under1963bridge

HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…

Pity future historians; they will struggle to understand why we destroyed the things we loved most – and even paid for the pleasure. When the 1960s began, Santa Rosa had a lovely creek burbling through its downtown. Before the decade ended, the town’s jewel became a flood control channel buried under a pile of reinforced concrete buildings which no one would ever call lovely.

In the history of many towns there’s a chapter with an unhappy and wrong-headed tale such as this, and it’s because the nation was gripped by a collective madness called “urban renewal” during that era. Anything new would be better than anything old simply because. There was also free federal money available as long as the magic words were spoken: “urban blight.” So cities across America declared large swathes of their communities were indeed filled with areas injurious to public welfare because of being unfit, unsafe, obsolete, deteriorating, underdeveloped (read: undertaxed), subject to flooding or otherwise terribly blighted. File your blight report and don’t forget to include the address where Washington can send the money.

(This is part two of the series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner,” which examines how Santa Rosa – a city which has always had swaggering ambitions – only has limited options for betterment today because of terrible 20th century planning decisions. Part one showed the downtown core is cramped because we rejected proposals to revise its layout beyond the setting of the original 1853 village, and how highway 101 “sawed the town in half” against the advice of state engineers.)

Santa Rosa took its first redevelopment baby steps in 1958 when the City Council formed an Urban Renewal Agency (URA). Besides its five appointed members there was soon a full-time planner, an executive director hired from Merced and out-of-town consultants to study the issues (bet you didn’t see that twist coming). Come September 1960 they discovered that Santa Rosa was indeed blighted, and in the amount of forty acres.

Meanwhile, there was another federal gravy train pulling into the station loaded with even more money, this time for flood control. Normally the Army Corps of Engineers does this kind of work but Sonoma Water (AKA the Sonoma County Water Agency, AKA the Sonoma County Flood Control and Water Conservation District) wrestled away most of the project along with its $11.8M budget – the equivalent to about $106,000,000 today.

Both urban renewal and flood control projects kept a low profile over the next few years. Reports were written, best plans were laid. Surveyors surveyed. The most exciting related event was the design proposal by the city’s New Jersey consultants. A scale model of their reimagined downtown (“as modern and carefully engineered as the latest model of a star-probing rocket” – PD) circulated around several bank lobbies. Their 1960 layout is seen in the drawing below, with a county/city government center along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek.

North looking view of 1960 Santa Rosa redesign by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ, with the courthouse/jail on the south side of Santa Rosa Creek.
North looking view of 1960 Santa Rosa redesign by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ, with the courthouse/jail on the south side of Santa Rosa Creek.

 

That they highlighted the creek was not surprising. Every prior re-envisioning of the town did the same, starting with plans for a waterpark in 1906 (which was followed by the quixotic attempt to turn it into Lake Santa Rosa). In 1945 there was local architect Cal Caulkins’ park at the junction of Matanzas and Santa Rosa Creeks to compliment his vision of a new civic center. While the URA and flood planning was underway Santa Rosa was also doing an update to its General Plan, and the Planning Commission wrote this in 1962: “It has been suggested that there is not enough emphasis upon the preservation of Santa Rosa Creek for public purposes, such as hiking, riding, and bicycling trails. The staff recommends that the general plan be changed to show a green belt throughout the whole length of the Santa Rosa Creek within the planning area.”

This shuffling rate of progress came to an abrupt end in early 1963, after the North Bay was slammed with the worst winter storm in eight years. Santa Rosa received over two inches of rain in 24 hours during Jan. 31-Feb. 1, and the Russian River flooded – according to the Russian River Historical Society, it ranked #11 among top floods. Suddenly big decisions had to made, and made fast.

In mid-February it was revealed $3.5 million of flood control funding would be lost unless work plans for the upcoming year were submitted by July 1. Unlike urban renewal money – which required little more than flashing a pretty smile in the general direction of Washington – the water money was controlled by a tightwad Congress limiting how much dribbled out each year and was awarded competitively from two different agencies.

Santa Rosa was in for a rude shock. Except for the Planning Commissioners having just recommended creek preservation as part of a greenbelt, nothing about the future of Santa Rosa Creek had been mentioned in the Press Democrat for years – undoubtedly everyone expected it to be a featured part of the beautification of the town promised as part of urban renewal, per the drawings and models by the consultants. Not so. A headline in the March 17 PD presented the grim options: “THE CHOICE ON SANTA ROSA CREEK: LINED DITCH OR CULVERT”.

It seemed that the flood experts had been planning since 1959 to use a concrete-lined culvert for the stretch of the creek running through downtown. Gentle Reader is forgiven for now muttering, “bait and switch.”

There were federal specifications connected with the project that required this, a consulting engineer explained. Otherwise, the banks of the creek would have to be gradually sloped back, which would “destroy access to and usefulness of many more acres,” according to the PD. Which, of course, was exactly what was shown in the drawings and models.

The only given alternative was to “bury the whole thing,” which URA officials “believe to be an even neater solution.” The article continued, “an artificial creek, somewhat like that in Juilliard Park, has been suggested as part of the landscaping.” A following edition of the paper illustrated the difference with a photo of an open culvert that had both banks protected by five-foot chainlink fences topped by barbed wire. Next to it was a pastoral image of Juilliard Park and its fake creek. Pick one.

A joint meeting was called with the City Council, Planning Commission, plus all their other little boards, commissions and agencies. The three side-by-side box culverts would be a total of 48 feet wide and 17 feet high, enough to handle the surge of a 100-year storm, the officials were told. Otherwise, if the creek overflowed “it would sweep through downtown.” But the consultant who said that was either ignorant or lying; during the megaflood of 1862 the Central Valley became a giant lake and Sacramento was under ten feet of water, yet here the overflow from Santa Rosa Creek barely reached Courthouse Square. It was hardly a calamity, but there was no one there to challenge his audacious claim.

