Forget Charles Schulz and Peanuts; forget Luther Burbank and his garden. Forget tourism, with its spas and wine tasting (and for that matter, forget boutique wineries). Santa Rosa and the surrounding area are known for one thing alone – it’s the home of the Air Force Academy.
Oh, you say, that’s in Colorado Springs – and notice how quickly the name of that city comes to mind – but in 1950 the Academy didn’t yet exist and its future location was very much up in the air (sorry), with Santa Rosa among the top contenders. The Chamber of Commerce waged a year-long campaign to bring it here, even though it quickly turned neighbor against neighbor and pitted the city against the county Farm Bureau.
When the new year of 1950 began, the whereabouts of a future Air Force Academy was a much discussed topic nationwide. There were already 150 communities in the running, in part because the search criteria were so broad. Col. Freeman Tandy, chairman of the task force screening possible sites in California, said basic requirements were that it be within fifty miles of a major city, be close to all means of transportation, have utilities available and sport natural beauty. He explained they wanted a place suitable for a university more than an airfield with lots of noisy flight operations.
And there was this: Colonel Tandy said the government expected to spend up to $300M to acquire land and build the campus – the equivalent of spending $3.2 BILLION today. When the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce invited the selection board to come here and look around we can only hope there was no obvious drool on the letter.
A survey team from the Army Corps of Engineers was slated to visit in mid-January but there was one teensy problem: We hadn’t settled on a location to show them.
With only three days to spare, the Santa Rosa Chamber met with the Petaluma Chamber and agreed they would offer a site between the cities. “It’s now a Sonoma county project,” said the Petaluma Chamber.
The property was directly across from modern-day SSU on the east side of Petaluma Hill Road. The Air Force was looking for 9,000 acres and the four square miles would be less than a third of that, so maybe they were counting a large chunk of land on the west side of the road – there was no Rohnert Park at the time, remember. It was pointed out that buildings could be on the scenic slope of Sonoma Mountain and part of the site was “a natural football bowl.” Sell the sizzle, not the steak.
When the two guys arrived for the tour, a throng of local poobahs swarmed over them like a pack of dumpster raccoons. Reps from the city and/or Chamber for Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cotati, Forestville and Sebastopol trailed the caravan driving up and down Petaluma Hill Road and out to Crane Canyon Road – although they couldn’t see much because of heavy rain. Then it was off to Santa Rosa and its lush Topaz Room for lunch and fine speeches about how everyone thought it would be the bestest choice the Air Force could ever make. Afterwards they all piled back into cars and went off to see the “Sonoma County Airport tract.”
Normally you’d expect it would be the last anyone heard of a project like this; competition was fierce from more prominent cities in California and other states in the West. Then suddenly the North Bay became a top contender because General “Hap” Arnold happened to die right then.
Hap Arnold was the indisputable father of the U.S. Air Force. Besides wrenching it away from the Army as its own military branch (no small task, that), he won highest praise for leadership during WWII, winning the air war against both Germany and Japan. Hap retired to his 35-acre “El Rancho Feliz” on the eastern side of Sonoma Mountain and wrote a 1948 article for National Geographic, “My Life in the Valley of the Moon” which spoke of his contentment there. The Santa Rosa-Petaluma site might have been easily extended to encompass his little homestead. He also kept an office at Hamilton Field.
Our congressman lobbied the Air Force Secretary to bring here the “Arnold Air Academy” or somesuch, and letter writers to the Press Democrat urged we take the initiative, beginning with a “General Arnold Day” countywide holiday and a military parade, maybe. We could also start naming things after him – which we did a few months later when the Board of Supervisors changed Glen Ellen Road to Arnold Drive. The Napa Chamber of Commerce, which had its own bid for the Academy, insisted they, too, wanted a nod to “Arnold” should they be given the Golden Ticket (which would have created absolutely no hard feelings over here, I’m sure).
But amid the national mourning for Hap Arnold and locals Burbank-inizing him into our new Favorite Son, the county quietly took the Santa Rosa-Petaluma site out of the running, despite it being the showcase of the presentation to the inspection team – as well as being the only landmark connection to the famed general. From the Jan. 21 Press Democrat:
Sonoma county has pinned all its hopes for the “West Point of the Air” being located here on the former army air base near Windsor, it was indicated at the county Board of Supervisors’ meeting yesterday. J. Mervyn Daw, Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce president, and A. M. Lewis, secretary-manager of the chamber, appeared before the board to ask that the county’s master plan of airports booklet be revised to include detailed maps of the proposed air academy site. They said that Col. F. S. Tandy, district engineer of the Corps of Army Engineers, personally picked the Windsor site over one located east of Penngrove…
There are several shaky details in that clip, although some may be due to lousy journalism. Was the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce (not the city) really directing the Supervisors to make historic, sweeping changes in county planning? Col. Tandy was not part of the survey party that was here the previous week, so when did he evaluate the sites? Did he officially issue this opinion or was it an offhand remark made to someone? Previously, his only comment was that he didn’t think there was an adequate water supply in Sonoma County, which led the PD to boast there would be more than enough once Lake Mendocino was created (as of this writing in 2021, drought has reduced the lake to little more than a mud puddle).
The proposed site encompassed 14,000 acres, of which 5k would be actively used as the Air Force campus. Roughly all of the Russian River between Windsor and Hacienda Bridge would now belong to the government, with a dam somewhere to create a lake (hey, we could name it Arnold Beach!) for boating and freshwater supply. The site also included the area which is now the Sonoma County Airport, requiring us to develop a different airfield.*
But the Academy’s greatest impact on the county wouldn’t be its whopping size – it would be the sudden pop in population. The Air Force planned to begin with 2,000 cadets and ramp up to 5,000. Together with the staff required to support operations it would add 20,000 people to Sonoma County. That was more than lived in Santa Rosa, which then was under eighteen thousand.
