pipedreams

SEBASTOPOL’S CHINATOWNS

In other times and places they may have been considered twin villages. The two communities brushed against each other, each with a mercantile district, its own places of worship and sometimes populations of roughly the same size. But never did they have equal standing, which is because one of those communities was entirely Chinese immigrants and this was the American West in the 19th century. Specifically, this was Sebastopol and its Chinatown. Its two Chinatowns, actually.

Before diving in, it pains me to admit the tale you’re about to read is incomplete. I’ve pecked away at the history of this fascinating lost world for ages, returning to it whenever another historic newspaper or trove of other data came online. But it’s been a while since anything really significant surfaced; it looks like some sections of the puzzle – critically important sections, at that – will always be missing. So here I’ve put together what I have, in the hope that someday a family memoir, a dusty photo album or a history by one of San Francisco’s Six Companies will appear, allowing scholars of Chinese culture in the West to cement more parts of the picture together.

This project began over seven years ago after finding a remark by West County historian Bill Borba: “Sebastopol had two Chinatowns that must have had in the neighborhood of 200-300 Chinese in them…” Sure enough, I found the fire maps which showed the village seemed to have two Chinese enclaves about a block apart. I soon learned this was a very unusual situation.


“JOHN CHINAMAN” COMES TO SONOMA

The earliest Chinese immigrants probably arrived in Sonoma county around 1855, as they did in Marin; the 1860 census shows about forty, all but a handful living in the town of Sonoma. During this decade the local newspapers fed readers a steady diet of racist stories about the doings of “John Chinaman” in San Francisco or the Gold Country, but little about the men living here. A rare 1868 item from the Santa Rosa paper told of a Chinese man who reported being robbed by two boys – but “several white persons near by when the alleged act was committed” claimed he was lying, so the case was dropped.

By the 1870 census the Chinese population had grown tenfold; 470 men were counted in the county overall with over half (280) living in Petaluma. Salt Point was the third largest Chinese group with 96 (mainly logging camps at Timber Cove and Duncan’s Mills). Five were listed in Bloomfield. In 1871, California Pacific railroad brought in a crew of over a thousand Chinese laborers to begin work on a rail line between Santa Rosa and Cloverdale. Judging by the number of newspaper reports, this decade was by far the most violent for Chinese immigrants, with multiple reports of beatings, shootings and a trend of young white boys shooting them in the face. The most disturbing incidents were when hunters found a body in the Laguna; although the Coroner’s Jury met there and believed the man had been murdered, there was no further investigation and the remains were buried at the site following the verdict. Near Bloomfield, an immigrant supposedly attempted suicide by cutting his throat, followed by splitting his head open with an axe. When the Coroner’s Jury arrived at the scene they found the body some distance away in a potato field; it was decided the injured man stumbled there on his own and there was no foul play involved in any of it. The body remained lying in the field for several days.

Although the 1880 census missed the entire Chinese community at Bloomfield (although there were eight counted in Valley Ford), there were still 901 enumerated in the county, with Sonoma City, Santa Rosa and Petaluma having the largest populations, in that order. The population of the Analy Township was 1,380 with 37 Chinese immigrants, and Sebastopol had 197 residents with only three from China.

Only summaries of the 1890 census exist, but there were 1,173 identified as Chinese in the entire county with 231 in the Analy Township (there was no breakout for Sebastopol), slightly behind Santa Rosa’s leading count of 277.

Was this a single community split between different streets or were these really two separate Chinatowns? Evidence points both ways. Until the last buildings were razed in 1943, the Sebastopol newspaper referred to one as New (or Barnes’) Chinatown and the other as Old (or Brown’s) Chinatown. Each had its own “joss house” (a place of worship) which I’m told was never seen in a town so small. (By contrast, there was no joss house at all in Santa Rosa, although we know there was a room used as a temple.) But did one group have better status, more wealth than the other? Those and other loose threads are tugged below.

Nor do we have any images of the Chinatowns except for grainy photos taken before it was to be demolished. There are no known pictures of any residents – the man seen at the top of this article is from Arnold Genthe’s book on San Francisco’s Chinatown at around the turn of the century.

Even worse, we don’t have an accurate view of how many people were living there at any particular time. Old census data was often problematic when it came to enumerating ethnic minorities, possibly because of racism or language barriers. In the 1880 census there were no Chinese counted in Bloomfield, for example, although there were probably hundreds living there; other census takers in the county that year didn’t make much of an effort to record Chinese names with any accuracy, filling in the census forms with meaningless stubs such as “Lee,” “ah Gus,” “Hong Kong,” or “Sing.” Complicating matters, the census was usually taken during the summer months when Chinese ag workers might be away from where they lived most of the year, dispersed on farms or among work crews where they could be overlooked (or hidden). A more specific example of these problems is below.

Our story begins in 1885, although newspapers had occasionally mentioned Chinese men in Sebastopol over the previous decade. (Most news about early Sebastopol comes from the Petaluma Argus, as older 19th century Santa Rosa papers mostly ignored the village.) That year Aaron Barnes announced he was moving “his China houses” off Main Street; it didn’t happen for several years, as the 1888 fire map shown below still showed a Chinatown with about a dozen buildings, roughly across the street from today’s Copperfield’s store.

Aaron Barnes (1816-1897) was a farmer/real estate investor who owned several lots around downtown Sebastopol, most notably the large corner at Petaluma Ave. and (modern) Highway 12, where the CVS and Benedetti Tire now stand. He had a quirky life, which earned him a profile in “SEBASTOPOL WAS ALWAYS QUIRKY,” but it was never explained why he seemed to have so much devotion to his Chinese tenants. There’s a family story that he liked them better than the white townsfolk because a church had done something to offend him and his first wife. But his cause of death was diagnosed as constipation, which might seem unusual because the cure-all tonics during his era were usually strong laxatives mixed with alcohol. That condition is also famously a side-effect from chronic use of opium.

1888 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's downtown Chinatown
1888 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s downtown Chinatown

The situation changed quickly and dangerously in the first weeks of 1886. Anti-Chinese vigilante committees had been running amok on the West Coast for months, terrorizing immigrants into leaving their communities under threats of death. While Sonoma County locals were chanting the popular “Chinese must go” mantra, there was no violence or anti-Chinese activism here. But when members of Petaluma’s Wickersham family were brutally killed in mid-January and their Chinese cook was accused of the deed, anti-Chinese Leagues sprouted overnight in every Sonoma community with intent to expel them. For in-depth coverage on that story, see “THE YEAR OF THE ANTI-CHINESE LEAGUE.”

Before the end of that January there was a trickle of Chinese coming into Santa Rosa from Cloverdale, Healdsburg and other points north. Some were passing through on their way to San Francisco, but many apparently were lingering in town to see how the situation would develop – the Democrat newspaper reported there were over 600 Chinese in Santa Rosa as the month ended. Sebastopol’s Chinatown swelled at the same time. The correspondent for the Argus wrote “the town has about 360 Chinese and they outnumber about 250 whites.” In the next few weeks, the Chinese population of Sebastopol peaked at an estimated 400-450.


BLOOMFIELD’S “PIGTAIL ALLEY”

Before it became dairy county, Big Valley (Bloomfield + Valley Ford) was known for its potatoes; 100,000 sacks a year were carted down to the Petaluma wharf in the wagons which were jokingly called “spud schooners.” As planting and digging so many potatoes is quite labor intensive, Big Valley was also known for its many, many Chinese immigrants. When they hit Peak Potato around 1880 it’s often claimed 300 Chinese men lived in or around Bloomfield, although local historian Bill Borba always said the number was closer to 600, far larger than Sebastopol’s combined Chinatowns.

Several locations have been identified but none are documented by archaeology; camps were said to be at the current location of Emma Herbert Memorial Park and near the intersection of Roblar Road and Valley Ford Road. Several buildings were rented along Main Street (now Bloomfield Road), with “Pigtail Alley” somewhere nearby. This was probably their Chinatown; a Chinese butcher shop and laundry are mentioned in articles below, so it’s fairly safe to assume there was a business area similar in size to Sebastopol.

In February 1886 an Anti-Chinese Committee was formed in Bloomfield, same as in all other Sonoma County communities. But the situation was different, due to the size of the Chinese community (“there is no town in the state, of its size, where there are so many Chinese” – Sonoma Democrat) and because some Bloomfielders were inclined to vigilante activity. An unsuccessful attempt was made to blow up a Chinese laundry (“result, a lot of frightened Chinamen and a shattered floor”) and a spring that supplied water was salted. That October – months after the anti-Chinese fervor had sputtered out in Santa Rosa and other places – the Argus reported that vigilantes “…have AGAIN [emphasis mine] taken the law into their own hands and have forcibly ejected them from the town.”

