Let the record show: In 1968, Santa Rosa achieved Peak Pepper. That was the year when the local Grand Poobahs gave a badge to our town character and proclaimed she was henceforth the town marshal. What could possibly go wrong?

This is part two of the story of Pepper Dardon. Her backstory was hashed in “I, PEPPER” which I urge you to read before continuing. Starting sometime in the mid-1950s she became a noisy and (mostly) cheerful fixture around the downtown district. How well someone got along with her depended on who they were and which Pepper they met. “She could be obnoxious or sweet, depending on the street persona she adopted that day,” her 1992 Press Democrat obituary noted.

She was invariably kind to children who seemed to view her as silly, a grownup who didn’t act like the usual sort of adult and wasn’t much taller than they were. Older kids might think she was scary or mean because she teased them. Teenagers with smart mouths sometimes recognized her as one of their own ilk.

If you were a store clerk or bank teller having a busy day you did not want to see Pepper coming through your door. “Santa Rosa merchants, who endured her tirades as she made her daily rounds, considered her either a charming looney or a public nuisance,” the PD obit also recalled. She was sure to do something disruptive; “Topping it all off, she yodeled, sang and played the harmonica. But not very well.” Should there be a candy jar on the counter she would shoplift fistfuls to hand out later – see above, Children: Kindness to.

The men and women who were active in social clubs and charities appreciated her as an indefatigable volunteer. Pepper’s self-appointed downtown duties included collecting money for good causes, which often were a sizable portion of all money raised during a fundraising drive. She sold lapel pins for the Lions Club’s White Cane Day, ersatz red poppies for the VFW, candy for the Santa Rosa Jewish Women’s Club (she wasn’t Jewish), tickets to the Kiwanis pancake breakfast, rattled donation cans for the American Cancer Society and probably begged donations for still other groups forgotten.

When the campaign was over and the club held its inevitable self-congratulatory luncheon Pepper was often invited because of her outsized contribution. For a long time those orgs treated her as something like their own poster child, as did the Chamber of Commerce and particularly the Police Department.

“There’s no question she got away with a lot. She was a kind of mascot to our smaller-town Police Department. The officers treated her like a pet.” Gaye LeBaron wrote in a must-read 2005 column. Even before the town marshal gag, Pepper was chummy with the officers personally and they did favors for each other; cops would give her a lift in patrol cars and she would run errands for them, such as fetching a raincoat from the police station, according to a different column by Gaye. Nor did it hurt that she prowled downtown with a sharp eye for lawbreakers, like the top elephant enforcing good behavior on her unruly herd. Woe to anyone she caught jaywalking or dropping a gum wrapper – people were astonished such a tiny woman could holler so loud.

But Pepper had no greater champion than the Press Democrat, particularly columnist Gaye LeBaron. Pepper’s birthday was usually heralded in the column, as were the impressive sums she collected for the fundraiser de jour. There were items when she broke her thumb and when she adopted a kitten. After husband Paul lost his job of twelve years as Occidental Hotel janitor, readers learned the Lions Club passed the hat and raised $36 to help them out. Updates followed as he was hired twice again as a janitor and lost those jobs as well. At one point an anonymous caller sniped to LeBaron’s editor she should “stop talking so much about Pepper.”

It was early in 1968 when a Pepper fan wrote to LeBaron suggesting they lobby to have Pepper chosen as Grand Marshal for that year’s Rose Parade: “Riding in an open car down Fourth street would perhaps repay her in some small way for all the time she’s donated.” Gaye liked the proposal and hoped Pepper would get the nod – but a quirk of fate caused her to end up as a different kind of marshal instead.

Undated photo courtesy Michael Sawyer/
Undated photo courtesy Michael Sawyer/

The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce decided the town needed lots of parties to commemorate its centennial year of 1968. There would be fine speeches from VIPs on Centennial Day in March, followed in May by a whole Centennial Week highlighted by the Rose Parade. Yessir, we would spare no effort to celebrate the town’s 100th birthday in style. (Ignore for the moment that Santa Rosa was actually founded in 1854 and 1868 was only the year of incorporation, which was a legal formality that went almost unnoticed.)