It’s no wonder why the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce was racing after this project; it was said the Air Force expected a town of about 8,000 would be built nearby. Whether that would be North Santa Rosa or West Windsor didn’t really matter – those newbies would still have few shopping options except for the City of Roses’ downtown stores.
The big loser in this switcheroo of preferred sites was Petaluma, of course, and it’s a wonder it didn’t destroy what comity remained between Santa Rosa and the egg city. The Argus-Courier assured the Petaluma Hill road site wasn’t fully out of the running and would still be submitted as an alternate. “At least we are not going to give up hope yet,” an editorial said. Yet the 62-page brochure presented to Washington D.C. on behalf of “Sonoma County in the Redwood Empire” had no mention of it, while including several pages just on school districts in and north of Santa Rosa.
Not surrendering graciously were many small farmers who would be required to sell their land. Nor did the Press Democrat soothe their irk by printing op/eds like this: “By far the greatest amount of land taken over by the Academy would be so-called ‘marginal land,’ much of which is now used as pasture or not used at all.”
Leading the opposition was Fulton hops farmer Lawrence (L. M.) Meredith, spokesman for “The Committee on Public Relations” and frequent letter writer to the PD. He insisted this would take out of production “thousands of acres of the most highly cultivated land in Sonoma county river bottom land that is equal to any in the state,” with an annual revenue of about $22 million today. A pro-Academy rancher with a spread in the target area called BS; farmers were no longer getting the big bucks seen “during the lush war years period” and prune growers worried prices were so low their fruit was barely worth the picking.
About a month after the site was announced, Meredith and other protesters had back-to-back meetings with the Santa Rosa Chamber and the Farm Bureau. The Chamber president said they wouldn’t comment “until ‘all the facts’ are learned about the exact site proposed for the academy,” according to the PD. (Hey, bub, YOU were the one who drew the map!) The next night the protesters met with the Hall Farm Center, which was one of the Farm Bureau’s regional branches. Members voted against the site.
(RIGHT: The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. Imagine this on the west side of Highway 101 near Windsor)
Tensions continued to rise between the Chamber and the farmers. On March 2nd there was a big meeting at the Windsor Grange where around 200 farmers attended, supposedly representing 10X more people living within the site borders. The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce snubbed an invitation to attend. Asked why, Al Lewis, secretary-manager of the Chamber gave an answer certain to further antagonize protesters: “If anyone requests you to talk at a meeting, they generally write you a letter asking you to attend. This notice invited me to listen to an explanation of the proposed Air Force academy. I already know about the academy.”
Lewis continued his perfectly tone-deaf reply: “At the present time the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce is not plugging the Santa Rosa area at all as a location for the academy. We are merely working with other state chambers in getting the academy located somewhere in California.” Um, yeah.
At another Grange meeting a few months later the Chamber president attended “on a mission of good will” (per the PD) and listened to people voice their opposition to the project. During the meeting a farmer proposed a boycott of Santa Rosa businesses, which was met with applause. A pro-academy resident described the toxic mood at that meeting:
My husband and I attended the meeting on the Air Force Academy site at the Windsor Grange the other evening. When we entered the hall, it looked like a lions den, There was one gentleman in particular who seemed like the leader. He has been in the community only 2 years and really doesn’t know as yet where he is living. There were all kinds of objections, so I thought I’d sit tight and listen, because if I had got up and really told them what was in my mind I know well that they would have pounced on me.
By that time there had been 580 sites proposed for the academy and when the first cut was announced before Thanksgiving, Santa Rosa was among 29 semi-finalists. We were now so close to the jackpot that the Press Democrat editorial writer lapsed into a somnambulatory abstraction and began spewing numbers: “A $3,344,000 annual payroll, a livelihood for 4,000 persons, a $4,300,000 retail market, opportunities for 75 retail stores, sales and service for 1,300 automobiles…”
The site selection commission visited here and took a 90 minute tour of the site, followed by a Chamber luncheon at the Topaz Room where Hap Arnold’s widow was a featured guest. The day before the PD had dedicated a large portion of the Sunday edition to extolling the county’s virtues, including an editorial with a lengthy quote from her late husband’s National Geographic article. The op/ed closed with a reminder Hap lived only “a few miles from the Air Academy site.”
But come March 1951, the list of potential sites was winnowed to seven – and Santa Rosa was no longer in the running. Sad! (Or not.)
It came out years later the commission appeared more interested in the Petaluma Hill Road site than the one close to Santa Rosa. From the June 3, 1954 UP wire: “The group inspected the Windsor site by auto and flew over the southeastern site twice. That location included the Sonoma Valley estate of the late Gen. H. H. Arnold, war-time chief of the Air Force.”
In hindsight, there are a few different ways to look at the Misadventure of the Air Force Academy:
It’s a Believe–it-or-Not! story because the whole episode is nearly forgotten. At the next picnic or holiday party you can spritz up the conversation with, “hey, did’ja hear about the time they tried to sell a big piece of West County to the government and build a big military academy?”
It might be a kind of Aesop’s fable where the moral is, “He who gets greedy may end up with nothing.” Santa Rosa was quick to elbow Petaluma out of the contest, but maybe the generals ordered the Petaluma Hill Road flyovers because they were giving the location serious consideration as a better place for the academy – or perhaps they were just sentimental about seeing where their old pal had happily retired. We don’t know.