So without further consideration they immediately approved the underground culvert plan, with the original creek bed to be filled in “for use as a landscaped pedestrian way, and an artificial creek as part of the landscaping.” The city would end up paying for a good chunk of that work, however, as flood control only covered the cost of it being an open channel. Thus the URA coughed up $311K to condemn to oblivion the only natural feature everyone wanted to preserve.

Putting a bright shine on the loss of something so precious, the URA Executive Director insisted they not only would save money on not having to build bridges, but the city now had additional land for development. And that raised a big new question: What should they build on top of it?

NEXT: …AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

Water levels at the A Street bridge during the 1963 flood. Top: Under an unspecified creek bridge during the 1963 flood, probably one of last pictures of Santa Rosa Creek before it was entombed. (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
Water levels at the A Street bridge during the 1963 flood. Top: Under an unspecified creek bridge during the 1963 flood, probably one of last pictures of Santa Rosa Creek before it was entombed. (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

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1905santarosacreek

THE GODAWFUL STINK OF SANTA ROSA CREEK

If you ever come across a time machine, avoid Santa Rosa in July, 1913. That month had the all-time hottest temperature (113 in the shade) as enormous wildfires blazed in Marin and Napa; it was also the second year of severe drought, causing the town’s reservoir to draw dangerously low. More about all that can be found in an earlier item, “THE AWFUL SUMMER OF 1913” but there was also something else: A terrible stench drifted up from Santa Rosa Creek.

The Press Democrat first reported PG&E was suspected as the culprit, as they operated the coal gas plant on the south side of the creek. A story in the PD the following day said the company investigated and it wasn’t them, instead suggesting it was probably “vegetation that has decayed,” causing the paper to skeptically snort, “at least that is their contention.” After weeks of complaints, Dr. Jackson Temple, the town’s Health Officer, and a reporter for the Santa Rosa Republican set off in a voyage of disgusting discovery to solve the mystery.

Ca. 1905 photo of Santa Rosa Creek, with the old Main Street bridge in the distance. Note the discharge pipe seen to the left. Photo Credit: “Santa Rosa, California in Vintage Postcards” by Bob and Kay Voliva

Dr. Temple and the reporter started behind the Levin tannery (the current location of 101 Brookwood Avenue). The tannery had a long history of polluting the creek with lime and highly toxic agents such as cyanide used in the manufacture of leather. Citizens had petitioned the City Council to get tough on the tannery and the Dept. of Fish and Game had sued over the poisoning of fish. But on the day of the creek survey, no problems were found – although cynics might wonder if the tannery had been tipped off about the creek investigation, given the business was Santa Rosa’s largest employer.

More distressing was what they found nearby: “Several piles of rotting vegetables and garbage were found at this spot and were evidently from private houses. There was plenty of evidence that many persons had used the creek for a considerable distance as an open air toilet.”

As their wagon continued bumping down the dry creek bed (drought, remember) they came to the PG&E gas plant, another source of frequent complaints about foul smells. And again, no problems were found that day, except for “a considerable deposit of lamp black” on the bottom of the creek. Dr. Temple proclaimed it harmless, but he was wrong; lampblack carbon residue was considered as toxic as petroleum tar even back then; in 1906 the Army Corps of Engineers specifically sued the Portland gas company for dumping it into the river and by 1913 PG&E had installed scrubbers at their plants in San Francisco and elsewhere to keep it out of the waterways.

So far, so good (mostly) – but as the Republican commented, “a short distance further on, however, came the worst conditions imaginable.”

This area was just south of the Davis street bridge, which was named in the earlier odor complaints. Today this section of Santa Rosa is gone, wiped out by the highway, but it was just where the southbound onramp from West Third street merges onto 101.

The main offenders were two major businesses, side-by-side: The Grace Brothers brewery (today the location of the Hyatt) and the Santa Rosa Tanning Company directly to its south. “The stench arising from this was indescribable,” the article said. “It filled the nostrils like blue smoke, filtered down into the lungs, and burned its way to the stomach, where it worked until it gave one the feeling of a bad morning after a worse night. The top of the water was covered solid with a green-black streaked scum, and the water beneath was as black as night.”

And that wasn’t all: “[A]nother sight was met which added greatly to the stench in the neighborhood. A toilet had been built of rough boards in the Mead Clark Lumber Company’s yards. The rear of the toilet was open and hung over the creek bank and its contents covered the bank for a distance of many feet.”

The next – and thankfully, last – horror was the cannery, where “two large streams of water were found pouring into the creek. The water was a wine purple in color and carried with it an orange colored scum, which was added to that from the brewery. Combined, the smell was almost overpowering” Just beyond that was a “great pile of refuse which was rotten and putrid, and which also gave off a most offensive odor.” Even though there was no further dumping downstream, the Republican said the stench from the water carried as far as where the creek passes under modern-day Dutton ave.

Gentle Reader is probably wondering why these companies were stinking up the town instead of discharging their waste down the sewers. As it turns out, that always might not have been an option.

Santa Rosa indeed had a sewer farm at the corner of West College and Stony Point (think Finley Community Park and the the city bus transit center) and by 1913 there were multiple septic tanks and several in-line evaporating/seepage ponds before the residual water was dumped into Santa Rosa Creek. But the system was usually teetering on the brink of collapse, according to John Cummings’ survey, “The Sewage of Santa Rosa” (which is a really fun read if you enjoy municipal screwups). In the decade before our stinky 1913 tour, town officials made a string of remarkably bad decisions. Some lowlights:

* In 1905 the city wrote to the Cameron Septic Tank Company in Chicago requesting plans and costs for a new tank. Told by the company that their system was patented and they required a deposit before providing plans, Santa Rosa ripped off the design and had locals construct it anyway. Cameron Septic sued, and Santa Rosa ended up paying back royalties plus the cost of building the copycat tank. That wooden septic tank was big enough to handle a population of 10,000, although there were already almost that many people in the greater Santa Rosa region. By 1912 the sewer committee reported the “sewage problem is in deplorable condition” as the system was beyond capacity.

