The high school auditorium was packed that Sunday morning in 1937 with people from all over Sonoma county. Uniformed boy scouts ushered the last of the audience to their seats as an announcer hushed the audience. Promptly at 10:30, the speakers crackled to life with a recording of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Waiting at the microphone for the music to finish was a slight 67 year-old man in his customary three-piece suit. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. With the playing of the national anthem, station KSRO, voice of the Redwood Empire, takes the air for the first time.” He continued with the required sign on announcement before ending: “This is Ernest Finley speaking and I now turn this fine new radio station over to the people of the Redwood Empire for their use and enjoyment.”
Finley wasn’t really handing over KSRO to the public, of course – he was the sole owner of the station as well as the two newspapers in town, the Santa Rosa Republican and the Press Democrat, where he was also editor and publisher. The papers would promote the station which would promote the papers. So cozy was this little media empire that the broadcasting studios were in the PD building on Mendocino Ave.
After an invocation by the rector of the Church of the Incarnation and playing a recording of religious music, the live program continued with 15-minute salutes to Marin county and seven communities in Sonoma. Usually the mayor said a few words which were followed by music from someone in that town – there had been talent contests over the previous weeks to choose the artists. Santa Rosa was represented by a singer and Walter Trembley, harmonica virtuoso; Cloverdale sent Glen Bonham, imitator.
There were other live performances that day woven between recorded music before the big dedicatory program at 3:00, where the mayor of San Francisco spoke and the KSRO orchestra performed, along with others. The hour long program closed with an audience singalong.
And that was pretty much the end of the first broadcast day, September 19, 1937. The station signed off at 6PM, having only a permit to operate from dawn to dusk. This was typical of little commercial stations all over the country; night hours were only for the high power clear channel stations that could sometimes be heard for a thousand miles. With its 250 watt (!) transmitter, KSRO reached from San Rafael to Ukiah – but came in as far away as Eureka and San Jose when conditions were ideal.
By 1937 the radio market was well-established in the Bay Area. Probably any radio in Sonoma County could pick up the big stations in San Francisco such as KGO, KSFO and KPO (which became KNBR), which were network affiliates broadcasting all the popular programs we associate with the golden age of radio. During the day there were the soaps, including Vic and Sade, Our Gal Sunday and Ma Perkins; in the evening were the top shows such as Burns and Allen, One Man’s Family, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Gangbusters, Jack Benny.
(RIGHT: KSRO schedule for September 24, 1937; local programming highlighted)
Pipsqueak independent stations like KSRO instead relied on a mix of local programming and a transcription service (the one first used by KSRO was NBC’s Thesaurus, upgraded soon to World). A subscribing station would get 16-inch records that played at 331⁄3RPM, which would provide fifteen minutes of content per side. Thus a station operating on the cheap could fill much (even all!) of its schedule using just an engineer and an announcer – who could also be the engineer – to read commercials and announce time/call letters. And as you see by this schedule taken from its first week of broadcasting, that’s pretty much what KSRO did at the beginning.
The problem with transcription services was that their offerings often… sucked. In its earliest weeks KSRO mostly played transcriptions of D-list musicians such as the Mountaineers hillbilly band (who apparently never made a record) and Robin Hood Bowers (somewhat known for a 1919 ditty, “The Moon Shines on the Moonshine”). The station also broadcast generic canned programs with titles like “Melody Time” and “Rhythm Makers.” It was music to do chores by.
Those transcription shows were mostly sustained (unsponsored, except promos for other shows or perhaps Finley’s newspapers) because KSRO didn’t have many advertisers at its outset. The first sponsor was mentioned only a few days before the premiere broadcast – the White House Department Store would advertise on the noon newscast.
Among other early live studio programs were 15 minute weekly shows by The Rincon Valley Ramblers, a quartet which entertained sometimes at lodge or club meetings, and “Songs of the Island,” with Hawaiian melodies sung by the Carroll Boys from Napa: Slip, Arky, Gat and Alky. There was the 30-minute “Mickey Mouse Club” on Fridays at 4, which resurrected the riotous live show that once commandeered the California Theater on Saturday afternoons (see “LET’S ALL YELL AT THE MICKEY MOUSE MATINEE“).
On weekdays the anchoring live show was the mid-afternoon “Time for Tea,” which was completely free form. There were usually announcements from women’s clubs, churches and the like, but you might also hear some kid scraping his bow across a violin string or squeezing an accordion. They sometimes did a “Name That Tune” type game show or brought in an elementary school class to do a spelling bee.
The popular morning “Breakfast Club” opened the broadcast day at 7 (sadistically, by beating a gong that nearly blew out your speaker) and received lots of mail because the host encouraged listeners to send in their birthdates to be announced on air. A farmer from the Sonoma Valley who wanted to sell his ranch wrote that he would come on the show and do his (presumably terrific) imitation of a calf and a squeaky clothesline in trade for commercials.
Gradually over the first couple of months their live programming pushed out more of the transcribed shows. KSRO was becoming a radio station that locals wanted to actively listen to instead of just being a source of ignorable background music.
Remotes were a large reason for the station’s success. They kept their portable transmitter busy; Evelyn Billing’s organ concerts on the grand instrument at the California Theater were always popular, although sometimes she played at the Chapel of the Chimes, which wasn’t exactly a venue where one expected to hear peppy dance tunes.
They broadcast SRHS and Petaluma High football games live from the 50 yard line; Sunday morning church services; KSRO was there for the opening of Rosenberg’s Department Store (now Barnes & Noble). They took the equipment to Healdsburg to cover their Veterans Day celebration: “If the weather is nice you will get a word by word picture of the parade, bands and all. If it rains you will probably get a drop by drop sound of a rainstorm in the Redwood Empire.”
Most of all, they broadcast live every weekday at 12:45 from the Exchange Bank corner downtown. The “Man on the Street” show was easily KSRO’s most popular program of 1937. The very first question asked: “Do you think Santa Rosa should have stop lights at downtown intersections?”
KSRO wasn’t the first radio station in Santa Rosa, however. Years before – as the radio era was just beginning – there was KFNV, broadcasting with a mighty five watts from March 1924 to October 1925, off on Sundays.
Lennard Drake – yes, that’s the spelling – and his wife Aimee, who ran the Drake Battery and Radio Shop downtown, convinced the publisher of the Republican (not yet owned by Finley) to provide space for an equipment room at the newspaper’s office on Fifth street. They put it together with the aid of local radio entusiasts and using gear unapproved by the government.
Programming at KFNV was mainly phonograph records, a player piano and anyone who drifted in to talk. Their only regularly scheduled program was the “Sunset Matinee,” a 6:30PM children’s program of bedtime stories by “dear oid Uncle Silas.” The Republican radio columnist noted Silas was the father of two and “I know for I have had the pleasure of seeing them” – which is such an odd thing to write that it makes one wonder if there were whispers about the doings over at La Casa Silas.
In 1937 Lennard was interviewed by the PD and said the station folded because of lack of sponsorship. “Radio was [considered] just a child’s toy, a fancy of the moment.” Aimee added, “no one, of course, in those days foresaw commercial sponsors.” Apparently the only advertisers were the Drake radio store and the Republican. (By 1937 the Drakes had dropped the radio business and were now selling electrical supplies, including fixtures and wiring for KSRO.)
A dozen years passed between the end of KFNV and birth of KSRO and in that time radio had become an essential part of daily life. By 1937 there were 28,000 households from San Rafael to Ukiah where the radio was on 3-4 hours during the day – all listening to commercials for stores in San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento.
Not having a local station was also a big reminder that the North Bay wasn’t a full-fledged member of the Bay Area. Promoters and developers in Marin and Sonoma counties had pushed through construction of the Golden Gate Bridge primarily to draw tourists and increase property values; when it opened just a few months before KSRO went on the air, Finley spoke of the “untold advantages and development for Santa Rosa” the bridge would bring.
Likewise KSRO wouldn’t be intended only for locals seeking department store sales on tea towels. For those tuning in from the fringes of its reception area, it also would serve as an advertisement for Sonoma county itself – that this was a great place if you were thinking of buying a little chicken farm or looking to escape the city. The homey vibe of shows like “Time for Tea” were a panacea to the slick productions cranked out by the networks and big urban stations.
But Finley et. al. weren’t alone in viewing the region as an untapped market; when the Press Democrat Publishing Company filed for a broadcasting permit from the Federal Communications Commission in early 1935, there was already someone ahead of them in line.
Two men from Berkeley, Arthur Westland and Jules Cohn, had applied for a 100 watt station to cover Santa Rosa alone. They were pioneers in the radio biz and operated KRE in Berkeley, a station which dated back to 1922.
In February of 1935 the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce – always in lockstep with Finley and the PD – sent the FCC a telegram asking them to deny the Berkeley application because Westland had falsely told the Commission “there was no opposition to the proposal.” Two months later an FCC examiner recommended denying Westland and Cohn. The reasons, according to the PD, were that it was “not shown there was a substantial need for additional broadcast service in that area” and that any station was unlikely to be a viable business because there just wasn’t enough interest.
Yet that same April there was a formal hearing on Finley’s application. Presumably he and others attended that meeting in Washington, but it wasn’t mentioned in either newspaper at the time. Final arguments for the permit were made in October 1936, and a month later the FCC denied the Berkeley-ites and granted the license to Finley.
Both of Finley’s newspapers covered the 1937 build-out of KSRO obsessively. Readers saw photos of the antenna going up in the Laguna – it was at the corner of modern-day Finley and Leddy avenues – and the transmission “shack” built at its base (it remained there even after the antenna was moved close to Stony Point Road, but burned up in a 1968 fire caused by homeless squatters).
The papers also admiringly described the remodeling done to turn the second floor of the Press Democrat office into broadcast studios (alas, no photos). Since the rooms had to be soundproof there were no windows; there was a gee-whiz astonishment that they were to be air conditioned full time.
They hoped to be running by August 15 so they could broadcast remote from the county fair, but obstacles arose which were not explained. But a month later there was that ceremony where 750 people packed into the high school auditorium.
KSRO was now on the air.
The station may have continued down its uneventful path for years, slowly building an audience as it kept improving local programming. But before it was even three months old its coming of age moment arrived: People’s lives became dependent upon listening to KSRO.