Those festivities were lightly covered in an earlier article but considering the focus was a specific event around the time of the Civil War, it’s surprising the doings in 1968 were such an ahistorical mess. People dressed up in turn-of-the century garb, rode old bicycles or drove antique cars and a barbershop quartet sang, all stuff from a half century later. Or maybe Santa Rosa was more like a cowtown in the Wild West – there was a two-day “western extravaganza” at the racetrack with stunt riding and a race between a horse and a motorcycle. There was also a Centennial Year Marshal because…they always looked cool in TV westerns, I guess.

The selection of the marshal was intended to be a rollicking funfest because everyone knew and liked the candidates – everyone who was part of Santa Rosa’s clubby businessmen’s world, that is. The Downtown Development Association nominated Datsun auto dealer Bob Torvick. In response, a Chamber of Commerce leader said the honor should instead go to Dave “Bugsy” Hill. It was agreed the matter would be settled by an election with votes mailed to the Press Democrat.

For nearly two weeks they bantered in the newspaper. Torvick assured voters he had a full head of hair and was “kind to children very often.” “I am real relaxed,” promised Hill. “I can go to bed sooner, sleep later, and get up feeling fresher.” Oh, you crazy kids.

The votes were counted on April Fool’s Day and it was a tie, each of them pulling a whopping ten votes (there were two write-ins for Pepper). A committee was formed to decide what to do. The agreed solution was for the two to face off in a showdown at high noon at Courthouse Square – using real guns firing soft wax bullets. Only Torvick and Hill voted against the notion. Mayor Hugh Codding was named as the referee.

The shootout was scheduled for the sixth of April and everyone in town was invited – until fate intervened. On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There were waves of rioting nationwide on the following days and the Golden Gate bridge was closed following a bomb threat. The faux showdown was cancelled because playing at shooting someone was no longer funny. There was a memorial ceremony at Courthouse Square that day instead.

“Since the cancellation of the town marshal contest and even before there has been a veritable groundswell of support for Pepper to assume the title,” wrote LeBaron a few days later. “I was all for Pepper being given a place of honor in the Rose Parade. Now, perhaps, I’ll modify my stand to include a town marshal’s badge.”

And so it came to pass; Pepper put on her badge, which thereafter became as much a part of her as body and soul.1

Pepper at a Rose Parade in the 1970s. Photo courtesy Michael Sawyer/
Pepper at a Rose Parade in the 1970s. Photo courtesy Michael Sawyer/

Had she not been cast to play the role of Santa Rosa’s official fake town marshal, 1968 was still a banner year for Pepper.

She was at (or near) her peak for doing street fundraising; “she has collected literally thousands of dollars for charity and while her methods may be unorthodox there’s no denying their effectiveness,” remarked Gaye LeBaron. She was fêted at luncheons both by the Lions Club and the Rotary Club at the Flamingo Hotel, where she had never been inside. And maybe most importantly. Paul finally had a stable job, then in his fourth year as janitor at Community Hospital.

But the year ended with Paul changing from being an employee to a cancer patient at the hospital on Chanate Road. Despite not having a car, Pepper visited him every day for three months, most of her rides courtesy city police “who happened to be going out that way.”

Paul died there in early 1969. The Press Democrat gave him a front page obituary although most of it was about Pepper. Eggen & Lance donated his funeral service and burial with Police Chief Dutch Flohr and other officers acting as pallbearers. It was all quite a tribute, given that few apparently knew him except as the man married to Pepper.

His salary was meager, but losing it created a financial crisis for Pepper. Those who were closest to her – LeBaron, Helen and Dr. Bill Rudee, along with Ford car dealer Bob Bishop – created a “Pepper Pot” fund that carried her over for several months until Bishop, a former mayor who “had some political clout,” as Gaye later wrote, was able to get her a state pension for being certifiably “unemployable handicapped.”

Pepper was then 55 but gave no signs of slowing down in the years following, often topping her previous charity collection records. In 1973 she pulled in a quarter of all money raised by the Lions during their White Cane benefit. Police and firefighters remained devoted to her; when she was in the hospital for gallbladder surgery they made a plaque declaring her Santa Rosa’s “Official Firebelle,” just as the San Francisco firemen once honored Lillie Coit.

She fully embraced the Marshal Pepper routine, never seen without her badge. At some point in the 1970s her usual ensemble included a vest with text on the back reading:


“She really believed she was the Marshal,” her PD obituary said.2 Gaye LeBaron wrote much the same in a 1975 column: “I think the problem is that Pepper, like so many other controversial people, is beginning to believe her press clippings. Call someone the town character long enough and they begin to try to live up to it.”

peppervest(RIGHT: Detail of photo from the Macy’s Coddingtown grand opening, courtesy Michael Sawyer/

Then in 1975 the unthinkable happened: Pepper was no longer allowed to collect money for any of the charities or social clubs.