This was the second time in as many years that the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce meddled in county planning issues – the first being the disastrous decision to split the town in half with the highway. In the following decades the Chamber similarly had an outsized influence on city planning, particularly the redevelopment that destroyed most of the downtown core. A Chamber of Commerce should never function as a shadow government, but for too much of our history that’s been the case.
* In 1950 the other choices for a commercial airfield included the Santa Rosa Airpark, which was near today’s Coddingtown and had a single runway about 2,000′ long. The more likely option was the Santa Rosa Air Center (the decommissioned Naval Auxiliary Air Station) just west of modern Corporate Center Parkway with a tower and two concrete 7,000′ runways.
Imagine if the Golden Gate Bridge was never built – engineering issues couldn’t be solved, perhaps, or maybe there were insurmountable economic hurdles, or just not enough political will. What would Sonoma County be like today?
The only way to get here from San Francisco is by ferry, for starters, so Santa Rosa is a much smaller place. There was no population boom after World War Two; it’s a rural county seat somewhat like Ukiah, and the courthouse is still in Courthouse Square because they patched up the mostly cosmetic damage from the 1957 earthquake instead of tearing it down. Stony Point Road is the Highway 101 bypass, its two lanes swelling to three at the stoplights where there is cross traffic and turn lanes. Tourists clog the Redwood Highway on weekends because the winery events, resorts, spas and casinos in the countryside make this a popular getaway destination for the rest of the Bay Area, while the weekly Press Democrat is always pushing for year-round motocross and horse racing at the fairgrounds in order to draw visitors downtown. “Sonoma County? Sure, it’s a nice place to visit, but no, I…”
Building the bridge was never a sure thing, but it wasn’t because there was formidable opposition. Yes, there were efforts to slow or stop the project but it wasn’t ongoing, popping up only when the project neared a funding or construction milestone. None of those challenges posed serious threats, but were more like pesky nuisances.
Yet when the project launched in 1923 it seemed delusional to believe it would ever pass beyond the blueprint stage. Not only were there some engineers who thought it was folly to attempt constructing the longest bridge of its kind at that particular place, but its promoters had to run an incredibly complex political gauntlet, convincing Washington and Sacramento to back it enthusiastically – all before doing the basic studies which would prove the concept was viable. And even after construction began in January 1933, a retired geologist made a splash by predicting the south end could never be made stable, requiring months of further testing to prove him wrong.
All in all, it took almost 20 years to get to ribbon-cutting day. This is not the place to tell that whole story; the Golden Gate Bridge District has history pages for further details on the critical years of 1928 and 1930 (although some of the information on bridge opponents is wrong). A version of the original 1916 article proposing the idea is transcribed below.
Local folks probably know that the key part of the origin story concerns doings in Sonoma County by two men: Frank Doyle, president of the Exchange Bank as well as the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, and Press Democrat editor/publisher Ernest Finley. Although Doyle modestly said he was “just one of the hundreds who helped to put the bridge over,” he always will be remembered for kicking the project off by organizing the January 13, 1923 conference in Santa Rosa which brought together over 250 bankers, business leaders and politicians, which earned him his spot standing next to the governor and the mayor of San Francisco when the bridge was officially opened. Finley was the indefatigable champion for the cause, turning the Press Democrat into a soapbox for promoting funding and construction, cheering every nugget of good news and booing every bit of bad.
After Finley’s death in 1942, however, the story shifted; it was said the newspaper suffered by losing subscribers because of its bridge advocacy and Finley was a warrior editor battling powerful railroad, logging and farm special interests opposed to the bridge. This version has taken root over the years in the PD and elsewhere; here’s the version from the Media Museum of Northern California: “…In this particular crusade, which spanned at least two decades, Finley stood almost alone…he was opposed by nearly everyone. His business suffered as he lost advertising accounts and subscriptions. But he continued the campaign, insisting, ‘Damn the circulation! The bridge must be built!’” That’s now his legacy quote although it’s probably apocryphal.1
The problem with that narrative is it’s not really true.
The only special interest actually fighting bridge construction was (surprise!) the ferry companies, which were controlled by Southern Pacific – their astroturf citizen’s groups and 11th-hour courtroom posturings were widely viewed as transparent attempts to delay the inevitable clobbering of their businesses once cars and trucks could drive the bridge. More about that in a minute.
What irked Finley and the other boosters far more was the 1927-1928 pushback from a scattered group of Sonoma County property owners whose anger was whipped up by an anti-tax rabble-rouser.
Ladies and gents, meet Cap Ornbaun, fulltime crank.
Casper A. Ornbaun was always identified in the newspapers as a San Francisco lawyer and he indeed had an office in the landmark Spreckels Building on Market Street, although it seemed he didn’t use it much – on the rare occasions when his name appeared in the papers for doing something attorney-ish it was almost always about handling a routine probate estate, usually in the North Bay. While he lived in Oakland he told audiences he was fighting the bridge as a Sonoma County taxpayer; he owned the 18,000 acre Rockpile Ranch above Dry Creek valley which was used as a sheep ranch. (In a rare non-bridge court filing, he sued a neighboring rancher in 1937 for briefly dognapping four of his sheepdogs, demanding $6,000 for “tiring them and causing them to become footsore and unable to go through the regular shearing season.”)
Why Ornbaun so loathed the idea of a bridge across the Golden Gate is a mystery, but he turned the fight against it into a fulltime cause – maybe it was his midlife crisis, or something. Starting in 1926 it seems he was in the North Bay almost constantly, arranging small group meetings where he could bray and bark against the bridge project.
