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THE FORGOTTEN FIRES OF FOUNTAINGROVE AND COFFEY PARK

Could this fire happen again? That’s the multi-billion dollar question hanging over everyone who lost homes in Fountaingrove and Coffey Park as they weigh the decision on whether or not to rebuild. There are no good answers; we can’t even be sure our guesses are reasonably good. There’s just too much we don’t know about the world’s changing climate to say this was a freak event or the harbinger of a new terrible normal.

To understand more, I urge everyone to read (or at least, skim) “The Real Story Behind the California Wildfires” by Seattle meteorologist Cliff Mass. He makes several important observations I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere, particularly that there were hurricane force winds (96 MPH!) at higher elevations before the fire began to spread. The speed of those winds are unprecedented in our neck of the woods and were a significant factor in creating what he calls a “unique mountain-wave windstorm.” Again, it’s a must-read.

Comparisons are being made to the September 1964 Hanly Fire (that’s the correct spelling, not “Hanley”) which burned over the same route – Calistoga to Franz Valley to Mark West Canyon and then driven down into Santa Rosa, likewise by the powerful, unrelenting “Diablo Winds” on a Sunday night. But it did not grow into the hellish firestorm that raged in 2017; it was stopped on Mendocino avenue just outside the now-lost Journey’s End trailer park. In the Press Democrat, Guy Kovner presented a good summary of other historic major Sonoma county fires.

But forgotten since are the two other major fires specific to Fountaingrove and the Coffey Park areas. Each was the most serious fire of that year in Santa Rosa. It just may be a coincidence that these incidents were at the same locations, but at this point, any additional information about our fire history is good to have.

Major factory fires threatened Santa Rosa’s industrial rim in 1909 and again in 1910, but of all the fires in Santa Rosa history, the Fountaingrove fire of 1908 was the one which might have burned down the town.

The fire was huge, easily visible from Healdsburg because it was nearly at the top of the hill. In flames was the landmark “Commandery,” one of the main buildings from the heyday of the utopian colony founded by Thomas Lake Harris. That was the residence for the colony’s men. The fire began when a kerosene lamp exploded, destroying the place so fast that nothing in the three-story mansion could be saved.

“Fortunately the north wind that had been blowing earlier in the day and evening died down, otherwise the flames would have spread,” the Press Democrat reported at the time. From a high ridge like that, just a stiff breeze could have easily thrown embers a mile and a half downwind to the county hospital on (the road later named) Chanate – which also came within 100 feet of burning in the 1964 Hanly Fire (and where a developer now has the go-ahead to build a dense subdivision of up to 800 units).

The fire burned itself out quickly; it’s not clear if the Santa Rosa Fire Department did anything. A pasture also ignited and was easily handled. But had a northern wind still been gusting, firebrands from the Commandery might have blown as far as the core neighborhoods across from the modern-day high school, where almost all Victorian homes had shingle roofs.

While Santa Rosa got a lucky break in 1908, Fortuna did not smile as much on the town in 1939, when a wind-whipped fire swept across 500 acres in (what would become) the Coffey Park neighborhood.

That September 20 fire started at the airport. Today probably only the oldest-timers and aviation buffs know that the town had an airport there; when it opened in 1929 it was first called the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, then it became the Santa Rosa Airpark and lastly the Coddingtown Airport, which finally closed in 1971 or 1972. The layout of the runways shifted over the years but the way it probably looked at the time of the fire can be seen in the graphic below. (For much more on all the historic airfields in the Santa Rosa area, see the “Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields” site. Don’t miss the commemorative postmark of Luther Burbank looking like an angry muppet.)

Approximate location of the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport runways in 1939

 

The airport fire was completely avoidable, and if not for the serious danger it posed would serve as the script for a Keystone Kops slapstick comedy.

It was the hottest day of the year, with the thermometer reading 104 – hardly conditions to do weed burning, but that’s what a crew of 10-12 men were doing that afternoon on the runways, dragging burning rags behind a truck.

They were working in the southwestern end of the field when the wind suddenly started blowing from the south, sending the fire towards the modern intersection of Coffey Lane and Hopper Ave. It was moving so fast they could not overtake it in the truck, according to the PD.

Naturally, they were unprepared to handle such a runaway blaze so the fire department was called. A single truck with 150 gallons of water was dispatched and quickly emptied. The fire was now out of control.

A second fire truck arrived, as did a crew and truck from the state as the fire line headed towards several farms. Students from the Junior College joined the fight and were credited with saving at least one home.

“Farmers, passing motorists, airport attendants and others fought side by side, beating out the flames with wet sacks and using portable water pumps in the two-hour battle,” the PD reported.

One farmer lost a small house and farm buildings, including a barn; another lost many outbuildings including chicken houses, where many animals died. Two orchards were burned over, power poles went up in flames and a large stack of baled hay continued to burn into the next day. Altogether 13 buildings were destroyed on five properties.

The idiocy of doing a controlled burn on an extremely dry and hot day aside, it’s jaw-dropping that it spread to 500 acres before a city and state fire crew plus a platoon of volunteers could control it – all in an area that was then undeveloped and just a couple of miles from town. What would they have done if the wind changed again and started blowing towards Santa Rosa?

