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TERRIFIC GUY, TERRIBLE MARSHAL (CHARLIE HOLMES II)

Everyone in Santa Rosa knew him; Charlie Holmes had lived here since he was a small boy, and it’s safe to say he was the most popular guy in town at the turn of the century. When his first term as City Marshal expired in 1900 he ran for reelection, and at the local Democratic Party convention he was given their support by unanimous vote.

He was in great demand as a toastmaster and speaker at banquets and such because he had a gift for telling funny stories and reciting comic verse. Following him in the PD is like taking a Grand Tour through the halls of fraternal social clubs, all pungent with the odor of 5¢ cigars. Not only did he entertain at events held by well-known groups such as the Elks, Druids and Native Sons, but he did humorous recitations at a Pumpkin Pie Social for the Woodmen of the World and a smoker hosted by the Knights of the Maccabees. He surely held the town record for the person treated to the most free meals.

The chummy, good ol’ boy tenor of those gatherings was quite different than the sides of Santa Rosa he saw as City Marshal (which was the same as being Chief of Police – see part I).

Santa Rosa police department, c. 1901. Clockwise from upper left: Constables Don McIntosh, Ike Lindley, John M. Boyes, Marshall Charles Holmes, Herman Hankel. Image source: Chester Crist collection, "Santa Rosa A Nineteenth Century Town" by Gaye LeBaron et. al. 1985
Santa Rosa police department, c. 1901. Clockwise from upper left: Constables Don McIntosh, Ike Lindley, John M. Boyes, Marshall Charles Holmes, Herman Hankel. Image source: Chester Crist collection, “Santa Rosa A Nineteenth Century Town” by Gaye LeBaron et. al. 1985

Holmes and his four-man police force were busy, making 225 arrests in the first three months of 1900 alone. That seems like a lot considering the population was smaller than Cotati has today but little of it was serious law-breaking, at least if you went by what appeared in the newspapers. Offenders riding a bike on the sidewalk were subject to arrest; so were curfew violators (anyone 18 or younger out after 8:30PM “without any lawful business”). Boys with air guns were shooting at chickens. Laundry burglaries were a thing, which presumably was stealing off clotheslines. In 1901 they thought there was a serial laundry thief, but Holmes tracked the culprit down – it was a “big dog” dragging away coats, shoes and rugs to gnaw on. It sometimes seemed Marshal Holmes and Santa Rosa must be down the road a piece from Sheriff Andy and Mayberry.

But my longtime Gentle Reader knows this was not at all the case. In the late 19th-early 20th century Santa Rosa was awash in vice and corruption, being something of the “Sin City” in the Bay Area. There was a large and flourishing redlight district just two blocks from Courthouse Square, while saloons and hotels were openly providing illegal gambling – all of it was encouraged by our city leaders, eager to attract out-of-town visitors. Holmes’ successor as Police Chief later said there was nothing he could do to stop it even if he wanted to: “I am powerless to do anything if the Council will not back me up.” A webinar and overview to articles on this topic can be found in “AN UNMITIGATED NUISANCE.”

Santa Rosa’s biggest dirty little secret didn’t come out until 1905, when a pair of muckrakers briefly took editorial control of the Republican newspaper. Until then both of the town’s papers censored and suppressed almost all news concerning the prostitution and gambling scene – except for an incident that was, in the view of the Press Democrat, indescribably awful.

While the redlight district was centered around the intersection of First and D streets, in 1900 Holmes was pressured to shut down a house on Adams St. The women were told to leave town or face jail, but he found one of them was gravely ill and not receiving any medical care. Officers also discovered an infant buried in the backyard. The PD said the coroner would investigate the cause of death yet nothing more about the case appeared in the paper, as far as I can tell. The short article ended with, “There are circumstances and details in connection with this case which are unfit for publication.”

Only one other bordello was even fined during his years in office, so we can presume Holmes was no more diligent in enforcing laws against vice than other Santa Rosa marshals before and after. Not so his policies on the Chinese. For the first time since the 1886 heyday of the Anti-Chinese League, police began raiding our little Chinatown on Second St. A few weeks after returning from military service he proclaimed a ban on all Chinese gambling including card games and arrested six Chinese men.

Then there was this in 1901: “City Marshal Holmes has commenced a crusade against the opium dens in Chinatown and on Saturday morning personally notified the Chinamen in whose places, three in number, the drug is smoked, that they must not allow white boys or girls to ‘hit the pipe.'” As documented here several times, it’s true some “white boys or girls” were found seeking to get high. (The smoking form of opium was legal in California until 1911 though opium-based “nerve tonics” predominantly used by whites remained for sale.) Chinatown raids became common of the next 10+ years, Police Chiefs sometimes forming a posse of citizens interested in joining in the ransacking of their homes and businesses. It was nothing less than an excuse for terrorizing the Chinese community in hopes of driving them out of town.