Predictably, the farmers found themselves short-handed when potato harvest season arrived in 1887: “It is impossible to get enough white hands. Chinamen are scarce and disposed to boycott the Bloomfield country, from which they were driven a year since.” Potato blight damaged much of the crop in 1889 and by 1891 there were only about 100 acres still planted in potatoes, most of the land converted to dairy pastures.

Many who sought refuge in Sebastopol presumably were coming from nearby Bloomfield, which had the largest sustained Chinese community in the county. Bloomfield was also the site of the only local vigilante activity, which continued for months (see sidebar). But as winter turned into spring even the Chinatowns in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa shrunk greatly, although it’s most likely because of residents melting away into the countryside to take their customary farm jobs now that growing season approached.

After a year passed there was no sign the anti-Chinese furor had any lasting effect in Sebastopol (“there are more Chinamen in Sebastopol to the square foot than in any American town that we know of” – Argus). The Petaluma paper reported boys – and women from Santa Rosa – were coming to the village’s Chinatown to smoke opium, a matter of some irritation to the townsfolk.

The first possible sighting of a second Chinatown appears in 1889: “The Chinese have built a Joss house in town.” That it was built by the Chinese themselves (or perhaps, paid for by them) suggests Barnes was not involved, as he apparently always hired contractors.

This other Chinatown was on property owned by John Brown, like Barnes a farmer/real estate investor, although on a much larger scale – he had some 1,400 acres on the east end of Sebastopol which he leased to others, making him the second largest landowner in the area (the Walker ranch was larger). His cottage still exists on the edge of town and is currently home to the Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital.

That became known as Old Chinatown. Then 15 months later, in early 1891, New Chinatown started to appear: “Elliot & Berry are building a fine Joss House for the Chinamen.” Later that year, “a number of China houses are in course of erection on the corner of Petaluma and Bodega avenues by Mr. Aaron Barnes, and the Joss house which has been located near Mr. Barnes’ residence has been moved to the same lot.” (It never ceases to amaze me that they moved houses around like dominoes back then.) To be clear: This Chinatown occupied the entire footprint of the modern CVS and its parking lot.

And so Sebastopol became accustomed to having two Chinatowns in its backyard. One of the rare items in the Sebastopol paper that mentions both describes the comic 1898 efforts to restrain a bull running through the town: “…he concluded to have some noodle soup and charged the restaurant in Barnes’ Chinatown. The boss cook banged a big tin pan against the noodle pot with such effect that his lordship wheeled for Brown’s Chinatown. Whether he wanted to hit the pipe or was looking for a game of fan tan is not known…”

Another episode from the same year shows how fairly the town treated their Chinese residents. During Lunar New Year celebrations Deputy Constable Woodward attempted a little extortion, demanding $5 from each merchant who was exploding firecrackers. As there was no such thing as a firecracker tax, two men began arguing with Woodward; that turned into a fight with the cop pistol-whipping a young man named Ah Woy, who filed a complaint against the constable. During the court hearing a few days later about a dozen Chinese witnesses testified. Woodward’s defense was that he only asked Woy to quiet down and was attacked by Woy while trying to assist him to go indoors. “Some of the Chinese witnesses, however, did not seem to agree with the constable’s version of the fracas,” the Press Democrat reported. “Some of them of the ‘little bit Engleesh’ persuasion just looked daggers at Mr. Woodward.” The court fined Woodward $20 for battery and dismissed Woodward’s assault charge against Woy.

There was probably no happier year in those places than 1898. There were now children in the community and there was a wedding:


“A Chinese bride! A Chinese bride!” The word was passed like wildfire among the crowd at the Donahue depot as the ten o’clock train on the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad slowed up there Wednesday morning. Instantly everybody was anxious to catch a glimpse of the celestial maiden, clad in the most fantastic of bridal costumes…When the bride and her party arrived at Sebastopol they were given a great reception by scores of Chinese. In a gaily decorated vehicle adorned with flags and Chinese lanterns, the bride was escorted through the streets. Later in the day the marriage took place amid much pomp. the groom was a “heap high tone” Chinaman employed on the Knowles ranch near Sebastopol.

Less happy was 1899; almost all of Barnes’ Chinatown burned down, wiping out 15 buildings including stores, boarding houses, the Joss house and their Masonic hall. There was great concern during the fire because the winds were blowing towards town and no one knew where their hook and ladder truck was (it was found on a vacant lot, someone having borrowed it for personal use). As Aaron Barnes was now deceased, it was unclear whether his son Henry would rebuild. By the end of the year it was reconstructed about 75 feet further east away from Petaluma Ave. One merchant, Quong Wah, was wealthy enough to build his own place.

1903 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's Old Chinatown and New Chinatown
1903 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s Old Chinatown and New Chinatown

In the summer of 1900 the census taker found 77 Chinese in and around Sebastopol, two of them women. Most were in small knots of 3-5 laborers living on farms but about a third were in the Chinatowns, which now had two groceries, two merchandise stores, three laundries and a barber. The two Chinatowns were still about equal size on the 1903 map. John A. Brown died in 1905 and the property passed to his daughter, Birdie, who continued making improvements into the 1920s. It was no longer called Old Chinatown/Brown’s Chinatown but “China Alley.”

Fast-forward ahead another decade; the 1910 census is the only one which recognized two Chinatowns, with about 25 people living in each. Seven were female and nine were born in California. Kim Lee owned a laundry; there were five grocers and eight other stores, which seems like a lot, if there were really only fifty people.

1911 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's China Alley and Barnes street Chinatown
1911 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s China Alley and Barnes street Chinatown

And now we come to the 1920s; there’s a druggist who has his own store, two salesmen, and sixteen people under age 20, with two dozen people born in California. The census says there are 84 living in “China Town.” Except that’s apparently not really true. To (somewhat) repeat myself: When it comes to the Chinese, the census data is like a house of cards – touch it lightly and it all falls apart.

Meet Johnny Ginn. He was an old man in the early 1970s when he was interviewed by sociologists collecting oral histories of the Chinese experience in California.* He was the only one interviewed who spoke about Sebastopol, having grown up around there; that 1898 story about the Chinese bride concerned his mother.

Johnny’s father was named Ginn Wall and as the wedding item states, he worked on the Knowles ranch near Sebastopol. But according to the 1900 census, there were no Chinese living on or near the William H. Knowles ranch. Same for 1910, 1920. In fact, Johnny and his parents can’t be spotted in any census at all, as far as I can tell, and they were not alone in being overlooked. As he told the researchers, “There were about three hundred Chinese farmworkers up there, and they were all old men…and except for my mother, not a single woman. That was the whole Chinese settlement in Sebastopol.”

Johnny’s mother died in 1929 and his father went broke being a tenant farmer. After saving for the next six years they finally had the $600 to send Ginn Wall back to China by himself. Johnny told the researchers he realized that the farm settlement in Sebastopol was dying:


All those old guys thought about was how they wanted to go back to China. But there’s only about six months work in the year on apples, so they never saved a thing. And the only other thing besides work was gambling. Gambling was the social life, and gambling was the pastime. Everybody hoped to make a few bucks so they could go home in the easy way. The others lost their money and got stuck from year to year.

By then in the mid-1930s it was a bachelor society of elderly men. There was nothing still keeping him there, so Johnny became a migrant worker.

1929 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's Brown ave. and Barnes ave.
1929 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s Brown ave. and Barnes ave.

Our last glimpse of the Chinatowns comes from the 1929 map, which shows the one on Brown Ave. (now Brown St.) in slow decline, while Barnes Ave. has slightly grown. The census in the following year again had a low headcount of 54 residents, but there was also now the eight-member Gin Hop family with their own house on Pitt Ave. (He was a China-born merchant and presumably no relation to Ginn Wall.)


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PDF file of transcribed sources discussed in this article (26 pages)



Of most interest to historians is the 1929 map appearance of a Tong Hall at the southernmost end, which raises several intriguing questions. It’s possible it had been there for years, but escaped notice of white cartographers who didn’t understand it possibly represented the foothold of a crime gang. In the late 1890s the Sebastopol paper had several items about highbinders (tong enforcers, sometimes hit men) being in town and a man who supposedly was a local highbinder was himself killed there in 1899. Although the separate Chinatowns began as protectorates of Messrs. Barnes and Brown, it’s possible they soon came under the control of rival tongs. This would explain why two joss houses were sustained the entire time. (UPDATE: Most tongs were not criminal, particularly at this late date.)

It all came to an end in 1943, when Sebastopol condemned the last buildings on Barnes ave. as fire hazards. Press Democrat reporter Pete Johnson described the place as “ghostlike,” although there were some people still living there.

The last celebration of Chinese New Year was apparently 1932 and it was a low-key affair, the usual gaiety dampened by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria a few months earlier. “Chinese and Japanese in the settlement here are said to exchange nothing but short greetings, but the situation isn’t acute,” the Sebastopol Times reported. Only a few gathered at the joss house to celebrate because only a few were still around. “Old-timers in the Chinatown here estimate their number to be less than 70…about one-fourth of the population several years ago,” said the Times, the paper at last acknowledging the true size of the historic community.

