waterdrip

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

richards-finley

THE TRUE ORIGINS OF THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In the beginning there was Ernest L. Finley. He bought the old Sonoma Democrat in 1897, merged it with his own newspaper, the Evening Press, becoming the owner, editor and publisher of the new Press Democrat.

That’s the version of the paper’s beginnings as told on the PD’s “about” page, on Wikipedia, by the Northern California Media Museum and in various columns and feature items published in the paper over the last 75-odd years.

Trouble is, that’s not true. The new paper was a partnership, and Finley wasn’t even the key player – he was one of two business managers. The founding editor and the person greatly responsible for the Press Democrat’s initial success was Grant O. Richards, although it’s rare to find mentions of him over the last hundred years. And even before he was erased from the picture, items about the paper’s earliest days just mentioned Richards “left the firm” or “sold his interest” to Finley. Neither of those claims were true either, as he killed himself while still editor (although I guess that would qualify as leaving the firm).

The PD – and the city of Santa Rosa itself – has polished Finley’s reputation to a gleam ever since his death in 1942, inflating his role in positive events such as founding the paper. But it’s particularly unfair to build up Finley at the expense of Richards because it steals away his only entry in the history books, which was greatly deserved. Not to mention that townsfolk of his day would have been gobsmacked to learn such a man would become so completely forgotten; hell, everybody in 1890s Santa Rosa probably wished they were Grant O. Richards.

Grant O. Richards portrait. San Francisco Examiner, July 22, 1896
Grant O. Richards portrait. San Francisco Examiner, July 22, 1896

Should you be very lucky, you might meet someone who has that one in a million billion quality which makes everyone (s)he meets fall at their feet. Call it ultra charisma, magnetic charm or even stardust, you are absolutely devoted to that person from the first meeting. Grant Oswald Richards had that magical ability; people not only really, really liked him, but they couldn’t help themselves from jabbering about how much they loved the guy – scroll down through some of the excerpts in the sources below. Such people can become very powerful (and dangerous) when drawn to politics or religion; we should probably be thankful Richards wanted only to be a very good newspaper editor in small towns.

His résumé was thin. He was born in 1862 Wisconsin and stayed there for about 25 years, becoming a lawyer (another dangerous profession for his talents) although he apparently never hung out a shingle. He next became city editor of the Daily Republican in Newton, Kansas, a railroad town of about 5,000 people. There he met Dollie Scribner and after their marriage in 1890 the couple moved to Santa Rosa, which likewise had about 5,000 residents. He had accepted the job of city editor for the Santa Rosa Republican, where he remained for nearly six years except for a brief stint at the Seattle Times, which he had to cut short because the weather aggravated his chronic asthma.

When Richards took the editorial job here in 1890, Ernest Finley was getting started as a professional printer. As a schoolboy the 19 year-old had used a hand press to turn out cards and announcements for his neighbors in the McDonald district, then was hired by the downtown Athenaeum theater to print handbills for visiting minstrel shows, lecturers, and other attractions. With his childhood friend Rufus Hawley he opened a print shop above a cigar store on Fourth street with a steam powered press, and from the start they had steady business from the city and county printing official documents. A few years later they were joined by Charles O. Dunbar, who had been printing foreman at the Santa Rosa Republican.

steamprinters(RIGHT: Finley & Hawley printing shop, 1890. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library)

The Evening Press debuted on Jan. 2, 1896 as a daily and weekly newspaper. In the days prior several local and Bay Area papers announced it was launching, and even the shortest items took care to name Grant Richards as its editor. There was no question that the new journal was going to be Richards’ baby – the rare times anyone mentioned Finley it was because the publishing company was Finley, Dunbar & Richards.

The new paper’s top rival would be the Daily/Sonoma Democrat, of course, and an item about its new competition muttered “…it seems to us the field here is hardly large enough for a new venture.” Still, like everyone else the Democrat editor couldn’t resist a nod to how much everyone loved Richards: “…He had and displayed the admirable quality of being fair and square to all alike with the result that he has made many friends for himself in Santa Rosa. We wish him success in his new undertaking.” After the Evening Press had a couple of issues to its credit, the Democrat offered a little good natured ribbing: “…All the world’s a stage and all the men are gamblers; life itself is a game of chance. Marriage is a lottery and so is farming. Starting a new paper is also a gamble. Ain’t it, Mr. Richards?”

Newspaper editors were usually divisive figures in the 19th century, with readers always at the ready to take umbrage – but if anything, membership in the Grant O. Richards Fan Club grew in 1896 both locally and San Francisco. He was a popular speaker and his remarks often included a poem written for the occasion, which the Democrat joked he would “inflict” on the group or “badger” them. Someone introduced him as the poet laureate of Sonoma county, or “at least in this section of the county.” Doctor Finlaw once prescribed total rest – although he could continue to write his poetry, because that wouldn’t involve “brain work.”

There are many more items like those where this charming, self-effacing guy welcomed a laugh at his expense, but there’s more to his story than that so we need to move on. Okay – one more, because I’ve never come across anything like it in the old papers.

On his 34th birthday the Democrat ran a story about his surprise party, where a group of men descended upon his office to give him a spanking (a play-acting “caning,” actually). Among his assailants were newspapermen from all the other local papers – including one from Humboldt county who happened to be in town – and political allies in the debate over creating a gold/silver currency. Included in the group were E.C. Voorhies and Herbert Slater, making him undoubtedly the only man ever paddled by both a current state senator and a future one. It’s a cute story, but also revealing; keep in mind this was during 1896, and even as a goof it wasn’t the sort of thing that lined up with the Victorian ideal of propriety and manliness – yet they knew Richards would be a good sport about it.

The Democrat was edited at the time by Robert Thompson, brother to founder and owner Thomas, who was still in Brazil as the U.S. ambassador. Under both of them the Democrat was fiercely partisan (and unabashedly racist) but it was really the only game in town – the weekly-only Santa Rosa Republican was mainly aimed at farmers. The Democrat was also the official county paper which guaranteed a steady income in publishing legal notices, plus it had contracted with a New York City agency to feed it a steady stream of national ads for widely-sold food items, patent medicines and the like. Toss in local shopper ads and the Thompsons had a neat little media monopoly on Santa Rosa newspaper readers. Then along came the Evening Press.

There was no apparent impact on the Democrat during the first year of competition in 1896. But as 1897 progressed, there was a steady decline in ads from stores promoting special sales. Local news became thin – aside from a court reporter, it seemed most of the stories came in over the transom from city/county offices, clubs and lodges and whoever dropped by to yak about an encounter with a rattlesnake. Editorials all but disappeared.

The Democrat became increasingly clogged up with WTF filler items from East Coast and British papers, such as, “M. Eugene Thiebaut, the first secretary of the French Embassy, who is at present in Paris, has cabled his felicitations to the French Embassador [sic] in Washington, M. Patenoire, on the latter’s transfer to the Embassy at Madrid, which is in the nature of promotion.” It was as if your once loud and feisty uncle now spent all the days in his bedroom, never changing out his ratty bathrobe while living on buttermilk and soda crackers.

Thomas L. Thompson returned from his four-year appointment to Brazil that September and two weeks later he sold the Democrat. Strike that – he surrendered the Democrat to Finley, Dunbar & Richards after almost exactly forty years of ownership. We can never know the impact this milestone took upon him personally, but the last known place he visited before committing suicide five months later was his old office, which was now the home of the Press Democrat.

Sonoma Democrat September 25, 1897 and Press Democrat October 13, 1897
Sonoma Democrat September 25, 1897 and Press Democrat October 13, 1897

There are no surviving copies of the Evening Press, but it’s probably safe to assume it looked just like the early issues of the Press Democrat – Grant Richards was still editor, after all.

The front pages shown above are the next-to-last Sonoma Democrat and the second issue of the Press Democrat. The first thing to notice is the number of local ads in the PD; there can be no doubt what happened to all the local advertisers missing from the old Democrat – they were happily now over on Richards’ pages, and likely had been camping there for months.