Again, I hasten to add it’s probably just a Believe-It-Or-Not! coincidence that the big fires of 1908 and 1939 happened at the same places as 2017. Those fires don’t even have anything in common with each other; the airport fire was caused by a sudden change of wind and the Commandery burned like a torch amid no winds at all. One fire was avoidable, one probably not. What they do have in common is that both could have been catastrophic had the winds shifted towards Santa Rosa; the town could not have coped with a serious fire on its border at either time.

After presenting lots’o graphs and colorful maps, meteorologist Cliff Mass concludes with an optimistic view that our computer models are probably able to predict when conditions are ripe for a replay of the Tubbs Fire. That’s good news for sure, but the depressing message from history is that disasters aren’t always so foreseeable in reality. Sometimes life-threatening events comes from scientifically-predictable weather conditions, but sometimes the worst danger is just some fool dragging a burning rag behind a truck.

 

Painting of the Commandery by Fountain Grove colonist Alice Parting as it appeared in the Pacific Rural Press, May 18, 1889

 

 

BIG RESIDENCE GUTTED BY FIRE AT FOUNTAINGROVE
A Disastrous Blaze Near Town Wednesday Night

The explosion of the lamp resulted in a fire Wednesday night the destroyed the fine old residence at Fountaingrove, which for years occupied a commanding site on the hill overlooking the valley, greeting the eyes of every passerby along the Healdsburg Road. It was the biggest residence on the estate.

In a remarkedly short space of time, so fiercely did the fire fiend to do its work, the splendid building that rose four stories high, was reduced to smoldering embers. The residence was furnished and the contents cannot be saved. In addition a small creamery was also destroyed.

Shortly before 10 o’clock the fire started. The flames lit up the heavens for miles. People in Santa Rosa climbed into automobiles and carriages and left for the scene. At first many people thought the fire was at the old Pacific Methodist College building, and quite a number of them headed in that direction. Then it was said that it was Frank Steele’s residents near town. All these conjectures proved wrong.

The lamp exploded without warning and Mr. Cowie, who resided in the big house, was slightly burned about the face. The fire spread rapidly. The residence, built entirely of wood, was an easy prey. At the first cry of fire the large force of employees on the Fountaingrove estate rallied and did what they could to prevent the spread of the flames to other buildings. Numerous small hose were attached to faucets. Fortunately the north wind that had been blowing earlier in the day and evening died down, otherwise the flames would have spread. Some flying embers started a fire in the pasture but it was checked.

The house was well built. It had stood for about a quarter century. It was a largest residence on the place. When seen by a Press Democrat representative at the scene of the fire, Kanai [sic] Nagasawa stated that it would be hard to estimate the damage. Probably $35,000 to $40,000 will cover it. It is understood that there was some insurance on the place. Years ago, when the late Thomas Lake Harris published his books, the printing presses and other paraphernalia had aplace in the building destroyed. Of later years it had been used as a residence and for sometime prior to their going away from Fountaingrove Dr. and Mrs. Webley, and the Clarks occupied apartments in it.

There must have been a couple of hundred people in the crowd who drove out from Santa Rosa to the fire. Mr. Nagasawa took in the situation most philosophically, saying while it was too bad it had happened yet he was very thankful no one was hurt, and that there was no wind to scatter the fire further.

The old house will be missed. While it was the largest house it was not considered as fine as that occupied by the late Mr. Harris, which contains some valuable paintings, plate and furnishings. There are many Santa Rosans who have visited the Webleys and the Clarks there, and they will be sorry to learn of the destruction wrought by the fire.

For an hour or more after the fire, and while it was still in progress the telephone line to the Press Democrat office was certainly “busy.” The fire was seen for miles around and inquiries poured into the office.

Mr. and Mrs. Shirley Burris were leaving Healdsburg for Santa Rosa in their automobile at the time the fire started. Its reflection could plainly be seen there, and attracted considerable attention. All along the road people were out watching the flames.

While mention is made of those who went in automobiles and buggies to the fire those who rode horseback and on bikes must not be overlooked. There were many entries in these divisions. Several young ladies galloped on horseback to the scene of conflagration. For his speedy transit to Fountaingrove the Press Democrat representative was indebted to Frank Leppo, who drove his auto. When all the autos returned to town after the fire it made up quite a decent illuminated parade. An effort to reach Fountaingrove by telephone after the fire was met with the information the telephone had been destroyed with the building.

– Press Democrat, June 18 1908

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LET’S GO TO THE CIRCUS ON COLLEGE AVE

Hours before dawn, the boys were gathering at the depot waiting for the circus train. They would be playing hooky that day but wouldn’t get into much trouble for it; after all, their fathers did the same thing (and maybe grandfathers, too) and they had heard their elders speak wistfully about the pleasure of it, waiting in the dark with a swarm of kids and grown men for the trainload of marvels speeding their way on the rails.