At least once Mark Lee of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce was invited to formally debate with Ornbaun, but otherwise his speaking engagements were rant-fests attacking anyone or anything connected to the project, including the Press Democrat. At one appearance in Sebastopol he came with dozens of copies of the PD which he handed out to prove the paper was “the bunk.”
The Santa Rosa papers mentioned him as little as possible (no need to give him free publicity) but his appearances in small communities like Cloverdale were newsworthy and the local weeklies often quoted or paraphrased what he had to say. Here are a few samples:
Only San Francisco weekenders would ever use the bridge
Strauss is a nobody; Strauss only knows how to build drawbridges; Strauss realizes it will be impossible to actually build it and is just looking to make a name for himself
It will cost over $125 million, or about 5x over estimates
Safeguarding against earthquakes will cost an additional $80-100 million
Maintenance costs would be $5,707,000 a year; it will cost $300,000/year to paint it
It will be impossible to get enough cars across the bridge to have it pay for itself
It would run a deficit of $4,416,230/year
It will take too long to cross it
Nobody knows if people would prefer driving across a bridge rather than crossing the bay by ferry
If it collapsed during construction we would be out our money with nothing to show for it
It would be a high profile target during a war and if it were bombed the Navy fleet would be bottled up in the Bay (that was actually a 1926 Navy objection)
The Board of Directors are not “angels”
His main accomplice in bridge bashing was James B. Pope, a civil engineer who once worked for the Southern Pacific railroad. Ornbaun praised him as “a consulting engineer of prominence” and “the boy who knows the bridge business” (Pope was 61 years old at the time) because he had once built a 310-foot wagon bridge in San Bernadino county. The wacky cost estimates above likely all came from Pope, who finally decided the bridge would cost exactly $154,697,372 based on his analysis of geodetic survey maps. Strauss had, by the way, offered to share with him the studies prepared by his engineers, but Pope declined to look at them because he “did not need it.”
Ornbaun, Pope and a couple of others had been busy fellows in 1926-1927 and collected about 2,300 signatures of property owners who wanted to opt-out from the proposed Bridge District.2 This meant court hearings in each of the counties with sizable opposition – a process which delayed the bridge project by a full year. But hey, the hearings gave Ornbaun a chance to strut his stuff in courtrooms and cross-examine Strauss, Doyle, Finley, and other project leaders, seemingly fishing for someone to admit the whole plan was a scam or at least that true cost would be closer to Pope’s absurd estimates.
What did come out in testimony was that the booster’s motives were far less altruistic than expressed at the 1923 conference, where it was said the high-minded mission was uniting the Bay Area into “one great thriving populous community,” and bridging the Golden Gate “cannot be measured in dollars and cents.” They were very much using dollars and cents as their measuring stick; Doyle and others who testified were clear their primary objective was jacking up Sonoma and Marin real estate, and they originally wanted Strauss to build something fast and cheap.
Although the 1927 PD headline below says property values might double, some of the actual testimony on that day predicted it would shoot up to 400 percent. And even if the bridge couldn’t built for some reason, they were already ahead – speculators had been buying and selling Marin and Sonoma land on the promise of the bridge almost immediately after the 1923 conference.
Sorry, Casper – despite all your efforts, the court threw out your case at the end of 1928. That meant the Bridge District could be formed and impose a small property tax to pay for tests and studies to see if the bridge could be built at all. Ornbaun continued to rattle around for a couple of more years making threats to sue, but no one paid much attention.
Flip the calendar ahead and it’s 1930, time for the District’s six member counties (San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Del Norte, parts of Napa and Mendocino) to vote on a $35 million bond measure to pay for construction. And suddenly there are new bridge opponents: The Pacific American Steamship Association and the Shipowners’ Association of the Pacific Coast. They’re saying the bridge might be too low for safe passage, and there should be first an independent investigation by the state – never mind that the War Department had already approved it as having enough clearance for any ship in existence or under construction.
The Press Democrat and ads by the Bridge District fired back that the “Ferry Trust” was using the associations as front groups to confuse voters, but never explained the connection. Perhaps they didn’t know at the time that the two associations were essentially the same company, in the same offices and the president of both was the same man: Captain Walter J. Petersen – a man who apparently had no familiarity with steamships except as a passenger. The “Captain” in his title referred to his Army service in WWI, or maybe because he was also a captain in the Oakland Police Department in the 1920s (he was Police Chief for awhile, and always referred to as “former Chief” in print except when the reference was to the associations).
Sorry, Captain/Chief – the bond passed with overwhelming support, and nothing more would be said about those serious threats to navigation which were keeping you awake nights. To celebrate, Santa Rosa threw a “Victory Jubilee” parade which included a huge bonfire in the middle of Fourth street, with an effigy labeled “Apathy” thrown into the flames.
The last challenge to the bridge happened in 1931-1932, just months before construction was to begin. This time it was a suit in federal court charging the Bridge District was a “pretended corporation” so the bond was null and void. This time the ferry companies convinced two businesses to act as fronts for them.3 This time the ferry companies used their customary law firm to represent their proxies in court. This time it was so transparent that the ferry companies were behind this crap the American Legion and other groups demanded a boycott of the ferries as well as the Southern Pacific railroad. This time the ferry companies gave up in August, 1932, rather than pursuing their nuisance suit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
What’s truly amazing about all this was the contemptuousness of the ferry companies, no matter what. Sure, our lawyers are representing those companies in the anti-bond lawsuit, but so what? We’re not actually a party to the suit! No, the bridge is not necessary – our ferries are more than capable of handling the traffic demands across the Golden Gate! Never mind that there were routinely hours-long backups on the auto ferries during peak times. At the end of the 1926 Memorial Day weekend there were eight thousand cars in Sausalito queued up for a spot on a ferry. Many gave up and parked their autos as far away as San Rafael so they could get a seat on a ferryboat and make it in to work the next day. It took three days working around the clock just to clear the line of people who were still patiently waiting with their cars.
