firebug1

SANTA ROSA, WE HAVE A FIREBUG

The fourth time someone tried to burn down Robert Ross’s building he became agitated and said some things he shouldn’t. He was taken to jail and charged for “using language too strenuous to suit the occasion,” making him the only person who was arrested in connection with a string of arson attempts which plagued Santa Rosa for 28 months.

Between 1902 and 1904 there were eighteen suspicious fires, all but four of which were declared to be positively caused by “incendiarism,” which was our ancestor’s word at the time for arson. Among the incidents was the 1903 Railroad Square fire which burned for two days, making it the worst blaze Santa Rosa firemen had yet faced.

In the months that followed, the Fire Chief and police repeatedly told the Press Democrat there was a firebug at work here, but a broader analysis shows a pattern which probably began in early 1902. With one exception, all 18 were on the south side of downtown, mostly within a block from Santa Rosa Creek. Most happened during the months of April, May or July and were discovered around midnight, with Saturday being by far the favorite night.

(UPDATE: There were 19 suspicious fires, not 18. I neglected to count one of the Ross fires blamed on arson.)

Those familiar with this journal know I often end with a Believe-it-or-Not! oddity or twist to a story, but this time the surprise has to be revealed at the top: Incidents of serial arson were shockingly common out here at the turn of the century – and authorities didn’t seem too concerned about finding the culprits. When the firebugs were caught it was usually by accident.

Thankfully rare today, a search of turn-of-the-century era newspapers found arson sprees in rural towns like Santa Rosa all over the Bay Area. Almost always the pyromaniacs were teenage boys (MORE on the psychology of fire setting). The only known adult was Carlos Benedetto, a Petaluma firebug 1897-1898 who destroyed the town’s largest warehouses, part of a lumber yard and tried to burn a bridge. He was described as “a demented Italian laborer” (SF Examiner) and as “vicious looking, has a wild eye and is no doubt insane” (Petaluma Courier).

(RIGHT: Illustration of the San Rafael firebugs, San Francisco Call, Sept. 25 1902)

A 14 year-old was caught in Martinez for fires at the school, town hall and coal yard in 1904; a couple of years later a 15 year-old boy in Santa Cruz burned several barns, a school house and two bridges. There were also serial arsonists in Hopland (caught) and Ukiah (not caught). In 1901-1902 San Rafael, two boys aged 9 and 14 set as many as 16 fires; the younger boy was the ringleader and said he did it because he “liked to see firemen run.”

What made the Santa Rosa arsonist unique, however, was that he repeatedly went after the same buildings. Robert Ross’s blacksmith shop at First and Main was torched six times. A few doors down at Second and Main he tried to burn a barn/horse stable twice. Three times he hit the Star Feed Mill building at Fourth and A streets and two fires were set in vacant houses in the tenderloin district along First street.

While Fire Chief Lynchberg Adams apparently listed the Railroad Square conflagration as cause unknown, circumstances suggest it was our arsonist. It was the fourth suspicious fire in six weeks, and Adams had said the others were definitely incendiary. The fire began BENEATH the freight loading platform, and in the northwest corner – the only point which could not be seen from the train depot. There were rumors that boys were seen throwing firecrackers under the platform, although a policeman told the Press Democrat he was certain there was no truth in it.

Two days afterward the City Marshal offered a $50 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “the incendiary.” After another rash of fires the next year Board of Fire Commissioners discussed raising it to $100, but nothing came of it. (The money would have been better spent by just paying a guard to sit in Robert Ross’s place.) But other than adding a streetlight at First and Main, no further preventative measures were mentioned in the papers.

The pattern of arson fires ended May 28, 1904, with the final attempt to torch the building with the mill. As the PD reported about the last of the Ross fires, “the identity of the miscreant remains a mystery.”

There were suspects but they were never named. Fire Chief Adams said two boys were seen playing in one of the red light district vacant houses before flames were spotted. And on July 2, 1903 – three days before the Railroad Square blaze – there was an incident at the high school on Humboldt street. A janitor was cleaning up the grounds when “a lad named Gardner” asked if he could help. The janitor said yes, but told the boy not to burn the rubbish. He did anyway, and the resulting fire destroyed a neighbor’s barn, two sheds and tons of hay. Nothing more was mentioned about that lad who couldn’t resist lighting a match.

 

APPLIED A TORCH
Attempt to Burn the Cnopius Barn on Second Street
Fire Discovered Before it Had Gained Much Headway and Was Extinguished

Some miscreant made an attempt Thursday night about 7 o’clock to burn the barn and stable of Cnopius & Co. on Second street near Main street. A piece of rag or matting, presumably soaked with oil, was thrust through a hole in the front of the barn and was snugly tucked in against a bale of hay. The torch was then applied and the would-be incendiary doubtless hurried away. Luckily Frank Cootes happened to pass along the street and noticed the flame. He gave an alarm at once and several men were quickly on the scene. Dr. Summerfield, the veterinary, and others forced open the barn doors and water was thrown on the fire and it was extinguished before any damage to speak of was done. Had the fire gained headway serious damage would have resulted. There were six horses in the barn Thursday night. What prompted the Incendiary to act in the manner described is unknown.

– Press Democrat, January 10 1902

 

HOP BARN BURNED
Destruction of a Building on the Burgess Place
Origin of the Fire Unknown — Building Reduced to Ashes In a Short Time

Shortly after midnight the large hop barn nearest the city pumping station alongside the road on the Burgess hop ranch on Sonoma avenue, was burned to the ground.

The building was reduced to ashes, together with the fence around it. From Chief Engineer Will Yandel at the pumping station it was learned by phone that the barn was empty at the time, according to a statement made by Mr. Burgess, who was awakened and told of the fire.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It was undoubtedly incendiary. At first it was stated that many bales of hops were stored in the barn. It was afterward learned that the hops were in another barn. The fire caused a big reflection in the sky, which attracted considerable attention among those who were abroad on the streets awaiting the election returns.

– Press Democrat, April 3 1902

 

WORK OF INCENDIARY
Attempt to Burn Robert Ross’ Establishment on Sunday Night

About 11:30 o’clock on Sunday night what appears to have been an attempt to burn down Robert Ross’ blacksmith shop at First and Main streets was discovered. Some people who were driving by happened to notice the flames on the First-street side and gave the alarm.