SANTA ROSA’S DOGGY DILEMMA

Holmes had non-police duties as City Marshal.1 His least favorite job was being in charge of the dog pound, which was subject to frequent complaint. The pound was next to City Hall and the small public library was on the second floor (the famous Carnegie Library wouldn’t be built until 1904), so “the barking and whining of the dogs floating up into the library room made the patrons nervous and a ‘quiet read’ was anything but quiet.” City Councilmen pressed Holmes to come up with a solution.

There was no easy fix because Santa Rosa was teeming with dogs – at a City Council meeting Holmes estimated there were over 1,000 and at the time the city was tiny, roughly 1.5 sq. miles. Regulation wasn’t working. A dog license was $2/year (over $75 today) and mandatory; any without tags were taken to the pound, where they were put down after two days. I do not want to think about how they would have done that job back then.

Holmes partially solved the problem by moving the pound to somewhere on the First street creek bank. But in 1901 he told the Council there was an urgent need for a place to bury the 400 dogs they were destroying on the average every year. A lengthy discussion ensued, where one of the councilmen promoted a notion the animal’s remains should be cremated in the city trash burner. Another argued the dogs seen around town were so malnourished they would not be consumed by fire without using loads of additional fuel. The city clerk suggested the dogs be embalmed and presumably stored. It won’t be my top priority but once my back-ordered time machine arrives, I swear I will visit the City Council meeting of Jan. 21, 1901 to hear that bizarre debate where our top elected officials pondered whether our dead stray dogs had sufficient meat on the bones.2

Besides being city marshal, poundmaster and a few other things, he also wore the hat of city tax collector – arguably his most important job. People drifted in to his office all year round to make every sort of payment (it was where you got a dog license, even) but in 1901, November 18th was particularly busy because it was the last day to pay city taxes.

The next morning they found the marshal’s safe had been robbed. It was first estimated about $1,000 was taken – close to two year’s pay for most skilled workers at the time.

It was assumed the crime occurred between 5 and 6AM, a gap when no policeman was on duty. There were no suspects although a witness saw a man he didn’t recognize “with his hands in his outside coat pockets” quickly walking away from the direction of City Hall during that pre-dawn hour.

The Press Democrat’s story on the crime was excellent (transcribed below) and surely raised eyebrows – namely, many of the details suggested it might be an inside job.

Some evidence appeared planted. The marshal’s door leading to the lobby was ajar – did the burglar supposedly brazenly walk out the main entrance of city hall? There was no sign of forced entry into the building, but a small window was newly broken from outside. As the PD reporter observed, “…a table thickly covered with dust stands in front of the window…several pieces of glass that lodged on the table when the window was broken still remained there embedded in the dust. No one could have climbed through the window without leaving marks in the dust.” Read the transcript to find other questionable points, such as how the burglar could be confident of breaking into the safe.

Whoever did it was familiar with Holmes’ office, starting with knowing the place was empty between the night patrolmen’s shift and the arrival of the officer on morning duty. It appeared the thief gained access to the main office with the safe via a small, non-public back stairway that led to the holding cells downstairs. He would have had to go through three doors, forcing a simple doorknob lock on one of them. All navigated in the dark. It was also suggested the robber possibly got into that passageway the day before and hid there overnight. The tax robbery was looking more and more like a replay of the Stofen affair from seven years earlier.

In 1894, the county treasury was robbed of $8400. Treasurer Peter N. Stofen was held up as he was opening his office and locked in the vault until his wife found him there hours later. In the investigation that followed, there was growing suspicion Stofen was either an accomplice to the theft or covering up embezzlement. The Grand Jury concluded it could have been either a “real or pretended robbery.” (For more, see “WHO ROBBED THE COUNTY TREASURY?“)

Like treasurer Stofen, tax collector Holmes was required to be bonded because they were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office. The only way out of that obligation was to prove a robbery indeed took place and neither Stofen nor Holmes was able to do that. Holmes had the additional problem of not knowing how much money was stolen. It seems the man who collected all the money due Santa Rosa (including dog licenses! Do not forget the dog licenses!) couldn’t be bothered with doing simple bookkeeping.

It came out that Holmes never officially recorded the money passing through his hands until he got around to it, usually at the end of the month. You visited his office and made a tax (or dog license!) payment and he accepted the money, made a note related to it on the bank deposit slip, then later used that slip to record all the transactions in the “cash book” – which was supposed to be always kept current. Trouble was, there were always a few hours between the time Holmes deposited the day’s receipts at the end of banking day and when the marshal/tax collector closed his office door. Any late afternoon payments were stored overnight in the office safe and it was (supposedly) just those monies which were stolen. No deposit slip, no record of who paid what.


THE THREE (OR MORE) FACES OF CHARLIE HOLMES

Charles H. Holmes Jr. was surely the most talked about person in Santa Rosa 120 years ago, and that wasn’t always a good thing.