From the 1916 Argus-Courier: “A monster train of red cars, loaded to the guards with circus paraphernalia and equipment of the John Robinson ten big combined shows, the oldest circus in the world, reached Petaluma Thursday morning, a little late but all safe and sound. There was a good sized reception committee on hand to welcome the showmen. Some were there who declared they had not missed seeing a circus ‘come in’ in twenty years. A few even remembered the last time the John Robinson circus visited California 35 years ago. Some small boys were at the depot as early as 3 a. m. although the circus did not arrive until 8:30.”

Setup in Santa Rosa was easier than many towns, where the fairgrounds were usually outside city limits and far from the depot. Here the show lot was nearly in the center of town – the former grounds of the old Pacific Methodist College (now the location of Santa Rosa Middle School, between E street and Brookwood Ave). Once the college buildings were removed around 1892, the nine acre vacant lot became the temporary home of every show rolling through.

This is the second item about the circuses that came to Santa Rosa and Petaluma as viewed through our local newspapers. Part one, “WHEN THE CIRCUS WAGONS CAME TO TOWN,” looked at the shows before the railroads arrived in the 1870s. With trains available the bigger and more famous circus companies began to come here and by the early 1900s, Santa Rosa could expect a visit from a world-class circus every year. The shows discussed below are only a small sample.

(CLICK or TAP any image to enlarge, or see the complete collection on Pinterest)

A big attraction for the 1883 John Robinson’s Circus was the electric light “as bright as the noon-day sun.” For advance PR they sent newspapers a humor column about “Uncle Jerry Peckum” complaining the “sarkis” tent being too close to his chicken farm: “It’s lit up so brite thet every last one o’ them tarnal fool chickins thinks it’s daylite again’, an’ got up an’ gone to layin.'” The column ended with Jerry deciding to go to the circus because “I’ve heern so much about this ‘lectricity light–an’ we may never hev a chance to see one agin.” The promo piece ran in the Petaluma Argus, naturally, because chicken.

1883 John Robinson’s Circus

The 1886 Sells Brothers Circus was the first mega-show to visit Sonoma County. While both Petaluma and Santa Rosa newspapers raved about its quality, the Petaluma Argus was outraged admission at the gate was $1.10 instead of the traditional buck.

Speaking of ripoffs: Earlier the Santa Rosa Daily Democrat ran an amusing reprint from a New York paper describing the predator/prey relationship between a circus “candy butcher” (food vendor) and the locals: “…The candy butchers in a circus never work the bottom row of seats. Country bumpkins who easily become their prey always get up on the top benches. They do this because they are afraid of the ‘butchers’ and want to hide from them. The latter move around on the top seats, and when they find a verdant fellow they fill his girl’s lap with oranges, candy, popcorn and fans. If the girl says she doesn’t want them they ask her why she took them, and make the young man pay thirteen or fourteen prices for the rubbish…” The piece continued by describing the pink in a circus’ trademark pink lemonade was a red dye added to conceal how little lemon actually was in the drink: “Strawberry lemonade men make two barrels of the delicious beverage which they sell of ten cents worth of tartaric acid and five cents worth of aniline and two lemons. They make fifty dollars a day each…”

1886 Sells Brothers Circus

I’m sure it lived up to its claim of being the “greatest show on earth,” but when the Ringling Brothers Circus made four visits during the 1900s we were flooded each time with the greatest hype on earth, as the Press Democrat seemingly printed every scrap of PR flackery the advance promoters churned out as “news” articles. “The aerial features of Ringling Brothers shows by far surpass anything of a similar nature ever exhibited in the United States. The civilized countries of the world have been thoroughly searched for the newest and most thrilling acts.” (1903) “Their Acts in Ringling Brothers’ Circus Almost Surpasses the Possible.” (1904) The low point was probably the 1907 article, “Interesting Facts Regarding the Expense of Advertising and Maintaining a Great Circus,” which was neither very interesting nor very factual: “An elephant without plenty of feed is as dangerous as a healthy stick of dynamite.” Yowp!

1900 Ringling Brothers Circus

Santa Rosa schools were dismissed at 11AM on the Thursday morning when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to town, which was a pragmatic surrender of any hope for keeping the kids at their desks once the parade started marching down Fourth street.

There was no Big Top for this show, just a horseshoe-shaped grandstand that could seat 16,000. The audience was apparently immense; the PD reported, “afternoon and evening the vast seating accommodations was occupied with a sea of humanity.”

These 1902 performances were not Buffalo Bill’s “last and only” shows in Santa Rosa. He was back again in 1910 for his “farewell tour,” and also in 1914, after he lost the legal use of the “Buffalo Bill” name and had to perform with the Sells-Floto Circus. For more, see “BUFFALO BILL STOPS BY TO SAY GOODBYE.”

1902 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

“Early in the day farmers from far and near came driving to town with their entire families while special trains brought crowds from points as far away as Ukiah,” reported the Press Democrat in 1904 about the third appearance here by the Ringling Brothers Circus. “By 11 o’clock the streets were thronged with a good natured perspiring crowd prepared to be amused at any thing.”

Unfortunately, Santa Rosa was suffering through a heat wave that September morning: “The Court House proved a very attractive place as it was so cool and refreshing within its walls while outside the thermometer ranged from 100 upward from 10 o’clock. Many of the windows were filled with the families and friends of the county officials, while the steps and shady portions of the grounds were packed with outside visitors. All along the line of march all available windows and other points of vantage were packed, while great throngs moved restlessly up and down the principal streets, and crowded the stores.”