 

* The original 1886 layout of the sewers called for eight-inch pipe west of Main Street/Mendocino, but only six-inch lines east of there into the main residential neighborhoods. By the early Twentieth Century, these pipes could not handle demands; every winter the sewer mains down Second and Fifth streets backed up. In 1913 the city approved a high water volume, “Wet Wash” laundry at the corner of First and A streets and every time it discharged wastewater, the Second street main line overflowed. The town’s solution was to ask the laundry to build a private cesspool but according to the Republican article, they had been dumping it into the creek.

 

* Santa Rosa failed to make incremental improvements even when it had the opportunity. After the 1906 earthquake hundreds of connections were repaired and there were new extensions of the sewer mains, all using the inadequate six-inch diameter pipe. When the city added a new line to serve the booming communities south of the Creek in 1914 they used eight-inch mains, which predictably backed up just as they did on Second and Fifth streets. Santa Rosa’s solution was to spend more on maintenance – installing new manholes allowing workers to use a sewer cleaning machine that cost the equivalent of about $24,000 today.

(RIGHT: Santa Rosa Creek at flood stage in 1925, as seen from the newer Main Street steel bridge. Photo credit: Sonoma County Library)

Compounding the odor problems of 1913 was the drought, which meant no moving water in the creek so pollutants stayed more or less where they were discharged. All that was about to dramatically change.

The winter of 1913-1914 was an El Niño storm season, and Sonoma county was hit hard; in the December 30 storm, Santa Rosa had four inches in 26 hours while Cazadero had fourteen. Many “wagon bridges” over creeks around the county were destroyed and the Russian River passed flood stage. Railroad crews and volunteers in Santa Rosa worked through the night to protect the Santa Rosa Creek bridges as “trees and timber of all kinds, fencing and all sorts of trash were being whirled along in the angry, muddy, turbulent stream,” according to the Press Democrat. In the thrilling account transcribed below, men with axes and secured by ropes chopped for hours on a tree rammed against the side of the Davis street bridge.

The creek probably smelled pretty good after that big flush, at least for a while. But nothing fundamentally changed. According to the Cummings paper, “the city’s own sanitary inspector described the condition of the creek in the spring of 1916 as being ‘worse than a septic tank’ and commented that nothing could be done about it.”

AROMA ANNOYING ON THE DAVIS STREET BRIDGE

People who have to cross the Davis street bridge are lodging complaints concerning the aroma that comes up from the stream. The befouling of the water is said to come from gas water from the gas works. It is hoped by the complaints that something will be done to relieve the present unpleasantness.

– Press Democrat July 24, 1913
SAY SEWER GAS IN FILL IS CAUSE OF STENCH

Thursday morning’s Press Democrat mentioned the annoying stench coming from the creek, supposedly caused by gas water from the gas works. It at once recalled the suggestion made long ago that there should be a commercial sewer, into which the drainage from the gas works, tanneries, etc., could be turned in. Several years ago this matter was up for discussion before the city council, and Mayor Mercier and the present council are also interested in the matter. So is Health Officer Jackson Temple, M. D. The gas people state that they made an examination, thinking that there was a leak of gas somewhere, but claim that the stench is probably caused by vegetation that has decayed since the fill was made for the Davis street bridge. At least that is their contention.

– Press Democrat July 25, 1913
CITY HEALTH OFFICER INVESTIGATES CONDITION
Of Santa Rosa Creek With a Republican Representative

No one need go to an auto polo game, nor to seventy mile an hour races, nor on a scenic railway for thrills. The Alps, Mt. McKinley nor any other peak can have any terrors for the person who takes a light wagon or buggy and drives down the bed of Santa Rosa creek from city limits to city limits. Apprenticeship for a deep water sailor can be gone through with in less than regulation time by taking this trip.

It is not a pleasant trip in any sense of the word. So much has been said and so much written concerning the Santa Rosa Creek that the REPUBLICAN determined to find out the conditions of the creek from an expert’s point of view, and let the people of this city know that condition, its cause and what it’s effect will be. The blame for the conditions can be placed at once. When this article is read over and nearly every condition described is noted by the reader, let him say simply, “A commercial sewer will prevent this condition.”

Blame for the condition lies entirely in this. If the city is to blame for not having such a sewer, that is another matter. But the direct blame for the conditions lies in the lack of a proper commercial sewer, or any commercial sewer for that matter, for the city is without one. There are certain factories on the creek which are creating more waste water every day than their sewer tappings are capable of carrying away. There are factories creating more waste water than the main sewer with which they are connected is capable of carrying, with no other factor or residence connected with it.

What shall these factories do? Shut down or use the creek as an outlet?

Certain it is that no more factories can be encouraged to come here until proper sewerage is provided for those already here, an epidemic will sweep this city and the cost of the sewer in dollars will be insignificant compared with the cost of an epidemic in human lives.

Now for the conditions. Dr. Jackson Temple accompanied a representative of the REPUBLICAN on the inspection of the creek. Dr. Temple is city health officer. He made the trip at the invitation of the REPUBLICAN because of the importunings of citizens who live along the creek and who have been keeping his telephones busy for the last few weeks sending in complaints of the unsanitary conditions which they claimed to be prevalent along the creek throughout the city.

The descent into the creek bottom was made in back of the tannery at the foot of F street. Several piles of rotting vegetables and garbage were found at this spot and were evidently from private houses. There was plenty of evidence that many persons had used the creek for a considerable distance as an open air toilet. This, by the way, is distinctly against the law. No waste water from the tannery was in evidence, at least not in any large streams. Had there been, the green vegetable matter noticeable in all stagnant water would not have been in evidence, as it was, through the pools at this point.

Passing from here after much violent pitching and rolling of the wagon, the back of the gas works was reached. Two large streams of water were being turned into the creek at this point from the works. A gas works sends its waste water through a long process of filteration with lamp black before it is turned into the creek or sewer, as the case may be. The water as sent into the creek is tested and passed by the Fish and Game Commission and therefore is pure enough not to cause trouble in the creek. For quite a distance below the creek, however, a considerable deposit of lamp black is noticeable on the bottome of the creek. According to Dr. Temple, this will not do any harm, nor cause any stench, and none was noticeable at this point beyond that arising from any gas works, and which is impossible to prevent.

