of the dainty craft held and played upon a stringed instrument thus creating an effect pleasing in the extreme to both eye and ear” (Sonoma Democrat).

Unidentified girl on butterfly float and some of the 30 floral equestrians, "smothered in flowers, moss and ferns." Image San Francisco Examiner, description San Francisco Chronicle, both May 10 1895
Unidentified girl on butterfly float and some of the 30 floral equestrians, “smothered in flowers, moss and ferns.” Image San Francisco Examiner, description San Francisco Chronicle, both May 10 1895

Watching the parade was undoubtedly a joy, whether you lived here or not. But as the hours passed, spectators found that all those sandwiches and doughnuts, meant to feed a much smaller crowd, were gone.

“Those citizens here who had food and drinks to sell found themselves sadly pressed for supplies before the day was over. So great was the demand for victuals in any form that everything in sight was devoured. The hotels and restaurants were eaten out of house and home and the lunches set by the ladies in vacant stores vanished like dew before a summer sun. More than one able-bodied man who came late had to bear up under the heat and burden of the day with no other sustenance than hard-boiled eggs and angel cake. The country people who brought large tubs full of doughnuts, fried pullets and jam were well fitted to stave off famine and arouse envy” (Chronicle).

While nothing was mentioned in any of those Victorian-era papers, I shudder to think what the toilet situation must have been like during those Rose Carnivals. At the time Santa Rosa’s sewer system was notoriously undersized, with sewage sometimes oozing out of manholes even during normal conditions.*

To out-of-town cyclists and enthusiasts the bike race the next day was far more an attraction than the parade. Promoters expected a large crowd (it was later estimated there were 7,000 race spectators) because newspapers were hyping it as potentially a milestone event. The Democrat breathlessly told readers, “…it is expected that if the weather is not too windy the world’s record for the mile and half mile stands a good chance of being broken.”

Problem was, all the hotel rooms in town were already taken by the day of the parade, further adding to the stress of a large portion of our visitors. Since the excursion trains were just sitting in the railyard waiting to take people back to the ferries that evening, it was decided the railroad would run special reverse-excursion trains from Santa Rosa to Petaluma, where hopefully the bicycling crowd could find lodgings. That was also something that had never happened before.

The only photo supposedly from the 1895 Rose Parade, although there was no description in any newspaper of a group of children as seen here. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
The only photo supposedly from the 1895 Rose Parade, although there was no description in any newspaper of a group of children as seen here. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

Parade day wound up with an “illuminated” repeat that evening, although all that meant was the dim arc streetlights were turned on. And yes, afterwards there was another stupid battle of the roses.

On the last day the main events were that bike race at the Pierce brothers’ race track (now the county fairgrounds) where no records were set. There was a baseball game between Santa Rosa and the team from Stanford and a grand ball at the Athenaeum that night.

The only real excitement of that Friday was a runaway hot air balloon: “Professor George Weston made an unsuccessful balloon ascension from B and Ross streets. The aeronaut was to drop from a parachute when well up in the clouds, but his hot air balloon did not rise rapidly enough, and floating too low over the top of a house near C street, just a block away from where he started, he was compelled to let go to save himself and clung to the roof. The balloon rose some distance and returned to earth” (SF Call).

And thus the 1895 Rose Carnival was over and despite the many snafus, it was considered a great success. They didn’t lose money and actually ended up with a small profit. Plans immediately began to make the next one even grander.

Later Carnivals/Festivals are better remembered than the one in 1895, but in their day it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. The amount of decoration was over the top and there’s no question that it set the baseline for every Rose Parade that has since followed.

In a historical context it’s worth noting it represented the sort of progress found in the Gilded Age, when women were making gains (albeit small) in being recognized for leadership roles. Unlike the first Carnival, half of the 1895 committee chairs were held by women.

Sure, it could have been planned better, but it was impossible to predict the turnout would be so enormous. It was something new and exciting and despite the huge crowd was probably great fun as long as you brought your own sandwiches, didn’t mind sleeping in a doorway and weren’t too fussy about bathroom facilities.

 


* At the time Santa Rosa had a sewage farm on the north bank of Santa Rosa Creek, about where the Stony Circle business park is today. Any overflow of the ponds due to heavy rains or excess waste sent raw sewage into the creek. For more see “The Sewage of Santa Rosa” by John Cummings.

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THE DIRTY WATER WARS OF MARK McDONALD

It took Santa Rosa awhile to realize it was under attack, but a no-holds-barred war was being waged against it by the man in the mansion on the grand boulevard.

You could say the conflict began in May 1893, when voters approved a bond to build a water plant. At the time Santa Rosa was getting its water from a private company owned by Mark L. McDonald; the water came from Lake Ralphine, which the Board of Health said was so fetid that his company was “criminally negligent and indifferent to our welfare as a city.” McDonald offered to sell his waterworks to the city at such a ridiculously inflated price it would be cheaper to start from scratch, even though it meant laying another set of water mains beneath every street. All of those doings were covered in “THE McDONALDS vs SANTA ROSA.”

Stepping up to buy Santa Rosa’s bonds was Robert Effey, a modest investor who happened to be mayor of Santa Cruz. While deciding whether to put the water bond on the ballot, Santa Rosa’s mayor and city attorney had visited that town’s very successful municipal water plant and met him. He offered to buy our bond for $161,000, being the lowest of only two bidders.1

A few days later, a lawsuit seeking to block Santa Rosa from making a deal with Effey was filed by a retired farmer named John D. Cooper. Most unusual about the case was that besides the city, he also sued the City Council as individuals plus the city clerk.2

Another suit to stop the city’s deal with Effey followed shortly. This time a retired rancher named John M. Jones was upset because construction plans had been updated since the bond measure passed. Mr. Jones likewise sued the city and Council members personally.

That was hardly the end of the anti-waterworks lawyering. Less than a month later, William Guisbert Skinner went after the city, the Council, the assessor, treasurer, and tax collector along with Robert Effey. His gripe was the terms of the bond had been slightly changed, and the city was increasing property taxes by 25¢ per $100 to pay for the bonds – although they hadn’t actually been yet sold. (As further explained below, the bond sale was delayed by both these lawsuits and the nation’s economic problems.)

Three different lawsuits over about six weeks is a lot of suin’ for little Santa Rosa. Who were these guys who were so upset about construction of a water plant they wanted to drag everyone into court? It appeared they must be well off, as they were represented by some of the top legal talent in the county: A. B. Ware, Calvin S. Farquar and the infamous Gil P. Hall.3

But Cooper, Jones and Skinner were hardly wealthy Sonoma County movers and shakers; one has to scour the old newspapers to find any mention of them at all, and then it was almost always for some small scale real estate transaction. There can be little doubt, however, they were acting as part of a coordinated attack on building the waterworks by the “Tax Payers’ Protective Union.”

The supposed grassroots organization was formed at the time of the Cooper suit but few members were ever named (usually just A. P. Overton, H. W. Byington and A. B. Ware). The Democrat wrote only it was “composed of well-known and reputable citizens of Santa Rosa” and “members comprise many of the heaviest taxpayers in this city.” Judging from signatures on a later petition, my guess is there were under fifty members, split between the investor class and elderly anti-tax cranks like our litigious trio. Skinner, by the way, didn’t even own property in Santa Rosa, although his suit was the one to complain about the increase in property taxes.