The description of the circus parade was probably rewrite of PR copy, but it’s still fun to imagine a sight like this coming down Fourth street: “Never before in the history of Santa Rosa has there been such a parade as Ringling Bros, gave Thursday. Floats and chariots, half a dozen bands, numerous companies of horseback riders representing various nationalities, both men and women, a drove of thirteen camels, twenty-six elephants and many open cages of wild animals. Altogether there were over 375 horses in the parade. They were ridden, driven two and three tandem, in teams of two,. four, six, eight and twenty-four horses each. One of the most pleasing sights to the younger people were the twenty-four horse team on the band wagon and the twenty-four Shetland pony team on a float.”

1905 Press Democrat cartoon: “In Town for the Circus”

Norris & Rowe’s Circus was a Santa Rosa favorite in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, and not just because they reliably showed up every April. “On account of the fact that it is a California show,” explained the Press Democrat in 1905, “the people of this state are naturally interested in its success from year to year, and the enterprise of Norris & Rowe in having advanced in a few years from a small dog and pony show to the growing circus that they now possess, has been highly commended.”

Alas, the show had no end of problems, well symbolized by the photo below showing their 1905 “Grand Gold Glittering Street Parade” in Santa Rosa taking place during a downpour. Their last appearance here in 1909 shocked some by offering “several gambling schemes” and a racy sideshow “for men only.” The circus went bankrupt and closed in 1910. For more see: “BROKE DOWN CIRCUS.”

Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The Barnum and Bailey Circus made its second stop here in 1908, and the show was the biggest, best, blah, blah, blah. This trip was notable for an acrobatic act which sounds genuinely risky; the odd-but-colorful description that appeared in the Press Democrat is transcribed below (and was undoubtedly circus PR) but from other papers we can piece together what really went on.

The main performer was 20 year-old Yvone La Raque, who was seated in an “automobile” at the top of a narrow ramp near the top of the tent, about 65 feet in the air. (I can find no claim the little vehicle actually had an engine.) When her cart was released it dropped down the ramp and flew off with enough speed to somehow execute a somersault. She and the little car landed on a separate spring-cushioned ramp several feet away. The entire business took only 4-5 seconds.

Now, Gentle Reader might not think this such a great challenge; all she had to do was keep the wheels absolutely straight and do whatever weight-shifting physics needed to perform the loop-de-loop. But that was in 1907-1908, an age when steering wheels regularly fell off because gearboxes were still an experimental thing and even the best new tires sometimes burst under stress. And, of course, success depended upon workers quickly setting up the landing ramp with absolute precision while circus craziness was underway.

That was 1907 when Yvone was a solo act with a different circus; when she joined Barnum and Bailey her sister (name unknown) was added to the act, following her immediately down the ramp in an identical car and flying across to the landing ramp while Yvone looped above her. By all accounts the crowds went nuts.

I researched them with dread, certain I would discover one or both were killed or horribly mangled, but apparently they retired uninjured at the close of the 1908 season.

The start of this awful act is made from the dome of the tent. The cars ride on the same platform, one behind the other, being released simultaneously. One car is red and the other blue that their separate flights may be followed by the eye that dares to look. The leading auto arches gracefully across a wide gap, being encircled as it does so by the rear car. They land at the same instant. From the time the cars are released at the top of the incline to the landing below on the platform, Just four seconds elapse. Those who have seen the act say it amounts to four years when you figure the suspense, the worry and the awful jolting of the nerves. “You feel like a murderer waiting for the verdict,” says some one who saw the act while the circus was it New York City. “The suspense is awful. You look back over your past life. You regret as many of your sins as you can it four seconds. You want to close your eyes, but you can’t. My, what a relief when they land safely! That’s the jury bringing in a verdict of not guilty. Then you rise with a yell of joy as the young women alight without a scratch. Everybody else yells. Oh, it’s great!”

1908 Barnum and Bailey Circus

And finally we come to the Al G. Barnes Circus. The ad below is from 1921, but his show first appeared in Santa Rosa ten years earlier. I deeply regret having not found much about him beyond a few anecdotes – he clearly was gifted with a rare magnetic personality and both people and animals were drawn to him instinctively. His friend and attorney Wallace Ware tells the story of seeing Barnes throw meat to a fox in a forest, then approaching the wild animal and petting it as if it were tamed. He trained performing animals with food rewards but also by talking to them with genuine sincerity as if they could understand everything he said. Ware’s memoir, “The Unforgettables,” has a section on Al worth reading if you’d like to know more.

(RIGHT: Chevrolet and bear at the Al G. Barnes Zoo, Culver City, 1926. Courtesy of the USC Digital Library)

Barnes also had a private zoo near Los Angeles where he kept animals too old or too wild to be in the circus. It must have been enormously expensive to maintain – supposedly it numbered around 4,000 animals – but kudos to him for not destroying the unprofitable animals or selling them off to carnivals where they likely would suffer great abuses. That was the 1920s, remember; there were no animal sanctuaries for former circus animals, tame or no, and trade newspapers like Billboard and the New York Clipper regularly had want ads of circus animals for sale.