Ads aside, the layout of the two papers could not be more different. The Sonoma Democrat was a grey slab of inky paper with little to break up the long columns of text. The new Press Democrat was far easier to read; each story had a headline with a long dek – which added lots of eye-friendly white space – and had a grabber tease: “DEATH AND HUNGER,” “NEAR THE END” and “GREAT EXCITEMENT”.

daringburglaryRichards’ innovated use of mixed font typography put his design on par or even ahead of other Bay Area and even national papers. In a piece from the same issue, he put a 40 (?) pt. “DARING BURGLARY” banner above the story of District Attorney Seawell having a shootout in his house. Yes, headline details were sensationalized (he wasn’t “grazed by a bullet”) and the whole story leaned yellow press-y, but it actually was an adventurous story, and you can bet everyone in town was talking about it that morning. As William Randolph Hearst’s biographer put it, “any issue that did not cause its reader to rise out of his chair and cry, ‘Great God’ was counted as a failure.”

One last bit of media criticism before continuing with the history: Not only was Richards years ahead in visual design, but his skills as an editor were nonpareil. His writing was sharp and compelling – once you began reading an article there was no sneaking out before the end. A presentation made to local farmers about growing sugar beets was written like part of a novel, including dialogue between farmers and the expert. I found myself immersed in the story and developing warm and fuzzy feelings for sugar beets. That example underscores the key difference between the Sonoma Democrat and Richards’ Press Democrat, or any comparison of weak journalism vs. the exceptional – one just cataloged events of the day, while the other engaged the reader to care about them.

Odd Fellows' Building at the corner of Exchange and Third (Sonoma Democrat, Nov. 21 1896)
Odd Fellows’ Building at the corner of Exchange and Third (Sonoma Democrat, Nov. 21 1896)

We don’t know what they paid Thomas Thompson for his newspaper and printing plant, but the new Press Democrat Publishing Company was capitalized at $30,000 (about $940k today).1

The Press Democrat moved into the Sonoma Democrat offices in the ground floor of the Odd Fellows’ Building, but only after a local contractor had “a force of men” working to fix it up. The place must have looked like a museum exhibit; it seems that the Thompson brothers did little to keep the operation modern. Before jumping ship and joining the Evening Press gang, Herb Slater was a cub reporter there in the mid-1890s and recalled the office as a “dingy place” that didn’t have a linotype, a telephone or a single typewriter.2

The Press Democrat was an immediate success and within a few weeks of operation claimed a circulation of 13,000, which was right about twice the town’s population. In the initial issue he promised “politically the Press-Democrat will be Democratic of broad and liberal tendencies,” but like the Evening Press it was bipartisan as Richards was a Republican, albeit one who crossed sides to endorse the gold/silver issue. After forty years of the Thompson’s angry Democratic partisanship it had to be a welcome change.

It’s not surprising to learn Richards was also an enthusiastic community volunteer, and in the early months of 1898 he threw himself into preparations for the Rose Carnival. Ever since its origin in 1894 each year was a bigger event than the previous, and it was drawing considerable attention from Bay Area newspapers – it looked like Santa Rosa was finally getting noticed and maybe even gaining entry to the cool kids club.

At the time the Spanish-American War was ramping up; the battleship Maine was sunk in February and the public outrage – fanned by Hearst’s Examiner and other papers in the yellow press – inspired patriotic rallies and parades with nautical themes. The Rose Carnival Association budgeted over $600 (about $19k today) to build floats of a battleship Oregon and two monitors. The huge battleship float would carry the Carnival Queen and members of her court; it would be motorized (a big deal in 1898) with 20-foot high smokestacks puffing smoke. According to the preview blurb in the San Francisco Examiner, it was to have gun turrets which would fire bouquets of roses into the crowd. Accounts of the actual parade don’t mention the smoke or blasting bystanders with flora, but it still must have been awfully impressive.

Richards was in charge of building the ambitious floats, although he apparently had no experience on any construction project whatsoever. Then a little over a month before the Carnival, a little item appeared in the PD: “Editor Grant O. Richards is confined to his room suffering from nervous prostration. It is thought that a day or two’s rest will put him back at his desk.” Thus it was the third week of April, 1898, when Ernest Finley first slipped into the role as editor of a newspaper.

The Rose Carnival was on May 20 and it was the tremendous success everyone expected; the battleship was the highlight of the parade. But the Press Democrat’s coverage included this note: “It was a matter of sincere regret that Mr. Richards’ serious illness at this time prevented him witnessing the magnificent result of his favorite scheme…”

It was a sad day for Grant Richards indeed, but not just for missing the parade; on that very day, he was being committed to an asylum.

What was wrong with him? From his admission record to the Mendocino State Hospital it’s easiest to say what was not the matter. He didn’t have an alcohol or drug problem. He wasn’t suicidal or homicidal (but he was “destructive”). His diagnosis was “Mental worry.” The notes stated that he “talks incoherently and irrationally. Has delusions – Excited and profane.”

It would be irresponsible to put him on the couch with so little data, but there are a couple of points for Gentle Reader to consider: Excessive cussing was grounds for asylum commitment – as happened to a pair of women four years earlier – so lots of “profane” language might fall into the same category. Also, he listed Santa Rosa policeman Sam Yoho as his contact person instead of his wife Dollie, so there might have been serious marital problems.

Grant was discharged 90 days later in September, but did not return to his desk. Around mid-October he went (without his wife) to the Skaggs’ Springs resort, which was owned and operated by his old friend, John Mulgrew. On October 22, the telephone rang at the Press Democrat office: Grant O. Richards had shot himself in the head. He was still alive, but only expected to live a few hours.

Finley, Dunbar and Dollie Richards obtained a team of fast horses and a surrey and hurried as fast as possible to the scene, the trip taking somewhere around six hours. By the time they arrived he was unconscious.

He had blown off the left side of his face with a shotgun. Earlier he had told Mulgrew and the doctor it was an accident, but couldn’t explain how it happened. He was fully conscious when the doctor arrived from Healdsburg, and asked that he not be given too much morphine because he did not know how it would affect him. He also asked the doctor if he would have a bad scar. He died before midnight.

On the morning of the incident he borrowed one of Mulgrew’s shotguns and said he might try a little hunting. He wandered around the cottage area and chatted with other guests. A woman testified she saw him sitting on a cottage porch with the shotgun’s stock on the ground with the barrel resting on his left arm. A few moments later a shot was heard, followed by Richards shouting for help.

The Coroner held an inquest the next day, and the jury declared his cause of death was the accidental discharge of a shotgun while out hunting.

Hundreds attended his funeral (open casket!) and burial at the Rural Cemetery.3 Local papers – including the Press Democrat, of course – wrote long and heartfelt tributes to him, attributing his mental collapse to stress and too many hours of selfless volunteering. From the Petaluma Courier:


…Richards came to California in 1890, and worked constantly in the newspaper field, in which he was fast taking his place as a power, because of his clear, pungent and forceful style. He was a victim of overwork, and his health could not stand the tasks he set for his powers. He was of indomitable will, and worked when other men would have been in bed, never flinching when he saw a duty to perform, a friend he could help, or a benefit he could forward for the public. He was a martyr to the spirit Drive, and his beneficial work will be felt long after him. A man whom all loved to know, and knew but to love, may his ashes rest in peace.

Life in Santa Rosa moved on, but there was one good deed which I suspect was done in his memory. About three months after Richards’ funeral, Henry W. Davison, an African-American who had endured indignities from Santa Rosa’s community leaders and the police, died indigent. He was about to be buried in the Potter’s Field when the PD stepped in and paid to have him laid to rest next to his wife in the regular part of the cemetery. It was a surprising act of charity, and I don’t believe the newspaper ever did anything like it again.

On Oct. 29, 1898 – one week after Grant Richards died – Ernest Finley’s name appeared as editor of the Press Democrat for the first time.

finley1902(RIGHT: Ernest L. Finley portrait, Sacramento Evening Bee, June 30 1902)

The paper now looked different than it had a year earlier; the same font and point size was used on almost all headlines and there was much less white space – the design (or lack thereof) was drifting back to the slab-of-ink look, which suggests that layout decisions were being made by the typesetters, as was typical in the bad old days. And to be fair, this trend began before Finley took over; it seems to have started in February, which was when Richards took on the carnival float project.