But earlier New Year celebrations there were always happy times, regardless of their pitiable situations, and it was also the only time of the year when the Sebastopol gwáilóu came over to visit with them. Let’s end our survey with a peek at the celebration in 1920:


Wednesday noon in front of the joss house several strings of fire crackers, each over thirty feet in length, were exploded, much to the delight of Sebastopol’s boyhood. The Chinese had erected a high tripod on which they suspended the long strings of fire crackers by means of a pulley, but the first string had hardly been ignited when the tripod collapsed and the entire string exploded at once, much to the dismay of the Chinese…The rest of the fire crackers were more successful. All afternoon the tom toms and cymbals were kept busy by the Chinese musicians who were stationed in the joss house.
1943 views of Barnes Ave. Chinatown (Press Democrat) The Sonoma County Library History & Genealogical Library has another photo with a partial view of the Wing Yuen Tai Co. store and employment office on the corner of Barnes Ave. in the 1920s.
1943 views of Barnes Ave. Chinatown (Press Democrat) The Sonoma County Library History & Genealogical Library has another photo with a partial view of the Wing Yuen Tai Co. store and employment office on the corner of Barnes Ave. in the 1920s.

* Longtime Californ’: A Documentary Study of an American Chinatown; Victor Nee and Brett De Bary; 1986; pp. 25-29

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railroadriot

SANTA ROSA’S 1871 RAILROAD RIOTS

When the first train entered town in 1871 and stopped at today’s Railroad Square, it was Santa Rosa’s coming of age moment. Step aboard that morning train and you’d be in San Francisco by lunch, instead of being lucky to arrive in the city even the same day. But progress did not come without pain – in the weeks following its debut the railroad also brought chaos and violence, the likes of which Santa Rosa had never seen.

This is the second story to appear here concerning the arrival of the railroad in Sonoma county. It may be helpful to read the part one with its background on some of the fits involved in bringing the train to Petaluma and Santa Rosa (well, nearly to Santa Rosa). The previous item, a whimsical overview of 1870 Santa Rosa, also helps set the stage for these events. The sidebar at right further explains who the players were.

We don’t know the exact date when the locomotive finally puttered across the newly-built bridge over Santa Rosa Creek, except it happened sometime in mid-March 1871. That may seem strange; one would expect some sort of ceremony, given that the Sonoma Democrat newspaper had spent three years beating the drum for a train to Santa Rosa. But its actual arrival was overshadowed by other news – that about a hundred Chinese railroad workers had just passed through town heading north to start work on a different railroad line.


WHAT’S WHAT

Railroad buffs recite the interwoven histories of the various companies like family genealogists can name all of their great-grandparent’s offspring. For the rest of us it’s confusing, in part because all of the local railroads felt compelled to redundantly include “Pacific” in their names and that they’re often mentioned only by initials. Here’s a cheat sheet for the era of this story:

 

SAN FRANCISCO & NORTHERN PACIFIC   The SF&NP was the company bought by industrialist Peter Donahue that build the line between Petaluma and Santa Rosa in 1869-70. Donahue sold it to California Pacific in 1871 for $750,000, then bought it back in 1873 for $1 million once the line was completed to Cloverdale. It later became part of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP).

 

CALIFORNIA PACIFIC   CAL-P mainly provided service between Sacramento and Vallejo, where a ferry took passengers on to San Francisco. The line also had branches to Calistoga and Marysville. Besides buying the SF&NP, the company also owned a steamship line. Central Pacific took control of the company in a July 1871 stock swap and the company continued to exist in name for several years, while assets such as the SF&NP were sold and the rail lines leased back to Central Pacific.

 

CENTRAL PACIFIC   One of the giant national railroad companies, the CPRR built the western side of the transcontinental railroad. Owners were Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, collectively called “the Big Four.” It was the largest employer of Chinese immigrants in the late 1860s, with about twelve thousand working on the railroad. The western terminus was at Sacramento, so passengers to San Francisco and points beyond had to transfer to the California Pacific until CPRR built its own line to Benicia in 1878.

The company building that line was California Pacific, which already had rail service in Napa county as far as Calistoga. The plan was to build a branch into Sonoma county and claim the $5,000 per mile in bond money that voters had approved in an 1868 referendum.*

The so-called “railroad election” of 1868 also settled that the main rail line from Sonoma county to a San Francisco ferry would follow the route of today’s SMART train, straight through the county. Santa Rosa and Healdsburg had instead voted heavily for this route California Pacific seemed now ready to build, which would terminate in Vallejo and avoid Petaluma all together. That vote ratcheted up the animosity between Santa Rosa and Petaluma, which began ten years earlier. The Santa Rosa newspaper argued Petaluma wanted to screw over the corn and wheat farmers north of them; it would be much cheaper to ship their crops to Vallejo, where there were grain silos. In Petaluma it was claimed the railroad company was plotting to just build a branch line between Calistoga and Healdsburg and claim the entire value of the bond on a technicality.

Now that Santa Rosa was poised to get what it wanted, the racist Sonoma Democrat was willing to (somewhat) overlook that California Pacific’s workforce was entirely Chinese. And since the taxpayer bond money could only be spent on work in Sonoma county, California Pacific was starting with the route between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg.

But Donahue’s SF&NP railroad didn’t stop railroading once they reached Santa Rosa. That crew – which employed mostly (or all) Irish immigrants – kept pushing on north, so that in March there were two railroads being built, more or less side by side. “Trouble is confidently expected to spring from its action,” commented the Democrat. “An irrepressible conflict is threatened between the rival forces on the roads — a sort of international war between Ireland and China.”

You can bet that Northern California’s racetrack-crazed hoi polloi were following developments closely and wagering on the outcome. All the local newspapers updated their gamblers in every edition, with papers from Sacramento to San Jose reprinting the latest status.

March 18: SF&NP is ahead, having finished grading to Mark West Creek. But they have only 300 men, working just picks and shovels; California Pacific has 500-1000 Chinese laborers with a hundred plows and scrapers to grade the roadbed.

On March 20 work on Donahue’s line came to a halt as the Irishmen went on strike for $30 a month and board. The SF&NP agreed to their demands, but the walkout cost them a day. The Chinese continued working their eleven hour days for $5/month.

A hundred more Chinese men arrived and 200 more Irish; their campgrounds were compared to the bivouac of small armies. There were SF&NP construction freight trains running at night while California Pacific drove 100 horses and mules through Santa Rosa. Both crews were making progress at about a mile per day.

The first riot started around midnight on Sunday, March 26. Some three dozen SF&NP workers were in Santa Rosa that night; this might have been a regular practice for their day off or perhaps they were furloughed because the company was focused on hiring carpenters to build a bridge over Mark West Creek.

From the account in the Democrat (transcribed below) a “big row” started at the boarding house where the men staying. “Most of them had been indulging too freely in fighting whisky” and it seems the ensuing melee pretty much trashed the place. “Several parties interfered, and it was with the greatest difficulty, they managed to put an end to the fight.” They were dragged into court the next morning with their “bunged up heads” but where they were held after the situation was brought under control is unknown; Santa Rosa only had a small calaboose behind the jail for holding drunks, so they must have been all tightly crammed into the few available cells.

Besides being liquored up, it’s quite possible the men were anxious about being fired. Working right next to a rival crew was certainly unusual; there was also the curious fact that the Chinese were only grading the road – there was no mention of California Pacific preparing to lay ties or rails or build bridges. There were also rumors that some sort of buyout deal between the railroads was in the works. “We have had a great deal of railroad gossip during the past few days,” the Healdsburg Flag had reported a week prior. “Dame rumor has been busy promulgating reports of a variety of sales, transfers and negotiations between the various railroad companies of the country.”

On April 13 came the news that Donahue had sold the SF&NP to California Pacific. The 300-400 Irishmen were promised they would stay on until the road reached the Russian River, which would take about ten weeks (train service to Healdsburg began July 1). Some left for San Francisco, some went looking for work elsewhere in the North Bay, and some apparently came to Santa Rosa looking for trouble.

“During the past week no less than half-a-dozen street fights have taken place, and in some cases deadly weapons have been drawn,” the Democrat noted at the end of that week. Although “a number of belligerent individuals” were involved, it’s not said whether these fights were individual brawls or rose to the level of riots.

California Pacific immediately abandoned the road they had been grading, with some 150 Chinese workers sent to Cloverdale to begin working on the road south of there. There was never any definite number of how many immigrants were employed by California Pacific in Sonoma county, but it can be safely assumed hundreds were to be laid off.