Passing to the Wet Wash Laundry, the waste pipe which was recently broken and the water allowed to flood into the creek, was found to have been fixed, and there was no overflow, and has not been for some time as the ground where the flow had been was completely dried.

Dr. Temple, however, pointed out a white deposit left where the overflow had been and stated that this was to a great extent alkali and that turned into the domestic sewer, it would nullify the work of the septic germs in the tanks at the sewer farm. Along the creek at this point, however, there were many piles of garbage, again evidently refuse from residences. Piles were in various stages of decomposition and the stench was very strong although not spread over a very wide area.

Conditions along the creek from this point on for some distance were the best of any found. There were piles of tin cans festooned along the banks, rendering them very unsightly, but this offended civic pride more than bodily senses. Around the Davis street bridge, that is in close proximity to the bridge, everything was fairly clean.

A short distance further on, however, came the worst conditions imaginable. From the tannery came a small stream of bluish-white water, the odor of which was most unpleasant. A short distance on there was a good sized stream from the brewery, and still further on another larger stream from the same place. The stench arising from this was indescribable. It filled the nostrils like blue smoke, filtered down into the lungs, and burned its way to the stomach, where it worked until it gave one the feeling of a bad morning after a worse night. The top of the water was covered solid with a green-black streaked scum, and the water beneath was as black as night. This scum came down with the water over the banks and was traced to the brewery.

Just before reaching this another sight was met which added greatly to the stench in the neighborhood. A toilet had been built of rough boards in the Mead Clark Lumber Company’s yards. The rear of the toilet was open and hung over the creek bank and its contents covered the bank for a distance of many feet. This also is in direct violation of the law and will be attended to at once by the health authorities.

Passing on from the back of the brewery as quickly as possible, the railroad bridge was left behind and the camping grounds near the cannery were encountered. The sanitary conditions here are very commendable. Nothing had been thrown on the banks except old papers and a few cans. This is due to the persistent efforts of Dr. Temple, who insisted that the rules of sanitation be lived up to as much as possible in the camp.

The scum on the water was deeper the further down the creek one went, and the stench correspondingly more unendurable. Reaching the back of the cannery, two large streams of water were found pouring into the creek. The water was a wine purple in color and carried with it an orange colored scum, which was added to that from the brewery. Combined, the smell was almost overpowering. Just below the cannery, on the bank was a great pile of refuse which was rotten and putrid, and which also gave off a most offensive odor. This pile was seen to be fresh on one side and badly rotted on the other.

From the cannery to the Seventh street bridge, there was nothing else added to the creek in the way of vegetable matter or waste water. But the stench from the water at the Seventh street bridge was just as strong as at the brewery.

In making a resume and comparing notes of the trip, Dr. Temple was asked what the result would be if these conditions were not attended to and speedily at that. “Sickness, much of it, and in bad forms,” was his instant reply. Therefore, while no attempt will be made to point a moral, a question is left which needs a speedy answer: “Will the citizens provide a commercial sewer, or will they invite the inevitable epidemic.”

– Santa Rosa Republican August 15, 1913
SANTA ROSA CREEK IN A WILD MAD RACE
Much Anxiety Felt for Hours for Bridges–Big Tree Lodges Against Davis Street Bridge–Care Could Not Cross Electric Railroad Trestle Last Night

For some time last night when the storm was at its height considerable anxiety was felt for the safety of the Island bridge, the Main street bridge, the Davis street bridge, the electric railroad bridge and that across the creek at West Third street, as well as the old bridge at Pierson and West Sixth street.

Scores of people braved the storm and visited the bridges and at 2 o’clock this morning when a Press Democrat representative made the rounds people were still watching the mighty torrent racing along carrying al kinds of debris with it.

About 10 o’clock last night a big willow tree swept down and lodged against the Davis street bridge. Word was at once sent to Mayor Mercier and Street Superintendent Beebe and in a short time they were on hand with men and many of the big branches were cut away. This was accomplished by men with axes who climbed down onto the tree and were held from slipping by ropes placed about their bodies. At 1 o’clock this morning the tree was anchored with stout ropes so as to prevent if possible, its going further down stream to collide with the electric bridge.

The high water washed away considerable of the fill on this side of the Davis street bridge, but so far as could be seen the retaining wall on the Ellis street side was not damaged. A portion of the fill on the Main street side where the turn is mde onto the Island bridge, was also washed away. At 2 o’clock this morning Mayor Mercier, Superintendent Beebe and George Plover went out to the old pumping station to look at the bridge across the creek there which also carried the big water main. The bridge was in good condition.

Cars Don’t Cross Bridge

The electric cars to this city stopped on the other sided of the trestle bridge across Santa Rosa creek as it was deemed dangerous, owing to the tremendous torrent to cross. A crew of men employed by the railroad were on hand endeavoring to dislodge any debris that rammed against the structure. This bridge seemed in great danger. The Northwestern Pacific railroad had crew of men watching its bridge across the creek. Santa Rosa creek was a boiling torrent and the roar of the stream could be heard for a long distance. At 2 o’clock the water had fallen considerable but it was raining and a high wind was blowing.

A portion of a bulkhead near the electric bridge was washed out. Horses were moved from stables on the bank of the creek. Many awnings and signs suffered from the force of the wind and storm. It was altogether a wild night and people living along the banks of the creeks in town and in the country adjoining were considerably worried..

…The amount of debris carried by the waters of the creek was wonderful. When the water was at its highest last night big pieces of wood and other material kept up an almost incessant banging against the Island and Main street bridges, at times somewhat alarming timorous people gathered there. Trees and timber of all kinds, fencing and all sorts of trash were being whirled along in the angry, muddy, turbulent stream.

Men employed by the city were kept patrolling the various bridges all night to give warning should occasion arise when additional help might be wanted.