But in every way, Finley was taking the Press Democrat in the opposite direction from where Richards was once headed:

*
  The politically independent editorial page was now hyper-partisan, particularly aligned with the odious Southern Democrats and their racism. The PD didn’t just oppose Teddy Roosevelt in 1904, but expressed shock over an African-American child appearing onstage at the Republican Convention, warning it was a portent of dreaded racial equality. And yes, the “n-word” made a comeback, as did stories and anecdotes told using plantation dialect.
*
  While Richards probably did not have a single enemy on the planet, Finley was the most divisive person in town, using the Press Democrat as a cudgel to bash anyone who thought differently from him. Finley – who had the gall to claim the PD “never intentionally misrepresents things” – usually resorted to ad hominem attacks against whomever fell into his sights. Newspaper editors in that era were often forceable in their opinions, but particularly during the years between 1904 – 1909 he came across as a mean-spirited bully.
*
  Finley fought reform efforts in the 1900s intended to clean up the town’s unbridled gambling and prostitution scene. Comparing the reformers to vigilantes and hate groups, he charged they wanted to damage Santa Rosa’s “good name abroad” by exposing the corruption that must have provided the town with a sizable underground economy. Unmentioned was that should a reform movement gain traction, they could follow contemporary San Francisco in calling for Grand Jury hearings, which in Santa Rosa might risk indictments of the downtown property owners and businessmen who profited from the town being the Sin City of the North Bay.
*
  Where Richards was always described as having a sunny and genial character, Finley was aloof and dour – there are many photos of him but none with a smile. His black-and-white views extended beyond hating reformers and his many other antagonists; you had to be pro-growth yet oppose any change in the status quo, leaving the Good Old Boy clique and Chamber of Commerce to run the town as they saw fit. Putting the success of the town above all else led him to take some cruel and heartless positions that would have stunned Richards, such as when Finley argued after the 1906 earthquake that those injured or families of those killed didn’t deserve money donated to the relief fund, and it should go into Santa Rosa’s building fund instead.

Then in the 1930s, for reasons unknown, Finley set out to wipe Grant O. Richards from the history books.

The salvo began in 1932, when the PD published a “75th anniversary” edition. Never mind that the Press Democrat was actually 35 years old; Finley was counting from the launch of the loathsome Sonoma Democrat, which wiser heads might have chosen to keep at a distance – “yes, we used to endorse slavery” is not a good look.

For that issue Finley wrote a number of short profiles which were collected ten years later in a book titled, “Santa Rosans I Have Known.” The anecdotes are mostly shallow and not of particular interest, and at least one time he used an entry to settle old scores. His entry on Richards is perplexing:


… He constructed a number of miniature battleships as features, but he overworked himself and suffered a nervous breakdown. We induced him to go to Skaggs Springs for a rest. One day John F. Mulgrew, who after serving as county clerk had purchased Skaggs Springs and was conducting it at the time, telephoned down that Grant had been shot. I hired a team and rushed to Skaggs Springs. It was at night, and raining hard…We never knew whether his death was accidental or otherwise. He had taken a shotgun and walked out through the grounds saying he intended to shoot some birds. A maid passing by shortly after saw him sitting on the steps of one of the cottages, the butt of the gun resting between his feet. It is possible that the gun may have slipped and on striking the next step below, been accidentally discharged. That was the theory we adopted, at any rate.

First, it aggrandizes Finley’s own role in the story. We know that Dunbar and Mrs. Richards were with him in the buggy, and they arrived shortly past sunset. Nor was it “raining hard” – all weather reports agreed there were scattered showers that day.

And, of course, we do know that his death was accidental, because that was the ruling of the Coroner’s jury – they’re allowed to say the cause was inconclusive if that’s how they viewed the evidence. From what we know about Richards, it’s doubtful he had much/any experience handling guns, and the eyewitness described extremely reckless behavior. Further, if this was a botched suicide he surely would have tucked the barrel under his chin, but Richards seemed to have no trouble talking to the doctor and others after the accident. Yet by writing “we never knew whether his death was accidental” and “that was the theory we adopted, at any rate” Finley winks to the reader that it was widely presumed he really meant to kill himself.

Finley’s other attack on Richards is found in the 1937 Sonoma County history edited by him. Now Grant Richards had no connection with the Press Democrat whatsoever. In the history portion of the book he name-checks Richards as having “helped establish” The Evening Press. “…Richards sold his interest to his partners a few years later…Thomas L. Thompson sold the Democrat to Finley & Dunbar.” (For the record, Dollie Richards was left Grant’s one-third share in The Press Democrat Publishing Company, and she sold them to Finley and Dunbar in 1902, when probate finally closed.) In the side of the book with local biographies Finley has an entry for himself but this time doesn’t mention Richards at all, naming his only partners as Dunbar and Hawley.

Finley’s shadow over Santa Rosa is as long as Grant Richards’ is short. As I wrote earlier, in the first part of the Twentieth Century no man or woman had a greater impact on Santa Rosa than Ernest Latimer Finley; favorite son Luther Burbank might have been the town celebrity, but Finley was the kingmaker, the media baron of print (and later, airwaves), the superarbiter of almost everything that happened north of the Golden Gate.

Why someone with such dominance felt a need to not only harm but destroy the historical legacy of a man nearly four decades after his death is a mystery best left to psychologists. Lacking Richards’ personality and his widespread admiration, had Finley been nursing envy and resentment for most of his life?

The historical record has been twisted to portray Finley as one of the most monumental figures in Santa Rosa’s past. And yes, he was a tireless champion of anything he thought might bring prosperity to Sonoma County. But at worst, he was a relentless bully who blocked reforms and held on to the 19th century attitudes which kept Santa Rosa from becoming the major Bay Area community he always desired – quite a Shakespearian twist, that.

For the most part we’re still trapped in Ernest Finley’s world; the city is still pushing growth for its own sake and there’s still a cabal of money men erratically steering the ship. How much better it might have been to live in the world of Grant Richards, where nothing is more important than community and when changes are made, the goal is to make real improvements to the city, not just making some guy rich(er). The Press Democrat will have no ties to special interests and holds city/county officials accountable for what they (don’t) do. And in that alternate universe, sometimes the paper will make you fly out of a chair and cry, “Great God!” because the reporting and writing is really that good.

 

 

1 The Press Democrat Publishing Company had 300 shares total, with Finley, Dunbar and Richards having 98 per. Three shares each were held by bankers W. D. Reynolds and J. P. Overton, who likely provided this initial funding.
2 Herbert Slater’s look back at the Sonoma Democrat appeared in the Oct. 23, 1932 PD. He described Robert A. Thompson’s management as lackadasical and as a result the reporters sought out the easiest stories to write, which explains the generally poor quality journalism in the paper and heavy reliance on doings at the courthouse across the street from their office. They also frequently traded newspaper coverage for food: “…We used to pick up a good many extra feeds in the old days. The reporters were never forgotten by the lodges, for it was then almost considered necessary to feed us in order to get a write up. How well I remember sitting in the old Democrat office one night wishing that some raven from Heaven, or somebody, would bring me in a square meal, when the front door suddenly opened and in walked Billy Lee and he brought cold chicken, tongue and ham, bread, cakes and coffee. And we did have some feast, and, thanked God reverently that both He and the Odd Fellows hall were above the Democrat office…”

3 The location of Grant O. Richards grave is unknown and he may have been disinterred, as there is a marker for him near his parents at the McNett East Cemetery in Elk Grove Wisconsin. When his sister-in-law, Effie Scribner, died in 1913 she was buried here at the Rural Cemetery in what was described as the family plot.

 

sources
Our friend Grant Richards, the genial and able local editor of the Republican, leaves this city to-day for Seattle, Wash., to take a position on the Evening News. Mr Richards has many friends in this city, who, while sincerely regretting his departure, hope that success will attend him in his new field.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 9 1890

 

Grant Richards will return from Seattle and resume his former position on the Republican. The climate of Washington was too much for him, but he cannot be better pleased to return than his friends are to welcome him.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 8 1890

 

It may be of interest to many in this locality, to know that our old friend and chum, Grant O. Richards, has resigned his place as court reporter on the Seattle (Wash.) Times, and accepted a lucrative position on the Santa Rosa (Cal.) Republican. Grant will succeed and all his friends in this neck ‘o’ th’ world’ will be glad to hear of his success.