In December 10-11, all of Northern California was saturated by ultra-massive rains. The PD called it “worst storm in all history” and “the greatest havoc ever wreaked in Sonoma County.” Unfortunately, we can’t compare it to other disasters because Russian River flood records are inexact before 1940 – but old-timers insisted it was the worst in 60-70 years. It was the damage caused by this flood that would eventually lead to the construction of the Warm Springs Dam.
Parts of Healdsburg were under ten feet of water and the deck of its railroad (Memorial) bridge was covered. Goats and calves were herded into a church near the town – and then had to be moved again a couple of hours later when the water reached the church. A two story house from Rio Nido was hurled against the Guerneville Bridge. Before the water reached the switchboard, operators at the Monte Rio telephone exchange were wearing hip boots and standing in 40 inches of water.
The Russian River kept rising, first three inches an hour, then four. Five. Electricity was out everywhere and phone service was spotty. Hundreds of families, hungry and cold, were huddled in upstairs bedrooms, in attics, on their roof and nobody knew how bad it would get or what to do – unless you had a battery-powered radio tuned to KSRO.
News bulletins from the station warned listeners to conserve drinking water because well pumps wouldn’t be working for days. There were phone interviews with mayors or other officials in many of the hard-hit towns, updating citizens on the latest conditions. There were road reports from AAA. In Geyserville, the director of relief work announced on KSRO that anyone needing help should fly a white flag from the top of their house. Soon a dozen or more flags were spotted by volunteers with binoculars watching from high ground and they directed rescue boats where to go.
Amazingly, no one died locally during the disaster – and KSRO surely must deserve some measure of credit for that.
(RIGHT: KSRO schedule for August 6, 1938; local programming highlighted. Capitalized shows were sponsored)
In the months that followed the local radio columnists mentioned the growing amount of fan mail being received by “KSRO personalities.” Live programming was now about half the schedule. Added to the schedule were popular new shows such as “KSROlling Along,” the “Italian Program With Guiseppe Comelli,” and the “X-Bar-B Cowhands.” The country-western band was a bit of a coup for the station as they already had a following, having been heard on a San Francisco station for six years before the group moved to the Russian River area.
Finally KSRO gained permission for evening broadcasts and as of August 1, 1938 it was now on the air up to 11 o’clock, midnight on weekends. As before, there was a dedication ceremony (this one featuring 21 year-old Miss Ruth Finley, “concert pianist”) and a short speech by Ernest Finley. He said, in part:
In inaugurating Station KSRO, we were pleased to call it the ‘Voice of the Redwood Empire.’ We feel that it has been just that. Every effort has been made to bring the various communities of the Redwood Empire closer together. Our survey shows that Station KSRO has a listening audience of 150,000 persons. This does not take into account Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, San Francisco or any of the cities about the bay, in many of which reception is fully as good as it is here.
In some ways that moment was as significant as the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge for Sonoma county. KSRO had brought all of us closer together via its news coverage during the flood. And although Finley was thinking of the promotional value of the station luring Bay Area residents, it also meant we could take part of our community with us when we went away.
As your car crossed the beautiful bridge and the northern counties slipped from sight behind the city hills, the signal might become crackly and drift in and out – but it would always be a steady beacon which would later guide you home.
In the beginning there was Ernest L. Finley. He bought the old Sonoma Democrat in 1897, merged it with his own newspaper, the Evening Press, becoming the owner, editor and publisher of the new Press Democrat.
That’s the version of the paper’s beginnings as told on the PD’s “about” page, on Wikipedia, by the Northern California Media Museum and in various columns and feature items published in the paper over the last 75-odd years.
Trouble is, that’s not true. The new paper was a partnership, and Finley wasn’t even the key player – he was one of two business managers. The founding editor and the person greatly responsible for the Press Democrat’s initial success was Grant O. Richards, although it’s rare to find mentions of him over the last hundred years. And even before he was erased from the picture, items about the paper’s earliest days just mentioned Richards “left the firm” or “sold his interest” to Finley. Neither of those claims were true either, as he killed himself while still editor (although I guess that would qualify as leaving the firm).
The PD – and the city of Santa Rosa itself – has polished Finley’s reputation to a gleam ever since his death in 1942, inflating his role in positive events such as founding the paper. But it’s particularly unfair to build up Finley at the expense of Richards because it steals away his only entry in the history books, which was greatly deserved. Not to mention that townsfolk of his day would have been gobsmacked to learn such a man would become so completely forgotten; hell, everybody in 1890s Santa Rosa probably wished they were Grant O. Richards.
Should you be very lucky, you might meet someone who has that one in a million billion quality which makes everyone (s)he meets fall at their feet. Call it ultra charisma, magnetic charm or even stardust, you are absolutely devoted to that person from the first meeting. Grant Oswald Richards had that magical ability; people not only really, really liked him, but they couldn’t help themselves from jabbering about how much they loved the guy – scroll down through some of the excerpts in the sources below. Such people can become very powerful (and dangerous) when drawn to politics or religion; we should probably be thankful Richards wanted only to be a very good newspaper editor in small towns.
His résumé was thin. He was born in 1862 Wisconsin and stayed there for about 25 years, becoming a lawyer (another dangerous profession for his talents) although he apparently never hung out a shingle. He next became city editor of the Daily Republican in Newton, Kansas, a railroad town of about 5,000 people. There he met Dollie Scribner and after their marriage in 1890 the couple moved to Santa Rosa, which likewise had about 5,000 residents. He had accepted the job of city editor for the Santa Rosa Republican, where he remained for nearly six years except for a brief stint at the Seattle Times, which he had to cut short because the weather aggravated his chronic asthma.
When Richards took the editorial job here in 1890, Ernest Finley was getting started as a professional printer. As a schoolboy the 19 year-old had used a hand press to turn out cards and announcements for his neighbors in the McDonald district, then was hired by the downtown Athenaeum theater to print handbills for visiting minstrel shows, lecturers, and other attractions. With his childhood friend Rufus Hawley he opened a print shop above a cigar store on Fourth street with a steam powered press, and from the start they had steady business from the city and county printing official documents. A few years later they were joined by Charles O. Dunbar, who had been printing foreman at the Santa Rosa Republican.
The Evening Press debuted on Jan. 2, 1896 as a daily and weekly newspaper. In the days prior several local and Bay Area papers announced it was launching, and even the shortest items took care to name Grant Richards as its editor. There was no question that the new journal was going to be Richards’ baby – the rare times anyone mentioned Finley it was because the publishing company was Finley, Dunbar & Richards.
The new paper’s top rival would be the Daily/Sonoma Democrat, of course, and an item about its new competition muttered “…it seems to us the field here is hardly large enough for a new venture.” Still, like everyone else the Democrat editor couldn’t resist a nod to how much everyone loved Richards: “…He had and displayed the admirable quality of being fair and square to all alike with the result that he has made many friends for himself in Santa Rosa. We wish him success in his new undertaking.” After the Evening Press had a couple of issues to its credit, the Democrat offered a little good natured ribbing: “…All the world’s a stage and all the men are gamblers; life itself is a game of chance. Marriage is a lottery and so is farming. Starting a new paper is also a gamble. Ain’t it, Mr. Richards?”
Newspaper editors were usually divisive figures in the 19th century, with readers always at the ready to take umbrage – but if anything, membership in the Grant O. Richards Fan Club grew in 1896 both locally and San Francisco. He was a popular speaker and his remarks often included a poem written for the occasion, which the Democrat joked he would “inflict” on the group or “badger” them. Someone introduced him as the poet laureate of Sonoma county, or “at least in this section of the county.” Doctor Finlaw once prescribed total rest – although he could continue to write his poetry, because that wouldn’t involve “brain work.”
There are many more items like those where this charming, self-effacing guy welcomed a laugh at his expense, but there’s more to his story than that so we need to move on. Okay – one more, because I’ve never come across anything like it in the old papers.
On his 34th birthday the Democrat ran a story about his surprise party, where a group of men descended upon his office to give him a spanking (a play-acting “caning,” actually). Among his assailants were newspapermen from all the other local papers – including one from Humboldt county who happened to be in town – and political allies in the debate over creating a gold/silver currency. Included in the group were E.C. Voorhies and Herbert Slater, making him undoubtedly the only man ever paddled by both a current state senator and a future one. It’s a cute story, but also revealing; keep in mind this was during 1896, and even as a goof it wasn’t the sort of thing that lined up with the Victorian ideal of propriety and manliness – yet they knew Richards would be a good sport about it.
The Democrat was edited at the time by Robert Thompson, brother to founder and owner Thomas, who was still in Brazil as the U.S. ambassador. Under both of them the Democrat was fiercely partisan (and unabashedly racist) but it was really the only game in town – the weekly-only Santa Rosa Republican was mainly aimed at farmers. The Democrat was also the official county paper which guaranteed a steady income in publishing legal notices, plus it had contracted with a New York City agency to feed it a steady stream of national ads for widely-sold food items, patent medicines and the like. Toss in local shopper ads and the Thompsons had a neat little media monopoly on Santa Rosa newspaper readers. Then along came the Evening Press.
There was no apparent impact on the Democrat during the first year of competition in 1896. But as 1897 progressed, there was a steady decline in ads from stores promoting special sales. Local news became thin – aside from a court reporter, it seemed most of the stories came in over the transom from city/county offices, clubs and lodges and whoever dropped by to yak about an encounter with a rattlesnake. Editorials all but disappeared.
The Democrat became increasingly clogged up with WTF filler items from East Coast and British papers, such as, “M. Eugene Thiebaut, the first secretary of the French Embassy, who is at present in Paris, has cabled his felicitations to the French Embassador [sic] in Washington, M. Patenoire, on the latter’s transfer to the Embassy at Madrid, which is in the nature of promotion.” It was as if your once loud and feisty uncle now spent all the days in his bedroom, never changing out his ratty bathrobe while living on buttermilk and soda crackers.
Thomas L. Thompson returned from his four-year appointment to Brazil that September and two weeks later he sold the Democrat. Strike that – he surrendered the Democrat to Finley, Dunbar & Richards after almost exactly forty years of ownership. We can never know the impact this milestone took upon him personally, but the last known place he visited before committing suicide five months later was his old office, which was now the home of the Press Democrat.
There are no surviving copies of the Evening Press, but it’s probably safe to assume it looked just like the early issues of the Press Democrat – Grant Richards was still editor, after all.
The front pages shown above are the next-to-last Sonoma Democrat and the second issue of the Press Democrat. The first thing to notice is the number of local ads in the PD; there can be no doubt what happened to all the local advertisers missing from the old Democrat – they were happily now over on Richards’ pages, and likely had been camping there for months.