The fire was burning against one of the posts of the doors leading into the blacksmith shop and had it once gained headway a serious conflagration would have resulted as the room in which the dry wood is stored and the paint and oil room are in close proximity. The fire was started from the outside. A big wagon was drawn up alongside the doors. There is a probability that a lighted cigar stump might have been thrown against the woodwork which is old and would burn easily. No damage was done. The fire department responded with commendable promptitude.

Dr. Summerfield pulled the wagon out of the way and Fireman Len Colgan, assisted by Gus Donovan, who hurried to the scene, accompanied by Mr. Bertolani, put the fire out with a tub of water, which Mr. Ross keeps standing near the door for use in case of an outbreak of fire. Mr. Ross was home in bed at the time the alarm was rung in and in a few minutes Dr. Summerfield telephoned to him that everything was safe and the fire out. The damage was slight.

The authorities are investigating. They believe that they have their eye on the guilty party. It is believed to be the same person who set fire to another building some time ago. Mr. Rosa will repair the damage to his building immediately.

– Press Democrat, July 15 1902

 

ROOF WAS ON FIRE
EARLY MORNING BLAZE DISCOVERED AT PETERSON BROS. WAREHOUSE LAST NIGHT
Fire Department Called Out to Extinguish Another Mysterious Fire — Flames Were Making Headway When Discovered

A disastrous fire was narrowly averted at an early hour this morning.

At 1:10 an alarm was rung in from box 26 at Second and Wilson streets aod the fire department hurried to the large fruit packing warehouse of Peterson Brothers on Third street near the railroad crossing, whore a fire in the center of the roof was gaining headway.

The flames were quickly extinguished by the use of the chemical engine. Firemen got on the roof and chopped away the burning embers with axes and a small quantity of water was used to thoroughly prevent any danger of a further blaze.

Thanks to Mike McNulty, who was on his way home, a more serious fire was prevented. McNulty chanced to look through the warehouse windows as he passed and noticed showers of sparks falling from the roof onto the floor of the warehouse. He at once ran around the brewery premises to where the fire alarm box is located me gave the alarm.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It may have been caused by a spark or may be the work of the incendiary who has apparently plied his work on other buildings in Santa Rosa lately. The damage to the roof was nominal.

– Press Democrat, July 26 1902

 

Fire Still a Mystery

The fire at the Peterson warehouse early Saturday morning is still a mystery. It may have been caused by boys climbing on the roof and playing with matches although it is not very likely. The more general opinion is that it may be work of the incendiary who fired the Robert Ross building on First street a few nights ago and also the Cnopius warehouse.

– Press Democrat, July 27 1902

 

DISASTROUS FIRE
Barn Destroyed and Horse Burned to Death Early Monday Morning

The barn back of E. H. Hollenbeck’s residence on Sonoma avenue was destroyed by fire at 1 o’clock Monday morning. The flames wiped out everything in the barn. A horse was burned to death. The conflagration was noticed by the crew of the night freight on the C. N. W. R. and the locomotive whistle was blown for sometime before the fire alarm was rung in. Before the fire department was called the barn was in ruins. The property was owned by Mr. Hollenbeck. The fire was undoubtedly incendiary. The barn was recently built.

– Press Democrat, October 28 1902

 

HORSES IN DANGER
A BARN AND CONTENTS DESTROYED AND 18 EQUINES RESCUED
Conflagration at 10:30 O’Clock Wednesday Night in the Rear of the Bizzini Place on Tupper Street

A large barn in the rear of the Bizzini place on Tupper street, between Henley and Brown streets, was destroyed by fire Wednesday night.

Shortly before 10:30 o’clock Jack Barrickio, who noticed the blaze, phoned into the fire station and the department responded quickly. An alarm was also rung in.

The barn contained sixteen head of horses, the property of Ross Garrison, the horse-trader, and a large quantity of hay and straw. The horses were all rescued by Mr. Garrison, Edward Campbell and Mr. Whitcomb. A few minutes later and three at least of the horses would have been burned. The burning straw and hay made a fierce fire, which was soon dampened by the streams of water poured on.

Despite the stormy weather a large crowd ot men, women and children hurried to the scene. The Bizzini residence is occupied by a family by the name of Brown. For a time the Browns feared some of their property in a barn on the place would be destroyed. The barn, however, being some distance from the burning structure, was not harmed.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. In response to a number of inquiries made at the scene no one could explain how it originated, other than it was incendiary.

– Press Democrat, December 11 1902

 

THE TORCH APPLIED
FIRE DOES DAMAGE AT ROBERT ROSS’ CARRIAGE WORKS ON MAIN STREET
Third Attempt Made by Incendiary to Burn the Building Was Discovered Late Last Night

At 11:05 o’clock last night a fire was discovered in Robert Ross’ carriage works on Main street. Flames were burning in the top end of the building on the corner of Second street, on the roof and side of the structure. The fire department were soon on the scene and the fire was extinguished before much damage was done, except by water. How the fire originated is a mystery. It was undoubtedly of incendiary origin. Mr. Ross inclines to the belief that the same party, who on two previous occasions has fired the building. is responsible for last night’s conflagration. The fire apparently caught from the outside as investigation last night failed to show where it had originated on the inside. From the corner the flames ran along the rafters for some distance. Lumber and tools in a portion of the building will suffer by reason of the water.

– Press Democrat, January 7 1903

 

Investigating the Recent Fire

The cause of the fire of Tuesday night, when for the third time an attempt was made to destroy the blacksmith shop and carriage manufactory of Robert Ross, is carefully investigated. A survey of the building on Wednesday showed that, as stated in these columns, the fire was started outside near the corner of First and Main streets. From there the flames traveled to the roof, finally burning through and working along and under the shingles towards the rear of the structure. It was thought by some that the flames might have originated in the paint shop, but this theory is incorrect. There was no fire inside the building except where it burned through the side wall and roof. Mr Ross says that a number of tools marked with his name have disappeared.

– Press Democrat, January 8 1903

 


INCENDIARY AT WORK
Another Attempt to Burn the Barn of Cnopius & Co.

At half past four o’clock yesterday morning the fire department were called to Second and Main streets where a conflagration was in progress in Cnopius & Co.’s barn and storehouse. The flames were burning among the bales of hay. The fire was soon subdued, and what would have been a bad fire but for the promptitude of the response to the alarm was averted. The fire was undoubtedly incendiary.