The Taxpayers’ placed an ad in the Democrat to trumpet their manifesto, which is a Thing to Read. It painted the City Council as recklessly draining the city treasury on “official extravagance” such as testing the safety of well water and buying a rock-crusher for street gravel, the Council meanwhile conspiring with Effey to screw over taxpayers because there was no intention to actually sell bonds or build the waterworks. Nice to know (I guess) a faction of our ancestors were just as paranoid and irrational as some wacky loudmouths today.

A later item in the Democrat reprinted a Taxpayers’ resolution revealing the group’s single real objective – demanding the city buy McDonald’s water company. Among their points was that “a water system supplied by gravitation” (meaning a higher source of surface water such as Lake Ralphine, not a water tower) is always better than using water pumped from the ground. Also, the city was to be blamed for “factional strife and expensive litigation” because they hadn’t made a deal with McDonald to take over his service and pay for long overdue upgrades and maintenance. Some brain-busting logic, there.

At this point Gentle Reader might be pondering whether Mark McDonald had something to do with the Taxpayers’ Union – and was he also paying for the lawyers in those many lawsuits?

We get a peek behind the curtain after attorney Farquar filed a lawsuit because he believed he had been shortchanged for his services. But he didn’t sue the litigant he represented: He sued Mark McDonald. The response from McDonald was that the lawyer was mistaken; legal bills were being paid by the Taxpayers’ Union, and Mark knew this because he said he had the receipts – which revealed he had control over their bank account.

This is an important (yet neglected) chapter in Santa Rosa’s history. It’s somewhat tricky to tell, in part because it sprawls over a decade. Also making research difficult: A question raised in a lawsuit sometimes wasn’t resolved until a court hearing for another suit years later; there were six different suits and some were so entangled with each other it can be unclear whether the plaintiff’s original complaint was modified, merged, minimized or dropped entirely. There’s enough material here to write a book but I advise any future scribe to keep a bottle of aspirin handy. Maybe a bottle of scotch as well. Maybe two.

Historians face a further obstacle because newspaper coverage was unusually slanted. Most of the events in and out of the courtrooms were covered only by the Democrat, and the problem wasn’t just that the paper showed heavy editorial bias (which it absolutely did, favoring the McDonald faction) but that it also selectively reported what was happening at City Council meetings. As a result, the overall picture is simply impossible to understand from reading the newspapers alone, making some key actions by the Council seem impulsive and reckless. Fortunately, we now have available thorough coverage of what was said at those meetings to fill in blanks. 4

The last big piece of the puzzle was the national recession, which is discussed in the section below. The banking world had turned upside down in the months between the bond vote and when the city was ready to actually sell those bonds. At one point the city found itself in the odd position of having to rewrite ordinances because there was no longer an agreement on what constituted “legal tender.” The economic system was in complete disarray, forcing our elected officials to navigate a volatile situation which had tripped up even professional bond traders.

For these reasons and more, few historians have even mentioned those events, and what little has been written portray it as a roadbump in the town’s otherwise steady progress towards the future. But I’ll argue the story isn’t about the lawsuits or even the water supply – the crux of it concerns the character of Mark L. McDonald.


DOWNLOAD
52-page PDF file of newspaper articles related to the McDonald water lawsuits



Often during that ten year span Santa Rosa was scurrying to respond to the latest edict from a judge overseeing a particular lawsuit and sometimes there was a crisis because money was simply not to be had. And throughout it all McDonald and his cabal were in the background, hoping the turmoil would steer the city into such great financial peril they would come begging to buy his troubled company – or perhaps the goal was to have the city sell the municipal waterworks to him, cheap. Either turn of events would have proven ruinous to Santa Rosa yet he not only didn’t seem to care a whit, but it appeared that was a key part of his strategy. It was all about money, or power, or whatever else it was that motivated him to wage a dirty war against his own community.

In no way is this article intended to present the whole narrative, but should provide enough detail to follow what really happened. In the SOURCES section below a chronological index is provided, and selected newspaper transcripts can be downloaded in a separate PDF file as shown to the right.


THE HARROWING ’90s

The “Panic of 1893” was a economic crisis in the United States which became a major recession that lasted five years. As summarized on Wikipedia there were several causes behind those woes, among them the crash of overvalued railroad stocks and the collapse of crop prices. As a result there were widespread farm foreclosures, hundreds of banks failed and unemployment lingered at double-digits. The Western U.S. was hit the hardest.

What initiated the panic in April and May of 1893 was fear President Grover Cleveland, who had spoken about wanting a more “flexible currency,” might seek to resolve the growing array of problems by abandoning the gold standard. This started ongoing bank runs as people sought to cash in their paper dollars for hard money and foreign investors sold their stocks and bonds only for payment in gold.

By early 1895 the stockpile of gold held by the Treasury was nearing exhaustion. With only days (maybe hours) to spare before the nation slipped into default, President Cleveland made an emergency deal with financiers to privately buy $62 million of treasury bills at four percent.

Cleveland and his cabinet, who only had been considering the usual sort of advertised bond sale open to the public, were hesitant at first because they weren’t sure it was legal. Financier J. P. Morgan – whose banking career began during the Civil War – assured them Lincoln had signed a statue allowing private bond sales in times of emergency. The attorney general fetched a book of Revised Statutes which proved Morgan’s memory of this long-forgotten rule was accurate. (I encourage you to read the entire account of this episode, as it is a quite remarkable story.)

So far we’ve covered about a year of the story between Oct. 1894 and the following August. It had been a rough ride; aside from the usual court hearings grinding away on the three ongoing lawsuits, part of the Skinner case even reached the California Supreme Court.5

It was now September 1895 and construction was about to start on the new municipal water plant. Santa Rosa mayor Woodward and the attorney for Effey took the train to New York with the mission to resell Effey’s bonds on the bond market. With the economy still very much in a wobbly state, bond traders were not fighting a bidding war over a low-yield muni bond from a pipsqueak farmtown few could probably find on a map. Effey had to sell them for less than the $161k he had paid, losing about $21,000 on the deal.6

No sooner had work began on the new water system that autumn when a fourth aggrieved taxpayer decided he was so darn mad over the water issue that he had to file a lawsuit of his very own. Like the other guys, this fellow was elderly, a retired farmer/rancher, and didn’t seem likely to have deep enough pockets to hire top attorneys.

wesleymock(RIGHT: Wesley Mock. Drawing from Sonoma Democrat, June 19, 1897)

And here, ladies and gentlemen, we now commence the entertainment portion of our program. The Wesley Mock lawsuit and court hearings were – to use highly technical legal terminology – bonkers.

Among Mock’s many allegations, both criminal and civil: The entire city administration was engaged in “illegality and fraud” in the sale of the bonds; the bonds were never actually sold; Robert Effey was colluding with the only other bidder, who he would hire to actually construct the waterworks; the city was negligent because the bond offer only attracted two bidders; that Effey’s bid was at least $31,000 (later increased to $41,000) higher than the estimated cost to build the project, and the city knew it; Effey was actually broke, as was the city treasury. Whew!