Ads aside, the layout of the two papers could not be more different. The Sonoma Democrat was a grey slab of inky paper with little to break up the long columns of text. The new Press Democrat was far easier to read; each story had a headline with a long dek – which added lots of eye-friendly white space – and had a grabber tease: “DEATH AND HUNGER,” “NEAR THE END” and “GREAT EXCITEMENT”.
Richards’ innovated use of mixed font typography put his design on par or even ahead of other Bay Area and even national papers. In a piece from the same issue, he put a 40 (?) pt. “DARING BURGLARY” banner above the story of District Attorney Seawell having a shootout in his house. Yes, headline details were sensationalized (he wasn’t “grazed by a bullet”) and the whole story leaned yellow press-y, but it actually was an adventurous story, and you can bet everyone in town was talking about it that morning. As William Randolph Hearst’s biographer put it, “any issue that did not cause its reader to rise out of his chair and cry, ‘Great God’ was counted as a failure.”
One last bit of media criticism before continuing with the history: Not only was Richards years ahead in visual design, but his skills as an editor were nonpareil. His writing was sharp and compelling – once you began reading an article there was no sneaking out before the end. A presentation made to local farmers about growing sugar beets was written like part of a novel, including dialogue between farmers and the expert. I found myself immersed in the story and developing warm and fuzzy feelings for sugar beets. That example underscores the key difference between the Sonoma Democrat and Richards’ Press Democrat, or any comparison of weak journalism vs. the exceptional – one just cataloged events of the day, while the other engaged the reader to care about them.
We don’t know what they paid Thomas Thompson for his newspaper and printing plant, but the new Press Democrat Publishing Company was capitalized at $30,000 (about $940k today).1
The Press Democrat moved into the Sonoma Democrat offices in the ground floor of the Odd Fellows’ Building, but only after a local contractor had “a force of men” working to fix it up. The place must have looked like a museum exhibit; it seems that the Thompson brothers did little to keep the operation modern. Before jumping ship and joining the Evening Press gang, Herb Slater was a cub reporter there in the mid-1890s and recalled the office as a “dingy place” that didn’t have a linotype, a telephone or a single typewriter.2
The Press Democrat was an immediate success and within a few weeks of operation claimed a circulation of 13,000, which was right about twice the town’s population. In the initial issue he promised “politically the Press-Democrat will be Democratic of broad and liberal tendencies,” but like the Evening Press it was bipartisan as Richards was a Republican, albeit one who crossed sides to endorse the gold/silver issue. After forty years of the Thompson’s angry Democratic partisanship it had to be a welcome change.
It’s not surprising to learn Richards was also an enthusiastic community volunteer, and in the early months of 1898 he threw himself into preparations for the Rose Carnival. Ever since its origin in 1894 each year was a bigger event than the previous, and it was drawing considerable attention from Bay Area newspapers – it looked like Santa Rosa was finally getting noticed and maybe even gaining entry to the cool kids club.
At the time the Spanish-American War was ramping up; the battleship Maine was sunk in February and the public outrage – fanned by Hearst’s Examiner and other papers in the yellow press – inspired patriotic rallies and parades with nautical themes. The Rose Carnival Association budgeted over $600 (about $19k today) to build floats of a battleship Oregon and two monitors. The huge battleship float would carry the Carnival Queen and members of her court; it would be motorized (a big deal in 1898) with 20-foot high smokestacks puffing smoke. According to the preview blurb in the San Francisco Examiner, it was to have gun turrets which would fire bouquets of roses into the crowd. Accounts of the actual parade don’t mention the smoke or blasting bystanders with flora, but it still must have been awfully impressive.
Richards was in charge of building the ambitious floats, although he apparently had no experience on any construction project whatsoever. Then a little over a month before the Carnival, a little item appeared in the PD: “Editor Grant O. Richards is confined to his room suffering from nervous prostration. It is thought that a day or two’s rest will put him back at his desk.” Thus it was the third week of April, 1898, when Ernest Finley first slipped into the role as editor of a newspaper.
The Rose Carnival was on May 20 and it was the tremendous success everyone expected; the battleship was the highlight of the parade. But the Press Democrat’s coverage included this note: “It was a matter of sincere regret that Mr. Richards’ serious illness at this time prevented him witnessing the magnificent result of his favorite scheme…”
It was a sad day for Grant Richards indeed, but not just for missing the parade; on that very day, he was being committed to an asylum.
What was wrong with him? From his admission record to the Mendocino State Hospital it’s easiest to say what was not the matter. He didn’t have an alcohol or drug problem. He wasn’t suicidal or homicidal (but he was “destructive”). His diagnosis was “Mental worry.” The notes stated that he “talks incoherently and irrationally. Has delusions – Excited and profane.”
It would be irresponsible to put him on the couch with so little data, but there are a couple of points for Gentle Reader to consider: Excessive cussing was grounds for asylum commitment – as happened to a pair of women four years earlier – so lots of “profane” language might fall into the same category. Also, he listed Santa Rosa policeman Sam Yoho as his contact person instead of his wife Dollie, so there might have been serious marital problems.
Grant was discharged 90 days later in September, but did not return to his desk. Around mid-October he went (without his wife) to the Skaggs’ Springs resort, which was owned and operated by his old friend, John Mulgrew. On October 22, the telephone rang at the Press Democrat office: Grant O. Richards had shot himself in the head. He was still alive, but only expected to live a few hours.
Finley, Dunbar and Dollie Richards obtained a team of fast horses and a surrey and hurried as fast as possible to the scene, the trip taking somewhere around six hours. By the time they arrived he was unconscious.
He had blown off the left side of his face with a shotgun. Earlier he had told Mulgrew and the doctor it was an accident, but couldn’t explain how it happened. He was fully conscious when the doctor arrived from Healdsburg, and asked that he not be given too much morphine because he did not know how it would affect him. He also asked the doctor if he would have a bad scar. He died before midnight.
On the morning of the incident he borrowed one of Mulgrew’s shotguns and said he might try a little hunting. He wandered around the cottage area and chatted with other guests. A woman testified she saw him sitting on a cottage porch with the shotgun’s stock on the ground with the barrel resting on his left arm. A few moments later a shot was heard, followed by Richards shouting for help.
The Coroner held an inquest the next day, and the jury declared his cause of death was the accidental discharge of a shotgun while out hunting.
Hundreds attended his funeral (open casket!) and burial at the Rural Cemetery.3 Local papers – including the Press Democrat, of course – wrote long and heartfelt tributes to him, attributing his mental collapse to stress and too many hours of selfless volunteering. From the Petaluma Courier:
…Richards came to California in 1890, and worked constantly in the newspaper field, in which he was fast taking his place as a power, because of his clear, pungent and forceful style. He was a victim of overwork, and his health could not stand the tasks he set for his powers. He was of indomitable will, and worked when other men would have been in bed, never flinching when he saw a duty to perform, a friend he could help, or a benefit he could forward for the public. He was a martyr to the spirit Drive, and his beneficial work will be felt long after him. A man whom all loved to know, and knew but to love, may his ashes rest in peace.
Life in Santa Rosa moved on, but there was one good deed which I suspect was done in his memory. About three months after Richards’ funeral, Henry W. Davison, an African-American who had endured indignities from Santa Rosa’s community leaders and the police, died indigent. He was about to be buried in the Potter’s Field when the PD stepped in and paid to have him laid to rest next to his wife in the regular part of the cemetery. It was a surprising act of charity, and I don’t believe the newspaper ever did anything like it again.
On Oct. 29, 1898 – one week after Grant Richards died – Ernest Finley’s name appeared as editor of the Press Democrat for the first time.
(RIGHT: Ernest L. Finley portrait, Sacramento Evening Bee, June 30 1902)
The paper now looked different than it had a year earlier; the same font and point size was used on almost all headlines and there was much less white space – the design (or lack thereof) was drifting back to the slab-of-ink look, which suggests that layout decisions were being made by the typesetters, as was typical in the bad old days. And to be fair, this trend began before Finley took over; it seems to have started in February, which was when Richards took on the carnival float project.
But in every way, Finley was taking the Press Democrat in the opposite direction from where Richards was once headed:
The politically independent editorial page was now hyper-partisan, particularly aligned with the odious Southern Democrats and their racism. The PD didn’t just oppose Teddy Roosevelt in 1904, but expressed shock over an African-American child appearing onstage at the Republican Convention, warning it was a portent of dreaded racial equality. And yes, the “n-word” made a comeback, as did stories and anecdotes told using plantation dialect.
While Richards probably did not have a single enemy on the planet, Finley was the most divisive person in town, using the Press Democrat as a cudgel to bash anyone who thought differently from him. Finley – who had the gall to claim the PD “never intentionally misrepresents things” – usually resorted to ad hominem attacks against whomever fell into his sights. Newspaper editors in that era were often forceable in their opinions, but particularly during the years between 1904 – 1909 he came across as a mean-spirited bully.
Finley fought reform efforts in the 1900s intended to clean up the town’s unbridled gambling and prostitution scene. Comparing the reformers to vigilantes and hate groups, he charged they wanted to damage Santa Rosa’s “good name abroad” by exposing the corruption that must have provided the town with a sizable underground economy. Unmentioned was that should a reform movement gain traction, they could follow contemporary San Francisco in calling for Grand Jury hearings, which in Santa Rosa might risk indictments of the downtown property owners and businessmen who profited from the town being the Sin City of the North Bay.
Where Richards was always described as having a sunny and genial character, Finley was aloof and dour – there are many photos of him but none with a smile. His black-and-white views extended beyond hating reformers and his many other antagonists; you had to be pro-growth yet oppose any change in the status quo, leaving the Good Old Boy clique and Chamber of Commerce to run the town as they saw fit. Putting the success of the town above all else led him to take some cruel and heartless positions that would have stunned Richards, such as when Finley argued after the 1906 earthquake that those injured or families of those killed didn’t deserve money donated to the relief fund, and it should go into Santa Rosa’s building fund instead.
Then in the 1930s, for reasons unknown, Finley set out to wipe Grant O. Richards from the history books.
The salvo began in 1932, when the PD published a “75th anniversary” edition. Never mind that the Press Democrat was actually 35 years old; Finley was counting from the launch of the loathsome Sonoma Democrat, which wiser heads might have chosen to keep at a distance – “yes, we used to endorse slavery” is not a good look.