– Press Democrat, May 16 1903

 

Want Light In Darkness

Residents and property owners of the vicinity of First and Main streets in view of the recent incendiary fires, petitioned the Council for a street light at the intersection of those streets for the protection of their property. The petition was referred to the Street Committee.

– Press Democrat, June 3 1903

 

APPLIED THE TORCH
AN INCENDIARY SETS FIRE TO A HOUSE ON D STREET ON SATURDAY NIGHT
Fire Was Discovered Shortly Before Midnight and Promptly Extinguished—Wanted to Drive Over Hose

About twelve o’clock the fire department was called to D street to extinguished a fire at No. 5, an unoccupied house. While the house is not a very valuable one the fire was a deliberate attempt to destroy the property.

The incendiary had placed a pile of blankets on the floor of a room in the corner and applied the torch. When discovered the fire was gaining headway. The flames were extinguished before much damage was done.

At the scene of the fire a youth from the country essayed to drive over the hose and was ordered to desist by Fireman Ed Hyde. He was abusive and Hyde without much ceremony jerked him from the vehicle. The youth afterward deemed it discretion to leave the hose and Hyde unmolested and went his way.

– Press Democrat, June 28 1903

 

PRETTY WARM BLAZE
Fire Department Busy On Thursday Afternoon

An alarm from box 52 called the fire department to Humboldt street on Thursday afternoon where a lively blaze was in progress, and before it was extinguished a barn and several tons of hay and two sheds and a summer kitchen went up in smoke and flame. The flames had gained considerable headway before the department were called. After the firemen arrived on the scene the conflagration was soon under control.

The fire originated on the grounds of the High School which adjoins the residence of G. W. Wallace of the Wallace Brokerage Company, who was the loser by the spreading flames through the fence. From Janitor Jones it was learned that the fire was started in some rubbish by a lad named Gardner, who had wanted to assist him in cleaning up the grounds. Jones says he cautioned Gardner not to start the fire.

Despite the warmth of the temperature there was the usual large crowd of spectators at the fire. They came in ail directions in vehicles, on horseback, in automobiles and a foot.

– Press Democrat, July 3 1903

 

HOUSE SET ON FIRE
DEPARTMENT CALLED SHORTLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT FOR FIRE ON FIRST STREET
Another Incendiary Fire Nearly Destroys an Unoccupied House — The Fire Had a Good Start

Last night shortly before midnight there was another alarm of fire and the department hurried to First street, near D street, where a fierce fire was in progress in an unoccupied house. The fire occurred just around the corner from the scene of the fire the other night, and like that one was the work of an incendiary. The building was damaged considerably and would have been entirely destroyed but for the exertions of the department. Two boys were noticed in the house in the morning, but no one was seen there later in the day. Fire Chief Adams had no hesitancy in saying that the fire was of incendiary origin.

– Press Democrat, July 4 1903

 

DISASTROUS BLAZE
RESIDENCE OF THE HON. J. T. CAMPBELL BADLY GUTTED BY FIRE LAST EVENING
Willing Hands Assist in Removing the Valuable Bric-a-brac — Fire Fighters Included a Number of Ladies

The pretty residence of the Hon. and Mrs. J. T. Campbell was practically gutted by fire last evening soon after six o’clock. Thanks to the energies of many willing hands much of the very valuable bric-a-brac and curios, which have been their great pride, were saved. Much of the furniture was rescued but of course many of the articles, including some of the curios and other furnishings were badly damaged or burned. From top to bottom the house was drenched with water and plastering and ceiling fell everywhere. The roof and the rear end of the residence was a prey of the flames to a greater extent than the front. What was a delightfully furnished house up to last night is now pretty much of a wreck.

How the fire originated is something of a mystery. There had been no fire in the house for some time, as a gas stove is used principally. The fire started in the upper story, and the burning roof was the first intimation to outsiders that a fire was in progress. Mr. and Mrs. Campbell were enjoying a chat after supper totally unaware that overhead a fire threatened to destroy their home was in progress. Two theories as to the cause of the fire were advanced. It was suggested that probably the conflagration might have been caused by electric wires, or might have been caused by combustion in the storeroom which is under the roof in the rear of the house upstairs. In this storeroom a great many things were stored. The blaze was a stubborn one to get under control, but the firemen succeeded well.

Among those assisting in the removal of the curios and works of art so highly prized by Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, were a number of the fair sex. They worked like Trojans and did not mind getting deluged by the water pouring through the roof. The fair fire fighters were indefatigable in their efforts and a number of men also assisted. The articles saved from destruction were carried into the residence of E. Morris Cox, which adjoins the Campbell home. The conflagration caused some little excitement while it lasted. It was very fortunate it did not prove worse.

 

  WILL PAY REWARD
Information as to Incendiary Wanted by the Marshal

City Marshal George Severson has offered a reward of fifty dollars for information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the incendiary, who has fired several buildings in this city of late. The Marshal is determined, if possible, to locate the guilty person and citizens should assist in the endeavor.

– Press Democrat, July 8 1903

 

THE FIRE RECORD
LAST MONTH WAS RECORD BREAKER FOR FIRE ALARMS AND FIRES HERE
Fire Chief Thanks Citizens for Help at Depot Fires — Urges Purchase of New Engine and More Hose

Last month was a record breaker for fire alarms and damage done by fires in Santa Rosa. There were nine alarms of fire during the month. The most serious of the fires were those that destroyed the depots and other buildings on Sunday. July 5, and the one that destroyed $2,400 of the property at the residence of the Hon. J. T. Campbell. Fire Chief Adams made his report at the monthly meeting of the Fire Commissioners last night at the city hall. In making his report Chief Adams urged the purchase of another fire engine and 1,500 feet of new hose. He called attention to the destruction of fire hose at the time of the depot fire. A new engine and more hose are necessities, he said. Chief Adams thanked the citizens for the assistance rendered the regular firemen on the occasion of the depot fire. Acting President L. L. Veirs was in the chair and Commissioners Fred King, C. D. Johnson and G. S. Brown were present. At the other fires outside of the two mentioned considerable damage was done. The Council at its meeting subsequently ordered the purchase of 1,000 feet of new hose.