Once in the courtroom, Mock’s case wandered even farther out into the weeds. There was a day devoted to handwriting analysis intended to show Effey had written the other bid as well as his own (the results were inconclusive). Effey’s lawyer was brow-beaten by the judge into testifying about the New York trip, quite possibly violating attorney-client privilege (he deftly seemed to have forgotten nearly all details). And Mock’s lawyer tried to get the Republican publisher Allan Lemmon held in contempt for writing a “contemptible and scurrilous” editorial which pointed out everyone trying to block the municipal waterworks curiously happened to be a member of the Democratic party, even though it was apparently (?) written tongue-in-cheek.

These were all efforts to gin up controversy and make everything about the water project appear suspicious – if not downright sinister. There was testimony about mysterious sealed envelopes and a late night meeting at a bank where documents changed hands several times. Witnesses were called to the stand but couldn’t be found in the courthouse. There was so much dirt to reveal the Democrat didn’t even attempt to write it up as a regular news article but instead just published the court reporter’s raw notes, something I have never seen in a newspaper from that era.

Representing Mock at these court hearings was a heretofore uninvolved gunslinger: Edward Lynch, a famous San Francisco criminal defense attorney. Lynch also represented Mark McDonald in related water lawsuit matters, including that dustup over whether the money to pay the local lawyers should come from the Taxpayers’ or McDonald, and would also be McDonald’s attorney in yet another lawsuit discussed below.

But never, ever, suggest that someone else was behind Mock hiring such an expensive San Francisco litigator, or the 69 year-old would give you a sound thrashing. “I am acting in my private capacity as a citizen for the good of the community and am not the tool of a corporation,” he insisted to the SF Call. Yeah, sure: Dude, you’re living in a little 10th street cottage near the railroad tracks.

The Wesley Mock hearings went on for over two months in early 1896. Besides hinting darkly at covert skullduggery by Effey et. al. his lawsuit was amended during the hearings to ask the judge to hold the City Council in contempt of court. Angering him this time was the Council passed a motion to accept the waterworks even though the project wasn’t completed.

Of all the charges made by Mock’s lawyer, this accusation seemed to deserve scrutiny. Why the devil would the city pay for unfinished work? Maybe there was something shifty going on, after all.

But it was actually a key example of the Democrat revealing its bias via omission of facts. In the City Council minutes it showed they were concerned about sabotage by “some evil disposed persons” and the construction site needed to be under city control and guarded by a policeman. (This and other cites from City Council minutes come from John Cummings’ study available under SOURCES.) Readers of the Democrat – and modern historians who rely only upon what appeared in that paper – didn’t know there were now threats of violence being made.

The general election two weeks later saw turnover of nearly half of the City Council seats.7 Mayor Woodward’s final remarks regarded “utmost vigilance” will be needed to deter “those that are trying to destroy the efficiency of the new water system.” The new Council was even more determined to fight McDonald’s shills in court and vowed to “combat every suit.”

They wouldn’t have long to wait for that combat. Soon after that the judge in the Mock case approved an injunction to block the city from taking possession of the water plant. To do that, the court required Mock to put up a $4,000 bond which he obviously couldn’t afford – so McDonald and a banker from Santa Rosa Bank put up a surety bond for him. Ironically, this was announced in the same edition of the Democrat where Mock insisted (again) he had no ties to McDonald or his water company.

The municipal waterworks had been partially operational since the start of 1896, and there were still the concerns over someone trying to monkey-wrench the operation. The Council’s end run around the injunction was to pay the guy who built the pump system $400 per month to keep the water flowing.

That was an astonishing monthly salary for then (over $13k today), particularly because it came at a time the city treasury was bleeding dry. Santa Rosa had to hire outside legal counsel to help defend itself in the four lawsuits, especially because the judge allowed Mock’s hyper-aggressive attorney Edward Lynch to turn court hearings into a ten week fishing expedition. As a result, the city found itself borrowing from Santa Rosa Bank to stay afloat.

And then there were five: The same week the Council made the deal to keep the waterworks going during the injunction, Mark L. McDonald stepped out of the shadows as his water company filed its own lawsuit against Santa Rosa. It was mostly a greatest hits rehash of the Cooper-Jones-Skinner-Mock complaints, but it ran on for 125 paragraphs. The Democrat printed every word (of course) with a full month required to dump the whole thing on its readers, the newspaper filling up most of a full page per week. New to this suit was a Donald Trump-like whine that no one respected how much money Mark had spent building his waterworks and that there were dark forces within the government conspiring to hurt him.

daingerfield(LEFT: Judge William R. Daingerfield of San Francisco presided over the Wesley Mock hearings and trial because Sonoma county Superior Court judges recused themselves for conflict of interest. Drawing from Sonoma Democrat, Dec. 19, 1896)

The Mock trial began in mid-December and took three weeks. It covered much the same ground as the March hearings with new accusations that the city’s contractors were all fumblebums and chiselers. To refresh everyone’s memory on the background of the case the Democrat published an updated version of the Taxpayers’ Union manifesto on the front page, in all its conspiratorial glory. And as before, the paper printed every detail of the plaintiff’s arguments and little to nothing from the defense – but you can, however, read their coverage and be able to stun guests at a dinner party with your comprehensive knowledge of 19th century pipefitting. The Democrat did at least share the opening statement from the recently elected City Attorney.8

In an extraordinarily forthright courtroom speech, attorney Webber said his primary obligation was to find out for the citizens of Santa Rosa whether or not there was fraud – but regardless of the verdict, all of the litigation must end. We ought to cancel any portion of the water bonds should it be possible, as it would be better to cut the losses than spending another 2-3 years fighting lawsuits.

Equally remarkable were Webber’s subtexts aimed directly at the Taxpayers’ Union: “Hey, don’t you jokers realize that taxpayers are footing the bill for the city’s legal defense in all these nonsense suits coming from your group? And do you really know what you want? For the city to be forced into bankruptcy? For Santa Rosa to abandon the nearly completed waterworks?” (Considering the Taxpayers’ had earlier demanded the city acquire McDonald’s company, their true goals certainly seemed obvious.)

edwardlynch(RIGHT: Mark McDonald attorney Edward Lynch. Drawing from Sonoma Democrat, June 26, 1897)

Judge Daingerfield spent five months musing over the case before issuing his 44-page decision, which “created a great deal of surprise and considerable excitement and comment on the streets,” according to the Democrat. And the winner was… Wesley Mock. Sort of.

By letting Effey modify the plans to hold down construction costs after they had been approved by the voters, the City Council had committed fraud. This meant that while the bonds were valid, they had been unlawfully sold. The judge ruled members of the Council were personally liable for the difference between the actual value of the waterworks and how much was due to repay the bond. The city was to keep operating the system and hold it in receivership until its worth could be determined. All of the the Taxpayers’ wild-eyed nonsense about the bonds not actually being sold, secret meetings and the like were not even given consideration.

The court’s later judgement held that Santa Rosa could keep the waterworks if the defendants coughed up what was due between actual vs. bond value. Otherwise, the sheriff was ordered to sell the water plant to the highest bidder.

And we all know who that would be.

Nearly two years passed before the California Supreme Court ruled on the city’s appeal. During that time the national economy mostly recovered yet in Santa Rosa the outlook remained cloudy.