The Press Democrat treated him like a hometown boy although he was from Canada and lived in Southern California when he wasn’t touring. The PD reprinted news items about his circus, his illnesses and reported his marriage on the front page. When he died in 1931 the PD wrote its own obit: “When Al G. Barnes rode into the ring, swept off his hat, bowed and welcomed the crowd, you knew who was running the show…his death will be generally regretted, not only in a personal way but because it marks the passing of a picturesque character, one well known in the west–one of the last of the kind.”

1921 Al G. Barnes Circus

 

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WHEN OUR FUTURE DERAILED

Try to imagine the West Coast criss-crossed by electric streetcars. You could hop aboard a trolley in Santa Rosa and maybe step off in Sacramento a block from Aunt Mabel’s house, or you might start the weekend early by visiting friends in Oakland so the next morning you can all take a streetcar directly to the new amusement boardwalk at Santa Cruz. A world awaits.

Advertisement from the November 26, 1911 Press Democrat

 

 

Such was the bright future that seemed inevitable between about 1905 and 1910. Probably every cosmopolitan area in the country had an electric trolley system that offered an easy way to move around a city and its outlying towns. What later became known as the Key System served every community along the East Bay shore down to Hayward; the Northern Electric connected Sacramento and Chico and all the small valley towns in between, as just a couple of examples. Locally our interurban system was the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway, which carried our great-grandparents between those towns as well as to Graton and Sebastopol and forgotten country crossroads such as Liberty (about 1.5 miles west of the Petaluma Pumpkin Patch and Corn Maze).

And it was only getting better. Everywhere existing “traction systems” (the formal name) were adding new routes and equally important, making deals to link up with other systems; Northern Electric would soon stretch down to the East Bay, sharing tracks and electricity with the Key System. There was talk about forming great interstate networks and maybe even a transcontinental route.

Thus there was excitement but no great surprise when it was reported in 1908 that plans were underway to build an electric railroad from Marin county to Lake Tahoe, with a spur stretching to Petaluma and Santa Rosa. Despite assurances by Bay Area newspapers including the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican, the deal died quickly, not least because it required $12,000,000 from investors in one of the tightest economies in the nation’s history; it was only a year past the bank panic of 1907 which saw the U.S. financial system near collapse, and no one was in the mood to gamble on risky projects. Nor did it help that the mastermind behind it was Richard M. Hotaling, a San Francisco playboy who knew nothing about railroads, or for that matter, business.*

But aside from Hotaling’s complete lack of business acumen and the wildly ambitious scope of building a Lake Tahoe road, the deal wasn’t that unusual. Typically a group of investors formed a new company to build a specific small railroad. Bonds were offered for sale, and from the newspaper announcements it seems the company claimed work would be completed with remarkable (and improbable) speed and/or the hardest phase of construction was already finished. When they inevitably ran out of money or faced some sort of serious obstacle, work stopped and didn’t resume for months, years, or maybe ever. It was pay-as-you-go railroad tycooning.

Hotaling had also fizzled in trying to start a railroad company in 1905; that time he planned an electric line from Sausalito to Lakeport via Napa. The road was projected to cost up to $15 million, even more than he would later guesstimate to reach Lake Tahoe. Today it may seem like a crummy investment, but in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, it would have had great appeal for one reason alone: It reached Clear Lake, which was the Holy Grail for railroaders. At the time there was not a single railroad track of any kind in Lake county. Everyone went in and out of the area via bumpy stagecoach until 1907, when a company started offering bumpy auto transport between Calistoga and Middletown. And everyone, it seems, wanted to go to Lake county.

Lake county was then being promoted as the “Switzerland of America” (never mind that Colorado claimed the same after the Civil War, and New Hampshire used the motto a half-century before that) and its mineral spring resorts were world famous. Tens of thousands of visitors spent weeks there every summer. You rubbed elbows with royalty and world leaders; you could watch a boxing champion train at one resort and his upcoming challenger spar at another. The most opulent of the resorts, Bartlett Springs, was virtually a small city, accommodating  up to 5,000 guests and an even larger staff. It had a casino, gourmet European chefs, a resident orchestra, five hotels and hundreds of cabins. The Lake county Chamber of Commerce wrote a history of the resorts with a vivid (if somewhat purple) description:

Turrets and towers reaching nearly to the sky, adorned the multicolored flags waving festively in the mountain breezes, loomed high above the stately evergreen forests in which they were centered. These luxury hotels or baronial castles featured every type of architecture-from the airy Swiss Chalet style, Victorian, with accommodations for 500 or more persons in the main hotel buildings. Often these resorts would have their main hotel and several secondary or smaller hotels that could accommodate from 200 to 300 persons. Also dozens of individual housekeeping cottages, annexes, dormitory type buildings and even extensive campground facilities. Posh casinos, mirrored ballrooms, brocade and satin upholstered salons, music halls redolent with gold leaf and formal dining rooms gleaming with silver and crystal were just some of the luxuries offered the clientele.

My lord, it sounded like a county full of Disneylands.

