Santa Rosa’s quite the plucky little town, according to this press release from the newly-created Chamber of Commerce: Less than five months after the devastating 1906 earthquake, all signs of damage were cleaned up, stores were back in business, and industrious workers were constructing “stronger and more handsome structures” that complied with the strictest building codes.

It was mostly a pack of lies.

All that new construction was being approved at a reckless pace, with the single building inspector reviewing a dozen plans at once and five major structures given the go-ahead at a City Council meeting. Many of those “temporary business buildings” mentioned by the Chamber were lean-to sheds or wooden roofs to shade open-air tables, and any shoppers who dared visit Fourth street had to navigate a dangerous obstacle course of construction materials and broken sidewalks. Contrary to the Chamber’s claim, there was plenty of debris around; the hulking wreckage of the old courthouse still loomed over the downtown area, and it would be another two months before the demolition contract would even be awarded. Most galling is their claim that Santa Rosa generously “housed and fed, despite her own distress, hundreds of refugees from San Francisco.” Despite tons of donations piled in a warehouse, Santa Rosa stopped food aid after three weeks except to “widows, orphans and the sick” – even refugees were expected to find a job, if only shoveling rubble for $2/day.

But most interesting in the Chamber’s press release is that the earthquake isn’t even mentioned once. Here the Chamber followed the lead of business interests in San Francisco that insisted the great city was destroyed by fires that followed a minor tremor. The story is detailed in one of the best books about the quake, “Denial of disaster” by San Francisco city archivist Gladys Hansen:

As part of this public relations strategy, James Horsburgh Jr., General Passenger Agent of the Southern Pacific Company, wrote to chambers of commerce throughout the state to candidly detail the railroad’s efforts to “set the record straight.” Essentially, the Southern Pacific Company began to rewrite the entire history of the disaster – a simple and sanitized version – to diminish the impact of the earthquake, and to assure easterners that investment in California enterprises would continue to be good business.

The scope of the Southern Pacific Company’s reworking of the history of the catastrophe was, and is, breathtaking. The company’s point of view was that there was barely an earthquake.

Published a few weeks later and widely distributed nationwide, Southern Pacific’s travel magazine, “The Sunset” became a primary source of the fire-not-earthquake (mis)information about what happened in San Francisco. Horsburgh’s letter to the chambers of commerce went further, urging anyone from the groups speaking about the disaster should emphasize “how quickly and wonderfully San Francisco and California recovered from the effects, and how thoroughly and systematically they began the work of reconstruction.”

That, of course, was exactly the myth peddled by Santa Rosa’s Chamber, which was joined at the hip with the two local newspapers, particularly the Press Democrat: A gleaming new 20th century phoenix was arising overnight from the old farm town’s ashes. Variations of that fairy tale are still told today, but in truth it took another year before the professional businesses moved out of the emergency shantytown at Fifth and Mendocino, and it wasn’t until 1908 before Fourth St. again became something like the town’s social hub. Also not mentioned in the Chamber’s PR was that many were still fighting an ongoing battle with the insurance companies. Some appeals dragged on for another five years, and ultimately fewer than ten companies paid their losses in full.

The railroad may have provided the Chamber with free spin, but it didn’t pay to have it printed. In November, the Chamber held a fundraiser at the roller skating rink to pay for the production of brochures. The entertainment that evening was a match between Santa Rosa’s “ladies’ polo team” (hockey on skates) and competitors from another town.

Sends Out Bulletin Regarding Santa Rosa’s Progress

The newly organized Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce has sent out its first bulletin throughout the east regarding the conditions here, and the upbuilding of Santa Rosa. Among the facts covered in the bulletin are these:

The vast amount of work accomplished in the reconstruction of the business portion of our beautiful City of Roses, which had been laid low by the awful devastation of April 18, 1906, is the wonder of every visitor.

All debris was removed from burned area [sic] within weeks’ time of the disaster.

Temporary business buildings were immediately erected surrounding the old business section, and merchants having secured stocks from adjoining towns resumed business with courage and success.