On April 17 those men were ordered to Santa Rosa to await arrival of the paymaster. Per usual, California Pacific had not hired the men directly, but had subcontracted with one of the Six Companies in San Francisco, in the case the See Yup Company. “Having taken quarters within a short distance from town, they came pouring through our streets in small squads during the day.” The Democrat continued with a description of what happened after he arrived:


The paymaster, who is also a Chinaman, hired a horse and rode out to camp to make arrangements for paying off the men. He found the camp in a state of great excitement. The men seized him and took his horse away. They became furious, owing to a misunderstanding about wages, and, procuring a rope, started in to hang the China boss. We understand they put the rope around his neck, and would have carried out their intentions had not outside parties interfered. As soon as their victim could free himself from their power, he came to town…

The paymaster was “decidedly frightened” and refused to return to the camp, holing up at the Kessing Hotel on Main street. The next morning the entire Chinese crew came into town and surrounded the hotel, “evidently determined to wreak vengeance.” The standoff lasted all day, with some sort of agreement on how much they would be paid made that evening. Even with the deal made, he was so shaken he did not leave the hotel until the train left for San Francisco the next day.

Not all was grim in those spring days of 1871. Donahue’s carpenters built a train platform between Third and Fourth streets with a little depot (the present stone depot building was not constructed until 1904). The irrepressible boys of Santa Rosa – noted here earlier in 1870 for racing horses through the streets at full gallop – hitched horses to railroad flat cars and spent hours riding back and forth on the tracks. “This may not be fun for the old plugs but it is jolly sport for the youngsters.”

Now here’s the obl. Believe-it-or-not! postscript: Sonoma county was incredibly lucky  the entire rail project did not collapse in July 1871.

At the time California Pacific bought Donahue’s railway, railroad bonds were as hot as internet stocks during the dot-com bubble and CAL-P appeared to be flush with cash and impeccable credit – its doings were mentioned in Chicago newspapers and in papers throughout the Eastern seaboard as it boasted of plans to expand over the entire West Coast. Its good reputation was due in large part to Director Milton S. Latham, also manager of the California branch of the London and San Francisco Bank, who brought in British investors from that institution in 1869-1870. (“Milton Latham” would be the correct answer to this Trivial Pursuit question: “Who was governor of California for only five days because he resigned to take the seat of a U.S. senator who died in a duel with the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court?” Ah, 19th c. history…)

But in truth, California Pacific was badly mismanaged. It expanded recklessly even though its only reliable income was its Sacramento link to the transcontinental railroad. The company was actually deep in debt, borrowing in early 1871 to cover interest payments on its loans. (MORE)

RIGHT: Portion of a California Pacific/CPRR map c. 1872 showing the Sonoma county routes which were proposed after the acquisition (Bancroft Library)

When SF&NP was sold, California Pacific promised it would connect the Sonoma county railroad with its main line, as seen on the map. “…A junction will be effected between the two lines, commencing at a point somewhere near Petaluma, passing one or two miles south of Sonoma, and connecting with the Napa road at a point between Suscol and Adelante” (Adelante was renamed Napa Junction and is now part of American Canyon). That extension was not built, nor was the branch shown to Bloomfield.

Central Pacific acquired control of California Pacific only three months after the deal to buy the Sonoma county route. It was a strategic move because the railroad giant needed the CAL-P route to San Francisco via Vallejo – or at least until it could build its own direct connection with the transcontinental line. Yes, they agreed to finish the road through to Cloverdale because that could be completed before the June, 1872 cutoff for the $5,000 per mile subsidy, but the company had no interest in pursuing Latham’s dream of building a West Coast rail network which would not pay for itself.

As it worked out, Central Pacific sold the main Sonoma county railroad back to Donahue in January, 1873 and he eventually finished the line which is followed by the SMART train today, and will again connect us to San Francisco Bay ferries (knock wood). But it’s easy to imagine how it could have all gone afoul; Central Pacific might have put the train service on hiatus after it had the construction bond money if the company could not easily find Donahue or another buyer. That would have left our ancestors with abandoned, rusting tracks, unused except for kids being pulled around by those poor damned horses.

* The “railroad election” of May 12, 1868 guaranteed California Pacific $5,000 per mile if it built five miles of track from the Napa county line by June 21, 1872. However, if any railroad company first built ten miles of rail and reached Healdsburg, California Pacific would get nothing and the other company would receive that $5,000 per. For more on the railroad bonds and the 1868 referendum, see “Redwood Railways: A History of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and Predecessor Lines” by Gilbert Kneiss (the Sonoma county library has several copies).

 

Another Railroad for our County.

At the annual meeting of the stockholders of the California Pacific Railroad, which was held a few days since, the subject of building the long-talked of Vallejo and Sonoma railroad was brought up and received with much favor. Mr. Jackson, President of the Company, in his official report said:

The subject of building what is known as the “Extension Road,” or Sonoma branch, will naturally engage the attention of the company at once. The building by another corporation of a line of railroad passing through a portion of Sonoma county, which contains our survey, has caused in the minds of the community generally a doubt as to our plans in the premises. When it is remembered that bonds have been issued, predicated upon this road to be built, it will be seen that good faith and legal obligation combine to compel its erection. How far the road already built from Petaluma to Santa Rosa may compete with the branch of this road proposed, is a subject that may well engage the close attention of the Board of Directors when it shall come to definitely adopt one or another line of survey.

From this it appears that the California Pacific is legally bound to construct the road in question, and that it is the intention to do so at an early day. In this connection the Vallejo Recorder states that work will soon the commenced on the road, and expresses confidence in the speedy completion of the enterprise.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 21 1871

 

San Francisco, March 7th. – Four hundred Chinamen to work on the Sonoma and Northwestern branch of the California Pacific Railroad were sent up to-day, and six hundred more will be sent as soon as possible. Grading is to commence at Santa Rosa, working toward Vallejo immediately. The road will be finished through to Cloverdale from Vallejo this season. It is rumored that Colonel Donohue [sic] will not extend his road from Santa Rosa northwards at present, but when he resumes work will continue the line down from Donohue, on Petaluma creek, to San Rafael or Saucelito, so as to greatly shorten the trip by steamer.

– Sacramento Daily Union, March 8 1871

 

The Vallejo and Sonoma Railroad.

For years this proposed railroad has been talked about, all manner of reports being put in circulation concerning it. Now, when hope had well nigh died out in regard to it, the prospect brightens up wonderfully. On Saturday last a party connected with the road came over to Santa Rosa and secured the right of way as far as Windsor, on the route to Healdsburg. From Napa we learn that active preparations are being made there to begin the good work, and the Vallejo Chronicle, of Monday last, says:

Arrangements were consummated on Saturday afternoon last, which give assurance of the early construction of the Extension Railroad of the California Pacific Company running through Sonoma County. The English capitalists interested in this Company have shown a disinclination to enter upon this enterprise without a definite guarantee of assistance from Vallejo, and their hesitation delayed operations until recently, when the embarrassments have happily been overcome. Their demand that the city of Vallejo should issue bonds to the extent of $100,000, redeemable in twenty years, conditioned that this shall be the lower terminal point, has been compromised on a satisfactory basis. General Frisbie, having the welfare of the town in view, proposed in lieu of the issuance of bonds, to transfer to them $100,000 valuation of his own property situated in Vallejo and suburbs. This offer met their approbation, the property has been transferred, and the last objection to commencing operations thus satisfied. W. L. Wrattan, of Sonoma County, will take immediate steps to secure the right of way, and Mr. Lemon, the contractor grading the California Pacific, will take charge of the grading of the first section of the road running northerly from Santa Rosa. The first road built in Sonoma County secures local aid from the county of $5,000 per mile — hence the reason for commencing in the middle of the road. It is extremely probable that this road will come into the present line at Napa City, pursuing a route from Santa Rosa through the Sonoma hills at the head of Carneros Creek, and coming down on the eastern side through Brown’s Valley. In the meantime, five hundred laborers will be employed in grading on the Santa Rosa section as soon as the stakes are driven. This road, stretching into the upper coast counties, will add another important link to the chain of railroads that form the railway system west of the Sacramento, and having its lower terminus at Vallejo.

We trust that every one of the “five hundred laborers” will be a decent white man. No Chinese serfs will be regarded with favor in this county, and the Company would do well to keep this in mind.

P. S. — Since the above was set up a gang of Chinamen, about one hundred in number, with picks, shovels, and camp equipage, said to be the advance guard of the railroaders, have passed through our town. We want to see the road built, but don’t like the employment of the “heathen Chinee.” In our opinion, no Company that employs Chinamen ought to get a dollar of subsidy.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 11 1871

 

RAILROAD HANDS.— The California Pacific Railroad Company have put on an additional force of Chinamen on their road between here and Healdsburg. On Wednesday last, a large amount of camping material was sent up on the road. Our people are now satisfied that this Company intend to construct this road, which will link us to the rising city of Vallejo. With two railroads running through our county, the chances for cheap trade and low freight, are decidedly favorable.