Plans to construct some type of a railroad into Lake county went back to 1869. According to county histories, companies were also founded to lay tracks in 1896, 1900, 1903, two in 1905 (not counting Hotaling’s plan) and 1907. Hey, want to lose money on a sure thing? I’ve got some Lake county railroad bonds I’d like to sell you.

(RIGHT: Proposed Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad route map that appeared several times in the Press Democrat, 1910-1911)

Then come 1908, both Santa Rosa papers herald yet another Lake train scheme. The difference this time is that the 56-mile electric line was to be built by a Santa Rosa company: The Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad, headed by William Reynolds – who was also president of the Santa Rosa Bank. Hearing Reynolds’ presentation to the Chamber of Commerce were many of Santa Rosa’s real estate and investment heavy hitters.

Little was written of the project until almost exactly a year later, when the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce heard another pitch. This time it was from a group of Lake county investors with a company called Highland Pacific that proposed their own Lakeport to Santa Rosa train. Rival Reynolds was there and didn’t seem threatened, even proposing the two could share tracks into Santa Rosa from Gwynn’s Corners (the intersection of Old Redwood Highway and Mark West). Perhaps the Lake county guys were not aware how much they were revealing their hands to the enemy camp; a few weeks later the Press Democrat reported Santa Rosa’s mayor and the Chamber Secretary had been “busy for several days securing rights of way from property owners for the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Scenic Railway” and they had “practically secured $3,000” to start work.

But the project gained no traction. The PD announced in 1910 that construction would begin at the end of the year and take twenty months. Work appears to have stopped after five miles were graded.

While the Santa Rosa efforts were on hiatus, yet another team showed up to play: The newly-created Clear Lake Railroad Company stated in 1911 they would construct a standard gauge road from Hopland to Lakeport. The shortest route of all at slightly less than 25 miles, it would be a spur from the Northwestern Pacific main line. The NWP would also sell them rails at cost, finance them with discount loans and would be in no hurry to be paid back.

The Press Democrat complained this sweetest of sweetheart deals was really aimed at killing Santa Rosa’s dreams: “The Northwestern revives again this old, old proposition at a time when its revival might have a chilling influence upon the new enterprise.” The PD announced shortly after that “work on the new Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad, which has been temporarily discontinued, is to be resumed at once.” Apparently it was not.

The Hopland project broke ground in November, 1911 and quickly became entangled in a labor dispute. Work sputtered along for over five years, the company selling more bonds and making (what appear to be) questionable insider deals concerning Clear Lake frontage. All they accomplished was a few miles of graded roadbed in Mendocino County. And thus endeth this chapter on Lake county rail.

It can be argued that the failure of the Santa Rosa electric line was the biggest setback to the town’s progress since the 1906 earthquake. Not that business interests had such love to serve their Lake county brethren; the attraction was all those wealthy people passing through town. As the Press Democrat explained: “In making Santa Rosa the terminal the city becomes a railroad center of considerable importance. It is estimated that over 50,000 visitors will pass through Santa Rosa in and out annually on their way to and from the various resorts.”

Perhaps just as important, the trolley line would have extended Santa Rosa’s sphere of influence north to Healdsburg; note the 1910 full-page ad that appeared in the Republican selling property in the “new subdivision” on the yet-to-be-built route. Lacking a boost in land values from developments and lacking the draw of a major transit hub, it seemed like Santa Rosa had again missed out on boom times.

But maybe that was for the best. Those were the peak years for interurban trains, and it’s no mystery why interest began to decline thereafter; in 1907 we began to go car crazy on the West Coast and in 1910 California voted to create a state highway system. People wanted their private cars and paved roads, not efficient public transit on rails. During and after WWI electric systems increasingly shut down or switched to freight-only; in the dozen years centered on the 1929 start of the Great Depression, 8,400 miles of track were abandoned nationwide. The Petaluma & Santa Rosa trolley ended passenger service in 1932 for lack of ridership. During those years the Lake county resort scene was also vanishing; several of the resorts – including the magnificent Bartlett Springs – burned to the ground and were not rebuilt. Had it been completed, the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad would have been the train to nowhere after about two decades.

Still, those early years would have been marvelous. Imagine: Just a couple of effortless hours away from downtown Santa Rosa, there awaited “turrets and towers reaching nearly to the sky, adorned the multicolored flags waving festively in the mountain breezes.” I’d certainly buy a ticket. Maybe just one way.

* Richard (“Dick”) Hotaling (1868-1925) was a San Francisco millionaire and one of the heirs to the A. P. Hotaling whiskey fortune. Besides his short-lived railroad venture he managed the family’s 1600-acre Sleepy Hollow dairy ranch in San Anselmo for a few years. But his interest in business matters quickly wained; he was always described in the papers as a clubman and amateur actor, performing at the Bohemian Grove and with a theatrical company in Oakland which usually cast him in the leading roles. He specialized in Shakespearian roles and his interpretations would certainly raise eyebrows today – he performed Shylock with a Yiddish accent and Othello in “African dialect,” explaining to the San Francisco Call there was “no logical reason why Shylock and Othello should speak like Venetians” before laughing, “Wouldn’t it be funny to hear Othello declaim a la Uncle Tom?” Hotaling was also accused of attempting to defraud family members. He claimed his elderly mother gave him the ranch and handed over the one-quarter share in the business inherited by his brother Fred after she was embarrassed in 1913 by Fred appearing drunk after a society ball. His mother supposedly also gave him her own quarter share of stock with the understanding the deed would be recorded only after she died or in the case of a “German invasion,” meaning her fears that the widow of her eldest son was planning to marry a German nobleman seeking to occupy the San Anselmo mansion. The court returned Fred’s stock and ruled in favor of mom in 1919. Dick was also investigated by a grand jury a few months before his death regarding a murder-for-hire scheme to poison Fred and his wife, but was not indicted for lack of corroborating evidence.