Business buildings partially destroyed were immediately repaired and occupied by former tenants[.]

Residential section, slightly damaged, was soon repaired, and our yards and homes now seem more beautiful than ever.

A stringent building ordinance was adopted by the City Council before any permits for permanent buildings were granted. In the two months this ordinance has been in effect permits over $400,000 worth of business buildings have been granted and the same are now under actual construction, in fact, it is estimated that over one-third of the business area destroyed is in course of rebuilding, with stronger and more handsome structures.

It is noteworthy that less than one-half dozen families left Santa Rosa owing to the calamity, and praiseworthy that she housed and fed, despite her own distress, hundreds of refugees from San Francisco. The Southern Pacific and California Northwestern railroads have been compelled to put on additional freight trains to handle the merchandise required, and materials for reconstruction.

Hotel accommodations are only temporary. Enterprising capitalists will find here a splendid opening.

There is a great demand for laborers, both in building trades and crop harvesting.

Sonoma county conditions are excellent. Fruit crops are large, and marketing at good prices; grape crop short but prices unusually high; hop crop a record breaker, prices above expectation. Large shipments of poultry continue to San Francisco and Nevada daily; likewise dairy products.

There is a feeling of courage and hopefulness alike by our enterprising merchants, property owners and residents.

– Press Democrat, September 7, 1906

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Here we go again: another year, another confab about creating an alliance to promote Sonoma County interests. The group formed in 1905 completely fizzled and now in 1906, Santa Rosa’s newly minted Chamber of Commerce became a charter member of the “North Bay Counties Association.” But it’s a wonder they signed on at all, considering the guy behind the effort had also called for splitting the county into three parts in order to screw over Santa Rosa.

With much fanfare, formation of the Sonoma County Progressive Association was announced in early 1905 with the primary goal of organizing a big local presence at the upcoming Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland that summer. The fair was a success beyond anyone’s dreams, but Sonoma County had no official presence whatsoever. No explanation was given, but it seems most likely that the farming communities were reluctant to spend time and money at the Oregon exposition to mainly hype Santa Rosa, which had loudly stated ambitions to become the great metropolis north of the Golden Gate.

Come the 1906 earthquake and Santa Rosa is helpless and literally begging for funds. A huge new bond would be needed to rebuild the downtown county courthouse and other official buildings destroyed in the disaster. Not so fast, said John L. Camm from the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce and others; if the county were to be divided into three sections, Petaluma could build a courthouse for the new southern county, and Healdsburg could be the seat for the new northern part. Although not stated directly, their plan would have left Santa Rosa as the county seat for just itself, Sebastopol, Forestville, and Graton (Wikiup, maybe). No need to build an expensive marble-walled hall of justice for that itty-bitty jurisdiction, no sir.

There was no followup to that meeting in Petaluma, and the only mention of it in a Santa Rosa paper claimed “the sentiment in favor of keeping this great county together as a unit is well nigh unanimous,” and anyway, it couldn’t legally be done. It’s interesting to also note that the article also didn’t mention the justification for the split was the expected extravagant cost of the new courthouse (which ended up costing over $7 million in today’s dollars).

Yet less than two months later, here again was John L. Camm from the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce, this time spearheading the regional association. What gives? Was the split-the-county meeting really a feint to scare Santa Rosa from another attempt to dominate the new organization? Was opposition to the bond settled behind closed doors? Or did some in Petaluma really want to redraw county lines in order to destroy their sibling rival sister city?

Enthusiastic Meeting in Santa Rosa Yesterday
The Constitution and By-Laws Adopted and Officers Named for the Ensuing Year–Delegates Entertained

“The North Bay Counties Association” is the name of the new body organized in Santa Rosa yesterday for the purpose of exploiting in a practical way the resources and opportunities offered by the counties of Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Mendocino, and Lake counties by means of legitimate advertising, the distribution of literature and in other ways.