Apparently the first to break ties was the Lions Club, the group she was always closest to. LeBaron spent an entire Sunday column explaining the issue.3 The Lions said she was dropped because of “too many negative responses” to her methods, browbeating people to donate. “Don’t try to run away lady, I see you trying to keep from giving me money” or “Whatsamatter, lizard? Too cheap to help the blind people?”

Yeah, she could be pushy, but the Lions and everyone else knew that before letting her shake their collection cans. A more serious issue was that she was skimming. “She would get five times more [money] than anyone else, in spite of the fact she pocketed probably half,” said Lon Kaufmann, a Pepper supporter who had known her since she arrived in Santa Rosa.4

Nor was she doing all her marshalling for free. She didn’t just scream at jaywalkers but began demanding they pay a 50¢ fine, which she kept. She waited for drivers with expired parking meters in order to fine them too (the PD didn’t say whether or not she fed the meter in the interim). She yanked packages from the arms of shoppers “to carry them for you.” By any definition it was a shakedown, made all the more disturbing because the police sanctioned it by looking away.

Pepper surely missed the applause and praise from the Lions and other groups for being their top donation collector, but she also spoke about it being a tough job. “I was born and raised to be nice and courteous to everyone. But to some people in Santa Rosa you can’t be,” she was quoted in her obituary. In her postmortem column, LeBaron recalled she was cussed at. People would order her to get away from them. “Lots of people aren’t pleasant when you ask them for money on the street,” Pepper once told her.

It wouldn’t be surprising to learn those rude encounters contributed to her infamous habit of name-calling; “lizard” was her favorite putdown, which could be teasing, affectionate or a sharp slap across the face. Pepper’s lexicon also included “jungle boy” (Gaye makes it clear this was a swipe at businessmen and not a racial slur), “Butterball” for someone overweight, “snakehead” and plenty more. Another part of her regular shtick was to tag locals with nicknames, usually insulting in some way – which might go far in explaining why some strongly disliked her. It’s too late to put her on a psychiatrist’s couch and probe exactly why she thought this acceptable, but Gentle Reader might recall comedian Don Rickles was constantly on TV during those years because many thought his insult humor was funny (certainly not me).

There’s no record of how she felt being blackballed by the social clubs, but her routine didn’t seem to change much. She continued patrolling downtown, Montgomery Village and Coddingtown yelling at litterers, jaywalkers, skateboarders, kids who rode their bikes on the sidewalk (when they switched to the street she’d yell at them for riding in the street) and people in cars who weren’t wearing seatbelts. She yodeled and whistled and told really dumb jokes. She was a regular guest on Jim Grady’s popular KSRO morning show where she would sing and play the harmonica.

The Jaycees never allowed her to ride in a Rose Parade car much less naming her Grand Marshal, snubs that irked Gaye LeBaron no end. But every year Pepper would arrive at the grandstand long before anyone else in order to claim a prime spot (she said she went early in order to keep “lizards” away). Once the event began there was a sweet tradition where emcee John Bugbee would introduce her and the crowd would roar, “HELLO, PEPPER!” and clap for her.

Pepper received an honor (of sorts) in 1982 when cartoonist Dale Messick used her as the inspiration for a character in the soapy “Brenda Starr” comic strip. Messick, who lived in Oakmont, created “Granny Pineapple,” a squat elderly woman who went barefoot, wore a grass skirt and Hawaiian leis along with half a pineapple for a hat. The storyline that appeared in June involved G.P. being so pissed off at the Gas & Electric company she paid her bill in pennies. Brenda and other journalists at the Flash daily paper gave the stunt lots of publicity and soon half the town was doing the same. Ironically, the Press Democrat didn’t carry the strip so we don’t know if Pepper ever saw her sort-of doppelganger, but KPIX sent a crew here to interview Messick and Pepper for its “Evening Magazine” show that aired June 30.

Panels from "Brenda Starr" comic strip, June 1982
Panels from “Brenda Starr” comic strip, June 1982

Mentions of Pepper slacked off in the PD after she turned seventy in 1984. “Pepper won’t like me saying this, but the town marshal is not getting any younger,” lamented Gaye. “She’s losing some of that old enthusiasm, a note or two of the old yodel.” She began having trouble with her legs and had to skip the Rose Parade for the first time in decades. Then in 1990 she suffered a bad fall and was bedridden. She was sent to a Petaluma nursing home where she died of pneumonia, August 8, 1992.