 

NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD
Line Into Lake County Discussed Thursday Night

There was a good attendance at the regular meeting of the Chamber of Commerce Thursday evening and the time was largely devoted to discussion of a narrow gauge railroad from Santa Rosa into Lake county. This is a project in which W. D. Reynolds and J. W. Barrows have taken an especially deep interest for several years. Maps of the proposed line were drawn in 1906 and 1907 under direction of Mr. Barrows, and when he went east last year he gave the matter considerable investigation. At that time the REPUBLICAN gave the story of his investigations and some points in regard to such roads. The proposed road would have a width of 24 to 27 inches and such lines are declared to have proven very profitable. They go up and down grads much steeper than those of standard gauge lines and are declared to be very safe in their management. The meeting Thursday night was addressed by Judge Crawford, Rev. Peter Colvin, R. C. Moodey, Mayor Gray, A. Trembley , John Rinner, Frank Leppo, Dr. Harry Leppo, Dr. Jackson Temple, and others.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 18, 1908
MAY MEAN BIG THINGS
Proposed Electric Road May Bring Eastern Lines

The proposed electric railroad that was mentioned in the REPUBLICAN of Thursday, beginning from Belvedere, and running north through Santa Rosa and other cities to Lake Tahoe, is really to be the connecting point with a large transcontinental route.

It will mean the entrance to this city and county and state from the northeast to the bay of either the Hill system, the Rockefellers’ St. Paul system, the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific project of David M. Moffat of Denver, or the Chicago and Northwestern.

The road projected by Richard M. Hotaling is to be 178 miles in length, and can be used for steam or electric trains. It is to cost $12,000,000 and work is to begin by next March.

At Sacramento the proposed road will connect with the Butters road known as the Northern Electric, which is built as far as Chico and is in operation. It will extend to Redding and form an important link in the transcontinental route. Since the death of Henry A. Butters, interested parties have proposed a combination of the Northern Electric and the Hotaling projects, and it is certain that a merger of these two properties will be made within a year. It is these two companies which will be eventually utilized by some big eastern road to get an outlet to the Bay of San Francisco.

The late Henry A. Butters, along with Louis Sloss, E. R. Lillienthal and other wealthy San Franciscans, built the Northern Electric system between Sacramento and Yuba City, Marysville, Oroville and Chico, and projected it north to Red Bluff and Redding because he has great faith in the development of Northern California.

Hotaling and his associates say they have the same faith in the growth of this part of the State and that the three firms of engineers employed by them reported that this section of the state is a fine field for railway development.

Interested parties in both systems said yesterday the logic of the situation pointed to a close affiliation or combination of both properties. They refuse to say when and how the companies might reach an understanding.

Like the Hotaling system is to be, the Northern Electric can be used by steam or electric trains, or both. It is now being operated by electric power furnished by the transmission mountain plants of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of this city. Presumably the Hotaling road will use powere from the same company. People who are interested in a merger of the two properties say that as one system they could handle by electric power all traffic purely local. In case of some big eastern road later on became interested in the system, it could readily use steam trains for through freight and passenger traffic.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 6, 1908
TALKS ABOUT THINGS HE DOES NOT LIKE

Kinsfolk, Neighbors and Friends:

We need an electric railroad to run from Santa Rosa to Lake county and we need it badly. It is a much easier matter to tell you why we need this road than to try to tell you why the devil is in hogs, or why there should be any devil at all. We can explain this matter to your enquiring minds more satisfactorily than we can tell you why Bryan is in Lincoln, Roosevelt in France or why the thieving Sugar Trust escapes punishment so easily.

We all know that this electric road should be built. We know that it would further the welfare of the county to have it and over a question that is so clear to our minds, we arenot going to divide and quarrel.

We must look after the interests of our county. We must encourage the promoters of this great scheme. Santa Rosa is destined to become a great railroad center. Thousands of people are headed this way. When they arrive, we must prove to them that it will be to their interest to remain…

…But that Santa Rosa and Clear Lake electric line! We must “boost” that. We need it in our business–we need it all the time. With a station every mile or two, the farmers will be able to ship their produce into town in large or small quantities , and at almost any time of day.

[..]

WES MAYFIELD.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 6, 1910
CONTRACT AWARDED FOR GRADING OF SANTA ROSA AND CLEAR LAKE ROAD
Work Begins on December 1st and Must Be Completed in Twenty Months
GREAT INTEREST IN A BIG PROJECT
Years of Quiet But Energetic Work Has Achieved Results–Passenger Steamers on Clear Lake

…For nearly five years the gentlemen at the head of the undertaking have been quietly, yet none the less energetically working to bring about the consummation of this railroad into Lake county. Their plans were well defined at the time of the disaster of April, 1906, and but for that set back the road would doubtless have been in operation for some time….