OUR OWN TOM SAWYER
TERRIFIC GUY, TERRIBLE MARSHAL
OH, LOATHSOME ME
BOSS SQUEEDUNCK

It was left to Charles’ memory to recall who paid what during those hours. The PD reported the next day, “Mr. Holmes and an assistant worked on the books checking up the sheets and by evening he had become practically sure enough to state the robbery would amount to the figure named.” Yeah, I’m confident he remembered everyone who came by on the busiest day of the year.

A week after the robbery, Holmes received an envelope postmarked from San Francisco that contained a few checks the thief had scooped up along with the money in the safe. This was another head-scratcher, like the mystery of how/when the burglar got in City Hall. Why would the robber go to the trouble of returning unredeemable checks instead of destroying them? And for that matter, was there proof they came in the mail, other than Charles’ word? Yet having the checks in hand was a boon for Holmes because he could now eliminate those payments from the missing sum he was still trying to determine.

To hopefully straighten out this mess, the City Council hired expert accountant William H. Pool to do a forensic audit of the accounts from the start of Holmes’ second term on April 1, 1900. The report he made to the council at a special session gave no joy.

The main point in the report was that there was no magic wand to wave and show exactly how much money was in the safe at the time of the robbery. Pool revealed Holmes’ bookkeeping was always funky and at the start of that November – weeks before the theft – about $800 was already missing. Perhaps it was sitting in the safe waiting for Holmes to eventually deposit it; there was no way for the accountant to know. By the end of the year 1901, Pool believed the account was short at least $1,299.16.

The PD interviewed Holmes and his answers only cast more suspicion. He did much hand-waving, insisting his books were only off $34. As to the $800 missing before the robbery, he made a bewildering denial: “…while perhaps technically justified by figures, is not borne out by facts. On the date mentioned, as I remember, I paid a considerable sum over to the city treasurer several hours before the close of business…” So it was the treasurer’s fault he didn’t keep receipts?

Holmes and the Maryland company that held his bond were commanded to pay the nearly $1,300 shortage, which he did under protest. He was gonna prove bad guys robbed his safe and then demand the bond money back, yessir. And he could do it too – after all, he was the top lawman in Santa Rosa.

But not for much longer. The accountant’s report and paying back the money happened in mid-January, 1902. Six weeks later the Democratic Party in Santa Rosa held their convention to determine the candidates they wanted on their ticket. Where Charles had been unanimously chosen for the marshal/tax collector job in 1900, this time he came in fourth.

He went back to being a plasterer, although right after he lost the city job he was briefly manager of the Campi, the most popular restaurant in downtown Santa Rosa. He still was a popular speaker at banquets and marched in every parade. But over the next five years his personal life was marked by turmoil, particularly after he was charged with rape.

NEXT: OH, LOATHSOME ME


1 Holmes was also chairman of the investigation committee of the Associated Charities which distributed clothing to the needy, and was for a time the acting health officer with power to issue death certificates

2 The City Council formed a special committee to handle all dog pound questions and there was discussion of hiring a “Dog Impounder” who would be paid from the dog license fees. It is not clear whether the position was created, but it was a regular council agenda item over the next four months. Part of his duties would have been to bury the dogs

  

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DESERVES A SECOND TERM

Charles H. Holmes, Jr., the Democratic nominee for city marshal, needs no introduction to the people of Santa Rosa. He has lived here ever since he was a boy and has grown up with the town. Two years ago he was elected city marshal, defeating by a good majority a man of acknowledged strength. He has just finished one good term, and deserves a second, and his many friends feel confident that this is a recognition and a courtesy which will not be denied him.

In the discharge of his duties Mr. Holmes has been faithful and efficient and has demonstrated the fact that the interests of the department will be safe in his hands. He has served the city well. A few months after his election two years ago war with Spain broke out and in conformity with the plans of the war department the Fifth regiment, N. G. C., composed of companies located in different parts of the state, was ordered to mobilize at the Presidio preparatory to being sent to the front. As First Lieutenant of Company E of this city Mr. Holmes was in duty bound to answer to the call, and did so. With almost his entire company he enlisted in the Eighth California volunteers and became a member of the regular army.

Through the speedy and unexpected termination of the war the services of the Eighth regiment were not required and after remaining under orders for several months the regiment disbanded, and Mr. Holmes returned to his home in this city and to the discharge of his duties as marshal, which during his absence he had left in good hands. The people of Santa Rosa have not forgotten the scenes attendant either upon the departure or the arrival home of Company E, and the facts here narrated are familiar to all our citizens. During his occupancy of his office Mr. Holmes has never proved recreant to a trust and his record ever since the time he came here as a boy has been a creditable one. He has shown himself to be a good citizen both in and out of office, as well as a good official while in office, and ho deserves a second term in the position he now holds. And unless the Press Democrat is very much mistaken in the people of Santa Rosa that is what he will get.