The railroad bridge is now completed and passengers are landed at the foot of Third street. The company are pushing on their road towards Healdsburg with all possible speed, and will doubtless reach that place by the early part of June. Capt. Wright, the superintendent, has displayed great skill in the construction of the road, and will leave nothing undone that will tend to its early completion, two hundred more workmen are to be put on the road immediately.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 18 1871

 

Two hundred and seventy-eight men are at work grading the road of the North Pacific Railroad from Santa Rosa towards Healdsburg, and it is calculated that the cars will run into Healdsburg by the 4th of July next.

In addition to this work, we now learn that the California Pacific Railroad Company have commenced operations for the building of a road from Suscol, via Sonoma and Santa Rosa, to Healdsburg.

The San Francisco papers have it that upward of a thousand Chinamen have already been sent, during the present week, upon the line of survey between Santa Rosa and Suscol, and that Gen. Frisbie has deeded property in Vallejo to the value of $100,000 to aid the construction of the road and secure its terminus at Vallejo.

– Marin Journal, March 18 1871

 

The Railroad.

Work on the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad is progressing with all reasonable dispatch. There are now some three hundred men actively employed between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg and the work of grading will be finished to Mark West Creek (a distance of six miles) to-night. The ties and iron have been secured, and will be shipped and laid down without a day’s unnecessary delay. The Company claim that the road will be completed and the cars running into Healdsburg by the first of next June. Mr. Donahue avows his determination to push the work to an early completion, and we have no question that he will make good his declaration.

The Healdsburg Flag this week, in speaking of the rumors in circulation relative to the intentions of the rival companies, says:

We have had a great deal of railroad gossip during the past few days. Dame rumor has been busy promulgating reports of a variety of sales, transfers and negotiations between the various railroad companies of the country. But railroad companies are generally pretty good at keeping their business plans to themselves, particularly those not yet consummated, and therefore we are inclined to give these rumors little credence. This much, however, is certain: that the California Pacific has secured the right of way from the Napa line, by way of Santa Rosa, as far as Windsor. It is said they will complete the road to this place, and perhaps to Cloverdale, the present season. They have now on the line between Santa Rosa and Napa a force of five hundred to a thousand Chinamen and intend to push the work ahead with all possible rapidity. Meantime the Donahue line is going speedily forward. Capt. Wright has men distributed in squads nearly all the way from Santa Rosa to this place, and the grading will be done in three or four weeks from this time. Parties connecting with each of the roads have been surveying around the town within a few days past, but we are not aware of their having made any precise location for a depot. Sonoma county is destined to witness a great revolution in her commercial status within the next few months. We may not have two railroads through the entire length of the county, as now seems somewhat probable, but we certainly shall have one at least as far north as Healdsburg, and by that to San Francisco, and the other to Vallejo; and we shall have communication by two routes and be in easy and quick access to nearly all parts of the state. Russian River Valley is the garden of California – we may say of the world – and though not equal in size to the largest valleys of the State, yet in soil and climate it is unequaled by any other locality. But for want of easy communication, with all its natural wealth and beauty, it has, up to this time remained in comparative obscurity. A new era is dawning upon “Old Sonoma,” and she will soon arise from her slumbers and walk forth in the front ranks of counties on this coast.

– Petaluma Argus, March 18 1871

 

THE SONOMA RAILROAD.— The Vallejo Chronicle of March 23d has the following:

The work of grading the two railroads through Sonoma county still continues. The California Pacific Railroad Company, by the personal attention there of G. L. Wratten, has secured the right of way from nearly every land owner on the line from Santa Rosa to Healdsburg, and the deeds therefor are in possession of the company. The survey from Healdsburg to Cloverdale is now engaging his attention, and from the favor in which the “valley route” is held by the citizens of that district, no trouble will be experienced in procuring all the privileges needed for laying the track of this company. The farmers there feel that Vallejo is the natural market for their wheat, and they exhibit a most lively interest in the rapid building and early furnishing of this branch road. Lemon, the contractor, has about one hundred plows and scrapers at work, besides his Chinese laborers, one hundred more of the latter having gone up from San Francisco on Saturday last. He is grading the road ready for the ties at the rate of a mile per day, and all camps of men and horses very much resemble a small army. On the other road the men who had quit work have been re-engaged at increased wages, they having refused, as we stated at the time, to continue under the original contract. They are working with pick and shovel, but of course with these tools make no such progress in grading as do those using plows and scrapers. We do not know whether both these roads are needed, but of one thing we are assured, and confidently state that the California Pacific Road means business and will surely build the branch from Santa Rosa to Cloverdale. If the Donahue road shall also be built our neighbors will have no cause to complain of monopoly. we do not know that any one need object to the building of either of these roads, as each will serve as a check upon the other in the matter of charges, and if the companies can afford it, the public certainly can.

– Sacramento Daily Union, March 24 1871

 

BLOOMFIELD. This town has the advantage of a rich agricultural country, and is steadily progressing. It boasts a number of handsome churches, stores, schools, and private residences. The Bloomfield people have been anxiously expecting railroad connection for some time, and they ought to have it. Provision was made for a branch road in the bill on which a subsidy was voted to the Petaluma route, and good faith requires that it should be built without unnecessary delay. Besides, the resources of the Bloomfield region, together with its trade and travel, give it importance in a railroad sense.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 25 1871

 

The Railroad.- Parties lately from the front report work upon the railroad in full progress. An addition has been made to the working force, and grading is going on at both ends of the line. Freight trains have been actively engaged in transporting material from Donahue to Santa Rosa, even extending their trips into the night. Superintendent Wright reports that iron will probably be laid and the road open for travel as far as Mark West Creek to-night. A force of carpenters are at work upon the bridge at Mark West, and will have the stream spanned at an early day. Meanwhile, grading on the section between Mark West and Healdsburg is being crowded with the energy characteristic of Mr. Donahue.

[..]

The California Pacific Railroad Company have put on an additional force of Chinamen on their road between here and Healdsburg. On Thursday last a drove of over one hundred horses and mules passed through town. They will be used in the construction of the road between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg.

Lewis N. Parson, the manager of the carpenter work on the Donahue railroad, has a number of carpenters at work building a platform along side the track between Third and Fourth streets, which is to be some one hundred and forty feet in length. The work of erecting the depot buildings will soon be commenced and prosecuted vigorously…Two hundred more workmen are to be put on the road immediately.

– Petaluma Argus, March 25 1871

 

ON A STRIKE. The Railroad Hands Drop the Shovel.

Nothing has been more apparent to the citizens of this place for some weeks past, than the fact that great dissatisfaction existed among the men employed on the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad. From the time the road reached this point, it was apparent to everybody that the workmen were far from being content with the condition of things, and this feeling increased day by day, until it culminated on Monday last, in a strike. All the trouble was embodied in the extremely low wages that the hands were receiving – $1.50 per day and find themselves. Now, every reasonable man will admit that on such wages the laborer could barely provide himself with the necessaries of life. One thing is certain, and that is that he could save nothing out of such a small pittance for his labor. Each month would find him without a dollar, and in the future he could see nothing but gloom and want. Surely it is not to be wondered at that white men were restless and dissatisfied with such meagre recompense for their toil. That they should try to better their condition was but natural, and that they succeeded in their effort is a fact that all who are in favor ot strict justice will be gratified to learn. On Monday last a portion of the hands working near town refused to go to work for the wages the Company had been paying. The rest of the force went to work as usual. During the day it was observed that those on the road were inclined to follow the example of the others, unless a change for the better took place speedily. When night came they held a meeting together, and resolved to make a united strike on the following morning. Tuesday came, and the men sent one of their number to consult with the proper officers, and inform them that not a man would go to work again for less than $3O a month and board. This proposition the Company at first refused to comply with, but after consulting with their Attorney here, who very properly advised them in the premises, they told the workmen they would acquiesce in the demand, and for them to go to work again. This was the proper course to pursue. The demand made by the workmen was anything but exorbitant, and the Company will see ere long that in granting it they have greatly advanced their own interests. In the afternoon the men resumed their labors, feeling content and happy over the change, and we are greatly mistaken if they do not show by their labor that while men can work with a will when they receive a reasonable return for the labor performed.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 25 1871

 

Healdsburg, March 30th – Work is being rapidly pushed forward on the railroad between this place and Santa Rosa. Passenger trains will run to Mark West on Monday next, and are expected to reach here in about six weeks.

– Sacramento Daily Union, March 31 1871

 

THE RAILROAD.- We learn from a gentleman who visited Healdsburg a few days ago that the construction trains on the Donahue line are now running to Mark West Creek and beyond, and the work is being crowded ahead with all possible dispatch. Three or four hundred men are employed upon the road, and camps are established within half a mile of Healdsburg. The California Pacific Company are running a huge gang of Chinamen, who are also grading pretty fast. We understand the Company have secured the right of way to Healdsburg, but the fact that they have no iron or ties in sight, gives rise to many uncertainties as to the immediate completion of this railroad.