– Galena Daily Gazette, December 3 1890

 

An omission. The Republican in its issue of Tuesday in a notice of the credits due to the active members of the Relief Committee, has one notable omission, not from carelessness, but from the modesty of the gentleman who wrote the notice. We are determined that he shall not hide his light under a bushel, and while all those he mentions are justly entitled to the credit he bestows on them, there is no one more deserving of praise in the matter than Mr. Grant O. Richards, the local editor of the Republican. He was an active promoter of the charity from start to finish.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1892

 

Grant Richards of the Republican is confined to his house with an attack of his old enemy, asthma. More power to you, Grant, to overcome all enemies.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 3 1894

 

New Paper for Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa will have a new paper, commencing with the new year. It will be the Evening Press, daily and weekly. It will be independent in politics, and favor gold and silver coinage at a rate of 16 to 1. It will be edited by Grant Richards, for the past five years reporter on the Daily Republican. The new paper will be a six-column folio.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 23 1895

 

Grant O. Richards Resigns.

Grant O. Richards has severed his connection with the Republican after holding down the city editor’s chair for nearly six years past. He proposes along with Messrs. Finley and Dunbar to start an evening paper to be called the Evening Press. While on the Republican Grant was a faithful reporter of men and events. He had and displayed the admirable quality of being fair and square to all alike with the result that be has made many friends for himself in Santa Rosa. We wish him success in his new undertaking although it seems to us the field here is hardly large enough for a new venture.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 28 1895

 

The fact that truth is stranger than fiction is demonstrated by the resignation of Rev. J. T. Shurtleff and Editor Grant Richards. Both men were admirably fitted for their places, and most people thought they were fixtures…All the world’s a stage and all the men are gamblers; life itself is a game of chance. Marriage is a lottery and so is farming. Starting a new paper is also a gamble. Ain’t it, Mr. Richards?

– Sonoma Democrat, January 4 1896

 

GRANT RICHARDS CANED.
Double Attack on the Editor of the Evening Press.

Editor Grant O. Richards was surprised in his office Friday afternoon by Gee Whack Mills, who had long had a grudge against him. Mr. Richards sat in his office meditating a new poem on silver and little dreaming of the attack that was to be made upon him by Mills and several confederates.

The assault was well planned and no doubt his assailants had been planning a coup de etat for several days past. They went about the surprise very cautiously and when Mills started in to cane Mr. Richards with a cane with a silver tip on it, the latter did not know what to say or do in defense. The silver tip bore a suitable inscription.

After Mills had got through with the editor, another attack was made on him by Messrs. Mobley, Slater, Duncan, Voorhies, Speegle, Hutchinson and others, who presented him with a wallet capable of holding 16 silver dollars to 1 of gold.

Grant is a good friend, but a bad enemy, and no doubt he will soon get even “wid de gang.”

The occasion of this double attack on the genial Grant was on account of his birthday. Friday, thirty-four years ago, was a busy day with Richards. He was born on the same day as his college chum Tom Watson of Georgia, and like Tom he had no silver spoon in his mouth. One thing we can say about Richards. We have never seen him waltzing around town in his shirt sleeves with a cigar between his teeth. We have never seen him go fishing with a bottle in his pocket, or yank off his coat and swear he could lick any man in town. He ain’t built that way. Here’s hopin’ he may live to be 134.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 12 1896

 

The Santa Rosa Democrat, for thirty years the property of Thos. L. Thompson, ex-United States Minister to Brazil, was sold last Saturday to E. L. Finiey, C. O. Dunbar and Grant O. Richards, proprietors of the Evening Press of the same city. The two papers will be merged into a morning daily to be known as the Press-Democrat Publishing Company. A corporation has been organized with a capital of $30,000. The directors of the company are E. L. Finley, C. O. Dunbar, Grant O. Richards, W. D. Reynolds and J. P. Overton. The management of the new paper will be the same as that of the Press. E. L. Finley and C. O. Dunbar will be business managers, while Grant O. Richards will the editor.

– Napa Journal, September 28 1897

 

Today the first issue of the Press-Democrat made its appearance. The Press issued its last number Tuesday. The young men who have driven it forward to success have now absorbed the Democrat, and with their rejuvenation and the removal of deathly competition some great improvement ought to come to the printing business in Santa Rosa. The first issue is not a criterion to judge by, and the Courier will not compliment todays issue; but when the newness wears away and the Democrat gets up to the business ability of its new promoters it shall be remembered by a generous use of our scissors.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, October 7 1897

 

The first issue of the Press-Democrat, of Santa Rosa, is at hand. We are partial to hyphenated names for papers but if the new management that it is necessary to preserve the names of both the old journals we respectfully suggest that a more appropriate and euphonious title would Democrat-Press. The new paper start out well and publishes an unusual amount of local news.

– Woodland Daily Democrat, October 8 1897

 

THE “PRESS-DEMOCRAT”

In beginning the publication of the Press-Democrat the proprietors wish to thank the citizens of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county for the generous patronage extended them while conducting the Press. They also desire to express their appreciation of the consideration shown them in the last issue of the Democrat by the Hon. T. L. Thompson and the Hon. R. A. Thompson, who by the newspaper change retire from the journalistic field here. The proprietors of the new paper clearly recognize and thoroughly appreciate the ability and worth of these gentlemen who have been so prominently and honorably identified with Santa Rosa and Sonoma county. They realize the very important part they have taken in the progress and development of, not only our city and county, but of the entire state. It is with feelings of regret that the Press-Democrat contemplates their departure from the newspaper field and it certainly hopes that their lines may be cast in pleasant and profitable places. In regard to the new paper, the Press-Democrat, it is only necessary to say that with it, as it has been with the Press, it will be the constant endeavor of the publishers to make it a wide-awake, energetic, progressive and reliable newspaper; one that will speak for itself better than can be expressed in any salutatory. Politically the Press-Democrat will be Democratic of broad and liberal tendencies. With implicit confidence in the citizens of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county, and with an abiding faith in the future of this unsurpassed part of California, the greatest commonwealth under the stars and stripes, the Press-Democrat this morning for the first time greets the public.

– Press Democrat, October 9 1897

 

Editor Richards Ill

Editor Grant O. Richards is confined to his room suffering from nervous prostration. It ia thought that a day or two’a rest will put him back at his desk.

– Press Democrat, April 23 1898

 

The fleet of warships representing the Pacific Coast Squadron will undoubtedly be the most attractive display in the grand parade. In view of the present war with Spain the committee decided upon the float representing the fleet as being most appropriate. In the fleet will be immense models of the battleship Oregon and the monitor Monadnock and Monterey which have cost the Carnival Association over $600 to build. For this occasion the Oregon has been named the Queen of the Carnival, and this will be Queen Grace’s royal float. Upon a daintily arranged throne Queen Grace will sit on the fore deck surrounded by her retinue of maids and pages. Along the line of parade from the guns arranged on the deck bouquets of roses will be fired at the big crowds of spectators. The battleship will be run by an engine, and from the big smoke stacks twenty feet high will issue clouds of smoke. The monitors will be run alongside the battleship Queen of the Carnival, which will be preceded by a splendid representation of the ill-fated battleship Maine, which will be drawn on a wagon by a crowd of small children…

– The San Francisco Examiner, May 19 1898

 

…The fleet of vessels was the popular feature. it should be mentioned here that the beautiful battleship “Carnival Queen” and the monitors which attracted the attention of everybody were designed and their construction was carried out under the personal supervision of Editor Grant O. Richards of the Press Democrat. It was a matter of sincere regret that Mr. Richards’ serious illness at this time prevented him witnessing the magnificent result of his favorite scheme…

– Press Democrat, May 21 1898

 

Information received Monday from the sick room of Grant O. Richards was to the effect that his condition is not improved. This will be sad news to Mr. Richards’ many friends in this city and county. He is to be taken away this evening for treatment by specialists. – Republican.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, May 25 1898

 

SANTA ROSA EDITOR KILLED BY ACCIDENT
Grant O. Richards Found Mortally- Wounded Back of the Skaggs Springs Hotel.