– Press Democrat, March 17 1900

 

BROKE UP THE NEST
City Police Department Makes Several Arrests
Coroner Pierce Will Inquire Today Into The Cause of an Infant’s Death

City Marshal Holmes and the police have broken up a disreputable house on Adams street in this city. As a result of the disturbance of the nest two or three women whose characters are sadly tainted have been arrested and will be given a chance to leave town for good, under penalty of imprisonment for failure to do so. A youth was given a month’s imprisonment yesterday for complicity in the matter and it is believed now that the atmosphere will be purer in that vicinity.

Yesterday Coroner Pierce was communicated with and today will inquire into the circumstances which caused the death of an infant, whose body was unearthed in the back yard of the house by officers. From Marshal Holmes a Press Democrat representative learned that many complaints have been made about the conduct of the inmates of the house and that he had sufficient evidence to warrant him in adopting the course he took. When the police visited the house they found a woman there, lying dangerously ill, not having the care of a physician or even a nurse.
There are circumstances and details in connection with this case which are unfit for publication.

– Press Democrat, October 24 1900

 

CITY’S SAFE ROBBED
Bold Burglary at the City Hall
CARRIED OFF $1,000
Tax Money Stolen During The Early Morning Hours
Unwelcome Visitors at the Office Of City Marshal and Tax Collector Charles H. Holmes Jr.

Early Tuesday morning, presumably between the hours of 5 and 6 o’clock, the safe in the office of City Marshal and Tax Collector Charles H. Holmes Jr. in the city hall was robbed of a large sum of money, estimated at $1,000, the proceeds of tax collections received the previous day after banking hours.

The robbery was discovered by Mrs. Jane Samuels, the city hall janitoress, who arrived as usual to begin her duties about 6 o’clock. When she arrived upon the scene Mrs. Samuels noticed that the front door of the marshal’s office was ajar. At first she gave little heed to the fact, presuming that Officer Don McIntosh, who goes on duty at that hour, had arrived before her. Subsequently she saw that the safe door was also open, and suspecting that something was wrong at once summoned Officer McIntosh and informed him of her discoveries. An investigation revealed the fact that entrance to the office had been gained by forcing the small door opening from the passageway that leads down outside the marshal’s office to the cell room in the rear. The wall here is a thin board affair and by springing the partition in slightly the door can easily be forced. This door was found open, with the tongue of the lock protruding. The door in question does not lead directly into the marshal’s office, but opens into a closet, which in turn opens into a small room directly in the rear of the office. Another door, which was not locked, opens from this room directly into the main office in which the safe is located.

A small window looking from the back room above referred to into the rear hallway was broken near the catch, but while the burglar or burglars may at first have intended gaining an entrance through the window, if such was the case the plan was apparently abandoned. A table thickly covered with dust stands in front of the window and no evidence of its having been climbed over could be noted. Several pieces of glass that lodged on the table when the window was broken still remained there embedded in the dust. No one could have climbed through the window without leaving marks in the dust on the table or without knocking at least some of the pieces of glass onto the floor.

The marshal’s office is also used as police headquarters. When, after coming in from their night’s vigil and making the usual change of clothing. Officers Hankel, Boyes and Lindley left the place, a few minutes before 5 o’clock, everything was in the usual order. An old cripple who had been given a bed in one of the cells in the rear of the city hall says that he heard the sound of breaking glass along about morning, but his physical and mental condition is such that nothing like a concise statement can be obtained from him.

The safe from which the money was stolen is an antiquated affair, and was purchased by the city from Lee Bros. & Co. a year or two ago. It at one time belonged to G. N. Savage, a former auctioneer and real estate man of this city, and went through the fire that something like twenty years ago destroyed the block of wooden buildings that at that time extended from where Dignan’s drug store now is up to the rear of the old hall of records on Fourth street. It was originally a key safe, but after the fire was fitted out with a combination lock, a cheap contrivance long since out of date.

The money was in gold, silver and bank checks, postal or express orders, and had all been placed in a steel compartment or drawer in the bottom of the safe. This drawer fastens with an ordinary lock and key such as is used in bureaus or tables of ancient pattern. Marshal Holmes states that as far as he knows he holds the only key to the drawer, but this is a fact of little importance as the drawer could probably be opened with a button-hook or an ordinary wire.

So far no clue has been discovered pointing to the perpetrators of the deed, but several suspicious circumstances are being investigated. While on his way to work about half past 5, and while passing down Fourth street towards Mendocino, Al Reed, who is employed at Koenig’s stable, says he saw a man wearing a long coat and with his hands in his outside coat pockets, walking hurriedly out diagonally across Hinton avenue from the direction of the city hall toward the northeast entrance to the courthouse grounds. In the semi-darkness, Mr. Reed says, he at first took the stranger to be one of the officers, but such was not the case and he paid no further attention to him.