It was because of these crazy bottlenecks that everyone, everyone, hated the ferries so much that the North Bay was ready to consider a ferry boycott, even though it would have cut us off from nearly all connection to San Francisco – we might have been forced back to the pre-1870 heyday of Petaluma riverboats.
Without its monopoly, the ferry was doomed. Where they had earned a 25 percent profit a year (!!) in the mid-1920s, they lost $1,000,000 in 1937 after the Golden Gate Bridge opened. The company slashed fares. They tried to sell the franchise to the Toll Bridge Authority for $3.75M. Finally in July 1938 – 14 months after the first car drove across the bridge – Southern Pacific closed the ferries to the public.
But during the days of opening celebration, the ferries were never mentioned. On that 1937 Memorial Day weekend the public could not wait to be on their new bridge. During the preview “Pedestrian Day,” 202,000 came to walk the bridge, so many that the turnstiles couldn’t keep up; they opened the barriers and put out tin buckets for people to throw in the nickels. The Press Democrat reported bands played from the San Francisco shore as bombs burst in the clear, deep blue sky.
In Santa Rosa there was a breakfast held in honor of Frank Doyle – who insisted he was the “stepfather” of the bridge, not its father. Mark Lee – the former Chamber of Commerce guy who debated Ornbaun a decade earlier – reminded the audience that the prize was still boosting the town: “…you face great opportunity. The tourists’ dollars, as well as those of business investors and home seekers will find a place in your community, now made so accessible to the thousands who will come into northern California.” Ernest Finley spoke of the “untold advantages and development for Santa Rosa” brought by the bridge.
On the editorial page Finley also reminded that thousands of people would be driving through Santa Rosa enroute to the ceremonies, and the governor of Oregon and other officials were being given a reception in Juilliard Park that afternoon. “Never before has Santa Rosa, destined to be the focal point for population and industry after the mammoth span is opened,” he wrote, encouraging residents to greet the cavalcade by lining Mendocino and Santa Rosa Avenues, showing “a proper display of enthusiasm.” There was much to cheer with enthusiasm that day, particularly if you were a Sonoma County realtor.
1 The “Damn the circulation” story first appeared as an afterword to “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” a collection of Finley’s thumbnail descriptions published in 1942 after his death. There Press Democrat Publisher Carl R. Lehman wrote that Circulation Manager McBride Smith approached Finley at his desk and told him the paper was sometimes losing 50-100 subscribers per day. “We can’t keep going at this rate. Our circulation will be ruined if this keeps up.” Lehman continued, “without looking up from his desk, Finley replied in his quiet but determined voice: ‘Damn the circulation. The bridge must be built.'” Smith recounted the story himself in a 1949 PD tribute to Finley but added, “he pounded the desk with his fist” as he said it. While the quote certainly matches Finley’s sentiments, it seems like an odd thing to blurt out to an office employee.
2 The anti-Bridge District count was 823 property owners in Napa and 902 in Mendocino. There were originally 574 signatures from Sonoma County, knocked down to 555 by the time the hearings began in November, 1927. That’s likely close to the number of Press Democrat subscribers who cancelled.
3 The two companies in the 1932 federal suit were the Del Norte Company, Ltd. (identified in the press only as “a large Del Norte property owner” and a “lumber firm”) and the Garland Company, Ltd. real estate firm of San Francisco led by Robert E. Strahorn, one of 92 property owners who had joined a taxpayer’s anti-bridge group as part of the 1930 opposition to the bond. The president of Southern Pacific-Golden Gate Ferries, Ltd. S.P. Eastman admitted in court he had sent a letter to Del Norte Company asking them to file the suit and promising to pay all legal fees (wire service story in Press Democrat and elsewhere, Feb. 20, 1932). Their involvement, combined with a September 3, 1925 editorial in the San Francisco Examiner, “Bridge No Foe to Lumbermen”, has led modern writers to claim there was substantial bridge opposition from logging interests, but I don’t find that mentioned in any of the voluminous coverage of all things related to the bridge in the Press Democrat, Ukiah papers, or elsewhere.
‘It’s the Bunk,’ Ornbaun Says In Discussing S.F. Bay Span
…Ornbaun was armed with many generalities, few if any figures, and an armful of Press Democrats. He spent most of his time asserting that the Press Democrat was the bunk and seeking to explain how the newspaper had sold itself to the bridge project. Incidentally, he asserted also that the bridge project was “the bunk.”
“The bridge can’t be built. I know it can’t be built. It is impossible to build it. And after it is built it will cost $300,000 a year to paint it. Such, in effect, was his reference to the proposed span from San Francisco to Marin county.
“I am interested in this fight only because I am a Sonoma county taxpayer,” he asserted. He referred to the fact that he represents 20,000 acres of Mendocino and Sonoma county land, but did not mention that it was sheep land.
“I have not been promised money by the railroads or timber interests, he continued. “When the bridge is built it will take too long to cross it.”
The speaker took occasion to flay Joseph B. Strauss of Chicago, one of the country’s foremost bridge engineers, by saying Strauss is “guessing” in his Golden Gate bridge design. He praised one Pope, who in a Humboldt county meeting admitted he was not a bridge engineer, as “the boy who knows the bridge business.”