– Press Democrat December 31, 1913

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THE RISE AND FALL OF LAKE SANTA ROSA

Hey, gang! Let’s build a dam across Santa Rosa Creek to create a downtown lake for the city! It sounds a bit like the plot of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie, where the kids pull together to put on a show in the old barn – but yes, a group actually did build a wooden dam across the creek in 1910 to create a sort-of lake. Take a moment to contemplate the federal, state, and local regulatory agencies that would be involved in such a project today, and let’s commission studies and schedule a few year’s worth of hearings first.

Building the dam was the newly-formed Santa Rosa Venetian Club, but don’t make the mistake of presuming members were callow youths who just wanted to make a swimmin’ hole. Heading the group was William H. Lee of Lee Brothers, the largest drayage (hauling) company in Santa Rosa along with contractors Frank Sullivan and Dedrick Albers; others active in the project included the Justice of the Peace, the City Engineer, the District Attorney, the City Health Officer, and many more. Press Democrat editor and Chamber of Commerce President Ernest Finley was an enthusiastic backer and a list of people who donated to build and maintain the dam read like a who’s who of Santa Rosa merchants and prominent businessmen.

Enthusiasm was great because Santa Rosa had no public park – unless you counted the old rural cemetery – a fact that was particularly galling to town boosters. During these early years of the century the Press Democrat frequently ran stories about some property with park potential that might be coming up for sale; leading citizens were polled on what they would like to see in a park. Political candidates dangled before voters the promise that they had the connections to make a park happen. The City Council appointed a five-member Parks Commission that included Luther Burbank. But it always ended the same: The property owners wanted more than Santa Rosa could afford. The closest the town came was in 1909, when the PD floated the idea of a municipal bond to raise the $40,000 needed to buy the Hotel Lebanon, but nothing came of it.

The Venetian Club’s lake was basically three blocks long, from the current City Hall location to the freeway. (It was never identified by name  in the papers, but I’m taking the liberty to assume it would have been called, “Lake Santa Rosa.”) The next phase of work planned included adding electric lighting, which would have made it very similar to the water park proposed in 1905 by architect William Willcox, except his design had the dam just west of Santa Rosa Avenue, creating a lake that extended back to E street. This wooden dam was near the old Davis street bridge. Its location can be imagined today as being under the southbound onramp from Third street where it merges with traffic exiting the highway, where drivers are usually still going 70 MPH because they can’t wait to make the connection over to Farmer’s Lane where they will find their cars unable to inch forward toward their purposeless (yet urgent) destinations any faster than the unsteady crawl of a mewling week-old orange tabby kitten ironically named “Patches.” (Why, yes, I certainly do plan to submit an entry for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest for bad writing, thanks for asking.)

Alas, trouble arose. Where Mickey ‘n’ Judy’s big show in the barn might be threatened by a gruff banker eager to foreclose on the farm, the Venetian Club faced 75 year-old farmer Jones who lived at 111 Santa Rosa Ave, on the corner of First street. John M. Jones filed suit, claiming that his property line extended to the middle of Santa Rosa Creek and the raised water level might dislodge the riprap stones he used to shore up the bank.

In a PD editorial, Ernest Finley vigorously defended the Venetian Club’s lake, reminding that it was always intended the dam would be removed before the winter rains. It had become an important addition to the city, he wrote:

Those who have not seen the lake can have no idea of its beauty and attractiveness. Lined on either side with a wealth of foliage that affords and ideal background, this beautiful waterway is surrounded by ornamental bridges, provided with boat-landings, swimming boards, etc., and numerous pleasure boats, including everything from one-man canoes to large gasoline launches, the property of residents living in the vicinity, ply its placid surface. At all hours its banks are lined with interested spectators watching the sports of the bathers, and the pleasure craft as they glide to and fro.

The lawsuit was just the beginning of their bad luck. Five days later, on May 31, the Levin Tannery burned to the ground. It was the worst disaster to hit Santa Rosa since the 1906 earthquake.

Upstream from the dam, the huge tannery had a history of dumping its waste from leather processing into the creek, including fish-killers such as lime and toxins like cyanide. Just the year before, Santa Rosa had finally passed an ordinance prohibiting them from discharges into the creek after a citizen’s group threatened to sue the city if action wasn’t taken.

While both Santa Rosa papers produced lengthy news articles on the fire, they emphasized the loss of property – environmental damage wasn’t even mentioned. In discussing the lawsuit against the Venetian Club, the PD revealed for the first time “vast quantities of water and tanbark, as well as the contents of certain vats, escaped into the creek” and in another article, “flames caused some of the tanks containing liquid to burst and their contents ran down the creek.” Club members hurriedly opened their dam to allow the poisoned waters to continue downstream. For two weeks the dam remained open. Before rebuilding it, club officers, top city officials and editors of both newspapers traveled the bed of the creek in a spring wagon to inspect conditions. Place on the list of things I dearly would have loved to witness was eight men bouncing along in a horse-drawn wagon down the middle of Santa Rosa Creek.

When farmer Jones’ suit was heard in court at the end of that month, the disaster allowed his attorney to lay claim the lake was a “stinkhole” and submit as evidence a bottle of strong-smelling water. Testifying for the club, City Health Officer Dr. Jackson Temple told the court the water was running clear, but the same article in the PD conceded “it is claimed, some of the sediment lodged in the bottom of the creek bed and on the sides in some places.”

The next day, Judge Denny ruled for Jones. Although he had suffered no damages, the court held that harm to his property was “probable and imminent.” The Venetian Club was ordered to pay $300. Press Democrat editor Finley railed against Jones and the court in a fiery editorial:


…The plaintiff never used the creek bed himself for any purpose whatsoever, and as far as he is concerned it represents no real value. Its use for the purpose proposed, however, does give it a value as far as the public is concerned and without injuring the owner. It would seem that under the circumstances some way ought to be found to let the large and more important interests prevail.  As an abstract proposition, and entirely apart from how the law may or may not read, no man should have the right to do the dog and manger act [someone who hoards or selfishly hangs on to something others need but he doesn’t], either in matters of this or any other sort.