For that issue Finley wrote a number of short profiles which were collected ten years later in a book titled, “Santa Rosans I Have Known.” The anecdotes are mostly shallow and not of particular interest, and at least one time he used an entry to settle old scores. His entry on Richards is perplexing:
… He constructed a number of miniature battleships as features, but he overworked himself and suffered a nervous breakdown. We induced him to go to Skaggs Springs for a rest. One day John F. Mulgrew, who after serving as county clerk had purchased Skaggs Springs and was conducting it at the time, telephoned down that Grant had been shot. I hired a team and rushed to Skaggs Springs. It was at night, and raining hard…We never knew whether his death was accidental or otherwise. He had taken a shotgun and walked out through the grounds saying he intended to shoot some birds. A maid passing by shortly after saw him sitting on the steps of one of the cottages, the butt of the gun resting between his feet. It is possible that the gun may have slipped and on striking the next step below, been accidentally discharged. That was the theory we adopted, at any rate.
First, it aggrandizes Finley’s own role in the story. We know that Dunbar and Mrs. Richards were with him in the buggy, and they arrived shortly past sunset. Nor was it “raining hard” – all weather reports agreed there were scattered showers that day.
And, of course, we do know that his death was accidental, because that was the ruling of the Coroner’s jury – they’re allowed to say the cause was inconclusive if that’s how they viewed the evidence. From what we know about Richards, it’s doubtful he had much/any experience handling guns, and the eyewitness described extremely reckless behavior. Further, if this was a botched suicide he surely would have tucked the barrel under his chin, but Richards seemed to have no trouble talking to the doctor and others after the accident. Yet by writing “we never knew whether his death was accidental” and “that was the theory we adopted, at any rate” Finley winks to the reader that it was widely presumed he really meant to kill himself.
Finley’s other attack on Richards is found in the 1937 Sonoma County history edited by him. Now Grant Richards had no connection with the Press Democrat whatsoever. In the history portion of the book he name-checks Richards as having “helped establish” The Evening Press. “…Richards sold his interest to his partners a few years later…Thomas L. Thompson sold the Democrat to Finley & Dunbar.” (For the record, Dollie Richards was left Grant’s one-third share in The Press Democrat Publishing Company, and she sold them to Finley and Dunbar in 1902, when probate finally closed.) In the side of the book with local biographies Finley has an entry for himself but this time doesn’t mention Richards at all, naming his only partners as Dunbar and Hawley.
Finley’s shadow over Santa Rosa is as long as Grant Richards’ is short. As I wrote earlier, in the first part of the Twentieth Century no man or woman had a greater impact on Santa Rosa than Ernest Latimer Finley; favorite son Luther Burbank might have been the town celebrity, but Finley was the kingmaker, the media baron of print (and later, airwaves), the superarbiter of almost everything that happened north of the Golden Gate.
Why someone with such dominance felt a need to not only harm but destroy the historical legacy of a man nearly four decades after his death is a mystery best left to psychologists. Lacking Richards’ personality and his widespread admiration, had Finley been nursing envy and resentment for most of his life?
The historical record has been twisted to portray Finley as one of the most monumental figures in Santa Rosa’s past. And yes, he was a tireless champion of anything he thought might bring prosperity to Sonoma County. But at worst, he was a relentless bully who blocked reforms and held on to the 19th century attitudes which kept Santa Rosa from becoming the major Bay Area community he always desired – quite a Shakespearian twist, that.
For the most part we’re still trapped in Ernest Finley’s world; the city is still pushing growth for its own sake and there’s still a cabal of money men erratically steering the ship. How much better it might have been to live in the world of Grant Richards, where nothing is more important than community and when changes are made, the goal is to make real improvements to the city, not just making some guy rich(er). The Press Democrat will have no ties to special interests and holds city/county officials accountable for what they (don’t) do. And in that alternate universe, sometimes the paper will make you fly out of a chair and cry, “Great God!” because the reporting and writing is really that good.
1 The Press Democrat Publishing Company had 300 shares total, with Finley, Dunbar and Richards having 98 per. Three shares each were held by bankers W. D. Reynolds and J. P. Overton, who likely provided this initial funding.
2 Herbert Slater’s look back at the Sonoma Democrat appeared in the Oct. 23, 1932 PD. He described Robert A. Thompson’s management as lackadasical and as a result the reporters sought out the easiest stories to write, which explains the generally poor quality journalism in the paper and heavy reliance on doings at the courthouse across the street from their office. They also frequently traded newspaper coverage for food: “…We used to pick up a good many extra feeds in the old days. The reporters were never forgotten by the lodges, for it was then almost considered necessary to feed us in order to get a write up. How well I remember sitting in the old Democrat office one night wishing that some raven from Heaven, or somebody, would bring me in a square meal, when the front door suddenly opened and in walked Billy Lee and he brought cold chicken, tongue and ham, bread, cakes and coffee. And we did have some feast, and, thanked God reverently that both He and the Odd Fellows hall were above the Democrat office…”
3 The location of Grant O. Richards grave is unknown and he may have been disinterred, as there is a marker for him near his parents at the McNett East Cemetery in Elk Grove Wisconsin. When his sister-in-law, Effie Scribner, died in 1913 she was buried here at the Rural Cemetery in what was described as the family plot.
Our friend Grant Richards, the genial and able local editor of the Republican, leaves this city to-day for Seattle, Wash., to take a position on the Evening News. Mr Richards has many friends in this city, who, while sincerely regretting his departure, hope that success will attend him in his new field.
– Sonoma Democrat, August 9 1890
Grant Richards will return from Seattle and resume his former position on the Republican. The climate of Washington was too much for him, but he cannot be better pleased to return than his friends are to welcome him.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 8 1890
It may be of interest to many in this locality, to know that our old friend and chum, Grant O. Richards, has resigned his place as court reporter on the Seattle (Wash.) Times, and accepted a lucrative position on the Santa Rosa (Cal.) Republican. Grant will succeed and all his friends in this neck ‘o’ th’ world’ will be glad to hear of his success.
– Galena Daily Gazette, December 3 1890
An omission. The Republican in its issue of Tuesday in a notice of the credits due to the active members of the Relief Committee, has one notable omission, not from carelessness, but from the modesty of the gentleman who wrote the notice. We are determined that he shall not hide his light under a bushel, and while all those he mentions are justly entitled to the credit he bestows on them, there is no one more deserving of praise in the matter than Mr. Grant O. Richards, the local editor of the Republican. He was an active promoter of the charity from start to finish.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1892
Grant Richards of the Republican is confined to his house with an attack of his old enemy, asthma. More power to you, Grant, to overcome all enemies.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 3 1894
New Paper for Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa will have a new paper, commencing with the new year. It will be the Evening Press, daily and weekly. It will be independent in politics, and favor gold and silver coinage at a rate of 16 to 1. It will be edited by Grant Richards, for the past five years reporter on the Daily Republican. The new paper will be a six-column folio.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 23 1895
Grant O. Richards Resigns.
Grant O. Richards has severed his connection with the Republican after holding down the city editor’s chair for nearly six years past. He proposes along with Messrs. Finley and Dunbar to start an evening paper to be called the Evening Press. While on the Republican Grant was a faithful reporter of men and events. He had and displayed the admirable quality of being fair and square to all alike with the result that be has made many friends for himself in Santa Rosa. We wish him success in his new undertaking although it seems to us the field here is hardly large enough for a new venture.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 28 1895
The fact that truth is stranger than fiction is demonstrated by the resignation of Rev. J. T. Shurtleff and Editor Grant Richards. Both men were admirably fitted for their places, and most people thought they were fixtures…All the world’s a stage and all the men are gamblers; life itself is a game of chance. Marriage is a lottery and so is farming. Starting a new paper is also a gamble. Ain’t it, Mr. Richards?
– Sonoma Democrat, January 4 1896
GRANT RICHARDS CANED. Double Attack on the Editor of the Evening Press.
Editor Grant O. Richards was surprised in his office Friday afternoon by Gee Whack Mills, who had long had a grudge against him. Mr. Richards sat in his office meditating a new poem on silver and little dreaming of the attack that was to be made upon him by Mills and several confederates.
The assault was well planned and no doubt his assailants had been planning a coup de etat for several days past. They went about the surprise very cautiously and when Mills started in to cane Mr. Richards with a cane with a silver tip on it, the latter did not know what to say or do in defense. The silver tip bore a suitable inscription.
After Mills had got through with the editor, another attack was made on him by Messrs. Mobley, Slater, Duncan, Voorhies, Speegle, Hutchinson and others, who presented him with a wallet capable of holding 16 silver dollars to 1 of gold.
Grant is a good friend, but a bad enemy, and no doubt he will soon get even “wid de gang.”
The occasion of this double attack on the genial Grant was on account of his birthday. Friday, thirty-four years ago, was a busy day with Richards. He was born on the same day as his college chum Tom Watson of Georgia, and like Tom he had no silver spoon in his mouth. One thing we can say about Richards. We have never seen him waltzing around town in his shirt sleeves with a cigar between his teeth. We have never seen him go fishing with a bottle in his pocket, or yank off his coat and swear he could lick any man in town. He ain’t built that way. Here’s hopin’ he may live to be 134.
– Sonoma Democrat, September 12 1896
The Santa Rosa Democrat, for thirty years the property of Thos. L. Thompson, ex-United States Minister to Brazil, was sold last Saturday to E. L. Finiey, C. O. Dunbar and Grant O. Richards, proprietors of the Evening Press of the same city. The two papers will be merged into a morning daily to be known as the Press-Democrat Publishing Company. A corporation has been organized with a capital of $30,000. The directors of the company are E. L. Finley, C. O. Dunbar, Grant O. Richards, W. D. Reynolds and J. P. Overton. The management of the new paper will be the same as that of the Press. E. L. Finley and C. O. Dunbar will be business managers, while Grant O. Richards will the editor.
– Napa Journal, September 28 1897
Today the first issue of the Press-Democrat made its appearance. The Press issued its last number Tuesday. The young men who have driven it forward to success have now absorbed the Democrat, and with their rejuvenation and the removal of deathly competition some great improvement ought to come to the printing business in Santa Rosa. The first issue is not a criterion to judge by, and the Courier will not compliment todays issue; but when the newness wears away and the Democrat gets up to the business ability of its new promoters it shall be remembered by a generous use of our scissors.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, October 7 1897
The first issue of the Press-Democrat, of Santa Rosa, is at hand. We are partial to hyphenated names for papers but if the new management that it is necessary to preserve the names of both the old journals we respectfully suggest that a more appropriate and euphonious title would Democrat-Press. The new paper start out well and publishes an unusual amount of local news.