SANTA ROSA. Oct. 22. -Great regret was felt here to-day in all circles when it was learned that Grant O. Richards, editor of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, and one of the most popular and progressive citizens of this place, had shot himself at Skaggs Springs. About 11 o’clock this morning Mr. Richards, who had been at the Springs several days was found on the porch of a house just back of the hotel bleeding from a terrible wound in his face. It was found that a portion of his face had been torn away by the discharge of a shotgun. He died shortly after 11 o’clock to-night. He regained consciousness during the day and stated that the weapon had been discharged by accident.

– San Francisco Call, October 23 1898

 

GRANT O. RICHARDS

it is with a heart full of sadness that the writer of these short lines takes up the pen to begin his task, if he should succeed in some small way in expressing the heartfelt sorrow that has been caused by the sudden and tragic death of the editor of this paper among those who worked with him so long, among those who knew him best, then is the mission done. Yet should the effort fail, it would make small difference after all, for everybody knew Grant Richards and everybody was his friend.

The removal of a good man is always a loss to any city. But the death of a man like this might almost be referred to as a calamity. Generally at the head and front of any movement likely to be of benefit to the community, his influence has been strongly felt in many of the undertakings that have resulted in the city’s good. Yet such was the character of the man that few suspected whose ideas were being carried out or from whence the inspiration came. The gain was seldom his. Such is the one real test of all true greatness.

A man of strong character, gentle and loving as a child, trusting as a woman in many things, he was yet a keen observer, and possessed a shrewd insight into human character. Backed up by these characteristics and preceded by the knowledge that his was the very soul of honor, it is not strange that he often accomplished what others could not do. But it is not necessary to enter upon an extended review of his career, or to parade before the world a record of his virtues. It would not please him if he knew, and his life is like an open book.

Grant O. Richards, recognized as one of the brightest newspaper men in the state of California, has left us and forever. The manner of his death is recorded, and yet the details will never be known until the judgment day. But the fact that he is absent from the spots and haunts that once knew him so well, and the record of his sunny, genial and most honorable life, will never be forgotten till those with whom he lived and moved shall themselves start upon that long, long journey which they pray may end on that beauteous shore where his has just now begun.

Owing to his extended illness, more than six long months have passed since Mr. Richards has been actively engaged in the duties of his profession, and while up to the day of his death he retained the position of editor of this paper, yet during all that time his work has been in another’s hands. It is in this keeping that it will remain.

Grant O. Richards, business man, gentleman, friend and scholar, is now no more, but the example of his beautiful life will remain with us, we trust, until our dying day. And when our end shall come, as come it surely must some time, we ask no more of those who stay behind than that they think of us but half as kindly as they do of him. We wish no more than that the dwellers in that wondrous city may be like him as we knew him, and like him as he is.

– Press Democrat, October 26 1898

 

HIS TRAGIC DEATH
How Grant Richards Met His End
THE FULL DETAILS
Most Suddenly the Summons Came and Rudely
He Passed Away With His Wife and Friends Gathered Around His Couch

On Saturday evening the news became general in this city that Grant O. Richards, the well known editor of the Press Democrat, had, while enjoying an outing at Skaggs’ Springs, met with a terrible accident.

When Sunday morning’s edition of this paper appeared containing the information that he was dead, and giving the details of the tragic affair, the entire community was shocked in a manner that almost defies expression.

It was about a week ago that Mr. Richards left his home in this city for a brief visit with his old friend, John F. Mulgrew, at Skaggs’ Springs. Arriving there he proceeded at once to make himself at home, and from the very time of his arrival seemed to be enjoying himself and was apparently being much benefited by the change of air and scene.

On Saturday morning about the time Mr. Richards came out from the dining room after having eaten his breakfast, two gentlemen boarding at the hotel returned from an early morning hunt. As they seated themselves upon the edge of the porch and proceeded to clean their weapons, Mr. Richards, who was acquainted with both of them, after inquiring as to their success, declared his intention of seeing what he could do some morning in that line.

Having finished their task, the two hunters set their guns, one of which belonged to Mr. Mulgrew, behind the door and went in to breakfast. About an hour later Mr. Richards picked up Mr. Mulgrew’s gun, stuck a few cartridges into his pocket, and stepped out into the front yard, apparently looking for something upon which he could try his aim.

For some little time he sauntered idly around the place, looking now and then into the tree-tops. Finally he wandered in the direction of the cottages, the furtherest one of which is probably not more than a hundred yards from the hotel. He stopped and chatted with several of the guests who passed, and finally seated himself upon one of the cottage porches. A young lady in passing saw him thus seated, the shot gun resting on the ground, and the barrel lying upon his left arm. She nodded at him and passed on.

A few moments later some gentlemen who were playing croquet directly behind the cottage heard a loud report, followed immediately by a cry for help. Rushing around to the front of the cottage they found Mr. Richards seated upon the steps and endeavoring with his handkerchief to stop the flow of blood coming from a frightful wound upon the left side of the head and face.

Mr. Mulgrew and several people from the hotel arrived about the same time, and all proceeded without delay to render what assistance lay in their power. The unfortunate man was carried into the cottage and laid upon a couch, and Dr. Swisher was immediately summoned by telephone from Healdsburg. His friends in this city were also notified by the same means. During this time Mr. Richards was perfectly conscious, and stated to Mr. Mulgrew that the shooting was accidental, but he was so weak that he could not explain exactly how it all happened.

A second dispatch was received at this office from Mr. Mulgrew shortly after noon, stating that the physician had arrived, and after an examination had expressed the fear that Mr. Richards would only live a few hours. Immediately upon the receipt of this intelligence Mrs. Richards, E. L. Finley and C. O. Dunbar in a surrey and behind a fast team started on a hurried drive to Skaggs’.

While the doctor was conducting the examination Mr. Richards stated to him that the gun had been accidentally discharged. He asked whether or not he would be able to save his life, and whether or not he would be able to repair the damage without leaving much of a scar. He cautioned the physician most particularly about being very careful as to the amount of morphine he was to give him, stating that he knew nothing of its effect upon his heart, and desired to take no chances.

The morphine was administered, and the wound carefully dressed. C. W. Capell, a medical student of Healdsburg, and Ole Witbro, a professional nurse from Geyserville, both of whom had in the meantime been summoned, were left in charge, and the physician having done all then in his power returned to his home.

The loving wife and friends arrived upon the scene shortly after dark. At that time Mr. Richards was unconscious, and shortly after half-past 10 he passed peacefully away. Gathered around the bedside in the little cottage at the springs were his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Mulgrew, C. W. Capell, Ole Witbro, William Litton, Charles O. Dunbar and Ernest L. Finley.

By special arrangement made previously in the evening, the telephone agent at Geyserville returned to his office at 12 o’clock that night and connected Skaggs’ Springs with this city by wire. The news of the distressing affair was transmitted to the Press Democrat, the undertaker was notified, and word was sent to Coroner Young at Healdsburg.

Early Sunday morning Mr. Stanley started for Skaggs’ and later in the day secured the body, arriving in this city with the remains about 8 o’clock that evening. Coroner Young arrived at the springs about noon, and shortly afterwards secured a jury and began the inquest.

During the progress of the investigation the most searching inquiry into the cause of the accident was had. The body was carefully examined, and both Mr. Mulgrew and Dr. Swisher testified at length regarding their knowledge of the matter. As a result the jury returned a unanimous verdict to the effect that the deceased met his death as the result of the accidental discharge of a shot gun while out hunting.

Henry G. Hahman and William F. Wines, both warm personal friends of the deceased, took the train for Skaggs’ Springs on Sunday morning, arriving there about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. They did everything possible and returned home on the evening train. Mrs. Richards, Mr. Dunbar and Mr. Finley returned home as they had gone, by carriage.

