When the big book of Sonoma county history is writ, there should be a special chapter on some of the remarkably dumb business ventures that were tried here and flopped spectacularly.
Near the top of the list would be Jack London’s eucalyptus obsession, which caused him to squander a fortune. London wasn’t alone in the mistaken belief that blue gum trees would be a valuable cash crop but he was probably the largest investor, planting about 100,000 seedlings. The trees proved worthless (plus a fire hazard, to boot) and just made London’s Beauty Ranch stink like cheap menthol cough drops.
London only wasted money with his dream of a eucalyptus plantation, but in the 1870s a Glen Ellen farmer inadvertently launched an environmental disaster. In 1871 Julius A. Poppe set up a fish farm but he didn’t stock it with Steelhead or Rainbow Trout or another native fish; instead, he imported common carp all the way from Germany.
Often called a “trash fish,” common carp could be the eucalyptus of the piscatorial world. They grow big very fast, spawn prolifically and crowd out any other species in its vicinity. And like blue gum trees, they are mostly worthless – very difficult to clean as well as eat because of their tiny bones, not to mention being also an acquired taste. Yet it was a traditional food for German/Central European immigrants and carp ponds became a local fad, with Poppe selling breeding fish to more than a dozen farmers.
Big winter storms caused some of the ponds to overflow and by the middle of the decade carp were found in creeks, rivers and the Laguna. That was the death knell for commercial carp farming in Sonoma county, although Poppe also sold stock to farmers in Southern California, Hawai’i, and even Central America.
But there seemed to be an upside to the release of the fish into the wild; carp fishing in the Laguna became a popular sport and a tourist draw. In 1879 the State Board of Fish Commissioners even supported carp by introducing catfish, which would eat the “water dogs” – newts of the now endangered tiger salamander – which preyed upon juvenile carp.
Shift forward fifteen years and attitudes are flipped. Sportsmen realized the carp were forcing out trout and other types of fish which people actually liked to eat, while carp were also reducing the food supply of migratory ducks. Thus in 1896 the state introduced largemouth bass into the Laguna to eat the carp (“all the carp which are now in the stream will eventually be destroyed, as black bass are death on carp” – Sonoma Democrat, 4/24/1897). Two years later the bass itself had become such a nuisance that someone began trying to wipe them out with dynamite: “Every few days a stick of powder is touched off under the water and as a result dead bass in great quantities can be seen floating on the surface,” reported the Sebastopol Times in 1898.
What a fine example this was of the Unintended Consequences Law; in less than a quarter century, a modest side business of a few farmers ended up wrecking an entire ecosystem. Even today, catfish and bass appear to be in all our local waterways, while Mr. Poppe’s carp can still be found in Green Valley Creek, Estero Americano, the Petaluma River and elsewhere.
Although the carp and eucalyptus projects didn’t make any money (or at least not much), at least they moved the ball forward; Poppe successfully imported fish from Germany and sold some. London indeed planted a carpload of trees which no one wanted. But John M. King badly fumbled between the dreaming and the doing. John M. King wanted to become the first steamboat captain on the Russian River.
|A 1908 steamer with the same dimensions as King’s Enterprise|
Nothing is known about King – whether he had any experience aboard ships or even how old he was. “John King” and even “John M. King” was a surprisingly common name at that time. From descriptions in the weekly Russian River Flag newspaper we know he indeed built a very small stern-wheel steamboat in 1869. There are no photos but it must have resembled the Mazama steamer shown above. Named the Enterprise, King’s little ship was only fifty feet long and sat high in the water, with a draft of only a foot and the paddles dipping in merely ten inches. Although it was so tiny that it probably looked like somebody’s hobby boat, the specs were a good match for the shallow Russian River except for one issue – the very first article about him mentioned “…in the season of high water the Captain expects to run to Healdsburg.”
Paddling around the lower Russian River and piloting a boat through the bendy twists of the river around Healdsburg are two very different goals. Yes, his dinky steamer was more maneuverable than a larger craft, but that’s not gonna help if that part of the river dried up completely (or nearly so), as it did every autumn back then. The river was only legally declared navigable in 1976 by a court revising the meaning of “navigable” as not necessarily allowing passage year-round. And closer to King’s day back in 1886, the state Supreme Court had declared specifically that “the [Russian] river is not navigable for boats larger than canoes, skiffs, etc., and is not in fact navigable for commercial purposes.”*
Captain King built the Enterprise just downstream from Heald and Guerne’s lumber mill, which is to say a mile west of today’s Safeway store in Guerneville. He also built two barges to tow with his steamer; he had a contract with the mill to carry shingles and lumber to the mouth of the river, where presumably an ocean-going ship would connect to take the barges down to San Francisco. But before he began barging or making his quixotic run to Healdsburg, King wanted to show off a bit.