Charles Staley, a carpenter of this city, passed the city hall in company with his brother on his way to work shortly before 7 o’clock. Just at the entrance to the passageway leading from the street to the cell room in the rear he noticed a queer-looking object. Picking it up he discovered that it was a false beard and sidewhiskers. He carried it with him, examining it and laughing about the matter with his brother, until he had passed around the corner of the hall of records, onto Third street, when he tossed it up onto a window ledge of the latter building. Later Edward Beatty, coming down town from the opposite direction, saw it and picking it up brought it on down town with him. It is presumed that the false beard may have been part of the disguise used by the burglar.

About $400 of the money stolen was in the form of checks and current exchange. As none of the paper had been endorsed, and as its payment has been stopped, the actual loss will probably be about $600. Owing to the system of book-keeping employed in the marshal’s office the exact sum stolen could not be ascertained yesterday. The books are not balanced each day during tax-collecting time, but once a month. Monday was the last day allowed by law for the collection of city taxes and several thousand dollars was paid in. $3,748 was deposited in the Santa Rosa Bank Monday afternoon shortly after 3 o’clock. The usual list of belated taxpayers kept the collector busy yesterday, and the work of figuring out the exact amount missing was not completed last night. The task will be completed today, however.

Marshal Holmes states that when he left the office Monday evening about 10 o’clock everything was all right, and while he knew that the sum on hand was a large amount to have in such a place, it seemed about the only thing to do. Until recently Marshal Holmes had been in the habit of leaving any money on hand at night with T. A. Proctor, but Mr. Proctor not long ago notified him that it was against the rules of Wells, Fargo & Co. and the practice was accordingly discontinued. Upon being informed of the robbery Mr. Holmes at first thought that a joke was intended. Upon learning the true condition of affairs he at once informed Sheriff Grace and steps were taken to do everything possible towards apprehending the guilty parties.

– Press Democrat, November 20 1901

 

In his report concerning the accounts of City Tax Collector Holmes, Expert Pool states his inability to give the exact amount taken at the time of the alleged safe robbery in November, but shows there was a deficiency in the accounts of the tax collector’s office of $1299.16 on January 1, 1902.

– Press Democrat, January 8 1902

 

A SANTA ROSA SENSATION.
Popular City Official Said to Be Short in His Accounts.

The report of Expert William H. Pool on the amount of the shortage in the office of City Marshal and Tax Collector Charles H. Holmes of Santa Rosa was given to the common council at a meeting of that body Tuesday night.

In addition to the shortage of $1,299.16, which is due to the alleged robbery of the office on November 18th, the examination of the books discloses the fact that for a number of months during the last year the official has been in arrears in his settlements with the treasurer in amounts varying from $30 to $803.43. The latter amount was due the city on the first day of November, 1901. The marshal is ex-officio tax collector, and as such began the collection of taxes on October 21st. It is said he kept a crude record of his collections, but failed to make a balance of the receipts of any day during the period embraced from the date mentioned until the close of the collections on November 18th. During the time between 5 o’clock on the morning of November 19th, when Officers Herman Hankel, John M. Boyes and I. N. Lindley reported off duty, and 5:45 oclock when the janitress appeared on the scene to perform her labors, some one entered the office and opened the small safe. The taxes collected after banking hours on the 18th were in ths safe and the amount was extracted. Owing to the system of bookkeeping the entire receipts of the office had to be gone over to ascertain the amount of the shortage.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, January 8 1902

 

EXPLAINS FIGURES
Interview With City Marshal Chas. H. Holmes Jr.
Denies Absolutely That He Was Short in His Accounts Previous to The Robbery on November 18

“…on October 17 I was square with the city except for a matter of some $34. On that date I figured up my books and paid over what I owed — or what I thought I owed. The way Mr. Pool figures it, I made a mistake of $34; but whether he is right or I was right, I certainly thought I was square with the city on that date. I did not make a complete settlement between that time and the date of the robbery just a month later, although of course I paid in different sums upon several occasions.
“That portion of Expert Pool’s report stating that I was behind with the city $803.43 on the first day of November, some two weeks before the robbery, while perhaps technically justified by figures, is not borne out by facts. On the date mentioned, as I remember, I paid a considerable sum over to the city treasurer several hours before the close of business….
“Some of the city papers have stated,” Mr. Holmes concluded, “that the affairs of my office were in bad shape for several months before the robbery. The report of the city’s own expert shows that just one month before the robbery occurred I was square with the city — or at least within thirty-four dollars of it, and as I say, I thought I was square to the last cent.”

– Press Democrat, January 10 1902

 

THE COIN PAID OVER
Text of the Protest Made by Marshal Holmes

“In line with what I stated at the first to the effect no one should lose the money but myself I idemnifled my bondsmen by a deed on my home for $800 advanced by them. I advanced $500 myself and will bring a suit for vindication, in the event of proving a robbery was committed, which I fully expect to do, shall leave the money in the City Treasury as the suit is brought for vindication alone.”

– Press Democrat, January 23 1902

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THE ONE ABOUT THE GUY WHO STOLE A TRAIN

William Cox was having lunch at home when he heard the whistle of his train. “Toot, toot,” it blew as the locomotive left Sebastopol bound for Santa Rosa.