“I hope to address more people next time I speak,” concluded Ornbaun, speaking to a crowd which had dwindled to about 50, about half of whom were from Healdsburg and points other than Sebastopol…
– Press Democrat, March 17, 1926
BRIDGING THE GOLDEN GATE
THERE IS AN OLD SAYING to the effect that the luxuries of today are the necessities of tomorrow. We also have the necessities of today that must be met without wailing for the tomorrows. With these must now be classed the bridge across the Golden Gate, once regarded merely as an idle dream.
San Francisco, cooped up as she is with a land outlet in only one direction, has come to realize that a bridge across the Golden Gate is necessary to her further growth and development. We of the North Bay counties know only too, well that this section of California can’ never come fully into its own until we have been brought into direct connection with the metropolis.
Engineers agree that the bridge can be built. Financiers assure us that the necessary funds will be forthcoming. Under the circumstances, no time should be lost in putting the project under way. With such a spirit back of the movement as was manifested here Saturday, there seems to be no good reason why actual construction should not begin at a very early date.
Then watch us grow!
– Press Democrat, January 14, 1923
You Can’t Convince Him
Arguments heard from time to time against the feasibility of the Golden Gate bridge project represent for che most part a set mental attitude of those who do not want to be convinced. You cannot discuss projects of this character with men who begin by sweeping aside with one breath all the arguments in its support, and attempt to start from there-There is the man, for instance, who sets his judgment against that of the worlds foremost engineers and says the bridge cannot be built at all. We also have the man who has heard somebody opine that the cost will not be twenty-five millions as has already been carefully computed by experts, but sixty or eighty millions, and who knows it will really cost a lot more. We have also the individual so constituted that upon his mind facts already established and details actually accomplished make no impression. He does not want to take them into consideration and so ignores them or else calmly denies their existence There is also the man who is devoid of imagination. He cannot possibly see how connecting this part of the state with the rest of California and cutting out the troublesome ferries, could improve conditions, add anything to our population or increase property values The bridge cannot be built, because nobody has ever built one like it up to the present time; if possible to construct such a bridge, its cost would be many times that estimated by people engaged in the business, and therefore prohibitive; the cost would not be met by the collection of tolls, as planned by its projectors, but from the pockets of the taxpayers; it is a county matter rather than a district undertaking, as set forth in the law, and consequently if the bridge should be constructed and finally prove unsuccessful final responsibility would rest with the counties making up the district and perhaps with some one county alone, with the result that that county would be wiped off the map; there is no way one can prove that people would cross on a bridge in preference to crossing the bay by ferry, or that more people would travel up this way if they could do so more conveniently than they can at present, because that fact has not yet been demonstrated; if the bridge should be built and something should happen to it later on, or if it should collapse during time of construction, the bonding companies might net pay and we would be out our money and have nothing to show for it these are some of the arguments of the man who is against the project for reasons of his own, but does not care to come out and say so. Talking with him is a waste of time.
– Press Democrat, August 1, 1925
Great Engineering Feat Proposed to Connect Marin-San Francisco Counties by Bridging the Golden Gate
Mr. James H. Wilkins, one of the eldest residents of San Rafael and a man who has the best interests of the county at heart has interested himself in the great scheme of connecting Marin County with San Francisco county by the construction of a massive bridge across the Golden Gate.
Would Extend From Lime Point to Fort Point Bluffs
A lengthy article accompanied by a map was presented in last Saturday’s Bulletin. It is not a new scheme but has been talked of for a great many years. Nothing, however, as definite as the plan therein presented by Mr. Wilkins has been advocated. This great project should appeal not only to the residents of Marin County but the residents of the entire northern part of the State.
Quoting from Mr. Wilkins communication the following plan is outlined:
From Lime Point To Fort Point Bluffs
“To give a general descriptive outline, the abutments and backstays would be located, respectively, on the rocky blue of Lime Point and on the high ground above Fort Point. The breadth of the “Gate” here is 3800 feet. The towers over which the cable pass, would be so located as to give a central span of 3000 feet, and side spans of approximately 1000 feet. The catenary, or curved line formed by the suspended cable, would have a central dip of approximately 65 feet. Therefore, the elevation of the towers must be 215 feet to secure the clearance required.
“From the southern abutment the railroad line would descend by a threequarters of 1 per cent grade, bringing it precisely to the elevation of the intersection of Chestnut and Divisadero streets, a block away from the site of the Tower of Jewels, that marked the main entrance to the never-to-be-forgotten Exposition. Just a few blocks farther is the belt railroad that traverses the entire waterfront, the business heart of the city, ready to be a link of the great commercial carrier of the western world.
Pedestrian Promenade Across Strait
From this plan might be omitted the upper or promenade deck, with material reduction of cost, leaving only rail and automobile roadways. The promenade is, indeed, more or less of a matter of sentiment. Crossing the Golden Gate in midair would present, perhaps, the most impressive, emotional prospect in the world. Why should not those enjoy it who are, by unkindly circumstance, still constrain travel on their own legs? Moreover, it would be best observed leisurely, not from a flying train or automobile.
“After the shock of the bare statement, the first and preliminary inquiry arises, Is the project practicable—and practical?
“Beyond cavil or question, yes—far more so than the proposed five and a half mile bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. This is not a guess. I do most things in life indifferently, I am a graduate civil engineer, know a thing or two about applied mathematics and am familiar with construction work from building pigsties to building railroads—I have built both. The proposed suspension bridge—the central span—would be longer than any other structure of its kind in the world. But that only means stronger material, extra factors of safety. And nowhere in the world has nature presented such an admirable site. Bluff shore lines and easy gradients on either side —no costly approaches and still more costly right of way.