Eggen & Lance again donated a casket and the funeral service, which about fifty people attended. The PD gave her an obituary plus columns by LeBaron and Chris Smith sprinkled with Pepper stories. She is buried next to husband Paul in Santa Rosa Memorial Park.

Pepper had no family and it appears the only property she left was her marshal vest, her harmonica (which had to be pretty rusty by then) and a few pictures of her with cops and firemen. But given it was presumed she was intellectually challenged or maybe bedbug crazy, she also left behind something that might surprise: Children’s stories.

She wrote letters and cards to her friends, even though they lived in Santa Rosa and she could visit them anytime she liked. Among the correspondence are stories about her cat Spunky and its seven kittens. The kitties take a vacation to Disneyland, visit Richard Nixon in the White House, have dinner with Roy Rogers and enjoy other splendid adventures. I haven’t read them but Gaye says they are well written, charming and funny. I’ll take her word on that.

The stories she sent to LeBaron and Helen Rudee were handwritten and Pepper also drew illustrations. They’re now in a folder at Sonoma State as part of the Gaye LeBaron Collection and since May 2, 2024 is the 110th anniversary of Pepper’s birth, perhaps SSU might consider transcribing them into eBook format or digitizing them for online reading.

In her Press Democrat obit, a caregiver at the Petaluma nursing home said, “She was a character here, too. She liked to joke. She was a very happy person.” For much of her life she was a ward of the state, spending her childhood stuck in orphanages and her prime years locked away in a horrific institution. As she approached middle age her future appeared just as dismal; she had a 5th grade education (supposedly) and no skills. She was not on track to end up as an independent and “very happy person.” More likely she would live on the margins, remaining a charity case or working some menial and thankless job where nobody knew her name.

Yet today in Santa Rosa here we are, sitting around the internet’s unflickering campfire and swapping half century-old stories about the woman Linda Garcia Dardon invented called “Pepper.”

And that is simply remarkable, if you think about it.

1 has a photo from the April 23 1968, Press Democrat showing Dave “Bugsy” Hill, Pepper and Bob Torvick together.

2 Longtime SR Street Character Dies At 78 by Tim Tesconi, August 9 1992 Press Democrat

3 Gaye LeBaron column, September 21, 1975 Press Democrat

4 Salty Pepper Lived Life Her Way by Chris Smith, August 13 1992 Press Democrat

Read More



It was a victory lap more than just a ceremony with windy speeches. Some 700 gathered for the June 7, 1969 building dedication of the new city hall/civic center; Santa Rosa was on the “threshold of an era,” cheered the Press Democrat. And that was true. The city government complex was the keystone of a project which brought drastic changes to downtown, more so than anything that had happened since the 1906 earthquake.

About a quarter of the downtown core was new construction east and south of Courthouse Sq. – mostly tall office buildings associated with big banks, government offices and parking garages/lots. There were no new shops or restaurants; the only retail business in that area was the White House Department Store, relocated from two blocks away. The city designed for living was starting to look more like the city designed for providing office space for a brigade of bureaucrats, bank tellers and accountants.

The ceremony was also somewhat of a wrap party. For more than a decade Santa Rosa had been daydreaming about a complete makeover of the downtown area; architects had produced designs – some lovable and some laughable, but all destined for the wastebasket. Aside from the state and federal buildings which were yet to be built in this redevelopment zone, there were no big construction projects on the horizon for Santa Rosa. (Here’s a short recap of what happened over those ten years.)

The day after the ceremony, the Congress for Community Progress held its annual meeting. The Congress was an ad hoc coalition of local social clubs, downtown business interests and city manager/directors; it was formed by the Chamber of Commerce and (no surprise) their suggestions rubber-stamped what the Chamber wanted. At the top of the wishlist that year was a convention center, probably at the current location of Westamerica Bank on Santa Rosa Ave. They also urged a major hotel/motel be built near Railroad Square, which could become a “tourist-oriented ‘old town.'” But these ideas were whiffs of smoke; the coalition had no clout to make anything happen.

And then came the October 1 earthquakes. I suppose there must be an alternate universe where city leaders could have screwed up worse – but it’s hard to imagine.