The utmost regret is expressed upon every hand over the most sad and unfortunate occurrence. All Saturday night this office was besieged by callers anxious to render any assistance that lay in their power. At the springs the host and hostess, the guests and the employees were profuse in their many acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, to all of whom the bereaved wife and business associates desire to express their most heartfelt thanks.

Mr. Richards was a native of Wisconsin and was thirty-six years of age last September. He first came to Santa Rosa in June, 1890, from Newton, Kansas, just after his marriage, and entered upon the duties of city editor of the Republican. Several mouths later he left here for Seattle, believing the climate would suit his health better at the time. A few months later he returned to Santa Rosa and resumed his work on the Republican, and continued on that paper until the close of the year 1895, when the Evening Press was so successfully launched, in January, 1896. At the time of his death Mr. Richards was editor of this paper, a position he had filled both with credit to himself and with benefit to the entire community.

THE FUNERAL OBSEQUIES

The last tribute of love has been paid, and to the grave has been consigned all that was mortal of one who in life gained the respect of everybody. The earthly tenement of Editor Grant O. Richards now rests in the quiet of Santa Rosa cemetery until the Resurrection morn. It rests there in sure and certain hope of the coming to eternal life.

Nothing was wanting in the last tribute to add to the honor bestowed. It was honor done gratefully to the memory of a true friend of the community, beautifully expressive was the burial service.

At the First Presbyterian church a large congregation awaited the arrival of the funeral cortege. Just at 2 o’clock the organist, Mrs. J. S. Sweet, commenced Chopin’s Funeral March as the casket covered with beautiful creations in flowers was borne slowly to the front of the altar by eight intimate friends of the deceased, James W. Oates, John P. Overton, Henry G. Hahman, George W. Lewis, W. F. Wines, Herbert Slater, Peter Towey and Mayor James S. Sweet.

A few minutes later Santa Rosa lodge, Knights of Pythias, marshalled by Robert Ross, filed into the church and occupied seats immediately behind the mourners in the middle of the church. Then Carita temple, of the Rathbone Sisters, passed into the seats reserved for them on the right hand side of the auditorium. Seats were reserved on the left side of the church for members of the Santa Rosa Typographical Union and members of the Press Democrat force. Mark L, McDonald Jr. was the usher.

[..]

…the first part of the service was brought to a close.

Then the hundreds of the deceased’s friends present passed around the bier on which the casket rested in front of the altar, and took a last glance at the placid face. With hearts filled with emotion this was done.

The casket was then carried to the hearse and the procession formed for the journey to the cemetery. The line of carriages was very long. At the head of the procession walked the members of Santa Rosa lodge, Knights of Pythias, in files of two. There was a large attendance of the Knights to show a last token of esteem for their brother.

Just at the entrance to the cemetery gates the Knights formed in double line and stood with uncovered beads while the cortege passed…

…The grave was a mass of beautiful white flowers mingled with sprays of greenery, the work of the Ladies Dorcas society of the Presbyterian church.

While the earth was being thrown into the grave the Presbyterian church choir sang a number of hymns. It was an affecting scene. The autumn leaves falling from the shade trees heralding the approach of winter and the passing of another year, contrasted with the radiance of the autumn sun shining in all its brilliance, symbolic doubtless in many hearts of the land that is fairer than day, where death is unknown.

Untold love and affection was manifest in the great number of exquisite floral gifts sent. The flowers were magnificent. To attempt to enumerate them would be useless, as many of the creations bore no name. There were many wreaths, an anchor, crosses, pillows, and branches of flowers. Handsome pieces were sent by the Knights of Pythias, the Rathbone Sisters, the Press Democrat, the Santa Rosa Typographical Union and many others.

The offering from the Santa Rosa Typographical Union was a superb creation in which white and blue flowers predominated. In the center of a lovely white back ground was the sign “30.” The symbol “30” is used in newspaper offices, though it had its origin in telegraphy. When the last piece of copy is given out before the composition on the paper ceases for the day’s issue, on it appears “30”, signifying “the end,” and by this the compositor knows there is nothing more coming, and that the last news is in.

The grave presented a lovely sight when Mr. Stanley had completed the arrangement of the flowers, and after the parting benediction by the Rev. Mr. Hudson and a verse of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” the service at the grave was over.

– Press Democrat, October 26 1898

 

Grant O. Richards, editor of the Press Democrat, died at Skaggs Springs on Saturday from the accidental discharge of a shotgun. Richards came to California in 1890, and worked constantly in the newspaper field, in which he was fast taking his place as a power, because of his clear, pungent and forceful style. He was a victim of overwork, and his health could not stand the tasks he set for his powers. He was of indomitable will, and worked when other men would have been in bed, never flinching when he saw a duty to perform, a friend he could help, or a benefit he could forward for the public. He was a martyr to the spirit Drive, and his beneficial work will be felt long after him. A man whom all loved to know, and knew but to love, may his ashes rest in peace.—Petaluma Courier

– Press Democrat, October 29 1898

 

Grant O. Richards, the editor of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, committed suicide at Skaggs Springs last Saturday by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun.

– Mendocino Coast Beacon, October 29 1898

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pipedreams

SEBASTOPOL’S CHINATOWNS

In other times and places they may have been considered twin villages. The two communities brushed against each other, each with a mercantile district, its own places of worship and sometimes populations of roughly the same size. But never did they have equal standing, which is because one of those communities was entirely Chinese immigrants and this was the American West in the 19th century. Specifically, this was Sebastopol and its Chinatown. Its two Chinatowns, actually.

Before diving in, it pains me to admit the tale you’re about to read is incomplete. I’ve pecked away at the history of this fascinating lost world for ages, returning to it whenever another historic newspaper or trove of other data came online. But it’s been a while since anything really significant surfaced; it looks like some sections of the puzzle – critically important sections, at that – will always be missing. So here I’ve put together what I have, in the hope that someday a family memoir, a dusty photo album or a history by one of San Francisco’s Six Companies will appear, allowing scholars of Chinese culture in the West to cement more parts of the picture together.

This project began over seven years ago after finding a remark by West County historian Bill Borba: “Sebastopol had two Chinatowns that must have had in the neighborhood of 200-300 Chinese in them…” Sure enough, I found the fire maps which showed the village seemed to have two Chinese enclaves about a block apart. I soon learned this was a very unusual situation.


“JOHN CHINAMAN” COMES TO SONOMA

The earliest Chinese immigrants probably arrived in Sonoma county around 1855, as they did in Marin; the 1860 census shows about forty, all but a handful living in the town of Sonoma. During this decade the local newspapers fed readers a steady diet of racist stories about the doings of “John Chinaman” in San Francisco or the Gold Country, but little about the men living here. A rare 1868 item from the Santa Rosa paper told of a Chinese man who reported being robbed by two boys – but “several white persons near by when the alleged act was committed” claimed he was lying, so the case was dropped.

By the 1870 census the Chinese population had grown tenfold; 470 men were counted in the county overall with over half (280) living in Petaluma. Salt Point was the third largest Chinese group with 96 (mainly logging camps at Timber Cove and Duncan’s Mills). Five were listed in Bloomfield. In 1871, California Pacific railroad brought in a crew of over a thousand Chinese laborers to begin work on a rail line between Santa Rosa and Cloverdale. Judging by the number of newspaper reports, this decade was by far the most violent for Chinese immigrants, with multiple reports of beatings, shootings and a trend of young white boys shooting them in the face. The most disturbing incidents were when hunters found a body in the Laguna; although the Coroner’s Jury met there and believed the man had been murdered, there was no further investigation and the remains were buried at the site following the verdict. Near Bloomfield, an immigrant supposedly attempted suicide by cutting his throat, followed by splitting his head open with an axe. When the Coroner’s Jury arrived at the scene they found the body some distance away in a potato field; it was decided the injured man stumbled there on his own and there was no foul play involved in any of it. The body remained lying in the field for several days.

Although the 1880 census missed the entire Chinese community at Bloomfield (although there were eight counted in Valley Ford), there were still 901 enumerated in the county, with Sonoma City, Santa Rosa and Petaluma having the largest populations, in that order. The population of the Analy Township was 1,380 with 37 Chinese immigrants, and Sebastopol had 197 residents with only three from China.