Idea Was Old As as State’s Railroading
The idea is almost as old as railroading in our State. When the Central Pacific made its entry into California, the original route via Stockton, Livermore Pass, Niles canyon, with its long detour and heavy grades was found to be impracticable. The company, therefore surveyed a more direct low-level line, departing from the present route east of the Suisan marshes, passing through the counties of Solano, Napa, Sonoma and Marin. In 1862 I was present at a session of the Marin Supervisors when Charles Crocker explained his plans, among which was a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate. Detail plans and estimates for such a bridge were actually made by Central Pacific engineers. But, along came a man with a newer idea—the transfer of trains across Carquinez straits by steamer and the extension of the Oakland mole to tide water. And so the suspension bridge project died.
“The length of the proposed bridge from Oakland to San Francisco is approximately 27,000 feet, as against approximately 5000 feet from abutment to abutment of the suspension bridge. The former, if constructed on arches, could not fail to interfere seriously with navigation of the upper bay. One serious objection seems to be that the projectors do not know where to land it on our side of the bay. One engineer gives it a terminal on the summit of Telegraph Hill!
Cost Ranging From 25 to 75 Millions
“The estimates of the cost of the San Francisco-Oakland bridge range from 25 to 75 million dollars.
From such data as I have, and by comparison with the cost of similar structures, a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate could be built for less than ten million dollars. This is an extreme estimate, accepted by several engineers to whom this article was referred.
“But as a final and fatal stumbling block, the foolish jealousy between the rival towns will never permit them to join in a great constructive enterprise till human nature has materially changed. That will not be in my time or yours.
“Of course, it will be objected to at once that both terminals of the suspension bridge would necessarily be located on military reserves of the government. But such an objection could hardly stand. Indeed, it ought to be an immense strategic advantage to have the two great defensive points of the harbor connected up. Doubtless the government would gladly grant the easement. It is in inconceivable that any government would arbitrarily block one of the greatest and most significant undertakings ever attempted by civilized men. Certainly no hostile attitude was assumed at Washington when the plan was materially considered over forty years ago.
Financing of Project a Community Investment
“Still as the intimate concern of San Francisco and the North Coast counties, the undertaking should be properly financed by these communities, as a public utility concern. Having only a sincere desire to be closely united, this ought to be simplicity itself, for the extremely simple reason that a bond issue of $10,000,000 would take care of itself and speedily retire itself. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad alone spends half a million dollars a year to maintain a line of steamboats between San Francisco and Marin county points, which is extremely wicked interest on the total cost. Very small charges for its use would soon pay interest, principal and all.
And if, from a financial standpoint, it were a total loss, still San Francisco would be far ahead. The city could well afford to pay $10,000,000 or more for the greatest advertisement in the world—for a work never before surpassed by the imagination and handiwork of man. Whether viewed from its lofty deck, commanding the contrasting prospect—to the west, the grand old tumultuous ocean; to the east, the placid bay; or from incoming ships; or from the landward hills: it would bid fair to remain forever the most stupendous, awe-inspiring monument of our modern civilization. And it could have no rival, for there is only one Golden Gate in the world.
Greatest Of World’s Harbor Improvements
“Even in remote times, long preceding the Christian era, the ancients understood the value of dignifying their harbors with impressive works. The Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos of Alexandria were counted among the seven wonders of the world. The same tendency appears in our own times, witness the cyclopean Statue of Liberty at the entrance of New York harbor. But the bridge across the Golden Gate would dwarf and overshadow all.”
This proposition has created more enthusiasm in San Rafael than any other for some time. Mayor Herzog and the City Council have all endorsed it enthusiastically. The Central Marin Chamber of Commerce is expected to act at their next meeting and the County Supervisors will also probably act at their meeting next week. While the cost of such a bridge would be enormous it is not insurmountable as pointed out in Mr. Wilkins’ article. Such a proposition if constructed would undoubtedly double the value of real estate in Marin county in a short time and no doubt in a few years the population of Marin county would increase five-fold. This proposition is not a wild-cat dream and deserves a lot of consideration.
Here’s how the Chamber of Commerce wanted to beautify Santa Rosa in 1912. Step #1: Get rid of those big trees lining Mendocino Ave. Step #2: Replace with palms, all the same size and the same distance apart.
(RIGHT: The present corner of Mendocino Avenue and 7th Street looking in the direction of College Avenue, c. 1905. The large house nearest the camera would be the current location of the Trek Bicycle Store. Photo courtesy Larry Lepeere collection)
Santa Rosa has always shown a willingness – nay, eagerness – to trash its own heritage when it stands in the way of progress. Sometimes “progress” is the justification for following a popular trend and as palm trees were quite the rage at the time, the Chamber of Commerce promoted a plan to fill the entire length of Mendocino Avenue with them.
“Mendocino avenue is the main thoroughfare north and south through the city and has on it some of the handsomest homes in the city, so it is only natural that is should be made one of the best so that strangers passing through town will take away a fine impression of the city,” the Press Democrat cheered. Apparently PD editor Ernest Finley feared motorists would go home and tell their friends, “Santa Rosa’s an alright place, I guess, except there’s not enough contrived landscaping to my taste.”
This wasn’t the first local case of palm tree fever. The year before, the Board of Supervisors endorsed a scheme to plant date palms all along the highway that was then in the planning stage. As Mendocino Avenue would be a portion of this new highway, it makes a certain bit of sense that it should match. But unlike portions of the road that would pass through farmlands, the plan here was to tear out mature trees. Click or tap on the photo to the right to enlarge and some of the trees in the distance must be 30+ years old – and the picture probably was taken years before the palm frenzy peaked.