The city was still relying on its credit line to operate, particularly during the lean weeks before property tax payments were due. Thus the City Council minutes reflects their alarm when bankers suddenly demanded payment of the city’s $5,000 note along with interest. The bank in question was Santa Rosa Bank, which you might remember was the co-signer with Mark L. McDonald of the bond for Wesley Mock.

And still, McDonald continued plowing ahead with his Ahab-like determination to kill (or own?) the municipal water system. This new round of trouble began in 1896 shortly before the Wesley Mock trial with a notice the Fountain Water Company had been formed. Yes, in addition to the McDonald waterworks and the city’s own, Santa Rosa was now to have a third water supply – supposedly.

The water for this project was to be from Peter’s Spring, which at the time was mistakenly believed to be the source of adjacent Spring Creek. (Peter Springs Park is still there.) It was so named because it was on the old Jesse Peter ranch which was now owned by Mark McDonald’s brother James, who also had several stone quarries in the area.9

All was quiet on that front for nearly two years until August 1898, when the McDonalds put up a dam across Spring Creek just upstream from one of the city’s water pumps. Even if the source was actually Peter’s Spring on private property, it was clearly illegal to obstruct such a public waterway.

The newcomer Press Democrat, which did not inherit the old Democrat’s bountiful love for the McDonalds, remarked “…there has been an opinion pretty freely expressed in this city that the action of the Fountain Water company at this time was done so as to diminish the city’s water supply.” That was proven when it was discovered the McDonalds hadn’t just constructed a simple dam; they had made a deal with other property owners to let them dig a ditch to divert the creek around the city pump before rejoining its natural watercourse.

The city waterworks were not dependent upon Spring Creek water at the time so this irksome stunt had no real impact. But some on the City Council may have considered this dummy corporation as the last straw; according to their minutes, there was a discussion about suing Mark McDonald for all he and his gang had done to obstruct the city water project.

But come a year later, the city’s water supply was nearly maxed out and they needed to tap Spring Creek again.10 The mayor and city attorney went to the Fountain Water company in San Francisco (it was not mentioned who they met) to offer to buy the spring and surrounding ten acres. They were told the price would be $100,000. Back in Santa Rosa they countered with a written offer of $6k, but there was no response. So the City Council voted unanimously to pay a fair appraised price and take the land via eminent domain.

Mark McDonald’s response: Total War against Santa Rosa, and damn the expense.

The McDonald water company sued the city again, but this effort was quite unlike their suit from three years earlier (which was apparently still ongoing). This time Mark was represented by Jefferson Chandler, a famed Washington D.C. attorney who had argued and won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. And this time he was filing suit in federal court in San Francisco. There were three points in his complaint:

*
ENTITLED TO MONOPOLY   In 1874 Santa Rosa had signed a 50 year contract with the water company he acquired. McDonald argued that gave him the exclusive right to provide the city with water until 1924 and the city must immediately cease and desist operating its waterworks, while paying $100,000 in damages. (This part of the suit also rehashed his familiar moaning over how much he spent on construction.)
*
TAKING PRIVATE PROPERTY   If the city used eminent domain to buy Peter’s Spring it would violate McDonald’s company rights by losing its access to a critical resource (although the company was not yet using the spring and there was no obvious way to pipe the water over to Lake Ralphine).
*
UNFAIR COMPETITION   The city was unfairly providing residents with “free” water. (Santa Rosa did not have water meters at the time, but anticipated each resident used 115 gallons per day. Instead of charging directly for water, there was an assessment and monthly fee for every water fixture in your home or business, the size of your lawn and garden, etc. See this article for more.)

At the City Council the Mayor urged they file a countersuit to revoke McDonald’s water franchise, according the Cummings review of the Council minutes. “[F]ight to the bitter end,” Mayor Sweet said, “with a view of ascertaining whether the majority should rule or whether a few Capitalists should manipulate the fair City of Santa Rosa.” The Council unanimously agreed.

That moment in early October, 1899, was the nadir of McDonald’s dirty water campaign; it had been five very long years since the launch of his first proxy lawsuit and fighting back had drained the city coffers. Besides the incident when Santa Rosa Bank demanded repayment on the $5,000 credit line, there was also a period in 1897 when the city completely ran out of money and couldn’t borrow any more.

But all that was about to change. Surprisingly, our story has a happy ending – for almost everyone except Mark McDonald.

The new McDonald suit was the greatest threat yet to Santa Rosa. A protracted battle in federal courts – which Mark would probably appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, should he lose initially – could be ruinously expensive and might even force the city into bankruptcy. But whatever might happen there was of less immediate concern than the final ruling on the Wesley Mock lawsuit, as members of the City Council and administrators were to be held personally responsible to pay back any excessive debt on the water bond.

Word from the state Supreme Court came down later that October. There was bad news: The Court upheld Judge Daingerfield’s overall ruling. There was good news: The city, not the individual officials – was to be held liable for the debt. Other parts of the decision allowed the city to take control of the waterworks (which presumably meant they could stop paying that engineer $400/mo to run it) until its value could be determined. Once that was known, the city had the option of paying the difference from the bond price; otherwise, the sheriff would auction off the waterworks (with the proviso that the city couldn’t make an offer). It was considered around town as quite a fair decision.

Next was holding an advisory jury trial to set the value of the waterworks. This was to be held in Santa Rosa with Daingerfield presiding, and those who thought he showed bias against the city during the Mock trial were concerned because he said this jury could only consider the worth of the water plant itself, and not the land it used.

The trial began in January 1900 and took exactly a month. The jury wasted no time and returned with a unanimous verdict after only twenty minutes: The waterworks were not worth the $161,000 amount of the bonds – it was worth far more, valuated at $190,000.

“When the verdict was read the courtroom was crowded and the crowd applauded vociferously. The local papers issued extras and the streets were crowded until a late hour by citizens who discussed the verdict and congratulated the defendants upon the outcome,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

Now the city’s attention turned back to Peter’s Spring, and it began condemnation proceedings against the Fountain Water Company and James McDonald. Court hearings and a trial consumed the rest of the year 1900. The McDonalds again tried to claim the ten acres were worth $100k while Santa Rosa argued the market value was no more than $50/acre. The city won again, and Spring Creek water was finally being pumped into the city’s reservoir, but the case would drag on until 1904 as the McDonalds sought a new trial. It was eventually settled they were to be paid only $4,515.55.11

And also in 1904, McDonald’s last-gasp federal lawsuit was laughed out of court – a private corporation claiming it could dictate the shutdown of a public utility wasn’t even worth consideration. Sweetening the decision, McDonald was further ordered to pay Santa Rosa’s court costs.

So endeth Mark McDonald’s long and often underhanded fight against Santa Rosa’s water system. A couple of takeaways:

Aside from the scale and relentlessness of McDonald’s legal assaults, what he was trying to do was not unique in that era. In 1899 a letter writer to the SF Examiner noted Palo Alto and other cities had faced costly lawsuits from private water companies seeking to block municipal water works.

It’s worth taking a step back and looking over what had really happened here. As I wrote earlier, this story is really about the character of Mark L. McDonald. Over a quarter century, he had lurched from being Santa Rosa’s champion to becoming the town’s pariah, all in his obsessive drive to control what came out of our faucets. Why a man of such wealth and influence would throw away most of the goodwill in the town where his family lived we can only wonder.