– Petaluma Argus, April 1 1871

 

Fun for the Boys.—There are a couple of old horses running around our streets, which the young urchins seem to do pretty much as they please with. Sometimes one can see five or six of these youngsters perched on the back of each horse, and doing their level best to ascertain which can outrun the other. At other times they hitch on to one of the open cars on the railroad, and ride up and down the track for hours. This may not be fun for the old plugs but it is jolly sport for the youngsters.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 1 1871

 

BIG ROW.—On Sunday night last a big row occurred at a boarding house in this place, where some thirty or forty railroad hands are stopping. The most of them had been indulging too freely in fighting whisky, and about midnight it took effect, when the ruction began in earnest. Tumblers, chairs, and other articles of a like nature, were used to the best advantage by the combatants. Several parties interfered, and it was with the greatest difficulty, they managed to put an end to the fight. A trial took place on Monday morning, and of all the bunged up heads we have ever seen, we observed in Justice Middleton’s court on that occasion.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 1 1871

 

Sonoma Railroad.— The Vallejo Chronicle has information of the progress of the grading of the Sonoma extension of the California Pacific Railroad. Above Santa Rosa ten miles of the grade are already completed, and in ten days more the whole sixteen miles to Healdsburg will be ready for the ties and iron. On the upper section three hundred men and one hundred teams are employed and the grading being light is expedited very rapidly.

– Daily Alta California, April 3 1871

 

The Donahue road, it is now stated positively, has been purchased by the California Pacific, and the work which, during the first part of the week was going on actively between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, will be at once stopped.

– San Francisco Examiner, April 15 1871

 

NEAR CLOVERDALE.— One hundred and fifty Chinamen, together with a large number of wagons and teams, have been put to work about two and a half miles south of Cloverdale by the California Pacific Railroad Company. We are informed that that Company has taken possession ot the route surveyed by the Donahue surveying corps, and that trouble is confidently expected to spring from its action. An irrepressible conflict is threatened between the rival forces on the roads — a sort of international war between Ireland and China.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 15 1871

 

The [Healdsburg] Flag furnishes us the following; From one hundred to two hundred Chinamen were put on the line of the California Pacific Railroad, on Wednesday, between Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 15 1871

 

FIGHTING. —The peace and quietude of our town has been greatly disturbed lately by a number of belligerent individuals. During the past week no less than half-a-dozen street fights have taken place, and in some cases deadly weapons have been drawn. Fortunately no more serious damage has occurred than bruising one another up, but if such disgraceful conduct continues it wil result in some one being seriously hurt.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 15 1871

 

Out of Work.—In consequence of the sale of the Donahue railroad, a large number of white laborers who have been working on the California Pacific road near Healdsburg were thrown out of employment. Some of them started back to the city, while others wended their way towards Napa and Vallejo. As Donahue is to complete the road as far up the valley as Russian River, he keeps his men steadily at work.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22 1871

 

Row Among Chinamen.

On Monday last, a large gang of Chinamen belonging to the See Yup Company, of San Francisco, but who had been working on the California Pacific Railroad between this place and Healdsburg, were discharged, owing to the Donahue Company having been bought off. They were ordered to come here and pitch their tents until they were paid off. Having taken quarters within a short distance from town, they came pouring through our streets in small squads during the day. The paymaster, who is also a Chinaman, hired a horse and rode out to camp to make arrangements for paying off the men. He found the camp in a state of great excitement. The men seized him and took his horse away. They became furious, owing to a misunderstanding about wages, and, procuring a rope, started in to hang the China boss. We understand they put the rope around his neck, and would have carried out their intentions had not outside parties interfered. As soon as their victim could free himself from their power, he came to town, and his countenance wore anything but “a smile, childlike and bland.” On the contrary, he was decidedly frightened, and had no desire to return to the camp. At the Kessing Hotel be found Mr. Lemon, the contractor, and told him of his trouble. The Chinamen insisted that as they had been hired for a month, they must be paid a full months’ wages. The contractor would only pay them for the number of days they had worked. Things remained unchanged until Tuesday morning, when the whole gang came into town, and, finding their “Injun” at the hotel, they surrounded the premises, evidently determined to wreak vengeance on the Chinaman who had been acting as paymaster. In the evening a compromise was effected, and each received pay for the labor done, when they returned to camp, and had a big pow-wow. The one that was threatened with having his wind shut off did not accompany, but kept himself closeted in the hotel until the train started the next day for the city.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22 1871

 

Purchase of the Donahue Railroad.

[From the Vallejo Chronicle.]

On Thursday afternoon, as announced in the Chronicle of that day, the negotiations that have been pending for some two weeks past between Peter Donahue and the California Pacific Railroad Company, terminated in the purchase by the latter of the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad line from Donahue past Petaluma and Santa Rosa to Mark West Creek, a distance of thirty-one miles. The purchase includes the dock and wharf at Donahue, also the hotel, enginehouse and car house at that point, some fifty acres of ground, and the two steamboats, Sacramento and Milton S. Latham, together with all the side track, station-houses, watertanks, bridges, etc., in any way appurtenant to the road. The effect of this purchase has been to stop work on the Sonoma branch of the California Pacific Road, which will not now be constructed. Instead thereof a junction will be effected between the two lines, commencing at a point somewhere near Petaluma, passing one or two miles south of Sonoma, and connecting with the Napa road at a point between Suscol and Adelante. The exact line will depend upon a presentation that a new survey shall make, which has already been undertaken. The joining of the two roads will be at once effected, and the wheat crops of Sonoma and Russian River valleys will this year add their tribute to the swelling shipments of Vallejo’s commerce. Petaluma will be added to the cordon of cities bound together by iron bands, and her citizens will be welcome visitors in our streets, as they pass back and forth in their visits to the Capital of the State, or the commercial metropolis below. In addition to the link from Petaluma to the Junction, the branch will be built to Bodega and that extensive lumber region will be brought thus closely to our doors. The President of the road, Colonel J. P. Jackson, and Colonel Donahue went over the line on Friday, with a view of arranging for the finishing of the road at its upper terminus, the location of depots and the discharge of one set of laborers. The price paid, or the terms of the payment, are matters not given to the public, but being satisfactory to the parties themselves, we can afford to be content with the possession of the road, be the cost to the owners what it may. There are a number of benefits for Vallejo which the purchase above named secures and which we will again refer to at greater length.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22 1871

 

The California Pacific Railroad have abandoned work on their own road between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, and will push work on the Donahue road, that being the more advanced.

– San Francisco Examiner, April 24 1871

 

Santa Rosa.

Within the past few weeks while out looking for items of a local nature to interest our readers with, we have had a good opportunity to judge of the progress in the march of prosperity and improvement that our town has made within the past year. To those who have not investigated this matter we would say, that if they will devote a few hours to rambling over the town, the many evidences of life and enterprise now going on in our midst, will strike them with astonishment. It is our firm belief that there is not an interior town in the State at present that is making such rapid strides forward as Santa Rosa. There have been some one hundred and fifty buildings erected within the past year. Many of these are large and elegant residences, while the majority consist of stores and cosy cottages. This does not include the buildings that are now in course of erection. It does not matter in what direction the footsteps may wander, the ear will be greeted with the sounds of the mechanic’s hammer and plane. That portion of our town where the depot is located is almost entirely built up, and complaints can be heard every day on our streets that the lumber yards cannot procure building material from the mills fast enough to supply the great demand. The scarcity of lumber has compelled some to send to San Francisco and have the frames of their buildings made there, and then shipped here in such a manner that they have nothing to do but put them together. This difficulty will soon be remedied, for we have redwood and other timber in our county in a sufficient quantity to supply the whole State. But on our main streets we observe a disposition on the part of our business men to do away with old frames and erect on their site fine fire proof brick buildings. Within the past week, Mr. J. M. Roney and Mr. Mapes, owners of property on Fourth street, bare commenced the erection of two or three brick buildings, which are to be two stories high. The old stable, formerly Wood Bostwick’s, is being hauled away, and in a little time a force of masons will be at work putting up we are informed, as substantial a brick building as can be found this side of the Bay. The Hall of Records is nearly completed, and soon our elegant and commodious College will have received its finishing touch. Every branch of business is now thriving. Our hotels and restaurants are crowded. The merchants have no complaints to make of hard times, and our farmers are perfectly content with the healthy condition of their varied crops. What do these signs of busy life indicate? That our town is going backward instead of forward! Certainly not. That now as the railroad has gone by us we are necessarily dead and buried! No. That because we voted a subsidy that we are impoverished and bankrupt! Again the answer comes, no. Then what do they indicate? Simply the fact that the railroad has been a benefit instead of an injury to us. It has brought men of means along with it to develop and build up out of the vest resources which we have at our command, one of the moat prosperous and handsome towns in California. It has brought about a competition of capital, which on more than one occasion has proved beneficial to those who are compelled to pay interest money. It has created new life in our midst, and in a very short time from now Santa Rosa will rank first among the important towns on the Pacific Coast.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 20 1871

 

To Healdsburg. —The railroad has now been completed to Russian River, within a very short distance of our beautiful sister town of Healdsburg. It seems to be the opinion of most people that the company will not bridge the river this summer. Should this be the case, it is difficult to tell when the directors will resume the work of pushing the road on to Cloverdale. As things now stand, Healdsburg will receive as much benefit, if not more, than any other town in the county from the construction of this road, and we are far from being envious of her good fortune. Although the road will terminate where it is for the present, our Cloverdale friends can rest assured it will reach them in the course of time.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 27 1871

 

Healdsburg Items. – The section men of the Railroad have struck for higher wages, and it is reported that the company will employ Chinamen in their stead.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 23 1871

 

A New Town.