– Press Democrat, July 22 1903

 

NEW RESIDENCE GUTTED BY FIRE
CONTRACTOR BUSH’S HOME ON SOUTH E STREET RUINED ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT
The Residence Had Just Been Completed and Family Were About to Occupy the Same

At a few minutes to ten o’clock on Wednesday night fire was discovered in Contractor H. N. Bush’s new residence on South E, street and before the flames were extinguished the house was completely gutted.

The residence had just been completed and Mr. and Mr. Bush and family were ready to move into the place. In fact they thought something of moving in the beds Wednesday night and occupying it for the first time, but later derided to give the paint more time to dry. The family had been occupying the barn in the rear of the house which was completed first. Some articles were moved into the new house on Wednesday, principally canned fruits and preserves.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. It started first near the roof and when the flames were noticed first they had gained considerable headway. The fire department were summoned by a still alarm and had a long run to the fire. There was a copious supply of water but the new lumber made the fire a stubborn one to fight.

The gutted residence was one of the neatest and best in the neighborhood and was built by Mr. Bush himself, and the loss is considerable for him. The house cost about $2,600 and was insured for $2000 in a company represented by B. M Spencer.

As usual there was a very large crowd of spectators at the fire, many of whom walked to the scene, while others went in automobiles and vehicles and on bicycles. It is thought by some that the fire was deliberately started by an incendiary. Others say that it may have been a case of spontaneous combustion caused by painters’ rags. The residence had bean wired for electricity but had not been connected.

– Press Democrat, September 17 1903

 

May Be an Incendiary Here

There is an impression around that there may be an incendiary in Santa Rosa at tho present time, judging from the several suspicious fires that have occurred here lately. Fire Chief Adams says beyond doubt in his opinion the conflagration that gutted the Bush residence on E street on Wednesday night was the work of an incendiary.

– Press Democrat, September 18 1903

 

INCENDIARY AGAIN AT WORK
Fourth Attempt to Burn Robert Ross’ Carriage Repository

Shortly before one o’clock on Monday morning fire was discovered in the rear of Robert Ross’ building at Main and First streets. The fire was of incendiary origin making the fourth attempt to burn the building. Little damage was done by the fire. Had the flames once gained headway the result might have been very serious.

The identity of the miscreant remains a mystery and not only Mr. Ross but other property owners in the block and in the neighborhood would like to have the matter solved. This fire like the preceding ones was started with the aid of kerosene, the odor being plainly detected by those early at the scene of the conflagration.

After the fire was about over, Mr. Ross who was naturally somewhat excited got into a controversy with the Fire Department officials over the taking of a hose through the store room used as a carriage repository, with the result that he was temporarily placed under arrest upon a charge of using language too strenuous to suit the occasion. Later he appeared and paid a small fine, which ended the matter.

– Press Democrat, April 5, 1904

 

FIRE DAMAGES THE TOSCANO HOTEL
CONFLAGRATION ORIGINATED IN ROOM IN THE UPPER STORY OF THE BUILDING
Exact Cause of the Fire Not Known— Building Drenched With Copious Supply of Water Thrown

Considerable damage was done by a fire at the Toscano hotel at Seventh and Adams streets yesterday evening about half past five o’clock, for which the fire department was called by an alarm rung in from Box 25. The fire started in room 3 on the upper story of the hotel building. The room was gutted and its contents were destroyed. In addition other parts of the building were charred, but owing to the prompt work of the department the damage was not nearly as serious as it otherwise would have been, as the flames had considerable headway at the time of the alarm and it seemed as if the entire upper portion of the place was on fire. The smoke was so dense that the firemen had considerable difficulty in at first locating the seat of the conflagration. The room in which the fire started was like a blazing furnace when the department arrived and the fire was spreading.

Two streams of water were quickly poured on the flames and the fire was soon extinguished. The building was drenched with water and this and the smoke will necessitate the complete renovation of a part of the interior of the building. Many willing hands removed most of the furniture and effects from the building, and these articles were piled up here and there, some distance from the scene of the conflagration.

 The hotel is owned and occupied by Mrs. T. Guidotti. The fire was discovered by A. Guidotti. The origin of the fire at present is somewhat of a mystery. There was no stove in the room and the flue from the stove below runs up in another room The fire seemed to have started in the corner of the apartment. The occupants of the hotel could not account for the fire, and there were suggestions that the origin might have been of an incendiary nature. Chief Adams picked up a piece of newspaper in the room most damaged by the fire and it smelt strongly of coal oil. Strange enough this piece of paper was not singed and everything else in the room was charred. Another report at the fire was that a man had laid his lighted pipe on the bed in the room, but this story was not confirmed. A defective flue was also suggested. The building was insured. The water was played on the flames with so much effect that the roof overhead was not damaged. The fire occasioned some excitement among those living in the immediate neighborhood of the hotel and some of them were prepared to remove their belongings and did do so until assured that the danger of the fire spreading was past.

– Press Democrat, April 16, 1904

 

FIREBUG AT WORK SATURDAY NIGHT
ATTEMPT TO BURN THE “STAR FEED MILLS” AT FOURTH AND A STREETS
Fire Started in a Bale of Hay in the Rear of the Building — Flame Seen By Passerby on the Street

On Saturday night shortly after eleven o’clock Loren Jenkins, Will Carter and Val Calhoun while walking along Fourth street, chanced to notice a flame shoot up into the air in the rear of the Star Feed Mills at Fourth and A streets where the hay is stored. They gave the alarm at once and Mr. Jenkins ran to Fourth and Washington streets and turned in an alarm from the box there.

He then rushed back to the place and by this time Police Officer Boyes had arrived on the scene. Jenkins was assisted through the window and unfastened the door on A street. Police Officer Boyes made his way as quickly as possible to the fire and chanced to see a small hose attached to a faucet kept for supplying the boiler in the mill. He quickly turned on the water and extinguished the blaze, which had been kindled on a bale of hay.

The department were quickly on the scene and Police Officers Boyes and McIntosh and Fire Chief Adams made an investigation of the premises. At first it was thought that an electric wire had caused the fire. Investigation proved, however, that this was not the case and that it was a deliberate case of incendiarism. The fire had been started on top of the bale. Had the flames gained headway the old frame building would have gone up in smoke. The prompt action of the youths after they had noticed the flame through the windows on Fourth street and the prompt application of the hose undoubtedly saved a worse conflagration and damage to the contents of the mill and building.