– Woodland Daily Democrat, October 8 1897
In beginning the publication of the Press-Democrat the proprietors wish to thank the citizens of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county for the generous patronage extended them while conducting the Press. They also desire to express their appreciation of the consideration shown them in the last issue of the Democrat by the Hon. T. L. Thompson and the Hon. R. A. Thompson, who by the newspaper change retire from the journalistic field here. The proprietors of the new paper clearly recognize and thoroughly appreciate the ability and worth of these gentlemen who have been so prominently and honorably identified with Santa Rosa and Sonoma county. They realize the very important part they have taken in the progress and development of, not only our city and county, but of the entire state. It is with feelings of regret that the Press-Democrat contemplates their departure from the newspaper field and it certainly hopes that their lines may be cast in pleasant and profitable places. In regard to the new paper, the Press-Democrat, it is only necessary to say that with it, as it has been with the Press, it will be the constant endeavor of the publishers to make it a wide-awake, energetic, progressive and reliable newspaper; one that will speak for itself better than can be expressed in any salutatory. Politically the Press-Democrat will be Democratic of broad and liberal tendencies. With implicit confidence in the citizens of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county, and with an abiding faith in the future of this unsurpassed part of California, the greatest commonwealth under the stars and stripes, the Press-Democrat this morning for the first time greets the public.
– Press Democrat, October 9 1897
Editor Richards Ill
Editor Grant O. Richards is confined to his room suffering from nervous prostration. It ia thought that a day or two’a rest will put him back at his desk.
– Press Democrat, April 23 1898
The fleet of warships representing the Pacific Coast Squadron will undoubtedly be the most attractive display in the grand parade. In view of the present war with Spain the committee decided upon the float representing the fleet as being most appropriate. In the fleet will be immense models of the battleship Oregon and the monitor Monadnock and Monterey which have cost the Carnival Association over $600 to build. For this occasion the Oregon has been named the Queen of the Carnival, and this will be Queen Grace’s royal float. Upon a daintily arranged throne Queen Grace will sit on the fore deck surrounded by her retinue of maids and pages. Along the line of parade from the guns arranged on the deck bouquets of roses will be fired at the big crowds of spectators. The battleship will be run by an engine, and from the big smoke stacks twenty feet high will issue clouds of smoke. The monitors will be run alongside the battleship Queen of the Carnival, which will be preceded by a splendid representation of the ill-fated battleship Maine, which will be drawn on a wagon by a crowd of small children…
– The San Francisco Examiner, May 19 1898
…The fleet of vessels was the popular feature. it should be mentioned here that the beautiful battleship “Carnival Queen” and the monitors which attracted the attention of everybody were designed and their construction was carried out under the personal supervision of Editor Grant O. Richards of the Press Democrat. It was a matter of sincere regret that Mr. Richards’ serious illness at this time prevented him witnessing the magnificent result of his favorite scheme…
– Press Democrat, May 21 1898
Information received Monday from the sick room of Grant O. Richards was to the effect that his condition is not improved. This will be sad news to Mr. Richards’ many friends in this city and county. He is to be taken away this evening for treatment by specialists. – Republican.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, May 25 1898
SANTA ROSA EDITOR KILLED BY ACCIDENT Grant O. Richards Found Mortally- Wounded Back of the Skaggs Springs Hotel.
SANTA ROSA. Oct. 22. -Great regret was felt here to-day in all circles when it was learned that Grant O. Richards, editor of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, and one of the most popular and progressive citizens of this place, had shot himself at Skaggs Springs. About 11 o’clock this morning Mr. Richards, who had been at the Springs several days was found on the porch of a house just back of the hotel bleeding from a terrible wound in his face. It was found that a portion of his face had been torn away by the discharge of a shotgun. He died shortly after 11 o’clock to-night. He regained consciousness during the day and stated that the weapon had been discharged by accident.
– San Francisco Call, October 23 1898
GRANT O. RICHARDS
it is with a heart full of sadness that the writer of these short lines takes up the pen to begin his task, if he should succeed in some small way in expressing the heartfelt sorrow that has been caused by the sudden and tragic death of the editor of this paper among those who worked with him so long, among those who knew him best, then is the mission done. Yet should the effort fail, it would make small difference after all, for everybody knew Grant Richards and everybody was his friend.
The removal of a good man is always a loss to any city. But the death of a man like this might almost be referred to as a calamity. Generally at the head and front of any movement likely to be of benefit to the community, his influence has been strongly felt in many of the undertakings that have resulted in the city’s good. Yet such was the character of the man that few suspected whose ideas were being carried out or from whence the inspiration came. The gain was seldom his. Such is the one real test of all true greatness.
A man of strong character, gentle and loving as a child, trusting as a woman in many things, he was yet a keen observer, and possessed a shrewd insight into human character. Backed up by these characteristics and preceded by the knowledge that his was the very soul of honor, it is not strange that he often accomplished what others could not do. But it is not necessary to enter upon an extended review of his career, or to parade before the world a record of his virtues. It would not please him if he knew, and his life is like an open book.
Grant O. Richards, recognized as one of the brightest newspaper men in the state of California, has left us and forever. The manner of his death is recorded, and yet the details will never be known until the judgment day. But the fact that he is absent from the spots and haunts that once knew him so well, and the record of his sunny, genial and most honorable life, will never be forgotten till those with whom he lived and moved shall themselves start upon that long, long journey which they pray may end on that beauteous shore where his has just now begun.
Owing to his extended illness, more than six long months have passed since Mr. Richards has been actively engaged in the duties of his profession, and while up to the day of his death he retained the position of editor of this paper, yet during all that time his work has been in another’s hands. It is in this keeping that it will remain.
Grant O. Richards, business man, gentleman, friend and scholar, is now no more, but the example of his beautiful life will remain with us, we trust, until our dying day. And when our end shall come, as come it surely must some time, we ask no more of those who stay behind than that they think of us but half as kindly as they do of him. We wish no more than that the dwellers in that wondrous city may be like him as we knew him, and like him as he is.
– Press Democrat, October 26 1898
HIS TRAGIC DEATH How Grant Richards Met His End THE FULL DETAILS Most Suddenly the Summons Came and Rudely He Passed Away With His Wife and Friends Gathered Around His Couch
On Saturday evening the news became general in this city that Grant O. Richards, the well known editor of the Press Democrat, had, while enjoying an outing at Skaggs’ Springs, met with a terrible accident.
When Sunday morning’s edition of this paper appeared containing the information that he was dead, and giving the details of the tragic affair, the entire community was shocked in a manner that almost defies expression.
It was about a week ago that Mr. Richards left his home in this city for a brief visit with his old friend, John F. Mulgrew, at Skaggs’ Springs. Arriving there he proceeded at once to make himself at home, and from the very time of his arrival seemed to be enjoying himself and was apparently being much benefited by the change of air and scene.
On Saturday morning about the time Mr. Richards came out from the dining room after having eaten his breakfast, two gentlemen boarding at the hotel returned from an early morning hunt. As they seated themselves upon the edge of the porch and proceeded to clean their weapons, Mr. Richards, who was acquainted with both of them, after inquiring as to their success, declared his intention of seeing what he could do some morning in that line.
Having finished their task, the two hunters set their guns, one of which belonged to Mr. Mulgrew, behind the door and went in to breakfast. About an hour later Mr. Richards picked up Mr. Mulgrew’s gun, stuck a few cartridges into his pocket, and stepped out into the front yard, apparently looking for something upon which he could try his aim.
For some little time he sauntered idly around the place, looking now and then into the tree-tops. Finally he wandered in the direction of the cottages, the furtherest one of which is probably not more than a hundred yards from the hotel. He stopped and chatted with several of the guests who passed, and finally seated himself upon one of the cottage porches. A young lady in passing saw him thus seated, the shot gun resting on the ground, and the barrel lying upon his left arm. She nodded at him and passed on.
A few moments later some gentlemen who were playing croquet directly behind the cottage heard a loud report, followed immediately by a cry for help. Rushing around to the front of the cottage they found Mr. Richards seated upon the steps and endeavoring with his handkerchief to stop the flow of blood coming from a frightful wound upon the left side of the head and face.
Mr. Mulgrew and several people from the hotel arrived about the same time, and all proceeded without delay to render what assistance lay in their power. The unfortunate man was carried into the cottage and laid upon a couch, and Dr. Swisher was immediately summoned by telephone from Healdsburg. His friends in this city were also notified by the same means. During this time Mr. Richards was perfectly conscious, and stated to Mr. Mulgrew that the shooting was accidental, but he was so weak that he could not explain exactly how it all happened.
A second dispatch was received at this office from Mr. Mulgrew shortly after noon, stating that the physician had arrived, and after an examination had expressed the fear that Mr. Richards would only live a few hours. Immediately upon the receipt of this intelligence Mrs. Richards, E. L. Finley and C. O. Dunbar in a surrey and behind a fast team started on a hurried drive to Skaggs’.
While the doctor was conducting the examination Mr. Richards stated to him that the gun had been accidentally discharged. He asked whether or not he would be able to save his life, and whether or not he would be able to repair the damage without leaving much of a scar. He cautioned the physician most particularly about being very careful as to the amount of morphine he was to give him, stating that he knew nothing of its effect upon his heart, and desired to take no chances.
The morphine was administered, and the wound carefully dressed. C. W. Capell, a medical student of Healdsburg, and Ole Witbro, a professional nurse from Geyserville, both of whom had in the meantime been summoned, were left in charge, and the physician having done all then in his power returned to his home.
The loving wife and friends arrived upon the scene shortly after dark. At that time Mr. Richards was unconscious, and shortly after half-past 10 he passed peacefully away. Gathered around the bedside in the little cottage at the springs were his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Mulgrew, C. W. Capell, Ole Witbro, William Litton, Charles O. Dunbar and Ernest L. Finley.
By special arrangement made previously in the evening, the telephone agent at Geyserville returned to his office at 12 o’clock that night and connected Skaggs’ Springs with this city by wire. The news of the distressing affair was transmitted to the Press Democrat, the undertaker was notified, and word was sent to Coroner Young at Healdsburg.