The club’s attorney vowed to appeal and the group held a meeting to make plans for stringing the electric lights. Unknown to them, however, was that Jones already had gone to Superior Court Judge Seawell and obtained a court order allowing him to dismantle the dam – which he personally did, with a Deputy Sheriff in tow to ensure no one tried to stop him.

And that was the end of Santa Rosa’s water park, created by and for the people and killed in the crib by a spiteful old man. R.I.P. Lake Santa Rosa: May 5 – July 10, 1910.

CLUB ORGANIZED TO DAM CREEK AND CREATE LAKE
Santa Rosa Venice Club Formed Last Night

The Santa Rosa Venice Club was organized Thursday night in the office of Lee Bros. & Co. by the citizens living near Santa Rosa Creek and in Ludwig’s addition. The object and purpose of the new organization is the improvement of Santa Rosa Creek by creating a lake and generally beautifying the waterway so as to make it an added attraction to the city.

There were over twenty representative property owners and citizens present at the meeting which [was] organized by selecting W. H. Lee as chairman and F. A. Sullivan as secretary…

…The name of the organization was selected on the suggestion of S. T. Daken, the well known artist, who was present by invitation and who pledged his support and assistance in the effort to beautify the city. He spoke most encouragingly in favor of damming the creek and improving the surroundings so as to make it one of the show places of Sonoma County.

Attorney T. J. Butts explained the benefits to be derived from having a natural water park in the city, and declared that it would result in drawing large numbers of people from San Francisco and the bay cities here during the summer who would not go camping or to the resorts along the Russian river where city conveniences were not to be had…

…It is the determination of the Club to have the dam constructed and the lake filled before the Rose Carnival so as to give those visiting the city at that time a glimpse of what can be done in improving the natural resources of the city. It is hoped that the start now being made will eventually result in the city parking the creek its entire length in the city limits.

Among those present at the meeting…

– Press Democrat, April 22, 1910

THE VENETIAN CLUB HOLDS A MEETING
Plans for Construction of Dam and the Creating of a Lake Have Assumed Shape

There was a meeting of the Santa Rosa Venice Club Monday evening in Lee Bros. & Co.’s office to further consider the matter of damming Santa Rosa creek and making proposed improvements in that waterway.

City Engineer Newton V. V. Smyth, who had made a survey of the creek, reported that there was a fall in the stream from the E street bridge to the Northwestern Pacific railroad bridge of 14 feet. Olive street being 1 1/2 feet higher than the railroad; Main street 7 feet above Olive; the Island bridge 2 feet higher than the Main street; and E street 5 feet higher than the Island bridge.

It is proposed to place a dam in the creek at some point below Davis street, yet to be selected, and raise the water eight feet…a large amount of work has been done in clearing the underbrush away from the banks of the stream and this will be continued until it is made presentable.

S. T. Daken has offered to make a clay model 15 feet in length of the stream as it will appear after the dam is build and the lake formed. This he will make into a plaster of Paris model and place it on exhibition.

– Press Democrat, April 26, 1910

BEGIN BUILDING OF THE CREEK DAM
First Step Towards the Formation of a Lake for Boating and Aquatic Sports Here

The constriction of the dam in Santa Rosa creek proposed by the Santa Rosa Venetian Club has begun and is progressing nicely under the direction of D. E. Albers, chairman of the special committee appointed by the Club to handle the work. The dam is being placed across the creek just at the east line of the Grace Bros. brewery property, and will be a very substantial affair eight feet in height…There is a good stream over the top of the dam and no eddying or cutting of the banks.

[..]

– Press Democrat, April 29, 1910

A LAUNCH PARTY ON SANTA ROSA CREEK
First Craft Launched Thursday Morning on the New Lake Created by Building Dam

Shortly after the noon hour on Thursday the first power launch for use on the waters of Santa Rosa creek was successfully launched, and Johnson Bros., the builders and owners, accompanied by W. H. Lee, P. H. Kroncke, Timothy Shea, F. A. Sullivan and R. J. Bogges took a ride on the pretty little lake, which has been formed by damming the creek near the brewery property line.

– Press Democrat, May 6, 1910

LIGHTS ALONG THE COURSE OF LAKE
Some Improvements Contemplate by the the Venetian Club of Santa Rosa in Near Future

At this week’s meeting of the Santa Rosa Venetian Club $200 was orders paid on the contract for the erection of the dam in Santa Rosa Creek. The matter of lighting the creek from the Davis street bridge to Main street with a string of incandescent lights was considered…

…Arrangements were made for the appointment of a special officer to maintain order along the creek. As the property is all private it is the intention to keep off all boys who fail to refrain from profanity and ho do not behave themselves as becoming young gentlemen.

– Press Democrat, May 19, 1910

THE VENETIAN CLUB PLANS BIG THINGS
Citizens Urged to Enroll as Members so That Lake and City Be Beautified

The Santa Rosa Venetian Club met on Monday evening in Lee Bros. & Co.’s office and decided upon improving the banks of Santa Rosa Creek and make them more attractive, provide seats for those visiting the lake, arrange for refreshment stands and decided upon regulations regarding privileges of boating, bathing, etc.

The interest in the lake has grown each day since it was thrown open, and as the warm water comes on it is expected that more interest will be manifested in this, the only breathing place and outdoor pleasure place, of the city, by the general public. With the view of preventing accidents to children who visit the creek bank , it was decided to erect a fence in the vicinity of the dam.

There has been some complaint of oil and refuse collecting on the surface of the lake as the result of refuse thrown into the creek higher up the stream, and the members of the club as well as citizens generally, are greatly in hopes that those responsible for the complaint will desist from such practice and allow the city to have some benefit from its natural water way.