The Association was formed by representatives from the Chambers of Commerce and other commercial bodies in the counties named at a meeting held at the court house in this city yesterday morning and afternoon. Some enthusiastic speeches were made setting forth the advantages of united effort in the great work to be undertaken in the future.

John L. Camm, of Petaluma, was chosen temporary chairman of the meeting, and after explaining its object business of organization was taken up. The Rev. Robert Newton Lynch of Petaluma was at the secretary’s desk…


– Press Democrat, August 29, 1906


Pursuant to a call issued by J. L. Camm of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce, and upon request of a number of prominent Petalumans, a meeting of local citizens was held at the city hall Friday evening for the purpose of discussing the advisability of inaugurating a “New County” movement. The council chambers were well filled when the meeting was called to order by Mr. Camm, who stated the object of the meeting and outline the proposed new county plan. The project, as stated, was to form a new county, with Petaluma as the county seat, by taking that portion of Sonoma county south from a point north of Sonoma, including Penngrove, Bloomfield, Valley Ford, and Bodega, and by taking that portion of Marin county lying north of a straight line running westerly from San Antonio creek to the ocean including the town of Tomales.

The question was discussed dispassionately and earnestly by a number of citizens, including Assemblyman Cromwell, H. P. Brainerd, A. Kahn, J. E. Olmsted, Supervisor Armstrong, Arthur Robinson, J. W. Horn, L. C. Byce, Mayor Drees, Superintendent Van Frank of the electric road, Thos. Maclay. Mssrs. Cromwell, Brainerd, and Kahn, were of the opinion that the movement is neither feasible nor desirable. Mr. Brainerd thought such a movement would be wrong in view of the disaster recently suffered by Santa Rosa, and Mr. Kahn was like minded. Assemblyman Cromwell was of the opinion that the proposed new county could not be created because of the opposition that would have to be overcome; he also expressed the opinion that our tax burdens would be greatly increased and that the prestige now enjoyed by the big County of Sonoma, politically and otherwise, would be destroyed by the creation of another county largely therefrom.

The other speakers all expressed a desire to further the interests of Petaluma in every possible way, but were not prepared to declare themselves as in favor of launching a movement of such magnitude without further consideration.

As a result of the discussion the chairman was authorized to appoint a committee to look thoroughly into the object, consider all its phases and possibilities and report at a meeting to be held at such time as the committee may designate.


– Petaluma Argus, June 30, 1906


The talk of the county division is not a dream. The idea of the county voting itself into debt again after just getting out of it is not generally favored. To vote a large bond issue to build a new court house, new hall of records when in a few years the natural growth of the county will compell division is not wise. If the county is divided either Healdsburg or Petaluma would furnish buildings free of cost to the county and leave us to start on even footing instead of loading the county with a debt that would mean the paying of increased taxes and be a continuation of carrying a debt that would in the end make us pay two prices for our whistle. There [are] a number of men in Petaluma who would put up $10,000 each for a new courthouse in Petaluma who feel that it is a hefty burden to have to pay on bonds and interest for useless expenditures.

– Petaluma Daily Courier, June 26, 1906

A few days ago the Republican received information to the effect that parties in Petaluma were discussing the project of trying to divide Sonoma county into three parts, as was said of Gaul many centuries ago. It was proposed to make Petaluma the capital of the southern and Healdsburg the capital of the northern section. We did not give the matter great consideration at the time, for the reason that we believed the story to be idle rumor and that if such attempt should be seriously made we had no doubt of its being generally condemned. It is now of record that a county division meeting was held at Petaluma last Friday evening and that it was not a very enthusiastic affair. Three speeches were made against the scheme and the other speakers were rather noncommittal. A committee was appointed to take the matter inder consideration and to report on the same when ready to do so. The three Petaluma men who spoke against the effort to divide the county are members of the committee.