– Press Democrat, May 1 1904

 

YEARS’ FIRE RECORD IN SANTA ROSA
ANNUAL REPORT OF FIRE CHIEF ADAMS PRESENTS INTERESTING STATISTICS
The Loss by Fire and the Insurance on the Property—The Causes of Conflagrations of Past Year

Fire Chief Adams has filed his annual report at the City Hall, which gives statistics regarding the fire record in Santa Rosa for the past year. The Chief states that there were thirty-eight alarms of fire in the city during the year. At thirteen of these fires the engine was used. At twenty-fie the chemical extinguishers were brought into play. The loss by fire in Santa Rosa during the twelve months was $57,017.05. The insurance on the property was $25,217.90, and the net loss was $31,799.15. Of the total number of fires seven were of incendiary origin; three were caused by children playing with matches, thirteen were chimney fires and nine fires resulted from unknown causes.

– Press Democrat, May 4, 1904

 

ANOTHER ATTEMPT MADE TO BURN ROSS’ BUILDING
TORCH IS APPLIED FOR SIXTH TIME
FLAMES DISCOVERED IN ROBERT ROSS’ CARRIAGE REPOSITORY SATURDAY NIGHT
Identity of the Incendiary Still a Mystery — Prompt Work of Firemen Prevent a Serious Fire

For the sixth time the firebug who seems bent on destroying Robert Ross’ building at Main and First streets, applied the torch on Saturday night. The fire was discovered about eleven o’clock and an alarm brought the department in quick time to the place.

The fire was burning in the paint shop which occupies the second floor facing on First street near the end of the building. A hose was attached in a few seconds and the flames were extinguished before much damage was done to the building. The glow of the fire could be plainly seen through the windows and the smoke poured through the roof. Like the five other previous attempts, it was a deliberate plan on the part of the firebug to destroy the premises. Mr. Walsh ahs [sic] the paint shop, and a buggy in the shop was pulled out of the way of the flame by one of the firemen. Like all the previous fires, the work of the incendiary was discovered before the flames had made much headway.

The fire had probably been smoldering some time before the flames shot up. The odor of something burning was noticed some time before the alarm was turned in summoning the fire department. The fire was in among the paints and had it gained much headway the inflammable material would have kindled a fierce blaze. A large crowd was attracted to the scene of the fire in a very few minutes and some little excitement was caused.

The identity of the firebug is apparently as much of a mystery as it has been at the fires that have preceded the one of Saturday night. It has also been noticeable that the incendiary chooses either a Saturday night or Sunday night for his work. While at a loss as to the identity of the guilty person, Chief of Police Severson intends to make a rigid investigation and will probably offer a reward for the necessary information that will lead to the arrest of the guilty party. Once before Mr. Severson offered a reward but without result.

Why this place should be singled out by the incendiary is also mysterious. Mr. Ross has been in business here for many years and so far as is known there is no reason for the dastardly attempts made to destroy his premises on six occasions. This was talked of very generally among the crowd gathered at the fire Saturday night, but no solution could be arrived at. One thing is sure, everybody in the neighborhood would like to have the guilty one brought to justice, as a fire once started in that section, if it got headway, would be very disastrous.

– Press Democrat, May 16, 1904

 

MAY OFFER REWARD TO CATCH FIREBUG
WORK OF INCENDIARIES DISCUSSED AT FIRE COMMISSIONERS’ MEETING
Fire Chief’s Report Discussed—Rigid Investigation Ordered of Main Street Fires

The Board of Fire Commissioners met last night…Commissioner Reynolds called attention to the frequent attempts to burn the Ross building on Main street and asked if some steps should not be taken to locate the incendiary.

Fire Chief Adams said in view of the investigation he had made he was confident that all the fires had been of an incendiary nature.

It was suggested that possibly the last fire in Walsh’s paint shop in the Ross building, might have been caused by spontaneous combustion as it occurred among the paints.

The matter was discussed at some length. It was remarked that three of the fires reported for the month by the Fire Chief had been of incendiary origin…Several of the commissioners were of the opinion that the city should offer a standing reward of one hundred dollars for the information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of incendiaries.

– Press Democrat, May 18, 1904

 

ANOTHER ATTEMPT TO BURN BUILDING
FIERCE FIRE IN THE CHARTRAND BUILDING AT FOURTH AND A STREETS
Conflagration on Saturday Night Looked Threatening for Some Time and Was Stubborn One to Handle

Another determined effort was made to burn down the Chartrand building at the corner of Fourth and A streets about half past eleven o’clock on Saturday night. The fire was discovered about the same time at night as one the occasion of the first application of the torch a few weeks ago. That attempt was also on a Saturday night.

The fire on Saturday night was in the rear end of the room occupied by A. Sander’s second hand store. The flames broke out and spread with great rapidity, as a few minutes before the alarm was given Police Officer Mclntosh had passed by the premises and could not detect anything wrong.

When the department arrived the fire had gained considerable headway in the rear of the building and the flames shot up for a fierce conflagration. A line of hose was attached to the hydrant at the corner of the streets named and water was thrown on the flames. The fire engine ran back to Fourth and A streets and another line of hose was attached to the hydrant there and the engine was soon pumping away with remarkable promptitude. The engine was moved to this hydrant so as not to be too close to the heat of the burning building in the event of the fire getting beyond the control of the firemen.

The fire did considerable damage to the stock in Sanders’ store and water and smoke assisted. The fire was a stubborn one and it was some time before the flames were subdued. Then Chief Adams detailed Fireman Doc Cozad to watch the premises and a section of hose was left attached to the hydrant.

The first attempt to burn the building was in that portion of it occupied by the Star Feed Mill. The building is owned by A. E. Chartrand and alongside the part where the fire was started he is erecting a new brick building. A large crowd of people gathered at the scene of the fire, coming from all parts of the city. The accepted theory is that the fire was undoubtedly of incendiary origin.

– Press Democrat, May 29, 1904

Read More

53

YOUNG BRAINERD JONES

If it can be said that there was a renaissance period of American architecture, then it had to be San Francisco in the 1890s. The city was vibrant with possibility; buildings were being designed that had never been imagined before. And in the middle of this was a twenty-something young man from Petaluma who was absorbing it all.