The club proposes to increase its membership, if possible, to 200 with 25 cents monthly dues to create a fund for beautifying the creek and control its use. All who have the best interests of the city at heart and desire to see the creek made beautiful and attractive are urged to enroll as members…

– Press Democrat, May 24, 1910

WOULD STOP PLEASURE ON THE SANTA ROSA CREEK
J. M. Jones Begins an Injunction Proceeding

It is no uncommon thing when public spirited citizens turn their attention to and succeed in promoting something that adds materially to the enjoyment of life and attractiveness of a community, to be harassed by individuals fearful that imaginary damage may result to their private interests. Santa Rosa is to experience just such a procedure involving the lake on Santa Rosa Creek which has for several weeks now afforded untold enjoyment to many people, young and old.

Soon after the announcement was made of the organization of the Santa Rosa Venetian Club and the subscribing of money to construct a dam across the creek near the electric railroad bridge, and even before the proposed improvement could be given trial, there were threats and rumors from some of the property owners along the course of the creek that they would invoke the aid of the law, if possible, to prevent the formation of the lake, and the pleasure it would give many people.

The threatened legal interference with the enjoyment of boating and swimming on the new lake created on Santa Rosa Creek by the construction of the dam, took form Wednesday, when J. M. Jones, one of the property owners along the creek, owning a place adjoining the Main street bridge, commenced a suit in the Superior Court, asking the Court to grant an injunction pendente lite, and upon the hearing of the case a permanent injunction against the Santa Rosa Venetian Club.

D. E. Albers, William H. Lee and the Santa Rosa Venetian Club are named as defendants in the complaint filed Wednesday. In addition to the injunction prayed for, Mr. Jones, who is represented by Attorney William F. Cowan, asks for damages in the sum of three hundred dollars and costs of suit.

Among other things the plaintiff alleges that the construction of the dam has caused the water to back up and collect a large amount of offensive animal matter, that the water has become stagnant and polluted and emits offensive odors.

Mr. Jones further alleges that the water is likely to saturate and percolate the bank at his place and dislodge the stone that has been placed there and will damage his property. He asks the Court to restrain people from trespassing upon his property and for further relief.

The complaint is a lengthy document and recites the details connected with the construction of the “large and substantial dam” (borrowing the words of the complaint) by a number of Santa Rosa’s public spirited citizens who formed themselves some weeks ago into the Venetian Club for the purposes set out.

Judge Seawell, to whom the matter was presented Wednesday, signed an order directing the defendants to appear in court on June 6 and show cause why a temporary injunction should not be granted, in accordance with the prayers of Mr. Jones’ complaint, pending the hearing and final determination of the suit.

The Santa Rosa Venetian Club, however, does not propose to give up the work it has inaugurated in providing Santa Rosa with something that has been universally praised, except by possibly a few people, and will be on hand, aided by many people in all walks and stations of life here to show why the injunction should not be granted.

If the offensive matter complained of is a menace then, it is claimed the legal proceedings should be directed against the persons responsible for its presence and they should be compelled to clean it out and not allow it to contaminate the creek any more.

– Press Democrat, May 26, 1910

THAT DAM INJUNCTION SUIT

As predicted in these columns some days ago, suit has been brought to enjoin the Venetian Club from maintaining its dam across Santa Rosa creek, the construction of which has resulted in the formation of a beautiful lake for boating and bathing–something the town has always wanted, and one of the most attractive features of which any city can boast.

Those who have not seen the lake can have no idea of its beauty and attractiveness. Lined on either side with a wealth of foliage that affords and ideal background, this beautiful waterway is surrounded by ornamental bridges, provided with boat-landings, swimming boards, etc., and numerous pleasure boats, including everything from one-man canoes to large gasoline launches, the property of residents living in the vicinity, ply its placid surface. At all hours its banks are line with interested spectators watching the sports of the bathers, and the pleasure craft as they glide to and fro. In addition to our own people, many visitors from out of town have visited the lake, all of whom are loud in their praises of its attractiveness and beauty, and of the enterprise and public spirit that made its existence possible.

The complaint that the backing of the water up against the bank will cause it to cave down into the stream can hardly be said to be a reasonable one. The depth is only slightly increased at the place mentioned, and there being no rapid current, there can be no wash against the banks. How does that bank, now in jeopardy stand the fierce rush of the winter torrents? If the lake is the receptacle of polluting drainage from its shores, did not the creek bed before the creation of the lake receive that same drainage? The protesting argument seemed remarkably weak. Moreover, the pretty little lake, lagoon, or whatever it may be called, is only there for comparatively a short time. In a few months the dam will be removed and the stream will be open to the winter rains. The complainant’s half of the creek-bed will be there just where it has been for all these ages.

– Press Democrat editorial, May 27, 1910

DRIVEN OVER BED OF VENETIAN LAKE
Mayor Edwards and Others Traverse Bed of Santa Rosa Creek While Waters are Low

Wednesday afternoon Mayor James R. Edwards, District Attorney Clarence F. Lea, City Health Officer Dr. Jackson Temple, E. L. Finley, Frank A. Sullivan, J. E. Mobley, D. E. Albers and W. H. Lee visited the bed of Santa Rosa creek from the D street bridge to the site of the Venetian Club’s dam, the trip being taken at the invitation of President Lee of the organization above named.

The party met at the court house at 5 p. m., and in one of Lee Bros. & Co.’s rigs were driven directly down the bed of the stream for the entire distance mentioned, in order that they might have a proper idea of conditions there.

After the tannery fire, when vast quantities of water and tanbark, as well as the contents of certain vats, escaped into the creek, it was found necessary to open up the dam and let the water of the lake run out. Wednesday the water had sufficiently cleared to allow the dam to be again closed, and the work of refilling resumed. Inspection of the creek bed showed the same to be in much better condition where the water had stood, than it was where there had been no water. A second dam near the Main street bridge would back the water up beyond the E street bridge, and almost to the eastern limits of the city, affording a stretch of boating more than a mile in length. Every argument appears to be in favor of extending the lake to the extreme eastern limits, and also westward to a point beyond the railroad tracks, so that visitors entering the city by either railroad or crossing any of the city bridges will have a glimpse of its beauty.