Assessing the damage was an obvious first priority; was a building damaged – and if so, could it be repaired? And did “repair” mean it must be brought up to modern code standards? This started a heated debate; structural engineer Richard Keith told the PD, “if we use the code as it is today, we’d probably destroy most of downtown.” (Details are hashed over in the following chapter.) By the end of the month Santa Rosa’s chief building official, Ray Baker, declared seventeen commercial buildings must be demolished, plus 28 homes – although he would change those numbers later.

The City Council declared an interim emergency that created its own set of problems. A rule was issued requiring all permits for making repairs to get underway between November 5 and 19 – an arbitrary and absurd two week window which surely had every contractor within miles dancing for joy.

Had your building been red-tagged, there was no appeal (at least, I found none mentioned in the PD). Demolition was your responsibility but if you couldn’t afford it, the city would hire a contractor to tear it down – and place a lien on the property for the cost.

But the most urgent post-quake SNAFU was that no one in the city had given any thought about what should be done with the estimated 30,000 cubic yards of rubble created by all that demolition. Contractors were dumping loads illegally near the airport, where Farmers Lane passed Santa Rosa Creek and at the city wastewater plant. Constantly burning piles of mixed construction materials led to complaints of air pollution (and given that the stuff was from older buildings, the soil must now be laden with asbestos). The city passed an emergency ordinance exempting owners of dump sites from zoning regs – but requiring them to get a special permit.

Reading this, Gentle Reader is forgiven for concluding the city was being run by incompetent boobs and nitwits (and far be it from me to ever dispute G.R.’s infallibility). But there was another factor in play: When these bad decisions were being made, city hall had a sharp focus on using the earthquake damage to seek millions of dollars from the government – in what would become the largest single payday in Santa Rosa history to that date. On the same day homeowners and landlords were blindsided by that two-week repair deadline, the mayor and planning director were in Washington D.C. playing Let’s Make a Deal.

"Composite Core Area Plan Taken From Downtown Study Report". Press Democrat,  June 6, 1969
“Composite Core Area Plan Taken From Downtown Study Report”. Press Democrat, June 6, 1969

Prior to the 1969 earthquakes, Santa Rosa’s poobahs had mused about doing something with the area between B Street and the highway, but there were no real plans to redevelop it similar to the way a chunk of the downtown core had been just turned into a financial and governmental district. At the earlier Congress meeting, Trent Harrington said time was running out, and the city should take “good close look at further renewal while an agency still exists that can handle the federal details.”


Great sums of money sloshed through Santa Rosa in the 1960s and most of it flowed out of HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) and its predecessor, the Federal Housing Administration. Between 1960 and 1967, Santa Rosa received approx. $8 million in federal grants and loans. There undoubtedly are surviving reports on how much the URA took in specifically from them in those years but concentrating on HUD/FHA alone risks missing the bigger picture. Those dollars were commingled with other sources as the agency saw fit. As explained earlier, for example, Santa Rosa Creek was piped underground using a federal grant made to the county intended for flood control projects as well as a portion that came from the URA.

Monies from the URA also went into a city fund that spent today’s equivalent of nearly $100 million over six years. Santa Rosa’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) began Jan. 1963 and by Feb. 1969 had spent $11.5M. Money came from the URA, a set of 1965 muni bonds, half of the city sales tax, certain developer’s fees and a portion of the gas tax revenue. It paid for street improvements, city hall construction, a fire station and park development.

The agency he referred to was the Urban Renewal Agency (URA) where Harrington was former director – again, skim the recap if the agency is unfamiliar to you. In its heyday earlier in the 1960s, millions were shuffled through the URA, most of it from the government. Harrington had recently stepped down to take a top job with developer Henry Trione’s company and as he implied, the agency’s future was uncertain. All the redevelopment deals were wrapped up; its main task now was waiting for construction on the state and federal buildings to begin.

Now Mayor Jack Ryersen and Planning Director Kenneth Blackman were in Washington to meet with top HUD officials. Their hopes were that the department would bless a second – and more ambitious – redevelopment project in Santa Rosa and approve it with haste, given the need to recover from quake damage. The city’s first application for urban renewal money had taken almost two years to get the green light.