*
  NB to Gentle Reader: Yes, I am quite aware the whistle of a steam locomotive in 1900 did not sound anything like “toot, toot,” but I am quoting here directly from the Press Democrat coverage which otherwise is a darn good piece to read, so let’s cut the paper some slack on this.

As William was the train’s engineer and he was clearly not aboard it, he assumed Eugene, who kept the engine stoked with wood, had received an urgent order from the California Northwestern railway station in Santa Rosa to bring the train there.

But Eugene Ellison was not in the cab either. The man with his hand on the throttle was Will Thompson, who everybody called “Brick.” He was 31 years old and had never driven a train before. He was also insane.

“Toot, toot,” Brick sounded the whistle at every crossing, just as William always did. Section hands doing track maintenance near Llano Road were having lunch as well. They didn’t look up when engine No. 11 passed by and just assumed Engineer Cox had received an urgent order from the California Northwestern railway station in Santa Rosa to bring the train there.

Witnesses later said Brick was pushing the train up to 50MPH, which was faster than it had ever gone before. He made the trip to Santa Rosa in twenty minutes, and it only took that long because he had to stop near Fulton Road to wait for the steam gauge to come up to pressure after shoving in more wood.

This next bit is fun because the PD almost never printed dialogue in those days, and here we learn our ancestors spoke fluent Victorian-era slang.

A boy on his bicycle rode up to Santa Rosa Station Agent Joe McMullen and said, “Say, Joe, No. 11 is coming in.”

“What’s the josh?” McMullen asked the boy. “Straight goods,” the kid replied. “Here she comes.”

McMullen watched in astonishment as the steam engine pulled into the south end of the railroad yard and a strange man popped out of the cab. “Who brought over the engine?” He asked Brick, apparently thinking Cox or some other trained engineer must be in hiding.

“I did,” answered Brick before strutting away down Fourth Street, “and don’t you let her go.”

Apprised of the unusual hijacking, the sheriff and city marshal were also flummoxed and likely wondered if there was more to the story than it seemed – after all, people don’t take off with trains. A posse was formed, which meant at the time that they spread the word to be on the lookout. From the PD: “Needless to say, the news of the occurrence caused no little stir in this city and ‘the man who stole the engine’ was pretty forcibly talked of.”

Meanwhile, Brick was enjoying a repast at the Chicago saloon on Fourth Street. When he stepped out of the bar Deputy Sheriff Tombs (yes, his real name) arrested him. Brick pulled a carpenter’s hammer from his pocket and tried to whack the officer in the head, but City Marshal Holmes stopped the assault by grabbing his raised arm.

That afternoon a Press Democrat reporter spoke to Brick at the jail. He paced in his cell, ranted about the deputy touching him without a warrant, and insisted he bought the train fourteen years ago. “When [the president of the railroad] knows of it, it will be all right.”

He was examined by the lunacy commission – an agency we certainly should revive, particularly in election years – and sent to the asylum near Ukiah for a time. It’s noteworthy that his father requested his commitment, possibly as a legal maneuver to avoid Brick being sent to prison for stealing the train and/or trying to hammer a deputy.

Details later emerged that Brick’s joyride almost ended in disaster. As he stepped off the train in Santa Rosa he left the throttle open, and, as the PD noted, “When the locomotive arrived here the water was nearly exhausted. Had the man run the engine much further it is very probable that he and it would have been blown to fragments.”

It also came out that he was a “dope” addict at the time, which in his case meant opium. After his release from the asylum he remained in the Ukiah area, where he worked at a livery stable and reportedly began using drugs again. There in 1905 he attacked the owner with a razor and fled to Sacramento, where he shot a policeman in the leg.

Brick was spotted in Santa Rosa a few days later – his family lived in the area – before he returned to Sacramento. There he accidentally shot himself in the hip and died of sepsis.

The only obituary to be found was in the Santa Rosa Republican, and read in part: “He was 36 years of age and was considered somewhat demented, which fact brought him into prominence several times as the principal in a number of escapades.”

California Northwestern Railroad engine #11 at the second Santa Rosa train depot, probably c. 1890. Another photo of this particular engine and details about it can be found here. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library. Title image colorized using Hotpot.
California Northwestern Railroad engine #11 at the second Santa Rosa train depot, probably c. 1890. Another photo of this particular engine and details about it can be found here. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library. Title image colorized using Hotpot.

 

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FROLIC WITH STEAM
A Sebastopol Engine on a Flying Trip
A MAN’S WILD RIDE
While the Engineer Dined Another Took His Place Unasked
“Brick” Thompson’s Escapade on Monday — When Arrested Tries To Assault the Officer – A Charge of Insanity

It is rather an uncommon thing for a man to be able to “steal” a railway locomotive and run it as he desires, especially without harm resulting to himself or some one else, or even to the engine. Yet Will Thompson, or as he is familiarly known, “Brick” Thompson, did this Monday afternoon.