(This is the final part of a presentation made at the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum on October 20, 2018. Part one, “THE MAKING OF BRAINERD JONES,” explained how Queen Anne style and Shingle style architecture came about and became the groundwork for his career, and that his early clients were likely hyper-literate about trends in modern architecture because of the profusion of articles in popular magazines.)

Was Brainerd Jones a genius? A genius is not simply a person with a big grab bag of tricks and techniques. Whether he was a genius or not I can’t say – but he was certainly a very fine architect.

Or can we say any of his work qualifies as a masterpiece? A masterpiece is more than the sum of its parts, checking off items from a list of what’s considered attractive and pleasing – at the time. To weigh the merits of a work of nice architecture, I like to play a game called, “How easy would it be to screw this up?”

Today’s Petaluma Historical Library & Museum

 

Instead of bringing sand-colored stone from the quarry at Stony Point, Jones could have used basalt from McNear’s quarry less than a mile north of town. Besides being locally sourced, the dark gray stone would have matched Santa Rosa’s Carnegie Library, which was built in 1903.

 

Santa Rosa’s 1910 post office (now the Sonoma County Museum) is a Beaux Arts-Neoclassical-Spanish Colonial mashup with a tile roof and a portico with Corinthian columns. (MORE)
Why not a clock tower for an important public building like the town library? In 1907, John Galen Howard, one of the top architects on the West Coast, designed a lovely Beaux Arts building for a bank in downtown Santa Rosa. But the elegant architecture became merely a base for the clock tower that harkened back to the too-busy Second Empire style from about forty years before. (MORE)

 

Brainerd Jones was born in Chicago in 1869, moving to Petaluma at age six after his father died. As a teenager he was recognized at the local fair for his drawing skills and his ability in “netting,” which is a kind of crocheting. He supposedly took art lessons from Max Roth, a marble cutter and monument maker who had a yard on Western ave. The first sighting as an adult (at least, that I can find) is as a carpenter in Tiburon in 1892, and a carpenter in San Mateo the year after that. His first known professional gig was as a draftsman in 1896 for the construction firm McDougall & Son. This was not a prestigious place to work; although their main offices were in San Francisco, between 1894-1897 most of their work was around Bakersfield building hospitals, schools and jails. The successor business, McDougall Brothers, became quite important after 1906 and remained so for the next twenty years. That was long after Jones was gone, however.

 

The San Francisco that Brainerd Jones knew was still a gaudy party town, but by the mid 1890s it was quickly developing a reputation for cultural and intellectual advancement. The 1894 Exposition in Golden Gate Park celebrated the city’s progress and drew 2.5 million visitors.

 

This world’s fair also brought the city its first art museum with this odd, neo-Egyptian building which became the de Young after the fair. It was destroyed int the 1906 quake.

 

This was also a time of heated politics and all kinds of activism. Architecture was no exception; In “the Wave,” the leading local periodical of literature and the arts, Willis Polk savagely attacked the popular Queen Anne style, with photos of “monstrosities” on “Chaos Avenue.” After the 1906 earthquake, Polk would play a key role in the “City Beautiful” reconstruction of San Francisco.

 

The excitement wasn’t contained to San Francisco. Berkeley and Oakland were becoming the intellectual centers of the Bay Area, thanks in part to the growth of UC/Berkeley. Like the wildly inventive Shingle style buildings seen in part one, there were plenty of innovative homes being built in Piedmont and the Berkeley Hills. Although Jones only lived four or so years in San Francisco, imagine being twenty-something and having all this swirling around you – there was probably no better time or place in American history to be studying architecture.

 

Just as the Shingle style had architects arguing over “unity,” the byword in artistic Californian circles was simplicity in all things, and living in surroundings as natural as possible. Poet Charles Keeler, whose Maybeck home was shown in part one, wrote: “The home must suggest the life it is to encompass. The mere architecture and furnishings of the house do not make the man any more than do his clothes, but they certainly have an effect in modifying him.” The popular architecture magazines discussed the philosophy of John Ruskin, with “Ruskin Clubs” in America joining the movement already in England. In this photo c. 1901, the man seated on the far right is Jack London.

 

Jones moved back to Petaluma in 1898, where he registered to vote and gave his profession as “glassman,” which presumably meant someone who worked in leaded and stained glass. This window is from the dining room in a 1901 home designed by Jones. In the 1900 census he’s listed as an architect living on English street.

 

Jones’ first known commissions came from sisters Mary Theresa and Helen Burn in 1900 and 1901 (MORE on the Burn family). They lived in Petaluma from 1900 to 1907, but why they came here is unknown; they previously lived in Chicago and were originally from the Kitchener, Ontario area. Mary – who went by the name, “Miss M. T. Burn” – had a business on Main st. where she taught and sold “fancy work” (embroidery). The four cottages they commissioned were scattered on both east and west side lots. One is definitely lost, one can’t be found (and may not have been built) and one has been heavily modified.

 

The best surviving Burn cottage is at 332 Post street and is firmly in the popular Queen Anne cottage style, using spindlework to frame the porch. This was the last of the four Burn commissions, being built in late 1901.

 

The Byce House at 226 Liberty street also dates to 1901. It’s mostly a conventional Queen Anne with a corner tower and the usual fish scale shingles.

 

The window pediments and ornamental molding around the attic window are neoclassical, but all the finials are gothic, as is the metalwork around them on each gable.

 

Compare the Byce House wit the 1904 Harriet Brown House at 901 D st. They share some similarities, such as the porte-cochère, but this house might be his most conservative design. Victorian neoclassical elements are everywhere, from the widow’s walk at the top to the profusion of finials to garlands on the columns. Of interest is the use of two elements that would become Brainerd Jones’ signatures: The “union jack” pattern (actually classical Roman) and deconstructed Palladian windows. Note the bit of whimsy in the attic gable, which has a broken pediment inside another broken pediment.

 

Jumping back to 1901, a third Queen Anne built that year was the Lumsden House at 727 Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. Today the front view is obscured by mature foliage

 

The stained glass seen earlier was from the Lumsden House; here is another example.

 

Like the other two homes we’ve seen from 1901, the Lumsden House is firmly American Queen Anne style. This was probably the busiest year of his career, with no fewer than nine houses under construction. At the exact same time this was being built, the Blitz Paxton House was going up next door.