The feds’ immediate reaction was the area was too large and needed to line up with the boundaries of the previous project. Ryersen and Blackman proposed 35½ acres, from Fifth Street to Sonoma Ave. (the Chamber of Commerce wanted it to extend down to Juilliard Park) but HUD cut it off at First Street. Once back home, Blackman heard from the San Francisco HUD office. Enough with the razzle-dazzle, they said – how did the city propose to redevelop the land? And where were the studies?

There were no studies, which would have taken months or years to create. The city had vague architectural site plans shown above and below that envisioned most of the area as a parking lot with a community/convention center (and oddly specific, a coffee shop). But aside from the URA’s obvious desire to crank up the federal money machine again, there were legitimate reasons why the city needed quick approval.

Santa Rosa was soon to face a Catch-22 in the HUD rules; cities with populations under 50,000 were expected to pay one-fourth of the total development costs, while cities over 50k paid one-third – a difference that could have added close to a million dollars to our part of the bill. At the time of the 1969 quake, Santa Rosa’s population stood at 48,450 (the official 1970 census count would be 50,006).

The other reason was because of the stupid two-week window on repair or demolition permits. Under that artificial deadline, major demolition work was expected to start by the end of November and there was still no solution as to what to do with the rubble. The city engineer begged anyone with a possible dump site (“big and small”) to contact the Public Works department. There was also blowback to the requirement that homeowners pay for their house to be torn down or face a lien on the property; now the city would handle the bill.

Except for ongoing citizen complaints about illegal dumping, little was written about earthquake recovery plans over the next few months. The HUD application process went smoothly; Santa Rosa was allowed to file it as an amendment to the original project, which meant that whatever monies were left over could be used. There was a hearing in March, 1970 for the City Council to officially approve the funding request and there were no meaningful public comments.

Then finally in July, word came from Washington: HUD had approved $5.57 million for “emergency rehabilitation.” Blackman announced the city would immediately begin hiring contract workers to start appraisals, title work and preliminary engineering. Santa Rosa was congratulated for having achieved in eight months what usually took 3-4 years.

But still, there was no progress on deciding what would be done with the area. “Proposed for the new area are a hotel-motel complex, service facility, coffee shop, a department store or two, other retail space and a community center,” as the Press Democrat had mentioned after the public hearing.

Uncredited and undated drawing of "what the new renewal area may be turned into." Note more than half the area between the highway an B Street is parking and that Fourth Street is eliminated. Press Democrat, March 2, 1970
Uncredited and undated drawing of “what the new renewal area may be turned into.” Note more than half the area between the highway an B Street is parking and that Fourth Street is eliminated. Press Democrat, March 2, 1970


Read More



Imagine (or remember): It was near the end of that day in 1969 and you were winding down, watching TV and planning to stay up late – a Johnny Carson anniversary show was coming up and everybody would be talking about it the next day. You were deciding between the 10 o’clock news on channel two, Hawaii Five-O or that new NBC series by the former Press Democrat reporter.

Then too much happened all at once.

“And then came the jolt and the furious shake, lasting for seconds but seeming like minutes. Everyone could feel it but many couldn’t see it: the lights were the first to go,” said Dick Torkelson’s article in the Press Democrat the next day.

Earthquake! A bad one. Sharp flashes of light from outside flooded the dark room as if the house was struck by lightning, only there was no sound at all. Omygod, had Santa Rosa been hit by an atomic bomb?

“Books and dishes cascaded down,” Torkelson continued. “Shouts filled households as parents groped in darkness for their children. Residential streets filled instantly, everyone wondering if there would be more.”

Such were the first few terrifying moments of the Santa Rosa Earthquake of October 1, 1969. Earthquakes, actually, as another one followed about eighty minutes later and was just about as violent (see sidebar).

No one was killed and while many buildings were damaged, none fell down. Now more than a half-century later, it’s only remembered for the unusual double shake. But that event changed Santa Rosa’s future dramatically, as it became the driving justification for the city to later bulldoze 30 acres of downtown in order to build the shopping mall – the worst mistake in the long list of planning mistakes made by the City of Roses. How this tragedy unfolded will be told in upcoming parts of this ongoing series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner.”


The October 1, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake had a mainshock at 9:56 PM (Richter magnitude 5.6) followed by a large aftershock at 11:20 PM (M 5.5), each lasting about twenty seconds. The following day there were two aftershocks, the worst at 5:27 AM (M 4.2). There were two aftershocks on October 6, the worst being M 3.75.

The epicenter was in the Fulton/Mark West area, which is on the Rodgers Creek Fault Zone. There was no damage in Petaluma or Napa County.