Fate was certainly with him when he coolly stepped into the cab of the locomotive used on the Sebastopol branch of the California Northwestern railway, pulled the lever and opened the throttle and started, monarch of all he surveyed down the track to Santa Rosa. At the first crossing he gave the accustomed “toot, toot,” just as Engineer Cox, the regular hand at the throttle, does. By the way, Mr. Cox was in the act of complimenting his wife on the excellent lunch she had provided for him, when he heard the warning whistle of “No. 11” as she sped down the track. He thought, however, that a hasty call must have come from Santa Rosa for the engine and that Fireman Ellison had “taken her over.” When he and others learned what had really happened their astonishment can readily be imagined.

Acting Engineer Thompson made “No. 11” break several records until he was well out of Sebastopol and when crossings were reached the warning whistle rang out as usual. When near the Llano school house he slowed down for a short distance. The section men, who wore eating their lunch near the LaFranchi place, paid no particular attention to the oncoming locomotive, thinking that Engineer Cox had been summoned to make a special trip. But somehow or other Thompson in the cab paid particular notice of them for he sped “No. 11” at such a terrific rate that they could not see who was in the cab. Once or twice after this the self-constituted engineer slowed down a little and started up again just to see what the engine could do. When Santa Rosa was reached steam began to give out so that his perilous ride had to end.

Mervyn Donahue rode on his wheel hurriedly to the depot. Espying Station Agent Joe McMullen, he accosted him thus;

“Say, Joe, No. 11 is coming in.”

“What’s the josh” inquired the station agent.

“Straight goods,” replied the other, “Here she comes.”

Station Agent McMullen so far recovered his astonishment to be able to ask the strange engineer as he drew up near the depot, “Who brought over the engine?”

“I did, and don’t you let her go,” Thompson replied then walked hurriedly away up town. The marshal’s office and sheriff’s office were instantly apprized of the unheard-of theft of a locomotive and in a twinkling a posse had started to round the man up.

Just as Thompson stepped out of the Chicago saloon on Fourth street near the corner of that street and Exchange avenue, Deputy Sheriff Tombs placed him under arrest. The man ran his hand into his pocket and quick as a flash produced a carpenter’s hammer, swung it aloft and it was about to descend on Mr. Tombs’ cranium when City Marshal Holmes held the uplifted hand in a firm grasp and prevented any damage. Tho man was then taken to the city hall.

Engineer James Donahue was on his way up town just about the time when the engine arrived at the depot. It is true that he was dressed in his Sunday best, but he climbed into the cab and ran the engine back to Sebastopol in time to bring in the afternoon train.

Needless to say, the news of the occurrence caused no little stir in this city and “the man who stole the engine” was pretty forcibly talked of. Such a person had never been heard of in these parts before.

A Press Democrat reporter saw Thompson later in the afternoon at the county jail.

When asked why he took the engine he replied: “I own the engine. I bought it a number of years ago. When Foster (meaning the railroad president) knows of it, it will be all right.”

He then made some strange remarks about having the officers arrested for touching him without a warrant. While he was speaking he moved about all the time, walking hither and thither about his cell. His conduct was such that those present at the interview were led to believe that probably the hand of an insane person held the throttle on that run from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa. The man’s own father, who is a respected citizen of Santa Rosa, says that his son is insane. He was very much grieved when he signed his name to a complaint alleging that he was insane. He told Judge Brown Monday afternoon that up to a month or so ago “Brick” used opium freely. All of a sudden he stopped taking the drug and it is supposed that this resulted in his mind becoming affected. At one time he also used considerable morphine and was under the care of a physician.

That Thompson’s wild ride ended as luckily as it did is a matter for congratulation. When the locomotive arrived here the water was nearly exhausted. Had the man run the engine much further it is very probable that he and it would have been blown to fragments. From a legal standpoint the mere running away with the engine would probably mean prosecution for malicious mischief or trespass. When asked Monday evening whether the man would undergo an examination on the insanity charge District Attorney Webber said that he could not state yet. He may be charged with assault with a deadly weapon for his attempt to hammer Mr. Tombs.

– Press Democrat, February 21 1900


A WILD RIDE ON AN ENGINE
Mad Man Takes a Spin on the Sebastopol Locomotive.
Opened the Throttle and Sent Old No. 11 Across the Valley at a Rapid Rate.

It is only once in a life-time that we hear of the theft of a railway locomotive, and such an occurrence has a natural tendency to stir up a little interest and excitement. For the first time in the history of the California Northwestern Railway one of the Company’s engines was stolen last Monday.