King took out an ad in the Flag announcing an “excursion” from Guerneville to Duncan’s Mills. “…The trip will afford one continuous panorama of the most beautiful and romantic scenery,” he burbled, as well as the chance to see lumbermen’s camps – which seems to me a bit like the SMART train trying to draw riders by promising scenic views into junky backyards and homeless encampments.
Alas, a cancellation notice quickly followed. “The excursion trip is postponed for a few days, owing to an unavoidable accident which will be soon remedied, when all will be right again.” As the summer and autumn of 1869 passed, King continued to tinker with his boat and just before Christmas the Flag reported that he was actually towing cargo. The excursion to Duncan’s Mill and back (with dancing on the barges in tow) supposedly happened Dec. 23-24, but nothing further appeared in the paper.
He failed to meet his goal of reaching Healdsburg before Christmas, but told the Flag he “intends next Summer to make regular trips – three times a week — from the month of the river to Healdsburg.” Besides working on his boat, “the Capt. has constructed a dam and lock, which gives the river a three foot rise above the dam,” reported the Flag. “He will open the lock and let the boat ride through to the sea on the accumulated waters.”
Then sometime after the New Year with the river around its winter peak, he made a run for Healdsburg. He sank two miles past Guerneville.
“The indomitable Captain has got her afloat again,” reported the Flag a few weeks later. King was aided by someone from the Mare Island Navy Yard as well as fifteen men clearing obstructions in the water. “Capt. King’s steamer, ‘Enterprise,’ will probably reach Healdsburg today. as she is now but a short distance below town,” the paper reported on March 24.
He didn’t. The ship ran aground again and this time could not be budged. It stayed wherever it was for months, maybe years.
In November of 1871 a visitor was told “…she twisted off her shaft and went to the bottom; and how the hulk now lies half-buried in the sand — a warning to any man so presumptuous as to attempt steamboat navigation on a river along which there is not yet enough traffic to have made even a decent bridle-path…”
Hannah Clayborn, who writes some about the steamboat in the “Roads, Ferries, and Bridges” chapter of her Healdsburg history page, suggests it got no farther than the Windsor area, but Dr. Shipley’s “Tales of Sonoma County” says King almost made it to the summer dam:
|She struck hard aground and fast, the water went down and left the tug high and dry on the bar and it had to be abandoned until the next high water when the fall rains set in, at which time she was repaired, re-caulked, and with the crew who brought her up the river the spring before, they sailed, or rather steamed, down the muddy water back to the sea…|
Why he risked – and ultimately, lost – his river hauling business at Guerneville is a mystery. What was so important about reaching Healdsburg by water? His steamer was so small he could not have carried much cargo aboard, and he certainly could not have gotten his barges through the channel. And even in the middle of the rainy season, Healdsburg was not cut off by road, or at least no more than other towns. A January, 1870 letter from a Healdsburger who went to Vallejo remarked, “the road to Santa Rosa was so so – very fair for our county; from thence to Petaluma it was too abominable to talk about to strangers.”
My guess is that King’s venture was bankrolled by Thomas W. Hudson, who owned considerable property on the southern end of Healdsburg. A one-term member of the state Assembly 1869-1871, the only bill he tried to get passed was to declare the Russian River navigable so state money could be spent on improvement. “This is intended to encourage and protect the indomitable enterprise of Capt. John M. King,” the Flag noted. Hannah Clayborn wrote, “…declaring the river navigable would have served Hudson’s interests, as he owned the west bank of the river and half of a ferry system throughout the 1860’s, a natural location for a proposed Healdsburg Wharf.”
There’s an odd little Believe-it-or-Not! twist to the sad tale of steamboat captain John M. King, and I’m not sure what to make of it. About two months after the (final) sinking, he wrote a letter to the Flag informing them he was now running a sawmill near Cloverdale, and would return to the Russian River soon and build a new ship which he would name the “Perseverance.” Alas, he wrote, Heald and Guerne were trying to break him and had attached the Enterprise for money owed. They had even attached his dog, Gipsey, “which I valued more than money.” The pooch was supposedly sold for $200. “This seems like a large sum. but I would not have taken twice that amount for it.”
The next week Tom Heald wrote the paper. “Heald and Guerne have not attached the boat as represented by King, and, as to his dog ‘Gipsie,’ I never as much as knew he had such a dog. Heald and Guerne do not wish to ‘break’ J. M. King, nor to ‘keep him broke,’ but suppose we will have the pleasure of seeing the ‘Perseverence’ when she comes along.”