That image also shows, however, why it could be argued the plan was somewhat forgivable; people were planting palm trees anyway and doing a bum job of it. Three, maybe four varieties are seen in the photo ranging in style from squat to spindly, which together makes it look like a patch of tall weeds (no argument from me there). And this sort of willy-nilly palm planting was underway all over Santa Rosa during the early years of the century; there’s hardly a street scene snapshot to be found from this period where there is not some forlorn palm or three to be spotted by the curbside (here’s another example from about a block away).
One of the articles transcribed below mentions the work should be done soon in order for the town to look its best for the upcoming Panama-Pacific Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco. This is the first mention of Santa Rosa specifically planning for the 1915 mega-event, and “the attraction Santa Rosa will be for the great crowds of visitors during the exposition year.” What “attraction” the Chamber of Commerce hoped would draw hordes of tourists here was not spelled out, but it’s a safe bet they were thinking of Luther Burbank. If so, they were about to be disappointed; Burbank’s company was planning on advertising “Luther Burbank’s Exhibition Garden” near Hayward specifically to lure fans away from trekking to Santa Rosa and bothering the famous man. (UPDATE: A 1913 PD article confirms that yes, the Chamber was expecting Burbank to be the town’s star attraction, with tourists also drawn “on account of the fame the city has gained as the scene of many rose carnival triumphs in the past.”)
While here, though, out-of-towners could admire our new palm trees, all exactly alike. Visitors could scratch their heads and wonder why a town like this was trying so hard to look like it was next door to San Diego or somewhere else with a semi-tropical clime.
TREES GIVE WAY TO SHOWY PALMS
Improvements Being Carried Out on Mendocino Avenue North of College Avenue
Property owners on Mendocino avenue from College avenue to the city limits are planning to improve that street this summer. Already those on the west side of the block from College to Carrillo have removed most of the large elm trees and planted out palms which will make the thoroughfare a palm avenue if the work is continued.
Now the property owners, R. W. Peterson, H. H. Elliott, D. J. Paddock and W. H. Lumsden have begun the work of laying a concrete curb and gutter. This part of the work will be extended rapidly on both sides of the street as the city is assisting in the work by furnishing the gravel required and hauling away the dirt which it is necessary to remove. Other property owners have already signified their intention of continuing the work as soon as the first block is completed.
Mendocino avenue is the main thoroughfare north and south through the city and has on it some of the handsomest homes in the city, so it is only natural that is should be made one of the best so that strangers passing through town will take away a fine impression of the city. With the bitumen from the courthouse to College avenue extended to the city limits the street will be one of the most desirable residence sections of the city and make it a popular drive. At present the street north of College avenue is anything but inviting for driving, owing to its roughness in dry weather and muddy condition in wet seasons.
– Press Democrat, March 21, 1912
PALM PLANTING ENDORSED BY THE IMPROVEMENT CLUB
The further beautifying of Santa Rosa by the planting of palms along the streets, at uniform distance, and of uniform variety, met with very hearty endorsement at the meeting of the Woman’s Improvement Club, of which Mrs. Herbert H. Moke is president, held in this city on Monday afternoon.
Dr. P. A. Meneray and Max Rosenberg addressed the Club on the subject of palm planting and pointed out the charms of parking in the beautifying of any city. At the last meeting of the Chamber of Commerce the plan was endorsed.
Mrs. Moke and Mrs. John Rinner were named a special committee to call upon Luther Burbank and ask for his opinion regarding the best variety of palm to plant. The Club will also district of the city [sic] and have committees call upon property owners and solicit their co-operation in the campaign for palm planting. They will ascertain the names of those who will be willing to pay for the planting and purchase of the showy foliage. The plan is to plant one palm every fifty feet so that it can be readily seen that the cost will be very little.
With the approach of the Panama-Pacific Exposition and the attraction Santa Rosa will be for the great crowds of visitors during the exposition year, it is conceded that the making of the city as attractive as possible by that time should commence as soon as possible, and the planting of palms is a good start. With the backing of the energetic women forming the Improvement Club the scheme is sure to be successful.
– Press Democrat, December 10, 1912
WILL PLANT PALMS FOR THE BEAUTIFYING OF THE CITY
A great plan of beautifying the city by the systematic planting of palms along the sidewalks, producing a park effect that will at once be a delight and an inspiration, is to be impressed upon the people of Santa Rosa through the co-operation of the Woman’s Improvement Club and the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. The idea is to have Santa Rosa look as attractive as possible by the time of the holding of the 1915 Exposition when many hundreds of strangers will come within our gates, lured here by the fact that Santa Rosa is the home and work place of the greatest of scientific horticulturists, Luther Burbank, and also on account of the fame the city has gained as the scene of many rose carnival triumphs in the past.
The suggestion for palm planting in Santa Rosa has been urged for a long time but recently was given fresh impetus…the committee decided to recommend the Dracena, commonly known as the “Dragon palm” as the best for sidewalk planting. Another suggestion is that the Canary palm or orange or lemon trees are suitable for the yards so as to produce a tropical and delightful effect.
The joint committee hopes that people all over Santa Rosa will co-operate in this plan for the adornment of the city. They hope, too, that orders for the palms and trees will be left with the Chamber of Commerce. The palms can be obtained at a considerable reduction of cost if purchased to large quantities by the Chamber of Commerce for the purposes named.
Not only is Santa Rosa preparing to beautify for the world’s fair crowds but all over the State the same idea prevails and in many other places just such spirit prevails.