Since the completion of the railroad, new towns are springing into existence all along its line. We are informed that a plat of the town of Fulton, on Mark West, has just been made, and that lots will soon be offered for sale there. The place can already boast of a large warehouse which contains about eight hundred tons of grain. Many dwelling houses are in course of construction, and a blacksmith and wagon shop. The Railroad Company contemplate erecting in a short time a passenger and freight depot, and a store for general merchandise will also soon be established. Fulton is pleasantly located, five miles north of Santa Rosa, in the midst of one of the richest agricultural districts of the county, and must in time grow to be a place of considerable importance.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 14 1871

 

Description of the County Bridge Across Russian River.

The want of a bridge over Russian River on the county road, at Healdsburg, has long been felt. The improvements caused by the railroad and consequent increase of local traffic necessitated that it should he done. Accordingly the Board of Supervisors, encouraged by the Railroad Company with a contribution of $5,000 of county bonds – a portion of the subsidy granted to them – proceeded to carry the long desired want into execution.

Plans and bids were advertised for and a Howe Truss structure 400 feet long, is three spans of about 125 feet each, was contracted far. The dimensions of the bridge and its principal timbers are as follows, viz:

[..]

– Sonoma Democrat, November 11 1871

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THE YEAR OF THE ANTI-CHINESE LEAGUE

There were up to 1,500 men crowded into Santa Rosa’s Armory that winter’s night. Some were there because they were angry, some were curious and some were frightened, but all there learned that racial discrimination was now a civic duty. It was the first official 1886 meeting of the Santa Rosa Anti-Chinese League.


SOURCE NOTES (37 page PDF)

Spoiler alert: this is not a pleasant story, yet it’s not nearly as awful as some try to portray.

A few days before, a meeting was held to elect a “Committee of Fifteen” which would write a mission statement.* They composed a resolution stating any Chinese presence in Santa Rosa was a “source of great evil” and detrimental to the “white race.” Chinese immigrants should leave town ASAP and Santa Rosans should sign a pledge vowing to boycott their businesses and fire any Chinese workers they might have.

Santa Rosa was actually a latecomer – and although about half the men in town showed up, attendance was relatively light. Meetings had been held previously in Petaluma (2,000 there) and Cloverdale (1,000). At Healdsburg almost the entire town came to their first meeting and their Chinese boycott was already going strong.

The resolution also asked the Santa Rosa City Council to appoint additional policemen for night duty to prevent “riotous demonstration by white persons toward Chinamen”. That was a very real concern; throughout the West, anti-Chinese sentiments had been escalating from grumbling newspaper editorials to acts of violence, even mob riots. Newspapers reported local bigwigs were having “secret meetings” to figure out how to get rid of the Chinese – although telling a reporter about it seems to defeat the whole secrecy biz.

In Wyoming, white miners went on a rampage and murdered at least 28 Chinese men with many burned alive. Three more were shot to death in Washington state over hop picking. A mob armed with clubs drove out Tacoma’s 350 Chinese residents which was followed by the razing of their neighborhood. Federal troops were stationed in Seattle because vigilantes were itching to attack the large Chinatown there, which was the home to 1 out of 10 people in the town. And matters were about to become far, far worse; even as our ancestors were getting organized in Santa Rosa, thousands of Chinese immigrants were escaping to Portland from Oregon’s interior under vigilante threats. It seemed as if an actual pogrom of an ethnic minority was rapidly sweeping the Western states and territories. The shadow of madness had fallen upon them and enveloped the sun.

Yet it’s quite possible the anti-Chinese frenzy might have bypassed Sonoma county – if not for the  Wickersham murders.

Sarah and Jesse Wickersham were a reclusive couple who were brutally killed at their remote cabin west of Cloverdale in mid-January 1886. The presumption of guilt immediately fell upon their Chinese cook, who could not be found and was presumed to have fled to China. As explained in my four-part series, it’s highly unlikely he had any hand in it but everyone at the time was certain of his guilt, thanks in great part to two racist law enforcement officers who were widely quoted in the initial accounts. They told reporters there was no question the “Chinaman” slaughtered them and hinted Sarah had been raped (possibly gang raped) – a lie they continued repeating even after the Wickersham family asked them to knock it off.

The charge that an American family had been killed by their live-in Chinese servant gave bigots a new, powerful weapon to demonize Chinese people as crazy, unpredictable, and, for the first time – extremely dangerous. James Ragsdale, editor of the Santa Rosa Republican and soon to become part of the “Committee of Fifteen,” dipped his pen in the bigot’s inkwell and wrote a vicious screed:

…The tragedy that occurred in the northwest portion of this county on Monday last, where two of our most highly respected citizens, man and wife, were murdered in cold blood by a Chinese fiend, has done much to increase the bitterness against a race that are most wicked and inhuman. It only proves the assertion that they have neither conscience, mercy or human feeling and think no more of murdering a human being than they do killing a pig. They are monsters in human form, cunning and educated therefore more dangerous and vile. Let us get rid of them and at once.

The first anti-Chinese Leagues in the county were formed just a few days later.

Up to then, both the Republican and Sonoma Democrat had occasionally used the popular catchphrase, “the Chinese must go” in an editorial or in a reprinted item but it was framed in the abstract, as if “the Chinese” were different than the immigrants who lived and worked here. Just two days before the Wickershams were killed, the Democrat ran a sort-of travel story describing a tour of the Santa Rosa opium dens. It concluded with mention that the Chinese community here had both a Masonic and an Odd Fellows lodge.

(RIGHT: ad from the 1885 Sonoma Democrat)

While our newspapers portrayed the Chinese immigrants as an exotic (but somewhat suspect) underclass, the local economy depended upon them. In the towns, the Chinese did our laundry and sold us produce from pushcarts on the streets – Santa Rosa had six roaming vegetable vendors. On the farms and in the vineyards they did the hard work no one else wanted to do. And everyone in town or country who wanted a cook or house servant could find a Chinese man or boy ready to hire. Because they did all this for less money than anyone else, they were in great demand; in 1885 there was a Chinese employment agency on Fifth street.

Their low wages led to accusations they were “taking jobs away from Americans,” exactly mirroring the anti-Latino immigrant bias of today. In some cases it was true; companies used Chinese workers as strikebreakers or to replace an entire workforce.

But in truth, good manual labor jobs were scarce at the time not because of the Chinese but because the national economy wasn’t so hot; effects of the Depression of 1882-85 began to be felt locally with an uptick of newspaper articles about “tramps” in the area. “These men, with few exceptions are in destitute circumstances and are compelled to move from place to place in search of employment,” sympathized the Democrat paper, while at the same time noting that many were responsible for burglaries and other theft. The paper suggested that the first Anti-Chinese League meeting have an aftersession so everyone could discuss what should be done to “protect the women and children” who were hesitant to leave home lest a vagrant break in.

Meanwhile, there were now an estimated 600+ Chinese living in Santa Rosa according to the Democrat – likely an all-time high. Some had just arrived from Cloverdale and other places where Anti-Chinese Leagues were already acting out.

A week after that big League meeting at the Armory, the Committee of Fifteen visited these locations as “forty or fifty citizens accompanied the committee on its rounds,” the Democrat observed, which probably made it look like quite the vigilante mob.

Committee president John Kinslow – speaking “in good pigeon-English” [sic] – told them that as of the end of the month, “all white men would cease to patronize them” and they should leave. From the description in the Democrat it appears some of the immigrants misunderstood and thought he was offering to pay for their passage back to China, which most greatly desired but could not afford.

The committee also divided Santa Rosa into seven wards, each with a few men expected to walk the neighborhood and ask residents to sign the boycott pledge. Lists of the ward men appeared in both town newspapers and are reproduced in the source notes. Both lists have 49 names, of which only five appear in any other articles about the League. Aside from some spelling differences the lists are the same with two exceptions: One adds “James Gray” in ward five and the other includes “Burbank” in ward two. On the basis of the latter mention, the Press Democrat published two articles and an editorial in May, 2018 claiming Luther Burbank was a racist and leader of the Anti-Chinese League – see discussion here.