Rodgers Creek Fault Zone in yellow (Larger image)

There were no deaths, but the Press Democrat reported there were six related injuries and eight were treated for heart attacks.

The Bay Area Television Archive offers a ten minute news report from KPIX which includes a portion of a press conference by Police Chief Melvin “Dutch” Flohr, images of downtown and residential damage and the cleanup at the Fourth street Safeway (currently Grocery Outlet). There is also another short segment from KPIX filmed the following day showing further views of repairs and cleanup efforts.

Dick Torkelson felt the quake at his home near Hearn Avenue and jumped into his car. “Traffic along Santa Rosa Ave. became wild, up to 70 miles per hour wild.” He saw the light flashes in the sky over downtown and expected to find a massive gas explosion had set the city aflame.

Instead he found the downtown lit by only a half moon and men with flashlights. “The streets on Fourth and Fifth and Mendocino were black, almost eerie. And broken glass covered the sidewalk; you crackled as you walked.” When the big plate glass display windows in the clothing stores shattered their mannequins tumbled into street; practically every newspaper that covered the story would feature a photo of their disturbingly dismembered torsos.

Electricity was restored within 15 minutes but already there were a hundred cops pouring into the area, setting up barricades as merchants arrived to board up windows. There were fears of looting, but it was later determined that the only theft was $500 worth of cameras which were in the window of a shop on Fourth and some clothes from the Montgomery Ward’s on Mendocino.

By midnight, Bay Area newspaper reporters and TV crews were swarming over the town (supposedly it was rumored in New York City that Santa Rosa had been completely destroyed). Columnist Gaye LeBaron was contacted at home by a broadcaster at the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles who wanted to know about conditions in town. She looked out her window and told them her street was wet because a water pipe had broken and a crew was working on repairs. She later learned it was reported “water was gushing high in the air from broken water mains.” LeBaron also wrote later that some of the local papers weren’t much better: “The main story in one of the San Francisco papers on the quake sounded as though the news team got as far as the Miramar [a cocktail lounge at Third and Exchange] collapsed wall, found the bar open, bellied up to the plank, and never looked farther.”

(Let me interrupt with a word of appreciation for Press Democrat News Editor Dick Torkelson and Managing Editor Art Volkerts. As the quakes struck late at night, readers would have understood if there were only cursory details in the next morning’s paper. Instead, the staff managed to publish five pages of photos and solid reporting. Although the PD of that era infamously allowed editorial bias to slant its news coverage of city and county issues, this was heroic journalism and showed that in its bones the Press Democrat was actually a fine – even great – newspaper.)

There were only two fires that night, which was incredibly lucky because there were wind gusts. Don’s Park Auto Super across from the Junior College was partially burned and there was a chemical fire in a Memorial Hospital laboratory after the second quake. Let’s take a moment to remember that the hospital sits directly on the Rodgers Creek Fault, which is overdue for a quake that is expected to cause a major disaster.

And, of course, there were the oddball stories:

  The Village Exchange Club was at The Hilltopper restaurant watching a film about nuclear attack when the quake struck. A member told Gaye LeBaron they ought to show it again, “only this time we’ll listen instead of drinking.”
  The hit movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was making its Santa Rosa debut that night, and the Coddingtown theater cleared out “in about three seconds flat” when the power went off and the shaking began. The showing resumed at 10:30 (seriously?) with about twenty hardcore cinephiles in the audience. The PD did not report what everyone did when the second quake struck about an hour later.
  89 year old George Van Buskirk was trapped between floors in the elevator at the Occidental hotel. Asked what he did in there all night, he replied, “What could I do? I slept.” Firemen were able to rescue him about 10 o’clock the next morning. “There was a regular army of TV boys here when I got out – all pretty nice boys, too. I was sure ready for breakfast by then.”

As midnight approached on that cool autumn night, many Santa Rosa families were found camped out on their lawns and not because their house was damaged. Many were likely fearful that those earlier shakes were only the prelude to a catastrophic earthquake as severe as magnitude 9, which would either flatten much of the state or dunk it into the Pacific.* They feared that because the press had spent much of March and April scaring the willies out of everyone with doomsday talk.

zumwalt(RIGHT: The Zumwalt used car dealership got into the act with April, 1969 ads: “Before we slip into the ocean…buy your get-away car!”)