– Press Democrat, June 16, 1910

DAM INJUNCTION SUIT SUBMITTED TO THE COURT

An interesting proceeding in Judge Denny’s department of the Superior Court on Wednesday was the hearing of the motion for a temporary injunction in the suit of J. M. Jones…

…Mr. Jones produced in court at the morning session a bottle of water from the creek, secured on Monday, which was claimed to have somewhat of a strong perfume. Mr. Lee produced a bottle of water which he had taken during the noon recess from the lake, 150 east of dam, which was apparently perfectly clear. The bottles were introduced in evidence and were placed in the custody of Deputy County Clerk Jack Ford, who presides at the desk in Judge Denny’s department.

Dr. [Jackson] Temple testified as to the drive he and others took down the creek bed from the Main street bridge to the dam. They did not go by boat, either, he said, but in a spring wagon. In the lake proper he said the water was running and was apparently pure. As they passed the gas works, he said, he detected the odor of ammonia. Of course, the doctor did not regard stagnant water as being altogether healthy.

E. W. Potter said he rowed up the lake on Tuesday night, and while he did not drink any of the water, he did not detect any odor in the lake proper. Asked by Attorney Cowan if his “smeller” was in good shape, Mr. Potter laughingly said it was, as he had just had it fixed in an operation that cost him considerable money.

One of the witnesses for Mr. Jones described the lake as a “stinkhole.”

It has not been contradicted that at the time of the fire at the Levin Tannery the flames caused some of the tanks containing liquid to burst and their contents ran down the creek. The water became polluted and the dam was raised on purpose to let the offensive water pass out. At the time, it is claimed, some of the sediment lodged in the bottom of the creek bed and on the sides in some places.

Attorney Cowan contended the defendants had not shown any claim of right, but Mr. Butts answered that they would do so at the proper time, when the case came to trial on the effort to secure a permanent injunction and not on the temporary showing.

Lawyer Cowan also urged that no matter if Mr. Lee and his associates in the club had made a most beautiful lake, had it stocked with gondolas and erected showy pagodas along its banks, and in fact had increased the value of the Jones property to the extent of $5,000, Mr. Jones could still maintain that they had no right to trespass on his rights and he could refuse to accept the benefits thus thrust upon him without his consent. Defendants had no legal right, and even public clamor could not rule over the law, he said…

– Press Democrat, June 30, 1910

WHAT ABOUT THE CREEK DAM?

The injunction asked for in the matter of the dam across Santa Rosa creek has been granted, which may ultimately mean that the plans for beautifying the creek bank and providing a boating and bathing space within the city limits will have to be abandoned, and that the time and money expended by those public spirited citizens who inaugurated the movement will go for naught. Such an outcome would be unfortunate from the public standpoint, for the improvements planned promise to mean much to the community.

The bringing of the suit was probably no great surprise to the citizens back of the project. Here as elsewhere the people who try to do things usually anticipate a little opposition, for in every community there is an element that appears to oppose advancement, and the inauguration of new ideas. But it is not always that they find themselves able to call upon the courts to assist them, as in this instance.

As we understand the matter, the plaintiff in this case based his petition mainly upon the contention that he owns to the center of the creek bed, and the backing of the water onto this portion of his premises without his consent constitutes trespass under the law. Probably he is right in this contention, and if so no great fault is to be found with the decision of the court. But the fact remains that the plaintiff never used the creek bed himself for any purpose whatsoever, and as far as he is concerned it represents no real value. Its use for the purpose proposed, however, does give it a value as far as the public is concerned and without injuring the owner. It would seem that under the circumstances some way ought to be found to let the large and more important interests prevail. As an abstract proposition, and entirely apart from how the law may or may not read, no man should have the right to do the dog and manger act, either in matters of this or any other sort.

The entire lake project is largely an experiment as yet, and nobody connected with it has the slightest desire to injure the rights of any property owner, or work anything but a benefit upon the community. If any real property damage seemed likely to result, or any unhealthfulness, as has by inference been charged the citizens interested in the project…

– Press Democrat editorial, July 2, 1910

VENETIAN CLUB STRIVING TO PRESERVE THE LAKE
Plans Discussed at the Meeting Held Last Night

There was a well-attended meeting of the Santa Rosa Venetian Club on Thursday evening in the room of the Chamber of Commerce at which Attorney T. J. Butts presented his report of the result of the action for a mandatory injunction against certain members of the club to prevent the maintenance of the dam and impounding of the water of Santa Rosa Creek.

The report showed that while the injunction had been granted as prayed for, the taking of an appeal would stay the proceedings for the present and the lake would thus be saved for the season and the dam would be taken out prior to the winter rains. The attorney was instructed to take an appeal…

…The Club decided to improve and beautify the bed of the stream by stringing a line of electric lights from the dam to the Main street bridge. M. Saunders has donated a large quantity of wire for the purpose and the wiremen of the city have donated their services to wiring it and connect up the lights so the cost will be only nominal…

– Press Democrat, July 8, 1910

REMOVES PORTION OF THE LAKE DAM
J. M. Jones, Armed With Court Order, Lowers Water in the Santa Rosa Lake

Armed with an order issued out of the Superior Court by Judge Seawell, J. M. Jones, the property owner who last week obtained an injunction against the Santa Rosa Venetian Club, went to the dam near Davis street bridge and removed some boards from the flood gate to lower the water in the lake. This was Friday night. Saturday morning Mr. Jones visited the dam again in company with Deputy Sheriff Reynolds and took off another board or two so as to lower the water a little more. Until it became known that Jones had secured a court order to do as he had done there was considerable consternation among members of the club and the public generally who enjoy the lake. Saturday afternoon the water had not receded sufficiently to prevent boating and swimming. Judge Seawell’s order was as follows:

“…It is hereby ordered that the Sheriff of this county be and is hereby directed and the said plaintiff is hereby permitted to cause the said order and injunction to be enforced and to cause said defendants to desist from interfering with the natural flow of said waters upon the plaintiff’s said lands and to remove and abate the waters now overflowing, flooding or standing upon the said premises of the plaintiff other than such waters would be thereon in the natural flow of said creek…

– Press Democrat, July 10, 1910

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