Early Sunday morning Mr. Stanley started for Skaggs’ and later in the day secured the body, arriving in this city with the remains about 8 o’clock that evening. Coroner Young arrived at the springs about noon, and shortly afterwards secured a jury and began the inquest.
During the progress of the investigation the most searching inquiry into the cause of the accident was had. The body was carefully examined, and both Mr. Mulgrew and Dr. Swisher testified at length regarding their knowledge of the matter. As a result the jury returned a unanimous verdict to the effect that the deceased met his death as the result of the accidental discharge of a shot gun while out hunting.
Henry G. Hahman and William F. Wines, both warm personal friends of the deceased, took the train for Skaggs’ Springs on Sunday morning, arriving there about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. They did everything possible and returned home on the evening train. Mrs. Richards, Mr. Dunbar and Mr. Finley returned home as they had gone, by carriage.
The utmost regret is expressed upon every hand over the most sad and unfortunate occurrence. All Saturday night this office was besieged by callers anxious to render any assistance that lay in their power. At the springs the host and hostess, the guests and the employees were profuse in their many acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, to all of whom the bereaved wife and business associates desire to express their most heartfelt thanks.
Mr. Richards was a native of Wisconsin and was thirty-six years of age last September. He first came to Santa Rosa in June, 1890, from Newton, Kansas, just after his marriage, and entered upon the duties of city editor of the Republican. Several mouths later he left here for Seattle, believing the climate would suit his health better at the time. A few months later he returned to Santa Rosa and resumed his work on the Republican, and continued on that paper until the close of the year 1895, when the Evening Press was so successfully launched, in January, 1896. At the time of his death Mr. Richards was editor of this paper, a position he had filled both with credit to himself and with benefit to the entire community.
THE FUNERAL OBSEQUIES
The last tribute of love has been paid, and to the grave has been consigned all that was mortal of one who in life gained the respect of everybody. The earthly tenement of Editor Grant O. Richards now rests in the quiet of Santa Rosa cemetery until the Resurrection morn. It rests there in sure and certain hope of the coming to eternal life.
Nothing was wanting in the last tribute to add to the honor bestowed. It was honor done gratefully to the memory of a true friend of the community, beautifully expressive was the burial service.
At the First Presbyterian church a large congregation awaited the arrival of the funeral cortege. Just at 2 o’clock the organist, Mrs. J. S. Sweet, commenced Chopin’s Funeral March as the casket covered with beautiful creations in flowers was borne slowly to the front of the altar by eight intimate friends of the deceased, James W. Oates, John P. Overton, Henry G. Hahman, George W. Lewis, W. F. Wines, Herbert Slater, Peter Towey and Mayor James S. Sweet.
A few minutes later Santa Rosa lodge, Knights of Pythias, marshalled by Robert Ross, filed into the church and occupied seats immediately behind the mourners in the middle of the church. Then Carita temple, of the Rathbone Sisters, passed into the seats reserved for them on the right hand side of the auditorium. Seats were reserved on the left side of the church for members of the Santa Rosa Typographical Union and members of the Press Democrat force. Mark L, McDonald Jr. was the usher.
…the first part of the service was brought to a close.
Then the hundreds of the deceased’s friends present passed around the bier on which the casket rested in front of the altar, and took a last glance at the placid face. With hearts filled with emotion this was done.
The casket was then carried to the hearse and the procession formed for the journey to the cemetery. The line of carriages was very long. At the head of the procession walked the members of Santa Rosa lodge, Knights of Pythias, in files of two. There was a large attendance of the Knights to show a last token of esteem for their brother.
Just at the entrance to the cemetery gates the Knights formed in double line and stood with uncovered beads while the cortege passed…
…The grave was a mass of beautiful white flowers mingled with sprays of greenery, the work of the Ladies Dorcas society of the Presbyterian church.
While the earth was being thrown into the grave the Presbyterian church choir sang a number of hymns. It was an affecting scene. The autumn leaves falling from the shade trees heralding the approach of winter and the passing of another year, contrasted with the radiance of the autumn sun shining in all its brilliance, symbolic doubtless in many hearts of the land that is fairer than day, where death is unknown.
Untold love and affection was manifest in the great number of exquisite floral gifts sent. The flowers were magnificent. To attempt to enumerate them would be useless, as many of the creations bore no name. There were many wreaths, an anchor, crosses, pillows, and branches of flowers. Handsome pieces were sent by the Knights of Pythias, the Rathbone Sisters, the Press Democrat, the Santa Rosa Typographical Union and many others.
The offering from the Santa Rosa Typographical Union was a superb creation in which white and blue flowers predominated. In the center of a lovely white back ground was the sign “30.” The symbol “30” is used in newspaper offices, though it had its origin in telegraphy. When the last piece of copy is given out before the composition on the paper ceases for the day’s issue, on it appears “30”, signifying “the end,” and by this the compositor knows there is nothing more coming, and that the last news is in.
The grave presented a lovely sight when Mr. Stanley had completed the arrangement of the flowers, and after the parting benediction by the Rev. Mr. Hudson and a verse of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” the service at the grave was over.
– Press Democrat, October 26 1898
Grant O. Richards, editor of the Press Democrat, died at Skaggs Springs on Saturday from the accidental discharge of a shotgun. Richards came to California in 1890, and worked constantly in the newspaper field, in which he was fast taking his place as a power, because of his clear, pungent and forceful style. He was a victim of overwork, and his health could not stand the tasks he set for his powers. He was of indomitable will, and worked when other men would have been in bed, never flinching when he saw a duty to perform, a friend he could help, or a benefit he could forward for the public. He was a martyr to the spirit Drive, and his beneficial work will be felt long after him. A man whom all loved to know, and knew but to love, may his ashes rest in peace.—Petaluma Courier
– Press Democrat, October 29 1898
Grant O. Richards, the editor of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, committed suicide at Skaggs Springs last Saturday by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun.
Imagine if the Golden Gate Bridge was never built – engineering issues couldn’t be solved, perhaps, or maybe there were insurmountable economic hurdles, or just not enough political will. What would Sonoma County be like today?
The only way to get here from San Francisco is by ferry, for starters, so Santa Rosa is a much smaller place. There was no population boom after World War Two; it’s a rural county seat somewhat like Ukiah, and the courthouse is still in Courthouse Square because they patched up the mostly cosmetic damage from the 1957 earthquake instead of tearing it down. Stony Point Road is the Highway 101 bypass, its two lanes swelling to three at the stoplights where there is cross traffic and turn lanes. Tourists clog the Redwood Highway on weekends because the winery events, resorts, spas and casinos in the countryside make this a popular getaway destination for the rest of the Bay Area, while the weekly Press Democrat is always pushing for year-round motocross and horse racing at the fairgrounds in order to draw visitors downtown. “Sonoma County? Sure, it’s a nice place to visit, but no, I…”
Building the bridge was never a sure thing, but it wasn’t because there was formidable opposition. Yes, there were efforts to slow or stop the project but it wasn’t ongoing, popping up only when the project neared a funding or construction milestone. None of those challenges posed serious threats, but were more like pesky nuisances.
Yet when the project launched in 1923 it seemed delusional to believe it would ever pass beyond the blueprint stage. Not only were there some engineers who thought it was folly to attempt constructing the longest bridge of its kind at that particular place, but its promoters had to run an incredibly complex political gauntlet, convincing Washington and Sacramento to back it enthusiastically – all before doing the basic studies which would prove the concept was viable. And even after construction began in January 1933, a retired geologist made a splash by predicting the south end could never be made stable, requiring months of further testing to prove him wrong.
All in all, it took almost 20 years to get to ribbon-cutting day. This is not the place to tell that whole story; the Golden Gate Bridge District has history pages for further details on the critical years of 1928 and 1930 (although some of the information on bridge opponents is wrong). A version of the original 1916 article proposing the idea is transcribed below.
Local folks probably know that the key part of the origin story concerns doings in Sonoma County by two men: Frank Doyle, president of the Exchange Bank as well as the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, and Press Democrat editor/publisher Ernest Finley. Although Doyle modestly said he was “just one of the hundreds who helped to put the bridge over,” he always will be remembered for kicking the project off by organizing the January 13, 1923 conference in Santa Rosa which brought together over 250 bankers, business leaders and politicians, which earned him his spot standing next to the governor and the mayor of San Francisco when the bridge was officially opened. Finley was the indefatigable champion for the cause, turning the Press Democrat into a soapbox for promoting funding and construction, cheering every nugget of good news and booing every bit of bad.
After Finley’s death in 1942, however, the story shifted; it was said the newspaper suffered by losing subscribers because of its bridge advocacy and Finley was a warrior editor battling powerful railroad, logging and farm special interests opposed to the bridge. This version has taken root over the years in the PD and elsewhere; here’s the version from the Media Museum of Northern California: “…In this particular crusade, which spanned at least two decades, Finley stood almost alone…he was opposed by nearly everyone. His business suffered as he lost advertising accounts and subscriptions. But he continued the campaign, insisting, ‘Damn the circulation! The bridge must be built!’” That’s now his legacy quote although it’s probably apocryphal.1
The problem with that narrative is it’s not really true.
The only special interest actually fighting bridge construction was (surprise!) the ferry companies, which were controlled by Southern Pacific – their astroturf citizen’s groups and 11th-hour courtroom posturings were widely viewed as transparent attempts to delay the inevitable clobbering of their businesses once cars and trucks could drive the bridge. More about that in a minute.
What irked Finley and the other boosters far more was the 1927-1928 pushback from a scattered group of Sonoma County property owners whose anger was whipped up by an anti-tax rabble-rouser.
Ladies and gents, meet Cap Ornbaun, fulltime crank.
Casper A. Ornbaun was always identified in the newspapers as a San Francisco lawyer and he indeed had an office in the landmark Spreckels Building on Market Street, although it seemed he didn’t use it much – on the rare occasions when his name appeared in the papers for doing something attorney-ish it was almost always about handling a routine probate estate, usually in the North Bay. While he lived in Oakland he told audiences he was fighting the bridge as a Sonoma County taxpayer; he owned the 18,000 acre Rockpile Ranch above Dry Creek valley which was used as a sheep ranch. (In a rare non-bridge court filing, he sued a neighboring rancher in 1937 for briefly dognapping four of his sheepdogs, demanding $6,000 for “tiring them and causing them to become footsore and unable to go through the regular shearing season.”)