 

Although the building was torn down in 1969, its footprint can be seen on the old fire maps. Guesstimating from the irregular shape, Paxton House was between 6,500 and 7,000 square feet – the largest residence Jones ever designed (MORE). As far as I know, Jones was the only architect who designed in both the popular Queen Anne style and the more artistic Shingle style.

 

In my opinion, this was based on the 1892 Anna Head school seen earlier. They have the same massing – a wider than usual building with a heavy roof. This view of the Paxton House clips off the southern end, but in the previous image it can be seen there was a significant gabled extension projecting out from the main building. Although the face of both buildings is anything but flat, they share deep eaves and a second floor slight overhang which creates a shadow to emphasize the horizontal lines. Both used decorative corbels to lend an illusion of support for projecting walls. Even if all the similarities were coincidental, they shared an unusual design for the entrances, with the front door recessed several feet and steps coming up sideways, from the left. The porch landing is concealed by a parapet, and we know from the family photos the Paxtons used this as part of their main outdoor living area, which was in keeping with the design principles of the artistic shingle architects.

 

Three years later, Jones designed another Shingle style house for Paxton’s friends who lived two doors down on the same block. Now known as Comstock House at 767 Mendocino avenue, the two houses must have made quite a statement. 

 

Seen here just after completion in 1905, the house had an astonishing number of windows and many whimsical features. Almost everything appears off-center; left/right, front/back views of the house are never symmetrical. The right sides of the gambrel gables are uncompleted (but on the east and south side only) and on south end of the porch is a decorative giant corbel that appears to be supporting the top floors. The deconstructed Palladian attic windows are above another set of deconstructed Palladian windows. In his directions to the contractor Jones even embraced the radical ideals of Wills Polk and specified no paint was to be used on any wood, inside or out; architecture, in this view, a house was no different than fine, artisan furniture.

 

But the design also shows Jones was closely following the new architectural ideas appearing in magazines, particularly Stickley’s “The Craftsman.” In 1904, Jones painted this concept shortly after Stickley published the design seen here inset. These designs would have been structurally unstable because the upper portion of the gambrel roof was too broad; the static load would have predominantly pushed outward instead of downward. As a result, Stickley’s design and this one would have probably flung itself apart under stress – such as the 1906 earthquake. That he copied Stickley’s roof profile makes another point: Jones – and most architects of his day – were terrible engineers.

 

This photo from 2006 before restoration began shows Jones also did not understand the physics of water on this type of roof. Note previous owners installed a rainstop at the end of the roof to slow the deluge in a heavy rain. The problem was that over two-thirds of the water would shoot down the small portion of the roof seen here on the left. The solution was to add gutters twice as wide and deep as the original plus a diverter where the angles change.

 

Several houses Jones designed in the 1910s seem derived from Stickley’s Craftsman Homes, but he was very much in touch with other modern trends. His 1908 design for the Saturday Afternoon Club in Santa Rosa (MORE) was in synch with the the Arts and Crafts movement’s cottage style now called “First Bay Tradition.”

 

Let’s end this survey of young Brainerd Jones with the earliest known picture of him. Here he is, age 39, at the groundbreaking for the clubhouse just mentioned. As you can see, he was a short man and was apparently sensitive about that; in the voter registrations his height kept growing from 5′ 6-3/4″ to 5-7 and then 5-8. But at this point in his life he had designed at least 25 homes as well as commercial buildings and a remarkable public library. Should he have retired on this day he would still have left a towering legacy – but he remained working at his drafting table for another 37 years.

 
So let’s ask again the questions I raised at the beginning.

Was he a genius? It’s jaw-dropping that he accomplished this work with his minimal training and education apparently limited to what he read in magazines and saw on the street. Yes, his lack of engineering caused some of his buildings to be flawed, but so were many of the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Were his designs architectural masterpieces? I would argue the Petaluma Museum qualifies. It’s neoclassical but also original, with yet another take on deconstructed Palladian windows. And then there’s the stained glass dome – something usually found in upscale hotels and businesses or churches. And that raises another “how easy it is to screw up” test; since this is a library and patrons are supposed to be looking down at books, wouldn’t clear skylights and hanging drop lights be more practical?

I believe every home he designed was considered a masterpiece by its original owner. Each was designed to fit their tastes and lifestyle like a glove. Mrs. Brown obviously wanted an old-fashioned design and Jones gave it to her, yet without larding on Victorian ornamentation. Blitz Paxton wanted the biggest house in town so he and his wife could throw lavish parties. And Jones gave him that, plus an ultra-modern look which dialed it up to bring attention to his ostentatious lifestyle.

That, I think, was Brainerd Jones’ real genius; he listened intensely to his clients so as to fully understand what would make them happy. The design became a collaborative effort.

And this also shows he deeply understood the principles of John Ruskin. When you live in a house that has been put together thoughtfully – even a simple California craftsman cottage – it has an impact on your outlook every day. Coxhead, Polk, Maybeck and other California architects at the time also knew this; it was about something deeper than picturesque street views – it was about creating art someone actually lived in.

 

 

Read More

ALL OUR LOST CENTENNIALS PAST

Can someone please explain why we will be celebrating Santa Rosa’s sesquicentennial on September 9, 2018? Because on that day 150 years ago, absolutely nothing happened here.

I suppose that date was selected because Sept. 9 is also Admission Day and a legal state holiday, like César Chávez Day (as Chávez was a great champion of education, it drives me nuts that we celebrate his birthday by closing libraries as well as state offices). While our 1850 statehood certainly was a noteworthy event, I seriously doubt the city was otherwise planning to throw a 178-year anniversary party.

But my gripe isn’t really with that chosen day and not particularly with the month – we could celebrate the sesquicentennial year anytime between January and December. No, it’s the year that rankles, because if you drill down to the core, we’re actually commemorating a 1968 PR event which cheered that much of historic Santa Rosa was being destroyed in the name of progress.

Before we get to 1968, some historic background is in order:

It all really started in 1854, as explained earlier in “CITY OF ROSES AND SQUATTERS.” Santa Rosa didn’t really exist as the year began; it had only two houses and five little businesses including a tavern. Yet despite its drawback of being almost non-existent, a group of men were about to make it the county seat.

After the state legislature gave approval for a vote on moving it away from Sonoma,  Julio Carrillo and the other Santa Rosa promoters invited the entire county to an epic Fourth of July party that went on all night. The election was held September 6 and Santa Rosa won. When the voting results were announced there was another BBQ feast even more riotous than the July shindig, this event supposedly lasting two days.