Only summaries of the 1890 census exist, but there were 1,173 identified as Chinese in the entire county with 231 in the Analy Township (there was no breakout for Sebastopol), slightly behind Santa Rosa’s leading count of 277.

Was this a single community split between different streets or were these really two separate Chinatowns? Evidence points both ways. Until the last buildings were razed in 1943 1945, the Sebastopol newspaper referred to one as New (or Barnes’) Chinatown and the other as Old (or Brown’s) Chinatown. Each had its own “joss house” (a place of worship) which I’m told was never seen in a town so small. (By contrast, there was no joss house at all in Santa Rosa, although we know there was a room used as a temple.) But did one group have better status, more wealth than the other? Those and other loose threads are tugged below.

Nor do we have any images of the Chinatowns except for grainy photos taken before it was to be demolished. There are no known pictures of any residents – the man seen at the top of this article is from Arnold Genthe’s book on San Francisco’s Chinatown at around the turn of the century.

Even worse, we don’t have an accurate view of how many people were living there at any particular time. Old census data was often problematic when it came to enumerating ethnic minorities, possibly because of racism or language barriers. In the 1880 census there were no Chinese counted in Bloomfield, for example, although there were probably hundreds living there; other census takers in the county that year didn’t make much of an effort to record Chinese names with any accuracy, filling in the census forms with meaningless stubs such as “Lee,” “ah Gus,” “Hong Kong,” or “Sing.” Complicating matters, the census was usually taken during the summer months when Chinese ag workers might be away from where they lived most of the year, dispersed on farms or among work crews where they could be overlooked (or hidden). A more specific example of these problems is below.

Our story begins in 1885, although newspapers had occasionally mentioned Chinese men in Sebastopol over the previous decade. (Most news about early Sebastopol comes from the Petaluma Argus, as older 19th century Santa Rosa papers mostly ignored the village.) That year Aaron Barnes announced he was moving “his China houses” off Main Street; it didn’t happen for several years, as the 1888 fire map shown below still showed a Chinatown with about a dozen buildings, roughly across the street from today’s Copperfield’s store.

Aaron Barnes (1816-1897) was a farmer/real estate investor who owned several lots around downtown Sebastopol, most notably the large corner at Petaluma Ave. and (modern) Highway 12, where the CVS and Benedetti Tire now stand. He had a quirky life, which earned him a profile in “SEBASTOPOL WAS ALWAYS QUIRKY,” but it was never explained why he seemed to have so much devotion to his Chinese tenants. There’s a family story that he liked them better than the white townsfolk because a church had done something to offend him and his first wife. But his cause of death was diagnosed as constipation, which might seem unusual because the cure-all tonics during his era were usually strong laxatives mixed with alcohol. That condition is also famously a side-effect from chronic use of opium.

1888 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's downtown Chinatown
1888 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s downtown Chinatown

The situation changed quickly and dangerously in the first weeks of 1886. Anti-Chinese vigilante committees had been running amok on the West Coast for months, terrorizing immigrants into leaving their communities under threats of death. While Sonoma County locals were chanting the popular “Chinese must go” mantra, there was no violence or anti-Chinese activism here. But when members of Petaluma’s Wickersham family were brutally killed in mid-January and their Chinese cook was accused of the deed, anti-Chinese Leagues sprouted overnight in every Sonoma community with intent to expel them. For in-depth coverage on that story, see “THE YEAR OF THE ANTI-CHINESE LEAGUE.”

Before the end of that January there was a trickle of Chinese coming into Santa Rosa from Cloverdale, Healdsburg and other points north. Some were passing through on their way to San Francisco, but many apparently were lingering in town to see how the situation would develop – the Democrat newspaper reported there were over 600 Chinese in Santa Rosa as the month ended. Sebastopol’s Chinatown swelled at the same time. The correspondent for the Argus wrote “the town has about 360 Chinese and they outnumber about 250 whites.” In the next few weeks, the Chinese population of Sebastopol peaked at an estimated 400-450.


BLOOMFIELD’S “PIGTAIL ALLEY”

Before it became dairy county, Big Valley (Bloomfield + Valley Ford) was known for its potatoes; 100,000 sacks a year were carted down to the Petaluma wharf in the wagons which were jokingly called “spud schooners.” As planting and digging so many potatoes is quite labor intensive, Big Valley was also known for its many, many Chinese immigrants. When they hit Peak Potato around 1880 it’s often claimed 300 Chinese men lived in or around Bloomfield, although local historian Bill Borba always said the number was closer to 600, far larger than Sebastopol’s combined Chinatowns.

Several locations have been identified but none are documented by archaeology; camps were said to be at the current location of Emma Herbert Memorial Park and near the intersection of Roblar Road and Valley Ford Road. Several buildings were rented along Main Street (now Bloomfield Road), with “Pigtail Alley” somewhere nearby. This was probably their Chinatown; a Chinese butcher shop and laundry are mentioned in articles below, so it’s fairly safe to assume there was a business area similar in size to Sebastopol.

In February 1886 an Anti-Chinese Committee was formed in Bloomfield, same as in all other Sonoma County communities. But the situation was different, due to the size of the Chinese community (“there is no town in the state, of its size, where there are so many Chinese” – Sonoma Democrat) and because some Bloomfielders were inclined to vigilante activity. An unsuccessful attempt was made to blow up a Chinese laundry (“result, a lot of frightened Chinamen and a shattered floor”) and a spring that supplied water was salted. That October – months after the anti-Chinese fervor had sputtered out in Santa Rosa and other places – the Argus reported that vigilantes “…have AGAIN [emphasis mine] taken the law into their own hands and have forcibly ejected them from the town.”

Predictably, the farmers found themselves short-handed when potato harvest season arrived in 1887: “It is impossible to get enough white hands. Chinamen are scarce and disposed to boycott the Bloomfield country, from which they were driven a year since.” Potato blight damaged much of the crop in 1889 and by 1891 there were only about 100 acres still planted in potatoes, most of the land converted to dairy pastures.

Many who sought refuge in Sebastopol presumably were coming from nearby Bloomfield, which had the largest sustained Chinese community in the county. Bloomfield was also the site of the only local vigilante activity, which continued for months (see sidebar). But as winter turned into spring even the Chinatowns in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa shrunk greatly, although it’s most likely because of residents melting away into the countryside to take their customary farm jobs now that growing season approached.

After a year passed there was no sign the anti-Chinese furor had any lasting effect in Sebastopol (“there are more Chinamen in Sebastopol to the square foot than in any American town that we know of” – Argus). The Petaluma paper reported boys – and women from Santa Rosa – were coming to the village’s Chinatown to smoke opium, a matter of some irritation to the townsfolk.

The first possible sighting of a second Chinatown appears in 1889: “The Chinese have built a Joss house in town.” That it was built by the Chinese themselves (or perhaps, paid for by them) suggests Barnes was not involved, as he apparently always hired contractors.

This other Chinatown was on property owned by John Brown, like Barnes a farmer/real estate investor, although on a much larger scale – he had some 1,400 acres on the east end of Sebastopol which he leased to others, making him the second largest landowner in the area (the Walker ranch was larger). His cottage still exists on the edge of town and is currently home to the Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital.

That became known as Old Chinatown. Then 15 months later, in early 1891, New Chinatown started to appear: “Elliot & Berry are building a fine Joss House for the Chinamen.” Later that year, “a number of China houses are in course of erection on the corner of Petaluma and Bodega avenues by Mr. Aaron Barnes, and the Joss house which has been located near Mr. Barnes’ residence has been moved to the same lot.” (It never ceases to amaze me that they moved houses around like dominoes back then.) To be clear: This Chinatown occupied the entire footprint of the modern CVS and its parking lot.