 

1 Robert Effey was mayor of Santa Cruz 1884-1888 and again 1894-96. He was a watchmaker and jeweler by trade. In the 1890s he was a bidder on several California muni bonds but aside from the Santa Rosa water system, the only bonds he seemed to hold were for Stockton’s sewer. His Dec. 1930 obituaries did not identify him as an investor, but mentioned he was the last surviving member of the “Bango club,” which was a ten member hiking and drinking club that regularly walked from Santa Cruz to San Jose or Watsonville. At a prearranged location they would be met by as many as 300 of their friends to engage in “conviviality.”
2 Believe-it-or-not! There were three, maybe four John D. Coopers living in or around Santa Rosa in the late 1890s, all unrelated. This farmer died in 1917 and was buried in the Rural Cemetery; another died in 1925 and was Windsor’s Justice of the Peace; another spent his last years at the County Poor Farm and died in 1909. The most well-known J.D.C. at the time had a Fourth street wine and liquor store along with a saloon. Was he the fellow who died at the poorhouse, or individual #4?
3 In 1895, the year following these events, Gil P. Hall would be indicted for felony embezzlement over $4.6k that went missing during his term as County Recorder.
4 Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings; Prepared for the Department of Utilities, City of Santa Rosa, 2002
5 Skinner v. Santa Rosa concerned how the city was to make interest payments on the water bond. In Nov. 1894 the Council had changed the terms of the bond to make payments in gold only, semi-annually instead of annually, and payable in New York City. The California Supreme Court ruled the Council couldn’t do that unless they issued new bonds, which the city did in Sept. 1895.
6 Robert Effey had planned to use Coffin & Stanton, the New York bankers who had handled the bonds for the Santa Cruz water system. But that firm failed in Oct. 1894, so Effey approached Seligman & Company, one of the largest investment banks in New York City. After buying the bonds at a discount of $144,601.87, the bank tendered them for sale at 538 percent.
7 Two City Council members (both Republicans) lost by a narrow margin and two didn’t run for reelection, but Mock’s attorney Edward Lynch insisted the election results showed public belief of malfeasance.
8 Partial transcript of statement by City Attorney O. O. Webber at the Mock trial, December 18, 1896: “…The complaint on file in this action alleges fraud. I want to say right here if there is any fraud, or any has been committed by the Council or anyone else during all the leading up to, or the construction of the waterworks, or disposition of the bonds, I, as city attorney, representing the taxpayers of the city, want my clients to know the truth of the charge in this case. I am the attorney of the city, which I interpret to be the taxpayers and the city officials, but I believe my first duty lies to that people that had the confidence to place me in that position. I am not forsaking the officials who are the defendants in this action. I have consulted part of them and asked them to tell me if there was anything wrong done by them, or anything that should be covered. They informed me that everything is perfectly straight. I therefore have no alternative but to believe them and I therefore will do all in my power to lay this case before the taxpayers of this city as plainly as I can. The truth is the whole expense of this litigation regardless of who wins or who loses the suit must be borne by the taxpayers of Santa Rosa. The attorneys employed in this litigation must be paid by the taxpayers of Santa Rosa and I believe it is now time that we should begin to realise the true status of this whole affair. This litigation should be stopped. If the bonds can be brought back we can do it today cheaper than we can by litigating two or three years. If they cannot be recovered and the proceedings have all been legal and according to law I want the citizens to know that fact so that they may act intelligently as a community in this whole affair…”
9 The rancher was Jesse Peter Sr., not his same-named son Jesse who became an archeologist and taught at SRJC.
10 The city water works initially had an intake on Spring Creek, but it was disconnected in July 1896 because the volume of water provided by the wells was sufficient.
11 In a surprising turn of events, the city sold Peter’s Spring to McDonald’s waterworks in 1909, with his company intending to pump “water from the spring to an elevated point between it and the present reservoir of the company,” according to a 1911 Press Democrat item.

 

sources
 

Besides contemporary newspaper articles, references to the City Council minutes are drawn from Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings. The chronology below covers most of the key events discussed in this chapter, but there are over 200 items related to this topic just in the Sonoma Democrat/Press Democrat. Transcriptions of selected newspaper articles mentioned there are available for download in a 52-page PDF file
.

 

CHRONOLOGY OF KEY EVENTS IN McDONALD WATERWORKS LAWSUITS
(Dates reflect publication and may lag event by 1-6 days)

 

6 October 1894 Effey bid accepted

13 October 1894 Cooper suit vs city – not enough money to pay bonds

13 October 1894 Taxpayers’ Union formed
      (C. S. Farquar and Gil P. Hall, Attorneys for taxpayers)

27 October 1894 Jones suit vs council – Effey plans are different

3 November 1894 Taxpayers’ manifesto

24 November 1894 council changes terms of bond to payable in gold

1 December 1894 Cooper, Jones and others file amicus to Skinner
      (William F. Russell atty for Skinner AB Ware and Farquar for others)

8 December 1894 Skinner case only on validity of bonds

15 December 1894 Skinner not in good faith

22 December 1894 change in bond terms valid (Cooper vs. Steadman)

29 June 1895 change in bond terms invalid

6 July 1895 Taxpayers’ resolution for city to buy McDonald’s works

27 July 1895 ordinance 162 adopted: annual interest payment

5 October 1895 Effey contracts with Perkins to begin work

19 October 1895 Mock suit collusion between city and Effey
      (A. B. Ware, C. S. Farquar and Gil P. Hall attorneys)

19 October 1895 construction underway

16 November 1895 J. M Jones dropped

4 January 1896 city accepts unfinished waterworks

25 January 1896 Democrat printed entire Effey testimony

1 February 1896 Mock wants council held in contempt for accepting works

2 February 1896 Mock will thrash

22 February 1896 court hearing: council shouldn’t be held in contempt

29 February 1896 court ruling: council not in contempt

18 March 1896 Lemmon contempt threat

21 March 1896 court hearing: handwriting questions

21 March 1896 court hearing: trip to NYC for bonds – Effey lost money

28 March 1896 court hearing: bonds sold in NYC for $144.6k

4 April 1896 Mock hearing closes
      (election: Woodward, Collins out; Harris and Tupper didn’t run)

30 April 1896 Farquar sues McDonald

16 May 1896 Mock letter: I am not a shill

16 May 1896 restrain orders Perkins to stop city not to accept

20 May 1896 McDonald says Farquar was paid by taxpayer union

12 June 1896 contract with Perkins to maintain and supply water

13 June 1896 McDonald first suit against city

18 July 1896 amended to seek tax refund for illegal tax

14 November 1896 Fountain water company incorporated

28 November 1896 Democrat claims city is running a deficit of $1000-1200/mo

19 December 1896 Mock trial begins

2 January 1897 lengthy account by Taxpayers’ Union

9 January 1897 Mock trial ends

5 June 1897 Cooper v. Steadman suit thrown out

19 June 1897 Mock wins

20 June 1897 Examiner: Mock wins (includes history)

18 December 1897 judgement (city contract with Effey void, bonds were unlawfully disposed of)

17 August 1898 Fountain builds dam on Spring creek

20 August 1898 Fountain dam intended to hurt city

17 September 1898 Fountain diverts water around city pump

6 September 1899 McDonald wants $100k for Spring creek

4 October 1899 McDonald sues city to stop free water for 25 years

21 October 1899 Supreme Court: City cannot buy, Council not liable

10 January 1900 advisory jury trial begins

10 February 1900 Mock overturned – value of work proper – celebration

17 February 1900 fundraising for council defendants

17 March 1900 city sues Fountain to condemn land

13 December 1900 start of condemnation suit

11 March 1902 Fountain land only worth $4k

3 June 1904 court throws out 1899 McDonald suit

15 September 1904 city drops Fountain suit

22 July 1911 McDonald buys Fountain

Read More

stofenvault

WHO ROBBED THE COUNTY TREASURY?