…the electric railroad from Santa Rosa to Clear Lake will be a “scenic railroad.” Every one familiar with the route will agree as to this. Through valley and canyon and over hill it will run until its termination on the shores of Clear Lake is reached. It will be the first railroad of any kind to enter Lake county–“the Switzerland of America,” famed far and wide for its unparalleled scenery and climate, eagerly sought after each year by thousands of tourists and pleasure seekers.

Route of Proposed Road

The route of the new railroad runs from Santa Rosa to Kellogg, and thence skirting St. Helena mountain, it will go to Middletown, and then on to Clear Lake. In Santa Rosa the terminus will be on Wilson street between Fourth and Fifth streets, and consequently it will connect for passengers from both the Northwestern Pacific and Petaluma & Santa Rosa railroad depots. It will run up Fifth street to North street to the Southern Pacific depot. From the depot it will pass the Odd Fellows’ cemetery, and will proceed along the line of the Healdsburg road, and then on by Mark West to Kellogg, passing the Knight’s Valley ranch where it is expected the California Trades ^ Training School will be located.

The Lake county terminus will be at deep water on Clear Lake. The plan is to put two large passenger boats on the Lake to connect with every resort frontong on or in touch with the lake.

[..]

– Press Democrat, November 15, 1910
COMMITTEE REPORT FAVORS LAKE CO. RAILWAY PROJECT
Chamber Commerce Representatives Review the Situation

…The local directors have agreed to sell for cash 15 per cent or $528.75 per mile of this stock, thus requiring the sale of about $30,000 worth of stock in Santa Rosa, along the route and in Lake county. Nearly $5,000 worth of stock has been subscribed, we are told, by residents of Middletown. Nearly $5,000 more will be taken at Lower Lake, and nearly $5,000 has already been subscribed in Santa Rosa…

In making Santa Rosa the terminal the city becomes a railroad center of considerable importance. It is estimated that over 50,000 visitors will pass through Santa Rosa in and out annually on their way to and from the various resorts. We believe the road will be a lasting benefit for the community and will be worthy of the attempt to secure same, and should receive the support of all our people…

[..]

– Press Democrat, March 23, 1911
PROGRESS OF THE CLEAR-LAKE ROAD
Northwestern Pacific Makes an Effort to Discourage it by Offering to Expedite Another Line

Subscriptions are steadily coming in to the capital stock of the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad Company, the survey has been finished from Santa Rosa to Middletown in Lake county, and five miles of grading work has been completed in the most difficult part of the road. “The road will be finished before winter,” is the declaration of the men who are pushing the work.

The customary and expected effort to discourage and forestall the enterprise came to light with the publication in San Francisco Wednesday of the account of a conference held in San Francisco between the officers of the Northwestern Pacific and a delegation of business men who had been invited to the city for the purpose of the interview. According to this story, the Northwestern Pacific offers to expedite the building of a line from Lakeport to connect with and feed the Northwestern Pacific main line at Hopland. The road is to be twenty-two miles long, is to cost $200,000 and is to be financed by popular subscription at $100 a share. It is to be a standard-gauge gasoline motor road with a maximum grade of five percent.

The Northwestern Pacific agreed to furnish rails at cost price, and to bond the road at five per cent, to refrain from control of the line and to give ample time for redemption of the bonds. [? illegible microfilm ?] and published ever time it has appeared that the people of Santa Rosa and the people of Lakeport were doing something to connect the two towns by rail. Nothing has ever come of any of them.

Naturally, a direct and independent line from Santa Rosa to Lakeport would not bring as much business to the Northwestern Pacific as would a feeder line to tap the Northwestern at Hopland. Obviously, the direct line to Santa Rosa will bring more business to Santa Rosa than would the “feeder” line to Hopland. That explains, of course, why the Northwestern would prefer a “feeder,” and it also explains, equally of course, why Santa Rosa’s interests are with the independent line. Also, it explains why the Northwestern revives again this old, old propsition at a time when its revival might have a chilling influence upon the new enterprise.

But the new enterprise is not affected by the chill.

“We’ll have our road in operation before there is a tie laid on the feeder,” said one of the men engaged in the building of the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake road, when asked about it by a Press Democrat reporter Wednesday.

– Press Democrat, March 30, 1911
ACTUAL WORK TO BEGIN ON S. R. & CLEAR LAKE R. R.
Money Deposited in Local Banks to Start Work
J. W. Barrows Resigns Position With Western Pacific to Take Charge of Building for New Line–Will Make Headquarters in Santa Rosa

Work on the new Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad, which has been temporarily discontinued, is to be resumed at once. Milton Nathan of the Nathan, Brownscomb Construction Company was in this city yesterday and deposited $5,000 in cash with two of the local banks to start construction work and announced that there was plenty more on hand which would be forthcoming as soon as it was needed…

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– Press Democrat, July 16, 1911

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