Why Ornbaun so loathed the idea of a bridge across the Golden Gate is a mystery, but he turned the fight against it into a fulltime cause – maybe it was his midlife crisis, or something. Starting in 1926 it seems he was in the North Bay almost constantly, arranging small group meetings where he could bray and bark against the bridge project.
At least once Mark Lee of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce was invited to formally debate with Ornbaun, but otherwise his speaking engagements were rant-fests attacking anyone or anything connected to the project, including the Press Democrat. At one appearance in Sebastopol he came with dozens of copies of the PD which he handed out to prove the paper was “the bunk.”
The Santa Rosa papers mentioned him as little as possible (no need to give him free publicity) but his appearances in small communities like Cloverdale were newsworthy and the local weeklies often quoted or paraphrased what he had to say. Here are a few samples:
Only San Francisco weekenders would ever use the bridge
Strauss is a nobody; Strauss only knows how to build drawbridges; Strauss realizes it will be impossible to actually build it and is just looking to make a name for himself
It will cost over $125 million, or about 5x over estimates
Safeguarding against earthquakes will cost an additional $80-100 million
Maintenance costs would be $5,707,000 a year; it will cost $300,000/year to paint it
It will be impossible to get enough cars across the bridge to have it pay for itself
It would run a deficit of $4,416,230/year
It will take too long to cross it
Nobody knows if people would prefer driving across a bridge rather than crossing the bay by ferry
If it collapsed during construction we would be out our money with nothing to show for it
It would be a high profile target during a war and if it were bombed the Navy fleet would be bottled up in the Bay (that was actually a 1926 Navy objection)
The Board of Directors are not “angels”
His main accomplice in bridge bashing was James B. Pope, a civil engineer who once worked for the Southern Pacific railroad. Ornbaun praised him as “a consulting engineer of prominence” and “the boy who knows the bridge business” (Pope was 61 years old at the time) because he had once built a 310-foot wagon bridge in San Bernadino county. The wacky cost estimates above likely all came from Pope, who finally decided the bridge would cost exactly $154,697,372 based on his analysis of geodetic survey maps. Strauss had, by the way, offered to share with him the studies prepared by his engineers, but Pope declined to look at them because he “did not need it.”
Ornbaun, Pope and a couple of others had been busy fellows in 1926-1927 and collected about 2,300 signatures of property owners who wanted to opt-out from the proposed Bridge District.2 This meant court hearings in each of the counties with sizable opposition – a process which delayed the bridge project by a full year. But hey, the hearings gave Ornbaun a chance to strut his stuff in courtrooms and cross-examine Strauss, Doyle, Finley, and other project leaders, seemingly fishing for someone to admit the whole plan was a scam or at least that true cost would be closer to Pope’s absurd estimates.
What did come out in testimony was that the booster’s motives were far less altruistic than expressed at the 1923 conference, where it was said the high-minded mission was uniting the Bay Area into “one great thriving populous community,” and bridging the Golden Gate “cannot be measured in dollars and cents.” They were very much using dollars and cents as their measuring stick; Doyle and others who testified were clear their primary objective was jacking up Sonoma and Marin real estate, and they originally wanted Strauss to build something fast and cheap.
Although the 1927 PD headline below says property values might double, some of the actual testimony on that day predicted it would shoot up to 400 percent. And even if the bridge couldn’t built for some reason, they were already ahead – speculators had been buying and selling Marin and Sonoma land on the promise of the bridge almost immediately after the 1923 conference.
Sorry, Casper – despite all your efforts, the court threw out your case at the end of 1928. That meant the Bridge District could be formed and impose a small property tax to pay for tests and studies to see if the bridge could be built at all. Ornbaun continued to rattle around for a couple of more years making threats to sue, but no one paid much attention.
Flip the calendar ahead and it’s 1930, time for the District’s six member counties (San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Del Norte, parts of Napa and Mendocino) to vote on a $35 million bond measure to pay for construction. And suddenly there are new bridge opponents: The Pacific American Steamship Association and the Shipowners’ Association of the Pacific Coast. They’re saying the bridge might be too low for safe passage, and there should be first an independent investigation by the state – never mind that the War Department had already approved it as having enough clearance for any ship in existence or under construction.
The Press Democrat and ads by the Bridge District fired back that the “Ferry Trust” was using the associations as front groups to confuse voters, but never explained the connection. Perhaps they didn’t know at the time that the two associations were essentially the same company, in the same offices and the president of both was the same man: Captain Walter J. Petersen – a man who apparently had no familiarity with steamships except as a passenger. The “Captain” in his title referred to his Army service in WWI, or maybe because he was also a captain in the Oakland Police Department in the 1920s (he was Police Chief for awhile, and always referred to as “former Chief” in print except when the reference was to the associations).
Sorry, Captain/Chief – the bond passed with overwhelming support, and nothing more would be said about those serious threats to navigation which were keeping you awake nights. To celebrate, Santa Rosa threw a “Victory Jubilee” parade which included a huge bonfire in the middle of Fourth street, with an effigy labeled “Apathy” thrown into the flames.
The last challenge to the bridge happened in 1931-1932, just months before construction was to begin. This time it was a suit in federal court charging the Bridge District was a “pretended corporation” so the bond was null and void. This time the ferry companies convinced two businesses to act as fronts for them.3 This time the ferry companies used their customary law firm to represent their proxies in court. This time it was so transparent that the ferry companies were behind this crap the American Legion and other groups demanded a boycott of the ferries as well as the Southern Pacific railroad. This time the ferry companies gave up in August, 1932, rather than pursuing their nuisance suit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
What’s truly amazing about all this was the contemptuousness of the ferry companies, no matter what. Sure, our lawyers are representing those companies in the anti-bond lawsuit, but so what? We’re not actually a party to the suit! No, the bridge is not necessary – our ferries are more than capable of handling the traffic demands across the Golden Gate! Never mind that there were routinely hours-long backups on the auto ferries during peak times. At the end of the 1926 Memorial Day weekend there were eight thousand cars in Sausalito queued up for a spot on a ferry. Many gave up and parked their autos as far away as San Rafael so they could get a seat on a ferryboat and make it in to work the next day. It took three days working around the clock just to clear the line of people who were still patiently waiting with their cars.
It was because of these crazy bottlenecks that everyone, everyone, hated the ferries so much that the North Bay was ready to consider a ferry boycott, even though it would have cut us off from nearly all connection to San Francisco – we might have been forced back to the pre-1870 heyday of Petaluma riverboats.
Without its monopoly, the ferry was doomed. Where they had earned a 25 percent profit a year (!!) in the mid-1920s, they lost $1,000,000 in 1937 after the Golden Gate Bridge opened. The company slashed fares. They tried to sell the franchise to the Toll Bridge Authority for $3.75M. Finally in July 1938 – 14 months after the first car drove across the bridge – Southern Pacific closed the ferries to the public.
But during the days of opening celebration, the ferries were never mentioned. On that 1937 Memorial Day weekend the public could not wait to be on their new bridge. During the preview “Pedestrian Day,” 202,000 came to walk the bridge, so many that the turnstiles couldn’t keep up; they opened the barriers and put out tin buckets for people to throw in the nickels. The Press Democrat reported bands played from the San Francisco shore as bombs burst in the clear, deep blue sky.
In Santa Rosa there was a breakfast held in honor of Frank Doyle – who insisted he was the “stepfather” of the bridge, not its father. Mark Lee – the former Chamber of Commerce guy who debated Ornbaun a decade earlier – reminded the audience that the prize was still boosting the town: “…you face great opportunity. The tourists’ dollars, as well as those of business investors and home seekers will find a place in your community, now made so accessible to the thousands who will come into northern California.” Ernest Finley spoke of the “untold advantages and development for Santa Rosa” brought by the bridge.
On the editorial page Finley also reminded that thousands of people would be driving through Santa Rosa enroute to the ceremonies, and the governor of Oregon and other officials were being given a reception in Juilliard Park that afternoon. “Never before has Santa Rosa, destined to be the focal point for population and industry after the mammoth span is opened,” he wrote, encouraging residents to greet the cavalcade by lining Mendocino and Santa Rosa Avenues, showing “a proper display of enthusiasm.” There was much to cheer with enthusiasm that day, particularly if you were a Sonoma County realtor.
1 The “Damn the circulation” story first appeared as an afterword to “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” a collection of Finley’s thumbnail descriptions published in 1942 after his death. There Press Democrat Publisher Carl R. Lehman wrote that Circulation Manager McBride Smith approached Finley at his desk and told him the paper was sometimes losing 50-100 subscribers per day. “We can’t keep going at this rate. Our circulation will be ruined if this keeps up.” Lehman continued, “without looking up from his desk, Finley replied in his quiet but determined voice: ‘Damn the circulation. The bridge must be built.'” Smith recounted the story himself in a 1949 PD tribute to Finley but added, “he pounded the desk with his fist” as he said it. While the quote certainly matches Finley’s sentiments, it seems like an odd thing to blurt out to an office employee.
2 The anti-Bridge District count was 823 property owners in Napa and 902 in Mendocino. There were originally 574 signatures from Sonoma County, knocked down to 555 by the time the hearings began in November, 1927. That’s likely close to the number of Press Democrat subscribers who cancelled.
3 The two companies in the 1932 federal suit were the Del Norte Company, Ltd. (identified in the press only as “a large Del Norte property owner” and a “lumber firm”) and the Garland Company, Ltd. real estate firm of San Francisco led by Robert E. Strahorn, one of 92 property owners who had joined a taxpayer’s anti-bridge group as part of the 1930 opposition to the bond. The president of Southern Pacific-Golden Gate Ferries, Ltd. S.P. Eastman admitted in court he had sent a letter to Del Norte Company asking them to file the suit and promising to pay all legal fees (wire service story in Press Democrat and elsewhere, Feb. 20, 1932). Their involvement, combined with a September 3, 1925 editorial in the San Francisco Examiner, “Bridge No Foe to Lumbermen”, has led modern writers to claim there was substantial bridge opposition from logging interests, but I don’t find that mentioned in any of the voluminous coverage of all things related to the bridge in the Press Democrat, Ukiah papers, or elsewhere.
‘It’s the Bunk,’ Ornbaun Says In Discussing S.F. Bay Span
…Ornbaun was armed with many generalities, few if any figures, and an armful of Press Democrats. He spent most of his time asserting that the Press Democrat was the bunk and seeking to explain how the newspaper had sold itself to the bridge project. Incidentally, he asserted also that the bridge project was “the bunk.”