Santa Rosa made national news in the days after Christmas, 1894. Hundreds of newspapers nationwide, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the Wah-shah-she News in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, ran a wire story that began this way:


Santa Rosa, Cal., Dec. 28.—Santa Rosa had the biggest sensation in its history today. The county treasury was robbed of nearly $8000 and County Treasurer Stofen was left insensible in the vault to suffocate by the robbers, who locked the door of the vault on him. The robbery occurred about 9 o’clock this morning, but was not discovered until about 5 o’clock this afternoon. All this time Treasurer Stofen lay on the floor of the vault gasping for breath, fearing every moment during conscious intervals would be his last.

Stofen told reporters the next day that he had opened his office at the county courthouse as usual on Dec. 28 and was bringing coin trays out of the vault (it was 1894, remember, and “money” meant gold and silver coins, not greenback dollars). Suddenly there was a man in front of him holding a large dagger. “Drop that money,” he ordered. The 58 year-old Stofen put the tray down and either was struck on the head or fainted. The next thing he knew was waking up to discover he was locked in the vault.

“I pounded on the door, but of course no one could hear me,” he told reporters. He knew there was a faint draught at the bottom of the door and lay with his face near it. He passed out again.

Meanwhile, his two kids stopped by at noon to drop off his lunch. Not finding dad in the office and the door locked, they hung around waiting for him. A man from San Francisco wanted to make a payment and was annoyed to find the office closed, as he did not want to make another trip to Santa Rosa. The sheriff – whose office was next door – suggested he give the money to Stofen’s 18 year-old daughter which he did, since it’s 1894 and you can trust a teenager you don’t know with making cash deposits and there’s another reason I wish we were all living back then.

In the middle of the afternoon Mrs. Stofen drops by the office after a day trip to Cloverdale. Finding his lunch outside the door, she goes home, fearing he might be ill. Not finding him there either, she rushes back to the courthouse and learns no one had seen him since morning. She has the janitor open the door and finds the office in disarray. “Then I screamed and immediately heard knocks coming from the vault,” she told the SF Examiner.

She tries the combination of the vault, since it’s 1894, of course the wife of the country treasurer knows the combination to the county vault and is the only other person who does. It doesn’t work. She tries again, and this time the door opens. “When we got Mr. Stofen out,” the janitor told the Sonoma Democrat, “he looked pale and much prostrated. The meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Stofen was one of the most painful things I ever saw in all my life.”

Mr. and Mrs. Stofen, San Francisco Examiner, December 30 1894
Mr. and Mrs. Stofen, San Francisco Examiner, December 30 1894

It was decided that the robber got away with $8400.79 total – over a quarter-million dollars today. Of that $7,815.79 belonged to the treasury; also taken was $585 of Stofen’s own money and non-treasury accounts, such as unclaimed funds collected on behalf of estates.

Stofen and the sheriff formed a theory that the robber had been in the courthouse for hours, maybe overnight. Between the treasurer’s office and the sheriff’s there was a closet-sized gap, as each office had its own lockable door. The space was used only for light storage. There was also the question of the three push-button alarms in the treasurer’s office; it was discovered a corner of the carpet was ripped up near that little passageway and the wires connecting it to the sheriff had been cut.

Stofen was all but useless in providing a description of the robber. In the few seconds before he was clubbed or fainted, he fixated on the knife blade with its sharp edge. “The closest description I can give of him is that he was a large man, had chin whiskers and had no shoes on his feet.”

Assorted suspicious characters were recalled. Assistant DA Leppo saw “a German looking man” walking up steps inside the courthouse turn around when he seemed to notice he was being observed. Two men were reported driving away quickly in a buggy. Another German-ish stranger matching the vague description was supposedly hanging out around the train station before dawn. Given that seven hours had passed since Stofen was locked in the vault the sheriff assumed the robber(s) were far away, and sent out telegrams to be on the lookout.

The robbery also caused legal problems for Stofen. County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office; Stofen and other candidates had to show they were bonded for significant losses. As a member of Santa Rosa’s monied elite, his bondsmen were five of the top bankers and investors in town.1

A petition began circulating which asked the legislature to make up for the loss but nothing came of it. In mid-March – ten weeks after the robbery – the Board of Supervisors filed a lawsuit against Stofen and the bondsmen for the recovery of $7,815.79.

At the first hearing for that case it was revealed the defense would argue Stofen and the bondsmen were not liable because it had been a robbery. California law was unclear if that was a valid defense – in fact, a similar case was then waiting to be heard by the state Supreme Court which involved the robbery of the Healdsburg treasurer a year earlier. (In that theft everything was stolen except for some petty cash, leaving the town so flat broke it had to release prisoners because the jailer could no longer afford to feed them.)2

It took the Supreme Court months to decide, but in the summer of 1896 they ruled that yes, robbery is a valid defense – but it must be proven that a robbery indeed took place.

By that time there was growing suspicion that Stofen was either an accomplice to the theft or had made up the robbery story to cover up embezzlement.

The Daily/Sonoma Democrat was firmly in Stofen’s corner from the beginning. A few days after he was found in the vault the paper offered a long item praising his good character: “The boon of a good name was never more fully shown than in the case of County Treasurer Stofen. No man in this city who knows the treasurer, for a moment doubts his thorough honesty…” The Democrat went so far as to downplay or ignore new details that contradicted his story; fortunately all of the major San Francisco papers were interested in the case and had stringers reporting from here.

Light-fingered treasurers were surprisingly common; in 1857 the Sonoma County Treasurer was convicted of stealing state money, county money, and county school funds, a perfect trifecta of embezzlement. Crooked treasurers also had a habit of making up dime novel-type stories about stickups to hide their crime. The San Francisco Chronicle remarked, “in nearly every instance investigation of detectives has shown that the robbery was mythical.”

Several aspects of Stofen’s story didn’t jibe. He kept adding more details; although he first said he only noticed the robber’s whiskers and lack of shoes, a year later he described him as about six feet, stout and wearing a pistol on his hip. Except for a “slight swelling” on his head he was uninjured, casting doubt on whether he had been knocked out. And then there was the matter of trying to get help.

He said initially he had “pounded on the door,” but experiments were made with someone locked in the vault and hitting the door; the noise could be easily heard on that floor of the courthouse. Attorney Frances McG. Martin was in her nearby office that day and heard nothing, nor did the deputy sheriff on duty next door.

The Grand Jury looked at the noise question and passed an inconclusive resolution that it could have been either a “real or pretended robbery.” When the lawsuit hearings resumed, most of the testimony centered on whether door pounding could be heard in the corridor just a few feet away.