* The 1976 case was Hitchings v. Del Rio Woods Recreation & Park District. One of the lawyers in the 1886 Wright v. Seymour suit was this journal’s favorite antihero, James Wyatt Oates.
The Steamboat “Enterprise.” — This boat now being built at Heald’s Mill by Capt. John M. King, will be launched next Saturday the 15th. The machinery is all aboard now and the boat will be completed within two or three weeks, when she will make an excursion to Duncan’s Mill on the Coast, going down one day and returning the next. As many of our citizens will want to join the excursion the Flag will give timely notice of the day set for it to come off. The livery stables will run stages down to the landing twelve miles from Healdsburg. Capt. King has been running a barge on the river, drawing from fourteen to twenty-six inches, according to the load. He has made six round trips from Heald’s Mill, carrying, in the aggregate, 200,000 shingles and 20,000 feet of lumber, besides considerable farm and dairy produce. He has built another barge drawing only twelve inches when loaded. He is now building the “Enterprise” to tow these barges. The boat is 50 feet long; 10 foot beam on the bottom and 14½ on deck; Engine 15 horsepower; draught 12 inches; depth of hull 44 inches; dip of paddles (stern wheel) 10 inches. She is built in a superior manner and fitted up with a cabin and all necessary conveniences for carrying passengers. Capt. King having a contract for carrying the lumber from Heald & Guern’s Mill the regular trips of the boat will be between that point and the Coast. In the season of high water the Captain expects to run to Healdsburg. This would give us cheap freight between Healdsburg and San Francisco while the mud road to Petaluma was at its worst. We hope Capt. King’s enterprise in building the “Enterprise” will be richly rewarded.
– Russian River Flag, May 13 1869
Particular attention is likewise invited to the advertisement of Capt. John King, of the new steamboat “Enterprise.” He proposes an excursion which will give every one an opportunity to enjoy the delightful scenery along the navigable portion of Russian River, and also to visit the coast on the first steamboat ever built or run on this river. We hope the Captain may have an encouraging benefit on this occasion. His pioneering energy should be well rewarded. It is twelve miles we believe to the Mill from which the excursion starts.
– Russian River Flag, May 20 1869
Read Capt. King’s advertisement carefully once more and decide whether you can afford to lose the trip. — We learn from Capt. King, and you will learn from our correspondent “Visitor,” that the excursion is postponed for a few days. Be ready for another announcement.
– Russian River Flag, June 3 1869
Letter from “Big Bottom.” Big Bottom, May 29th, 1869.
Mr. Editor: The most important event of th« day to the people of Lower Russian River, is the successful launching of the steamboat “Enterprise” built at Heald’s Mill by Capt. J. M. King. The scene was witnessed by many of the citizens — ladies and gentlemen — who met there on the occasion. The little boat sat on the water beautifully, and promises all that her sanguine friends could have anticipated of her. The excursion trip is postponed for a few days, owing to an unavoidable accident which will be soon remedied, when all will be right again. When ready, due notice will be given to all. – Visitor
– Russian River Flag, June 10 1869
The steamer Enterprise, Capt. John King, has steam up again and is running. It will make a trial trip to the mouth of the river this week. The Capt. has constructed a dam and lock, which gives the river a three foot rise above the dam. He will open the lock and let the boat ride through to the sea on the accumulated waters. — Capt. King says that three locks would be sufficient to make the Russian River navigable to Healdsburg the whole year; also that we may expect to see his boat up here the first Fall rains.
– Russian River Flag, August 12 1869
We visited the steamer Enterprise, lying one mile below the mill. Capt. King is quite confident that he will visit Healdsburg by steam before Christmas. Says he intends next Summer to make regular trips – three times a week — from the month of the river to Healdsburg. Next Saturday he intends making his first trip to the mouth of the river.
– Russian River Flag, August 26 1869
Capt. King of the steamer Enterprise was in town last week having some repairing done to the machinery of his boat, which will soon be skimming over the waters of Russian River.
– Russian River Flag, September 2 1869
A Success. – The new steamer Enterprise recently constructed by Captain King for navigating the Russian River, made her trial trip on the 23d ult., and we are glad to learn, proved a success. Her speed was some ten miles an hour.