“The bridge can’t be built. I know it can’t be built. It is impossible to build it. And after it is built it will cost $300,000 a year to paint it. Such, in effect, was his reference to the proposed span from San Francisco to Marin county.
“I am interested in this fight only because I am a Sonoma county taxpayer,” he asserted. He referred to the fact that he represents 20,000 acres of Mendocino and Sonoma county land, but did not mention that it was sheep land.
“I have not been promised money by the railroads or timber interests, he continued. “When the bridge is built it will take too long to cross it.”
The speaker took occasion to flay Joseph B. Strauss of Chicago, one of the country’s foremost bridge engineers, by saying Strauss is “guessing” in his Golden Gate bridge design. He praised one Pope, who in a Humboldt county meeting admitted he was not a bridge engineer, as “the boy who knows the bridge business.”
“I hope to address more people next time I speak,” concluded Ornbaun, speaking to a crowd which had dwindled to about 50, about half of whom were from Healdsburg and points other than Sebastopol…
– Press Democrat, March 17, 1926
BRIDGING THE GOLDEN GATE
THERE IS AN OLD SAYING to the effect that the luxuries of today are the necessities of tomorrow. We also have the necessities of today that must be met without wailing for the tomorrows. With these must now be classed the bridge across the Golden Gate, once regarded merely as an idle dream.
San Francisco, cooped up as she is with a land outlet in only one direction, has come to realize that a bridge across the Golden Gate is necessary to her further growth and development. We of the North Bay counties know only too, well that this section of California can’ never come fully into its own until we have been brought into direct connection with the metropolis.
Engineers agree that the bridge can be built. Financiers assure us that the necessary funds will be forthcoming. Under the circumstances, no time should be lost in putting the project under way. With such a spirit back of the movement as was manifested here Saturday, there seems to be no good reason why actual construction should not begin at a very early date.
Then watch us grow!
– Press Democrat, January 14, 1923
You Can’t Convince Him
Arguments heard from time to time against the feasibility of the Golden Gate bridge project represent for che most part a set mental attitude of those who do not want to be convinced. You cannot discuss projects of this character with men who begin by sweeping aside with one breath all the arguments in its support, and attempt to start from there-There is the man, for instance, who sets his judgment against that of the worlds foremost engineers and says the bridge cannot be built at all. We also have the man who has heard somebody opine that the cost will not be twenty-five millions as has already been carefully computed by experts, but sixty or eighty millions, and who knows it will really cost a lot more. We have also the individual so constituted that upon his mind facts already established and details actually accomplished make no impression. He does not want to take them into consideration and so ignores them or else calmly denies their existence There is also the man who is devoid of imagination. He cannot possibly see how connecting this part of the state with the rest of California and cutting out the troublesome ferries, could improve conditions, add anything to our population or increase property values The bridge cannot be built, because nobody has ever built one like it up to the present time; if possible to construct such a bridge, its cost would be many times that estimated by people engaged in the business, and therefore prohibitive; the cost would not be met by the collection of tolls, as planned by its projectors, but from the pockets of the taxpayers; it is a county matter rather than a district undertaking, as set forth in the law, and consequently if the bridge should be constructed and finally prove unsuccessful final responsibility would rest with the counties making up the district and perhaps with some one county alone, with the result that that county would be wiped off the map; there is no way one can prove that people would cross on a bridge in preference to crossing the bay by ferry, or that more people would travel up this way if they could do so more conveniently than they can at present, because that fact has not yet been demonstrated; if the bridge should be built and something should happen to it later on, or if it should collapse during time of construction, the bonding companies might net pay and we would be out our money and have nothing to show for it these are some of the arguments of the man who is against the project for reasons of his own, but does not care to come out and say so. Talking with him is a waste of time.
– Press Democrat, August 1, 1925
Great Engineering Feat Proposed to Connect Marin-San Francisco Counties by Bridging the Golden Gate
Mr. James H. Wilkins, one of the eldest residents of San Rafael and a man who has the best interests of the county at heart has interested himself in the great scheme of connecting Marin County with San Francisco county by the construction of a massive bridge across the Golden Gate.
Would Extend From Lime Point to Fort Point Bluffs
A lengthy article accompanied by a map was presented in last Saturday’s Bulletin. It is not a new scheme but has been talked of for a great many years. Nothing, however, as definite as the plan therein presented by Mr. Wilkins has been advocated. This great project should appeal not only to the residents of Marin County but the residents of the entire northern part of the State.
Quoting from Mr. Wilkins communication the following plan is outlined:
From Lime Point To Fort Point Bluffs
“To give a general descriptive outline, the abutments and backstays would be located, respectively, on the rocky blue of Lime Point and on the high ground above Fort Point. The breadth of the “Gate” here is 3800 feet. The towers over which the cable pass, would be so located as to give a central span of 3000 feet, and side spans of approximately 1000 feet. The catenary, or curved line formed by the suspended cable, would have a central dip of approximately 65 feet. Therefore, the elevation of the towers must be 215 feet to secure the clearance required.
“From the southern abutment the railroad line would descend by a threequarters of 1 per cent grade, bringing it precisely to the elevation of the intersection of Chestnut and Divisadero streets, a block away from the site of the Tower of Jewels, that marked the main entrance to the never-to-be-forgotten Exposition. Just a few blocks farther is the belt railroad that traverses the entire waterfront, the business heart of the city, ready to be a link of the great commercial carrier of the western world.
Pedestrian Promenade Across Strait
From this plan might be omitted the upper or promenade deck, with material reduction of cost, leaving only rail and automobile roadways. The promenade is, indeed, more or less of a matter of sentiment. Crossing the Golden Gate in midair would present, perhaps, the most impressive, emotional prospect in the world. Why should not those enjoy it who are, by unkindly circumstance, still constrain travel on their own legs? Moreover, it would be best observed leisurely, not from a flying train or automobile.
“After the shock of the bare statement, the first and preliminary inquiry arises, Is the project practicable—and practical?
“Beyond cavil or question, yes—far more so than the proposed five and a half mile bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. This is not a guess. I do most things in life indifferently, I am a graduate civil engineer, know a thing or two about applied mathematics and am familiar with construction work from building pigsties to building railroads—I have built both. The proposed suspension bridge—the central span—would be longer than any other structure of its kind in the world. But that only means stronger material, extra factors of safety. And nowhere in the world has nature presented such an admirable site. Bluff shore lines and easy gradients on either side —no costly approaches and still more costly right of way.
Idea Was Old As as State’s Railroading
The idea is almost as old as railroading in our State. When the Central Pacific made its entry into California, the original route via Stockton, Livermore Pass, Niles canyon, with its long detour and heavy grades was found to be impracticable. The company, therefore surveyed a more direct low-level line, departing from the present route east of the Suisan marshes, passing through the counties of Solano, Napa, Sonoma and Marin. In 1862 I was present at a session of the Marin Supervisors when Charles Crocker explained his plans, among which was a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate. Detail plans and estimates for such a bridge were actually made by Central Pacific engineers. But, along came a man with a newer idea—the transfer of trains across Carquinez straits by steamer and the extension of the Oakland mole to tide water. And so the suspension bridge project died.
“The length of the proposed bridge from Oakland to San Francisco is approximately 27,000 feet, as against approximately 5000 feet from abutment to abutment of the suspension bridge. The former, if constructed on arches, could not fail to interfere seriously with navigation of the upper bay. One serious objection seems to be that the projectors do not know where to land it on our side of the bay. One engineer gives it a terminal on the summit of Telegraph Hill!
Cost Ranging From 25 to 75 Millions
“The estimates of the cost of the San Francisco-Oakland bridge range from 25 to 75 million dollars.
From such data as I have, and by comparison with the cost of similar structures, a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate could be built for less than ten million dollars. This is an extreme estimate, accepted by several engineers to whom this article was referred.
“But as a final and fatal stumbling block, the foolish jealousy between the rival towns will never permit them to join in a great constructive enterprise till human nature has materially changed. That will not be in my time or yours.
“Of course, it will be objected to at once that both terminals of the suspension bridge would necessarily be located on military reserves of the government. But such an objection could hardly stand. Indeed, it ought to be an immense strategic advantage to have the two great defensive points of the harbor connected up. Doubtless the government would gladly grant the easement. It is in inconceivable that any government would arbitrarily block one of the greatest and most significant undertakings ever attempted by civilized men. Certainly no hostile attitude was assumed at Washington when the plan was materially considered over forty years ago.
Financing of Project a Community Investment
“Still as the intimate concern of San Francisco and the North Coast counties, the undertaking should be properly financed by these communities, as a public utility concern. Having only a sincere desire to be closely united, this ought to be simplicity itself, for the extremely simple reason that a bond issue of $10,000,000 would take care of itself and speedily retire itself. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad alone spends half a million dollars a year to maintain a line of steamboats between San Francisco and Marin county points, which is extremely wicked interest on the total cost. Very small charges for its use would soon pay interest, principal and all.
And if, from a financial standpoint, it were a total loss, still San Francisco would be far ahead. The city could well afford to pay $10,000,000 or more for the greatest advertisement in the world—for a work never before surpassed by the imagination and handiwork of man. Whether viewed from its lofty deck, commanding the contrasting prospect—to the west, the grand old tumultuous ocean; to the east, the placid bay; or from incoming ships; or from the landward hills: it would bid fair to remain forever the most stupendous, awe-inspiring monument of our modern civilization. And it could have no rival, for there is only one Golden Gate in the world.
Greatest Of World’s Harbor Improvements
“Even in remote times, long preceding the Christian era, the ancients understood the value of dignifying their harbors with impressive works. The Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos of Alexandria were counted among the seven wonders of the world. The same tendency appears in our own times, witness the cyclopean Statue of Liberty at the entrance of New York harbor. But the bridge across the Golden Gate would dwarf and overshadow all.”
This proposition has created more enthusiasm in San Rafael than any other for some time. Mayor Herzog and the City Council have all endorsed it enthusiastically. The Central Marin Chamber of Commerce is expected to act at their next meeting and the County Supervisors will also probably act at their meeting next week. While the cost of such a bridge would be enormous it is not insurmountable as pointed out in Mr. Wilkins’ article. Such a proposition if constructed would undoubtedly double the value of real estate in Marin county in a short time and no doubt in a few years the population of Marin county would increase five-fold. This proposition is not a wild-cat dream and deserves a lot of consideration.