In Dec. 1896 – almost two years after the incident – Judge Dougherty ruled in favor of the county. Stofen had not proven that a robbery had taken place, as the only evidence that it really happened was his word.

Stofen and the bond boys requested a jury trial, citing the usual sorts of legal hairsplitting. While that was being considered, there was a sensational twist: A witness came forward to say he saw the likely robber leaving the treasurer’s office.

George Peery, who was taking his brother’s place as courthouse engineer that day, claimed a stranger with a big satchel came out of the treasurer’s office. (If the stolen money was mainly $20 gold pieces, the haul would have weighed around 30 pounds.) In his statement he described the man as rather small and wearing a light overcoat. Peery claimed he asked if the treasurer was in his office and the stranger said he was.

Asked why he had waited over two years before coming forward, Peery said he did not want to get involved, but claimed at the time he had spoken about it to his late wife and a friend in Santa Cruz. Peery’s affidavit was added to the bundle of documents filed with the court asking for a new trial. It’s unknown whether anyone realized at the time that Peery was a crazy drunk who made up stuff. He would spend much of the next five years in an asylum.3

In August 1897 Judge Dougherty denied the motion for a new trial, saying nothing had changed since his original decision. “No person but Stofen knows what the truth about the matter is. No other person can say that he was robbed or was not robbed. If he was robbed it is his misfortune.” An appeal was made to the state Supreme Court, and in 1899 they affirmed Dougherty’s decision.

With about $12k now due thanks to four and a half years’ interest, the bondsmen made a deal to settle with the county for $8,089.24. Under the civil code they could sue Stofen for repayment, and one of them did. He signed over the deed to his house on Third street, although the family had been living in San Francisco for at least three years.

The Stofen robbery – um, the alleged Stofen robbery – is an intriguing little whodunnit.

stofen1900(RIGHT: Peter N. Stofen, detail from photo of 1900 family picnic. Image: Sonoma County Library)

At the time of the robbery Peter Stofen had been the county treasurer for six years, but it probably wasn’t because he needed the paycheck. He was called “Captain Stofen” because he and his brother famously owned steamers and schooners running to San Francisco from Petaluma and Sonoma; there is spot on Sonoma Creek still called Stofen’s Landing. He had owned houses on Second and Third street, a ranch around Schellville (where he died), and spent his last years in San Francisco while traveling frequently. In short: He didn’t appear to need the missing money, and even losing the Third street house – which likely had a value around $1,200-$1,500 – would not have caused serious financial harm.

There’s no question his story was shaky and the court and Grand Jury were right to focus on proving he had not “pounded” on the vault door to draw attention. And even if they thought in 1897 that Peery was a credible witness, his account of the mysterious stranger with the satchel wasn’t proof of anything.

But as a graduate of ACU/Wingback (Agatha Christie University, Armchair campus), I find two other details stand out as suspicious – yet were not mentioned in any coverage of the case.

The incident occurred when there were just four business days remaining in his term in office. If Stofen knew there was a shortage – intentional or no – it would soon be discovered by the incoming treasurer. If he had embezzled the money, the imminent handover would have been a motive to fake the robbery.

There was also the curious bit about $585 of his own money being stolen as well. Why did he keep so much personal cash around the office? That was the equivalent to a full year’s pay for most skilled workers at the time.

One possibility is that the $585 wasn’t there at all – it was a fib to make the robbery look more real by giving him the chance to say, “hey, I lost money as well” (h/t to Ray Owen for suggesting this).

Another theory is that Stofen had some private business on the side that required ready access to cash. Two that come to mind are loansharking or gambling – the latter either by placing large bets himself or acting as the bank for bookies. This was turn-of-the-century Santa Rosa, remember, and the town had a sizable underground economy centered around gambling and prostitution, as has been hashed over here many times. And 1894 was a major year for sporting events; besides lots of horse racing, the craze for competition bicycle racing was catching fire. So in this scenario perhaps there really was a robbery by one of his clients, but Stofen couldn’t reveal who did it without risk of exposing his own crime.

Peter N. Stofen died in 1910 and is buried at the Mountain Cemetery in Sonoma. None of the money was ever recovered and no one was ever identified as a suspect. None of his obituaries mentioned the robbery, only that he was a well-respected member in the community.


1 Peter Stofen’s bondsmen were Matt Doyle, A. P. Overton, Con Shea, J. H. Brush and Hollis Hitchcock.

2 In October 1893, the Healdsburg city marshal discovered the iron doors of the city treasury open but Treasurer George V. Mulligan could not be found. Much of the town joined the search party that found him handcuffed to a manzanita tree in the park next to the cemetery, but otherwise uninjured. Mulligan said he had been jumped by two men with pistols who forced him to open the safe. According to the San Francisco newspapers the town was divided between those who thought he was scrupulously honest and those who believed he was an accomplice. Strong circumstantial evidence suggested one of the two men who found him shackled to the tree was involved in the robbery. Mulligan died five months later with stomach cancer and the missing $3,560 was never recovered. After his death the Superior Court ruled his estate and the bondsmen were liable for the loss, as the robbery could not be proven. A lawsuit followed where a jury ruled for the city. The bondsmen settled in 1897 and agreed to pay $4.6k.

3 George E. Peery – a sometimes insurance agent, schoolteacher and reporter – was first committed to the Mendocino State Hospital in Ukiah by Judge Dougherty in 1898. He was diagnosed as having “alcoholic insanity” and addiction to narcotics. During his hospital stays of 1898-1899 and 1901-1902 notes on his records state he had delusions of grandiosity, spoke with imaginary persons, and was called in 1902 a “mental wreck.”

 

sources

THE COIN ROBBERY.
Treasurer Stofen Interviewed at His Home.
He Offers a Reward for the Arrest and Conviction ot the Robber.
Attorney Leppo Saw a Suspicious Stranger in the Courthouse — Janitor Hassett’s Story.

Captain Stofen was seen by a Democrat representative on Saturday morning at 11:30 a. m., and lying in his bed told again the now oft-told story of his terrible experience, which was in substance as already stated.

As to the looks of the villain, the Captain has not the slightest recollection. His attention was directed to the knife, which he says was a double-edged dirk with a blade probably six or seven inches in length, held in the man’s right hand with the blade downward, ready to do its deadly work at the slightest movement of non-compliance. The captain does not remember putting the money on the floor, but says the glance he caught of the man’s clothes was that they were dark and that he was in his stocking feet. Then everything became blank. The Captain does not know whether he received a blow or fainted from the effects of the shock. His head had received a bump, but that might have been caused by his being pushed into the vault. He has no idea when he awoke, as he seems to have been only partially conscious for some time; but an intense coldness of his feet made him try to pull off his boots, which were wet with perspiration, as was also his whole body, and rub them as hard as he could; he seemed unable to get his blood to circulate. Then came the sound of voices and making as much noise as possible to attract their attention, he heard the combination click and recognized his wife’s voice, and when it missed and did not open he sank back utterly exhausted, but another try, which was more successful, brought the sunlight with wife and friends.

Treasurer Stofen is resting quietly and it is expected he will he able to go to his office in a few days.

In discussing the robbery with a number of citizens the general opinion is that the robbers had got such a good start after the deed was done that it would be a difficult matter to overtake them.

Sheriff Allen has telegraphed to all the chief points where the robbers might be headed off.