(RIGHT: ads from the 1886 Sonoma Democrat)

As the month of February rolled on, news was mixed. There were regular items about Chinese immigrants trickling out of town, countered by articles of some vowing to stay. The Democrat found one Chinese laundry with half its workforce idle, followed a few days later by a story that the white laundry wagons “didn’t have enough aboard to make a decent load for a poodle dog.” An interview with an immigrant called Hoodlum Jim said the boycott only served to “get rid of the scum of the race, and the others were glad of it, but the better class would stay here, just the same.”

It was remarked that “white labor is scarce in Santa Rosa” while many Chinese men were out of work and crowding into the tenements on Hinton avenue to save money. It was also written that they were going hungry, reduced to foraging for greens along the banks of the creek and on the Plaza. It’s difficult to understand how that could be the case, given that Chinese truck gardens had been feeding the entire town not so long before.

Oddly, the only real conflict in Sonoma county centered on Duncan’s Mills. The League in that vicinity had a torchlight rally and marched on the little Chinatown there to demand the residents clear out. The mill owners contacted the U.S. Marshal and asked him to appoint a deputy to protect the Chinese workers. Complaints over this went on for weeks, with the Republican paper and the Leagues squawking over the involvement of a federal officer instead of local police, plus that it was really a labor issue because the mills brought in Chinese workers instead of hiring white men from the community. (UPDATE: There was some vigilante activity in Bloomfield, including an attempt to blow up a laundry and salting of a water source.)

The March 1 boycott deadline came and went, but apparently little changed. A banner was hung over a downtown street reading, “The Chinese Must Go; We Mean Strictly Business!” In terms of threats, that ranked down there with a schoolyard bully drawing a line in sand while toothlessly bellowing, “you step over this and you’re really gonna get it!”

In truth, there was little the Santa Rosa Anti-Chinese Non-Partisan Association (hey, new name!) could do to force the immigrants to leave, short of violence. Attention of the League – uh, Association – turned to Plan B: Boycotting fellow Americans who weren’t boycotting the Chinese. That sort of “nuclear option” was discussed at the beginning, but it was not believed matters would come to that. The Committee’s subcommittee on the issue hashed it over; local farmers were saying they depended on Chinese workers. If there was to be a boycott of the farmers as well as those who wanted to hang on to their Chinese domestics and other workers it would cause “strife and bitterness” in the county. “We do not believe that a general boycott can be made successful at the present time,” the subcommittee concluded.

By the end of the month, the Committee of Fifteen was hunkered down in its racially-pure safe space muttering about retribution against “backsliders.” State Assemblyman Allen suggested they should publish the names of all those who signed the pledge but still “either allowed their families to patronize the heathens, or did so themselves.” He was voted down.

In Santa Rosa, the fight came to a head over strawberries.

A Sebastopol man named Crawford raised what were considered the best strawberries around, but he used Chinese workers. Two hardcore members of the Committee paid a little visit to a downtown grocer who sold his fruit. They suggested they step out of the store to discuss the difficulty, but the grocer said they could talk right there, in front of his customers. The grocer said he had signed the pledge, but one of the Committee men remarked he did not think the grocer was “sincere in his action.” (Feel free to re-read this paragraph while imagining the Committee men as played by Sopranos goons Christopher and Paulie Walnuts.)

After receiving his own little visit from Committee “investigators,” Mr. Crawford took a wagon load of his strawberries to Santa Rosa. He hitched up on Fourth street, according to the Democrat, and began selling his berries. “His price to Chinese boycotters was $1 a box, and to all others thirty cents. It was but a very short time before he was entirely sold out.”

But pushback to the anti-Chinese movement was happening all over northern California. The Sacramento Bee ran a story about a housewife seen buying vegetables from a Chinese peddler and a “spotter” rushed over to confront her, demanding to know the name of her husband. When she indignantly refused he sneered, “You must be a lover of the Chinese.”

Yet the bigots in Santa Rosa kept wandering even farther into the weeds. The Committee of Fifteen appointed a Committee of Nine “to act on the outside, to keep their eyes open, talk with the people, see what is going on and report to the League.” For those who were unwilling to cooperate with the boycott “the League should not hesitate to treat them with severity.”

That Committee of Nine immediately went into executive session to appoint another secret sub-subcommittee of nine to ferret out the traitors to the white race who were not discriminating enough against Chinese immigrants. Oh, good grief…

Further, it was proposed that a committee “should go to all the business men in town and present the membership roll and request them to sign the same and pay the initiation fee of 25 cents. If they refuse then the League will know where to find them…there were but two sides to this question — either for or against the cause.”

Healdsburg appears to be the only place that followed through and publicized names of Americans who refused to boycott, and by summer their racist hatred of Chinese people had spiraled down into foolishness that bordered on lunacy. The Healdsburg paper reported a secret society had been formed:

…signs may be frequently seen done in chalk on the sidewalks. They, to us, unintelligible signs are in the form of a large arrow or dart, surrounded by figures and small signs. By following the direction of the pointing arrow you are led to a similar one on the next corner, and so on until you reach the place of meeting. At the last meeting, beyond the river, some forty of our citizens were seen to pass into a building. All our efforts to learn anything in regard to the organization have so far failed. It is a branch or lodge of a secret order existing in this state, whose sole object is to rid the country of the Chinese.

By every measure, Santa Rosa’s anti-Chinese campaign was a flop. The last League meeting I can find mentioned was poorly attended and came only seven months after the group was formed. A newspaper item revealed the League’s dues-paying membership at its peak was merely 43.

While the boycott certainly created economic hardships for the Chinese community, it was by no means catastrophic. One Chinese wash house closed and some landlords evicted immigrant tenants. The population was reduced to roughly 100-125 residents. From the Sonoma Democrat:

…the Chinese population in this city has decreased about one-half since the anti-Chinese movement started, and they are still going. There are a few who manage to live by taking in washing, and some who are still employed as servants; the latter, however, are very few. Within the last week three Chinese house servants have been discharged, and they were working for people who have not signed the pledge.  How they live is becoming a mystery. Dozens of them may be seen loitering on Hinton avenue every day…
1885 map of downtown Santa Rosa showing Chinese businesses and residences. Some of the locations on 9th avenue (better known as Hinton av) are estimates

 

It may seem a victory that the population had dropped by half after the League began in February, but even that claim is shaky on closer examination. House servants, pushcart sellers, laundry workers and the like were the smallest categories of Chinese immigrant labor – most men worked in the country for much of the year, staying in tents or bunkhouses near where they were employed. (The state Labor Commissioner said that year there were “30,000 Chinamen employed in the hop fields, vineyards and orchards.”) These men only came to live in the towns during winter, so it was the customary pattern for them to begin drifting out of Santa Rosa and other urban areas as spring approached.

What happened as the seasonal work ended that year is a mystery. Now that the League had fizzled the local papers lost interest in writing about all things Chinese, and returned to the old pattern of only covering the men when someone was arrested or created a commotion. There was one mention that because hop-picking was over “the Chinese are returning to San Francisco by the carload,” so perhaps some of the Sonoma county immigrants chose to spend their winter in the big city than come back here.

But the League had no long term impact; the 1890 census – taken during peak growing season, when farmworkers were away from town – shows 151 Chinese living in the city of Santa Rosa, a boost of at least 30 percent from the year of the League. (There were 277 found in the whole Santa Rosa Township during 1890.)

In the years that followed, Santa Rosa’s Chinese community migrated to the corner of Second and D streets to form a compact little Chinatown (see 1908 map here). There would be little or no growth of that neighborhood in the years that followed, but not due to any discrimination by the town or racist nonsense from white citizens; it was because a different place had emerged as a hub for Chinese-American culture and commerce in Sonoma county – Sebastopol’s two Chinatowns.

 

 

* Membership of Santa Rosa’s “Committee of Fifteen” was never explicitly listed in the newspapers, which only named those in attendance at meetings. Membership seemed to fluctuate over the first part of 1886. Some either did not attend meetings regularly or dropped out while new names appeared. Looking over all newspaper coverage, there seems to have been an overall core group of thirteen men, with eight of them being very outspoken. In rough order of frequent mention: John Kinslow, David Sheward, Assemblyman Samuel I. Allen, Lawson Ross, Frank Muther, Peter Towey, James W. Ragsdale, Jacob Harris, Ellis Morrow, Charles Bane, M. V. Vanderhoof, John F. Smith and Frank Berka.

Poy Jam, who opened Santa Rosa’s long-standing Jam Kee restaurant. Shown here in a studio portrait taken in Oakland, c. 1875, he was Song Bourbeau¹s maternal grandfather. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum

 

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