There is no law now under which a California county can be created, and it has not been possible to enact such a statue since the adoption of the constitutional amendment providing that a county can be created only under a general statute. The intelligent people of Petaluma must know this. They must also know that the sentiment in favor of keeping this great county together as a unit is well nigh unanimous. Hence, we do not think them in earnest in the division scheme. They may think it a good advertising project for the time being but this is all they can hope to get out of it.

It is of far greater consequence to all concerned to keep this great and growing county together as one county, than that any particular town may be a county seat. Not many will consent to the divorcement of any portion of our territory. Division would be hurtful to all concerned. This is the imperial county of upper California and the people here will insist on its remaining such.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 2, 1906

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This 1906 birth announcement for the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce finds that town boosters were egged on by Petaluma (sorry) and an upcoming regional meeting to organize a local Chamber. See the following post for more about that meeting and another reason why Santa Rosa may have been motivated to move swiftly.

The only newsworthy tidbit in the items below came from Allen Lemmon, editor and publisher of the Republican newspaper, who remarked that there had been a housing shortage in Santa Rosa since the earthquake and it was expected to worsen.

Enthusiastic Meeting Held Here on Friday Night
Vigorous Addresses Made and Common Acclaim Predicts Greater Prosperity and Progress Than Ever Before

The meeting called for last night brought together a large audience of enthusiastic citizens anxious to promote the best interests of Santa Rosa, and uphold her importance as the county seat of a county that is second to none in the diversity and scope of its products, and also to “boost” the entire county and section.

A number of interesting hearty addresses were heard, and it was decided to form a Chamber of Commerce upon a solid basis, increase its commercial interests, foster industries already here, and encourage the introduction of others, and promote the general welfare of the city.

Captain Houts called the meeting to order and stated the purposes of the gathering. An occasion arose, he said, as the result of the forward movement inaugurated at the meeting under the auspices of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce the other day. The idea was, he said, to have the counties of Sonoma, Marin, Mendocino, and Napa work together through their commercial bodies to advertise the general interests of this and adjoining counties in this section of the state. He told of the advantages to be gained by the lectures and advertising in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other places in bringing to the attention of the eastern home-seekers. To many eastern people, the Captain said, this section of the state with its diversity of interest was an “unexplored region.”

At the meeting held in Petaluma, Captain Houts said, it was decided to hold a session of the representative of the various commercial bodies of the counties named in Santa Rosa and perfect the joint organization to promote the interest of the proposed county organizations. He told of a need of a Chamber of Commerce or similar body here.

He then threw the topic open for discussion…

[Judge Seawell, Judge Crawford, Colonel Julliard, and other notables spoke and agreed that starting a Chamber of Commerce was an excellent idea, and a committee was elected to organize it.]

…Allen B. Lemmon said his heart was thoroughly in the work suggested. He touched on the value of co-operation and organization, and predicted that with a good, live Chamber of Commerce, the results attained would be far in excess of the blow dealt on April 18. He urged proceeding deliberately and carefully in the adoption of by-laws and general procedure of business. He mentioned the fact that there are “no empty houses in Santa Rosa now,” and predicted that by September 15 there would be 150 more houses needed than could be had for rent…

– Press Democrat, August 18, 1906

Committee Makes Appeal for 600 Names

“Don’t Be Pushed–Push
Don’t Knock–Boost.”

Such is the motto the membership committee of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce has adopted in its efforts to enlist the business men and property owners of this city. The committee consists of Captain O. L. Houts, A. T. Crane and Dr. S. S. Bogle and hundreds of letters have been sent out to the “loyal citizens desirous of advancing not only your own interests, but those of your home town,” to secure the enrollment as members so as to be able to take part in the organization Friday evening when officers are to be elected.

In the letter the committee says: That you and other representative citizens of this city may become alive to the objects of this organization, and be ready to act intelligently upon same, the committee respectfully solicits your careful consideration of the Constitution and By-Laws as adopted…

…Let us all join in the common effort. It will cost you at the rate of but $12 per year, that is, $1 per month. So fall in line and help swell the procession for a town whose citizens are united and progressive.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 23, 1906

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