And so Sebastopol became accustomed to having two Chinatowns in its backyard. One of the rare items in the Sebastopol paper that mentions both describes the comic 1898 efforts to restrain a bull running through the town: “…he concluded to have some noodle soup and charged the restaurant in Barnes’ Chinatown. The boss cook banged a big tin pan against the noodle pot with such effect that his lordship wheeled for Brown’s Chinatown. Whether he wanted to hit the pipe or was looking for a game of fan tan is not known…”

Another episode from the same year shows how fairly the town treated their Chinese residents. During Lunar New Year celebrations Deputy Constable Woodward attempted a little extortion, demanding $5 from each merchant who was exploding firecrackers. As there was no such thing as a firecracker tax, two men began arguing with Woodward; that turned into a fight with the cop pistol-whipping a young man named Ah Woy, who filed a complaint against the constable. During the court hearing a few days later about a dozen Chinese witnesses testified. Woodward’s defense was that he only asked Woy to quiet down and was attacked by Woy while trying to assist him to go indoors. “Some of the Chinese witnesses, however, did not seem to agree with the constable’s version of the fracas,” the Press Democrat reported. “Some of them of the ‘little bit Engleesh’ persuasion just looked daggers at Mr. Woodward.” The court fined Woodward $20 for battery and dismissed Woodward’s assault charge against Woy.

There was probably no happier year in those places than 1898. There were now children in the community and there was a wedding:


“A Chinese bride! A Chinese bride!” The word was passed like wildfire among the crowd at the Donahue depot as the ten o’clock train on the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad slowed up there Wednesday morning. Instantly everybody was anxious to catch a glimpse of the celestial maiden, clad in the most fantastic of bridal costumes…When the bride and her party arrived at Sebastopol they were given a great reception by scores of Chinese. In a gaily decorated vehicle adorned with flags and Chinese lanterns, the bride was escorted through the streets. Later in the day the marriage took place amid much pomp. the groom was a “heap high tone” Chinaman employed on the Knowles ranch near Sebastopol.

Less happy was 1899; almost all of Barnes’ Chinatown burned down, wiping out 15 buildings including stores, boarding houses, the Joss house and their Masonic hall. There was great concern during the fire because the winds were blowing towards town and no one knew where their hook and ladder truck was (it was found on a vacant lot, someone having borrowed it for personal use). As Aaron Barnes was now deceased, it was unclear whether his son Henry would rebuild. By the end of the year it was reconstructed about 75 feet further east away from Petaluma Ave. One merchant, Quong Wah, was wealthy enough to build his own place.

1903 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's Old Chinatown and New Chinatown
1903 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s Old Chinatown and New Chinatown

In the summer of 1900 the census taker found 77 Chinese in and around Sebastopol, two of them women. Most were in small knots of 3-5 laborers living on farms but about a third were in the Chinatowns, which now had two groceries, two merchandise stores, three laundries and a barber. The two Chinatowns were still about equal size on the 1903 map. John A. Brown died in 1905 and the property passed to his daughter, Birdie, who continued making improvements into the 1920s. It was no longer called Old Chinatown/Brown’s Chinatown but “China Alley.”

Fast-forward ahead another decade; the 1910 census is the only one which recognized two Chinatowns, with about 25 people living in each. Seven were female and nine were born in California. Kim Lee owned a laundry; there were five grocers and eight other stores, which seems like a lot, if there were really only fifty people.

1911 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's China Alley and Barnes street Chinatown
1911 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s China Alley and Barnes street Chinatown

And now we come to the 1920s; there’s a druggist who has his own store, two salesmen, and sixteen people under age 20, with two dozen people born in California. The census says there are 84 living in “China Town.” Except that’s apparently not really true. To (somewhat) repeat myself: When it comes to the Chinese, the census data is like a house of cards – touch it lightly and it all falls apart.

Meet Johnny Ginn. He was an old man in the early 1970s when he was interviewed by sociologists collecting oral histories of the Chinese experience in California.* He was the only one interviewed who spoke about Sebastopol, having grown up around there; that 1898 story about the Chinese bride concerned his mother.

Johnny’s father was named Ginn Wall and as the wedding item states, he worked on the Knowles ranch near Sebastopol. But according to the 1900 census, there were no Chinese living on or near the William H. Knowles ranch. Same for 1910, 1920. In fact, Johnny and his parents can’t be spotted in any census at all, as far as I can tell, and they were not alone in being overlooked. As he told the researchers, “There were about three hundred Chinese farmworkers up there, and they were all old men…and except for my mother, not a single woman. That was the whole Chinese settlement in Sebastopol.”

Johnny’s mother died in 1929 and his father went broke being a tenant farmer. After saving for the next six years they finally had the $600 to send Ginn Wall back to China by himself. Johnny told the researchers he realized that the farm settlement in Sebastopol was dying:


All those old guys thought about was how they wanted to go back to China. But there’s only about six months work in the year on apples, so they never saved a thing. And the only other thing besides work was gambling. Gambling was the social life, and gambling was the pastime. Everybody hoped to make a few bucks so they could go home in the easy way. The others lost their money and got stuck from year to year.

By then in the mid-1930s it was a bachelor society of elderly men. There was nothing still keeping him there, so Johnny became a migrant worker.

1929 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's Brown ave. and Barnes ave.
1929 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s Brown ave. and Barnes ave.

Our last glimpse of the Chinatowns comes from the 1929 map, which shows the one on Brown Ave. (now Brown St.) in slow decline, while Barnes Ave. has slightly grown. The census in the following year again had a low headcount of 54 residents, but there was also now the eight-member Gin Hop family with their own house on Pitt Ave. (He was a China-born merchant and presumably no relation to Ginn Wall.)


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PDF file of transcribed sources discussed in this article (26 pages)



Of most interest to historians is the 1929 map appearance of a Tong Hall at the southernmost end, which raises several intriguing questions. It’s possible it had been there for years, but escaped notice of white cartographers who didn’t understand it possibly represented the foothold of a crime gang. In the late 1890s the Sebastopol paper had several items about highbinders (tong enforcers, sometimes hit men) being in town and a man who supposedly was a local highbinder was himself killed there in 1899. Although the separate Chinatowns began as protectorates of Messrs. Barnes and Brown, it’s possible they soon came under the control of rival tongs. This would explain why two joss houses were sustained the entire time. (UPDATE: Most tongs were not criminal, particularly at this late date.)

It all came to an end in 1943, when Sebastopol condemned the last buildings on Barnes ave. as fire hazards. Press Democrat reporter Pete Johnson described the place as “ghostlike,” although there were some people still living there. A few remained in Brown’s Chinatown until August, 1945 when that district was likewise condemned.

The last celebration of Chinese New Year was apparently 1932 and it was a low-key affair, the usual gaiety dampened by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria a few months earlier. “Chinese and Japanese in the settlement here are said to exchange nothing but short greetings, but the situation isn’t acute,” the Sebastopol Times reported. Only a few gathered at the joss house to celebrate because only a few were still around. “Old-timers in the Chinatown here estimate their number to be less than 70…about one-fourth of the population several years ago,” said the Times, the paper at last acknowledging the true size of the historic community.

But earlier New Year celebrations there were always happy times, regardless of their pitiable situations, and it was also the only time of the year when the Sebastopol gwáilóu came over to visit with them. Let’s end our survey with a peek at the celebration in 1920:


Wednesday noon in front of the joss house several strings of fire crackers, each over thirty feet in length, were exploded, much to the delight of Sebastopol’s boyhood. The Chinese had erected a high tripod on which they suspended the long strings of fire crackers by means of a pulley, but the first string had hardly been ignited when the tripod collapsed and the entire string exploded at once, much to the dismay of the Chinese…The rest of the fire crackers were more successful. All afternoon the tom toms and cymbals were kept busy by the Chinese musicians who were stationed in the joss house.
1943 views of Barnes Ave. Chinatown (Press Democrat) The Sonoma County Library History & Genealogical Library has another photo with a partial view of the Wing Yuen Tai Co. store and employment office on the corner of Barnes Ave. in the 1920s.
1943 views of Barnes Ave. Chinatown (Press Democrat) The Sonoma County Library History & Genealogical Library has another photo with a partial view of the Wing Yuen Tai Co. store and employment office on the corner of Barnes Ave. in the 1920s.

* Longtime Californ’: A Documentary Study of an American Chinatown; Victor Nee and Brett De Bary; 1986; pp. 25-29

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