Afterwards the Board of Supervisors met with “the proprietors of the town of Santa Rosa” (Carrillo, Hartman, Hahman and Hoen) who promised to build a courthouse and provide spaces for county officers within two months, with everybody crowding into Carrillo’s place until then. The vote was certified by the Supervisors and the county records were moved to Santa Rosa.

There are three points to remember for the test: Nothing happened on September 9 of that year, either. Although Santa Rosa was now the county seat, it was still just the self-declared name of a crossroad settlement and not an officially recognized town. And not the least of it, there was lots’o partying by our ancestors in 1854 because they clearly believed all this was a significant event.

The other historic date was March 16, 1868, when the state approved Santa Rosa as an officially incorporated town. Here’s how Santa Rosa’s newspaper covered this milestone:

 

Sonoma Democrat notice of incorporation

 

 

That’s it – three itty-bitty lines (1½ actually) in the column of local news briefs. An item lower down the column which praised a new saloon in town, “The Snug,” was five times longer. Needless to say, there was no blowout incorporation BBQ.

Let’s zoom forward to the first big anniversary: Fifty years after Santa Rosa became the county seat.

“This is Santa Rosa’s Golden Jubilee Year – Should Have a Big Celebration,” read a Press Democrat headline in March 1904.

A fifty year anniversary is also called a “semicentennial,” and for reasons unknown there was no celebration at all; it could be because 1904 was a major election year both locally and nationally, with emotions running high. In Santa Rosa the “Old South” conservatives lost their grip on the town to Teddy Roosevelt progressives after months of shrill newspaper editorials on both sides; it seemed half the town wasn’t speaking to the other half. What we did get on the Sept. 21 anniversary was a very reliable history of the 1854 events in the PD, including a first-hand account from Jim Williamson on how the county records were moved, as explored here in “THE FABLE OF THE STOLEN COURTHOUSE.”

In March 1918 came the 50th anniversary of incorporation. No ceremony that year either, nor a single mention of it in the newspapers, as far as I can tell. They had a great excuse, however; the U.S. had entered WWI less than a year before and Santa Rosa – like every other place in the country – was preoccupied with war rallies, bond drives and all other things patriotic.

Okay, so Santa Rosa (mostly) ignored both golden jubilees in the early 20th century; I don’t think we should make too much of that, given the distractions mentioned here, plus that our society generally doesn’t put on the party hats for 50 year anniversaries. But centennials are usually a big deal, right? Right?

Thus in 1954 it was exactly one hundred years after Santa Rosa came into existence – plus hosting two legendary bacchanals, drawing its first map of the place and settling into its role as the hub of Sonoma county. All of that was memorable, and the Press Democrat offered several articles on the centennial…of the Mare Island shipyard. Not one word about their hometown’s 100 years.

Our consistent indifference to the past changed on Sept. 19, 1967, when Thomas Cox suggested, “we should make something of it” at a Flamingo Hotel luncheon. “It” would be the 1968 centennial of incorporation.

 

THIS IS SANTA ROSA’S GOLDEN JUBILEE YEAR
SHOULD HAVE A BIG CELEBRATION
ON SEPTEMBER 18, 1854, SUPERVISORS OF COUNTY DECLARED THIS THE COUNTY SEAT
Historical Year in Santa Rosa and a Brief Glimpse of the History Connected with the Change

This is a year of historic importance in Santa Rosa, it is her golden jubilee year.

Santa Rosa should in some appropriate manner celebrate September 18, 1904, that date being the golden jubilee of the city’s existence as a county seat. On September 18, 1854, fifty years ago. the Supervisors of Sonoma county met in the City of Sonoma and having canvassed the votes polled at the election held to determine the matter, officially declared that Santa Rosa was legally the county seat of Sonoma county and after this formal action the county archives were brought to Santa Rosa in a four-horse wagon, and with them came the now venerable ex-Supreme Judge McKinstry, then district judge of Sonoma.

The final event of any importance in the county of Sonoma in the year 1854 was the passage of Bennet’s bill authorizing the taking of a vote on the question of transferring the county seat from Sonoma to Santa Rosa. As the summer of that year half a century ago advanced, the fight between the partisans of the contending cities became very keen and finally the citizens of Santa Rosa made big arrangements for holding a barbecue on the Fourth of July. In speaking of the occasion the late Robert A. Thompson said;

“It was a master stroke of policy — the people came and saw, and were conquered by the beauty of the place and the hospitality of the people, who, on that occasion, killed the fatted calf and invited to the feast the rich and poor, the lame and halt and the blind — in fact everybody who had, or who could influence or control, a vote. The smoke of the sacrifice of whole sheep and huge quarters of beef ascended to heaven freighted with the prayers of the Santa Rosans to dispose the hearts and ballots of the people in their favor, and, like the pious Greeks of old on similar occasions, when the smoke had ceased to ascend and the offering was cooked to a turn, they partook of the sacrificial meat — the incense of which had tickled the nostrils, whetting at the same time their appetites and their devotion.”

At this Fourth of July barbecue some 500 people were present from all over the county and great enthusiasm prevailed. The oration was delivered by the Rev. A. A. Guernsey. The Declaration of Independence was read by James Prewett and the speakers were Joe Neville, John Robinson and Sylvester Ballou. The feast was held in an oak grove on Commodore Elliott’s place.

The Santa Rosa of half a century ago receiving the distinction of becoming the seat of government of the imperial county of the state was a far different place from what it is today. Then there was a Masonic hall, a store and two or three other buildings. Nevertheless there was great rejoicing, when on that fair eighteenth day of September the county fathers in meeting at Sonoma formally declared that Santa Rosa was to henceforth be the county seat.

At the golden jubilee celebration this year there will be a number of men gathered here who saw the transference of the county seat to Santa Rosa. It should be made a memorable occasion.

Just what form the jubilee celebration shall take will be a matter to be determined. Several prominent citizens who were seen Thursday were enthusiastically in favor of having an appropriate celebration of the day in Santa Rosa. September 18, 1854 was Santa Rosa’s and Sonoma county’s “Admission Day” into the after progress and prosperity which is hers today and which will continue. Much could be made of such a celebration and its importance would be felt as a great, attraction towards advertising the products of Sononia county.

– Press Democrat, March 25 1904

 

Read More