The following notice has been sent out offering a reward:

ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS REWARD.
The above sum will be paid for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who assaulted County Treasurer P. N. Stofen and robbed the Treasurer’s office of Sonoma County, California, on Friday, December 28, 1894. Signed,
P. N. Stofen.
Dated Santa Rosa, Cal., Dec. 29, 1894.

While Mrs. Stofen was visiting at Cloverdale a friend invited her to go to Ukiah to spend Friday and at one time she had almost decided to go. Had she accepted the invitation her husband would have died, as no one else would have discovered the robbery and no one else knew the combination of the vault.

No clue has yet been found. There was a report on the street Saturday night that a man had been arrested on suspicion in Vallejo who had considerable coin on his person, but no confirmation of the report could be obtained from the officers here.

Assistant District Attorney Leppo told a Democrat reporter Saturday that he noticed a German looking man on the landing of the stair leading to his office, as he started to come down stairs. The man changed his mind, apparently, when he saw Mr. Leppo, for instead of continuing his ascent he turned and went down stairs again. His notions struck Mr. Leppo at the time as being rather peculiar, and he recalled the man and his actions as soon as he heard of the robbery later in the day.

Mr. Stofen had a number of friends to call upon him Saturday, but he is not in any condition to see many people.

Janitor Hassett says the night before the treasury robbery he left the building at 7 p. m. He returned at 2 o’clock the next morning to begin his work. He went in by the lower Fourth street entrance, going first into the sheriff’s office; cleaned it up, and was in there an hour. Leaving there he went to the surveyor’s and then to the district attorney’s office, then went into the third story; came down after 5 o’clock, and during this time he did not hear a sound or see anything out of the usual run. He remained in the building until 8 o’clock, then went to the hall of records, and returned to the courthouse at 7:30 o’clock. The janitor only cleans the treasurer’s office on Sunday, and so did not go into that office. Mr. Hassett thinks the robber got into the private office with a skeleton key. Mr. Hassett saw Captain Stofen’s mail and lunch at the door during the day but gave it no thought, as Mr. Stofen was in the habit of going away without saying anything about it. He did not know, nor did others, when the treasurer went to Sacramento and returned. The janitor opened the door and went in with Mrs. Stofen. “When we got Mr. Stofen out,” says Mr. Hassett, “he looked pale and much prostrated. The meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Stofen was one of the most painful things I ever saw in all my life.”

Treasurer Stofen was able to be at his office Monday. It is now known that the robber or robbers got away with $7,200 on Friday last. No definite clue has yet been found of the perpetrators. It is the opinion of some that the robbers are not fifty miles away from Santa Rosa. It is hoped they will be caught when perhaps some of the coin will be recovered.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 5 1895

 

A GOOD NAME.

The boon of a good name was never more fully shown than in the case of County Treasurer Stofen. No man in this city who knows the treasurer, for a moment doubts his thorough honesty. He is exact, punctual, economical and careful in his methods to an unusual degree. The misfortune which came upon him is in no way his fault. So fully is this recognised that at least three of his five bondsmen, Matt Doyle, Mr. Hitchcock and Con Shea have been heard to say since the robbery that sooner than see Mr. Stofen give up his home they would willingly draw their checks for $1,530 each, their share of the loss. No doubt his other bondsmen feel the same way. They all, so far as they have spoken, have the utmost confidence in Mr. Stofen. At the time this unfortunate occurrence took place the treasurer had nearly $200,000 in the banks at his command. The actual amount of cash in the safe in the office was, fortunately, on that day much below the average usually kept there. The expressions of confidence in the treasurer by Messrs. Doyle, Hitchcock and Shea must be extremely gratifying to Mr Stofen in this time of his great misfortune. It is only at such times that true friendship and good will can be shown. Of those who know Captain Stofen not one will pass him by on the other side. His friends here and in Sonoma, and everywhere he is known, have the most unlimited confidence in his integrity and the deepest sympathy for his misfortune.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 12 1895

 

…[Sheriff Sam Allen] wore a puzzled look yesterday when he was asked if there were yet any clews to the big robbery of the County Treasurer’s office, which occurred about a year ago.

“It is a mystery yet,” he said, “and as much a mystery as It was on December 28, 1894, when it was committed. I have employed different detectives and have followed all the clews, but all the work counts for nothing.

“It is as strange still as when the safe was unlocked and Captain Stofen, the County Treasurer, was taken out of the vault.

“I have gone over the entire field. It has cost considerable to investigate the matter, but that wouldn’t count for anything if we had caught the guilty persons. I am at a loss today to tell about it.

“The robbers got $8000. We followed a good many different clews, but we always came up against a stone wall.

“We didn’t discover anybody who was spending any unusual amount of money, and if the offenders are yet in the county they have always been too smart to spend the money. They are either staying there and laying low, or else have goi out of the county entirely. I do not know which.

– The San Francisco Call, December 28, 1895

 

…There have been doubts openly expressed whether there really was a robbery or not.

Of these doubts the Jury seem to have taken cognizance of for they made some experiments In regard to the doors locks ventilation and acoustic qualities of the vault, intended to test the probability of the account of his robbery which Mr Stofen gave. Just what conclusion if any the Jurors came to as the result of these experiments they failed to make known in their report. It would seem however that their belief in the reality of the robbery was not made complete by their use of the expression “alleged robbery.” Suit has beep begun for the shortage and the question of whether there really was a robbery or not may be made an issue in the trial.

– San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1896

 

…One of the Grand Jurymen was locked in the vault and his hammering on the walls could be heard on the second floor of the Courthouse. Stofen claimed that he was unable to make noise enough to attract the attention of passers-by in the passage within a few feet of him.

At our last session we passed the following resolutions: That having spent much time in the examination of witnesses in connection with the alleged robbery of the county treasury, and having heard the supplementary report of the expert on the accounts of ex-Treasurer Stofen, this Grand Jury hereby records its opinion that the accounts of ex-Treasurer Stofen are correct up to 1894, and we could find no explanation of the reported deficiency of nearly $8000, except a real or pretended robbery.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 22 1896

 

THE TREASURY CASE.
Sonoma County vs P. N. Stofen and Bondsmen.
Numerous Witnesses Called and the Case Submitted Without Argument.

The case of Sonoma County vs P. N. Stofen and bondsmen came up regularly in Department Two of the Superior Court Thursday.

The Supreme Court decided in the Mulligan case that robbery could be plead as a defense, and the Stofen case being a parallel one, that part of the case was eliminated from the present trial and the only point left to decide was whether it was robbery or not.

Captain Stofen was the first witness called and testified to the main facts of the robbery, also as to how his books were kept and the amount of money he had on hand on December 28, 1894, the day of the robbery.

Mrs. F. McG. Martin testified that she was in her office during the day of the robbery, but heard no unusual noises in the treasurer’s office.

Deputy Sheriff Brophy also testified to this.

Messrs. B. M. Spencer, W. T. Mears, Ben S. Wood Jr., James Hassett, L. E. Ricksecker, E. F. Woodward and W. V, Griffith were called as witnesses. They had all been present when experiments had been made with the vault in the treasurer’s office to test how far the sounds of pounding in the vault could be heard in different parts of the court house.

After the testimony was all in the case was submitted without argument.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 3 1896

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