That spring, newspapers and magazines were competing to run the scariest what-if stories about California’s imminent destruction, usually repeating warnings from psychics and fundamentalist clergy that we were on schedule to sink into the briny deep, probably around mid-April. Experts, including Dr. Charles Richter (I was deeply disappointed that his first name wasn’t “Magnitude”), predictably debunked the predictions but it didn’t stop the flood of such nonsense. SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen was contacted by papers in New York and London to ask if we were prepping to meet our makers. “They don’t seem to believe me when I say we’re not doing anything about it.” Still, local media joined the party; channel 4 offered a special “The Next Great Shake” (“with the aid of special effects”) and the PD printed fear mongering UPI summaries of what others were saying, along with many letters to the editor from stressed-out subscribers.

When the sun came up the next morning everyone had a chance to walk around for look-see. It was bad, but it wasn’t bad bad.

Downtown store windows were mostly boarded up, although workers were already replacing some of the plate glass. The Rosenberg office building at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino had some collapsed ceilings and much fallen plaster. The Miramar at the corner of Exchange and Third was a mess, with the parapet fallen off and the fire escapes dangling precariously from the three-story building. The Roxy theater at Fifth and B also had broken fire escapes, and parts of the ceiling had fallen on the audience of the adult-only movie house (“Escorted Ladies Free”).

The residential disaster tour centered on looking for crumbled chimneys, of which there were many (Comstock House lost its southern one). Beaver street, which is very close to/directly over the fault line, was hard hit, with the foundation crumbling on an older house at the corner of College Ave. The plantation style “Beaver House” at #610, which was first built way back in 1850 by James A. Cockrill, Jr. was considered damaged beyond repair. (Photos below.)

Beyond that, much of the damage was to public spaces and repairable, though expensive. The JCPenny at Coddingtown flooded when their sprinkler system broke. Cracks were found in the support columns for the two year-old county social services building. The Veteran’s Memorial needed $40k in repairs and fixing the fairground grandstand cost $15k. The onramp to highway 12 overpass dropped a few inches, which can be seen in the videos.

And here is where our story shifts from being the tale of a forgettable earthquake into a tragedy about destroying a town’s core. In the critical week following, the City Council set Santa Rosa on a course that would end with the demolition of nearly half of downtown in order to build the shopping mall.

It began as the city building inspector condemned 14 buildings as completely unsafe. Besides five homes, there was the Fremont Elementary School, Roxy Theatre, the Miramar, the Red Derby and Til-2 cocktail lounges, Court Market, the Orthopedic Brace Shop, Western Union office and Santa Rosa Hotel. As far as I can tell, none of these structures were in the west of B street area which would be soon slated for destruction.

Far more significant was a mod to the building code passed in a special session of the City Council on October 9. There would be relaxed enforcement for a year as property owners decided whether damaged buildings could be brought up to modern code standards. After that, it “required closing any building open to the public which is not capable of safely supporting all loads caused by the forces of gravity as defined in the building code and which is hazardous to use,” as reported in the PD.

In a followup meeting Oct. 28 to decide an “interim emergency policy,” city leaders were told a committee of civil and structural engineers thought 21 downtown buildings should go. The city’s chief building official said 48 were damaged. But the issue really wasn’t which buildings should be repaired – it was whether the city would allow owners to make repairs at all instead of demolishing the place. Under the proposed guidelines, structural engineer Richard Keith pointed out, “If we use the code as it is today, we’d probably destroy most of downtown.”

His words proved prophetic.

* The details of the doomsday prophecy came from the (unfortunately) popular 1968 apocalyptic novel, “The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California” by Curt Gentry, which predicted the M 9 earthquake would happen sometime the following year. Gentry was in turn following the “sleeping prophet” Edgar Cayce, who made a sort-of prediction in 1936 that southern California and Nevada might fall into the sea. Long after his death, Cayce’s adherents supposedly narrowed the date to April 4 1969 at 3:13 PM. One of the wire service stories appearing in the PD added, “Some feel April 8 or April 15 will be the day of doom.”
Damage to the Beaver House at 610 Beaver street after the October, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake. (See photo of pre-earthquake house.) Image: Sonoma County Library
Damage to the Beaver House at 610 Beaver street after the October, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake. (See photo of pre-earthquake house.) Image: Sonoma County Library
The Roxy Theater after the October, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake. Image: Sonoma County Library
The Roxy Theater after the October, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake. Image: Sonoma County Library


Read More