– Petaluma Argus, October 7 1869
The Steamer Enterprise. — We are pleased to learn from Mr. J. W. Bagley that Capt. King’s boat, the Enterprise, is now successfully running on Russian River. She left Heald & Guern’s Mill on the 16th with several passengers for Duncan’s Mill, with barges in tow loaded with charcoal. On her next trip she will carry hoop poles and several thousand Christmas trees for San Francisco. At last, after several unsuccessful attempts, Russian River is navigated by a live steamboat, and we hope, when the river rises, to see the little vessel throw out her bow lines and stern lines and spring lines to the Healdsburg wharf! Captain King is entitled to great praise for his indomitable pluck and perseverance under difficulties and we hope his “Enterprise” may prove a great success. Since the above was in type we are informed that the boat will leave Heald & Guern’s Mill today at 12 o’clock on a pleasure excursion to Duncan’s Mill and return at noon tomorrow. Fare down and back, $2.50. Two barges fitted up for dancing will be in tow.
– Russian River Flag, December 23 1869
Mr. Hudson’s bill declaring Russian River navigable and providing for its improvement, has passed the Assembly. This is intended to encourage and protect the indomitable enterprise of Capt. John M. King, who has built a steamboat to navigate Russian River, and it will no doubt become a law. It will be of great benefit to our county.
– Russian River Flag, February 17 1870
The Enterprise. – Some weeks since Capt. King attempted to make a passage to Healdsburg with the “Enterprise,” but a little above Heald and Guern’s mill the pilot backed the boat upon a snag and sank her. This occasioned delay and considerable expense, but the indomitable Captain has got her afloat again and with the experienced help of his friend Capt. Parker, of the Mare Island Navy Yard, he will make the first voyage to Healdsburg as soon as some obstructions can be removed from the river, which he is now engaged in doing, with a force of fifteen men. The boat is now above the mouth of Mark West creek about ten miles below Healdsburg. The captain has bought new sixty horse power engines for her and he will keep her here when she comes up until they are put in.
– Russian River Flag, March 10 1870
Capt. King’s steamer, “Enterprise,” will probably reach Healdsburg today. as she is now but a short distance below town.
– Russian River Flag, March 24 1870
The Russian River Boat.
We have learned with considerable regret that Capt. King’s boat the “Enterprise.” is, for the present, a failure. The Captain has met with many serious difficulties in his undertaking, the chief of which lately, seem to have been the summary manner in which some of his creditors have secured their claims, whether rightfully or not we have no knowledge, and of course have nothing to say upon that head, though we had hoped that the Captain’s energy and perseverance would be rewarded. At his request we publish the following letter:
Eds. Flag: — I take this opportunity of thanking you for the many favors you have done me during the time I have been endeavoring to prove that Russian River is navigable. Although I differ very widely from you in politics, yet as long as I can use a hammer and cold chisel you may consider me one of your subscribers. Messrs. Heald & Guern have attached my boat, but that will not prevent me from making a living, as some friends have engaged me to run the Perseverance Saw mill, which is located thirteen miles above Cloverdale. They also attached my dog, “Gipsey,” which I valued more than money. They sold the dog for $200. This seems like a large sum. but I would not have taken twice that amount for it. They may break me, but they cannot keep me broke. The first of August, I will commence building another steamboat, at the mouth of Russian River, to be called the “Perseverance.” Again thanking you for past favors I ask that you do me one more by publishing this letter. Respectfully, yours,
John M. King.
– Russian River Flag, May 5 1870
A Card From Mr. Heald.
Eds Flag: — If I may be permitted the space in your paper to correct some errors in the card of John M. King, in your issue of May 5th, I will be thankful for the favor, as it seems to throw the blame of the failure of his boat where it does not belong. I think, however, the fact of his trying some four weeks to get the boat to Healdsburg over the shoals, with the river falling every day, without any probability of a rise till next December, and only making twelve miles, should convince any one that the “Enterprise for the present is a failure,” and Heald and Guerne not wholly answerable tor it, if they had lately attached the boat; but the facts are, that Heald and Guerne have not attached the boat as represented by King, and, as to his dog “Gipsie,” I never as much as knew he had such a dog. Heald and Guerne do not wish to “break” J. M. King, nor to “keep him broke,” but suppose we will have the pleasure of seeing the “Perseverence” when she comes along.
Thos. T. Heald. May 8th. 1870.
– Russian River Flag, May 12 1870
IN THE REDWOODS.
Life among the Lumbermen – How the Redwoods are Cut and Hauled, etc.
[Correspondence to the Bulletin.]
Stumptown, Sonoma Co., Nov. 20th
…Two or three hours I listened to these heavy stories, and to my hosts narrative of his financial shipwreck through a rash steamboat venture up Russian river with one King; how she twisted off her shaft and went to the bottom; and how the hulk now lies half-buried in the sand — a warning to any man so presumptuous as to attempt steamboat navigation on a river along which there is not yet enough traffic to have made even a decent bridle-path…
– Russian River Flag, November 30 1871