Shortly after twelve o’clock a man about thirty years of age walked into Sebastopol from the direction of Freestone. Near the cemetery, about a mile west of town, he met William Mather, to whom he stated that he was going to make a speedy trip from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa and that only twenty minutes would be consumed in the seven-mile cross-country run. It cannot be denied that the stranger executed his boast according to schedule. He walked down to the depot, boarded the engine which had been left standing near Julliard’s winery, opened the throttle and was soon heading toward Santa Rosa at a mighty clip. Station agent Harvey was in the depot building at the time and the train hands were at home enjoying the noon-day meal. When the locomotive passed over the laguna trestle the noise was distinctly heard up town. Most people thought the train men were going over to Santa Rosa to do some switching before making the regular afternoon run. Engineer Cox, fireman Ellison and conductor Corbaley realized that something was wrong and after holding a brief consultation they decided to wire a “lost, strayed or stolen” message to Agent McMullen at Santa Rosa. In the mean time old No. 11 was speeding over the steel rails at a pace she had never struck before. At every crossing the man in the cab opened the whistle valve to give warning of his approach. People who saw the iron horse crossing the valley say that the trip was made at a fifty-mile rate of speed. Between the Llano school house and Wright’s crossing the steam supply became exhausted and the locomotive came to a stand still. With the familiarity of a veteran fireman the stranger at the throttle applied the brakes, filled the furnace with wood and waited until the steam gauge indicated that the trip could be continued. Then he set the machinery in motion again and a few minutes later the engine and its passenger made a flying entrance into the railway yard at the County Seat. There was a large and appreciative audience at the station to witness the arrival of the lightning special. The locomotive was stopped in front of the depot and the would-be engineer left the cab and walked up town. He carried a large hammer and not one of the spectators seemed inclined to molest the privileged character as he sauntered up Fourth street. Before many hours had passed the entire force of Santa Rosa’s official dignitaries struck the trail of the locomotive excursionist and he was located in the Chicago saloon on Fourth street. The officers experienced considerable difficulty in landing their man in the county jail.

When asked why he took the iron horse without permission, the adventurer stated that he purchased the engine fourteen years ago and had a perfect right to run it as often and as fast as circumstances necessitated.

The man who created such a sensation in railway and police circles is William Thompson, son of a Santa Rosa carpenter. He has been working for some time past on Sam Allen’s farm on Pleasant Hill. It is said that for years the young man has been addicted to the opium habit and he is a mental wreck. The general opinion is that he is insane and he will be examined by the lunacy commissioners. The engine was brought back to Sebastopol Monday afternoon in time for the regular 2:50 trip. No damage was done by the extra run.

LATER.

Thompson was examined by two physicians and they reported that his mind is temporarily deranged.

– Sebastopol Times, February 21 1900


Examined for Insanity

William Thompson, whose sensational ride from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa aboard “No. 11” Tuesday caused such a sensation, was examined yesterday upon a charge of insanity, preferred by his father. The examination took place in the county jail, Drs. J. W. Jesse and S. S. Bogle acting as commissioners. After subjecting the prisoner to a rigid questioning, it was decided to postpone the decision for a few days as it is thought his present condition is but temporary.

– Press Democrat, February 24 1900


SANTA ROSAN IS IN TROUBLE
“Brick” Thompson Who Stole the Sebastopol Engine Five Years Ago Shoots Policeman

R. M. Thompson familiarly known as “Brick” Thompson who according to the dispatches from Sacramento shot Officer Bert Callahan in the thigh last night after he had run amuck is well known in Santa Rosa and in this vicinity.

About five years ago Thompson boarded the engine of the Sebastopol branch of the California Northwestern at Sebastopol and ran it over to the county seat. He knew nothing of the mechanism of the locomotive but managed to start it and once started it kept going until the steam gave out. This happened at the south end of the railroad yards in this city and when the locomotive came to a standstill Thompson alighted without shutting off the throttle. After he stepped from the engine employees of the company who investigated the unexpected entry of the engine into the railroad yards caught him and detained him until he could be placed under arrest.

Thompson was believed to be insane and the freak of stealing the engine was characterized as the result of a disordered mind caused by using “dope” He was sent to the hospital at Ukiah and afterward was discharged as cured.

At Ukiah he made a vicious and unwarranted attack on Henry Smith proprietor of a livery stable there where he was employed and attempted to carve Smith with a razor. This was the result of his craze from using dope. Smith entered the barn and without a word of warning or any provocation Thompson jumped at him with an uplifted razor. That Smith escaped instant death is regarded as miraculous as he was unprepared for the onslaught.

Thompson passed through this city a couple of days ago and was recognized by Oscar Smyth at the local depot. After the episode of stealing the engine Thompson dropped from sight here by reason of his incarceration in the asylum. He was not heard from again until his attempt on the life of Smith at that place. His latest escapade will probably result in his being incarcerated again.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 10, 1905


Will Go to a State Hospital

Contrary to the faintest hope, about half-past 4 o’clock yesterday morning, William Thompson, who took morphine the previous evening to end his life, began to revive, and continued to improve. His mind, weak at the time he took what nearly proved a fatal dose, was worse yesterday, and last evening two of the lunacy commissioners held a consultation. Probably today or tomorrow Mr. Thompson will be removed to the state hospital at Napa.

– Press Democrat, March 11 1899

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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

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