art van harvey


Well sir, it’s just past 800 articles at the little history blog halfway down on your bookmark list, so it’s a good time to take a look around and see what’s new in the neighborhood.

Our last cook’s tour was five years ago (2018) in article # 650. Since that was just a few months after the Tubbs fire, the most read article was THE FORGOTTEN FIRES OF FOUNTAINGROVE AND COFFEY PARK, which described man-made fires in 1908 and 1939 that could have been catastrophic had the winds shifted towards Santa Rosa. That and other articles about historic fires are still the most popular and featured in the list below.

The only technical change to the site is the addition of the RANDOM option in the header, which works as described. It was created during the early days of the Covid lockdown and seems to be well used. I’ve even rediscovered several items I’d forgotten writing about.

The curated list found here mainly contains stories written over the last five years and a different list can be found in article 650 (with one overlap). Articles now tend to be longer and more in-depth; there’s a category below for multi-part series such as the 41,000 word, twelve part examination of the creation of Santa Rosa Plaza. The ever growing number of newspapers and journals available online has also made it possible to dive deeper into research beyond just what appeared in the Sonoma County papers.



800fireThree times Santa Rosa has battled firestorms that have roared over the northeast hills and threatened the city proper. Once can be an accident; twice could be a coincidence. Three times is a pattern

THE 1964 HANLY FIRE A small army gathered to defend the County Hospital on Chanate including firefighters from as far away as Redding. On the line were also National Guardsmen and many teenagers – altogether as many as 600 were braced to make a last stand to save Santa Rosa

THE FORGOTTEN GREAT FIRE OF 1870 The earliest known firestorm that charged over the mountain towards Santa Rosa was simply called The Great Fire by our ancestors. We know it stopped three miles from Santa Rosa and measuring from 1870 city limits, that meant it burned through Fountaingrove – same as the 1964 and 2017 fires

WHEN THE HIGH DRY WINDS BLOW The “Diablo Winds” that push catastrophic fires towards Santa Rosa were apparently not as common in the old days, but might have been more violent and lasted longer



800potterBlacks, Asians and Native Americans are mostly absent in Santa Rosa history, but not because they weren’t here. For decades the local newspapers ignored their births, marriages and sometimes deaths, yet didn’t fail to mention when someone was in legal trouble or when there were opportunities to make fun of them

THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA In 19th century Santa Rosa, three of the most interesting people to meet were Black: A barber who was a prominent Bay Area civil rights activist, a woman real estate investor with prime downtown property, and a bootblack who had been a leader in the East Coast abolitionist movement. (4 part series)

SEBASTOPOL’S CHINATOWNS The Chinese population outnumbered whites in Sebastopol during the late 1880s, and was said to still have about 300 residents through the 1920s. But census takers in that era overlooked them because the count was usually taken during the summer months when Chinese ag workers might be away from where they lived most of the year. Nor was there much of an effort to record names with any accuracy, filling in the census forms with meaningless stubs such as “Lee,” “ah Gus,” “Hong Kong,” or “Sing”

FINDING ISHI No group around the turn of the century was more invisible to whites than Native Americans, with one exception: Ishi, who was portrayed by the press as an “uncontaminated aboriginee.” Papers nationwide took a simplistic view that he was a “Stone Age Man,” a Fred Flintstone or Alley Oop come to life, and there were indeed cartoons that portrayed him as a caveman. But the Press Democrat interviewed a couple who knew him decades earlier and described how Ishi’s family were murdered or abducted by the whites. It was an extraordinary story yet was only reprinted in one small newspaper, and is transcribed here for the first time



800martaOver just a quarter century, the Santa Rosa plain underwent rapid change. The Pomo homeland where roamed antelope and elk saw the first large fields of wheat, barley, oats, corn and beans planted by the Californios, followed by Americans who wanted to transform the whole place into a reflection of the Southern and Midwestern towns they came from.

THE FIVE THOUSAND MORNINGS OF THE CARRILLOS Before there was even the concept of starting a town named Santa Rosa there was the 9,000 acre Carrillo rancho. Their great herds of cattle and semi-wild horses grazed on the unfenced oak savanna, puffing clouds of steam in the cool early hours

CITY OF ROSES AND SQUATTERS Once California became a state, no one was happy with the situation over Spanish/Mexican land grants. Nearly everyone, Californio or American, rich or poor, was fretful over keeping their property. Should you build a cabin and plant crops if you could be kicked out before the harvest? Would the ranch supporting your family be taken away by the government, or occupied by squatters?

2½ TALES FROM OUR WILD WEST DAYS There absolutely was a gun culture here in Sonoma county, and our communities – with somewhat of an exception for Petaluma – were very much gun-toting “Wild West” towns. There were multiple “shooting affrays” every year although rarely did the incidents end in a death or even injury. And sometimes the shooters were even women



800civilwarWith the exception of Petaluma, most of Sonoma County was rooting for the Confederacy to win the Civil War. But being pro-Confederate in California did not necessarily mean someone was for slavery in the South, and voting against Lincoln did not even reveal the voter was against the Union

A FAR AWAY OUTPOST OF DIXIE Local farmers were inclined to vote for Democrats in 1860 because the party promoted their notion of “popular sovereignty,” which was the concept that every state and territory had a right to set its own laws and rules, even on slavery. Here the politically powerful settler’s movement wanted California to proclaim the Mexican and Spanish land grants “fraudulent”

THAT TERRIBLE MAN RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT Another reason for anti-Union sentiments was because Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Democrat fed its readers a steady diet of anti-Lincoln, anti-abolitionist bile. As the 1860 election neared, the Democrat turned into the sort of rag that might have been published in the Deep South at that time, not only pro-slavery but viciously racist

A SHORT TRUCE IN THE (UN)CIVIL WAR When the war ended you can bet the editor of the Democrat was nervously peeking out the windows as angry patriots were busting up the offices of disloyal newspapers elsewhere in the state. And given his years of snarkily taunting Petaluma, should he also fear being tarred and Petaluma-chicken feathered? Luckily for him nothing happened – but papers in both towns suggested it was a close call



800petalumaPetaluma was already an established community with several hundred residents when Santa Rosa was voted to be the county seat in 1854, even though it was little more than a camp staked out at a muddy crossroads with about eight actual buildings. Soon the rivalry began along with calls from Petaluma to move the county seat there

PETALUMA VS SANTA ROSA: ROUND ONE Petaluma ribbed Santa Rosa mercilessly over its bungled efforts to build a functional courthouse, but the potshots became increasingly bitter with accusations of tax money being wasted to pay for endless courthouse repairs along with civic improvements in and around Santa Rosa

THE WEEKLY FEUD IS ON PAGE 2 Petaluma’s paper was the Sonoma County Journal and its editor offered “the hand of fellowship” to Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Democrat when it was founded in 1857. All that warm and fuzzy bonhomie lasted exactly two months before they started insulting their rivals as “a set of block heads and dolts” and a “pusillanimous little puppy.” Oh, but those guys would have loved Twitter

THE SECESSIONS OF PETALUMA At least nine times Petaluma has proposed to seize the county seat from Santa Rosa, become part of Marin or split off to become the seat of a new county



800courtSanta Rosa courtrooms were the scene of so many unusual and occasionally bizarre proceedings they became a source of public entertainment. Some attorneys were so popular that followers even attended routine hearings so as to not miss a chance there might be theatrics which surely would be the talk of the town the next morning

THE MURDEROUS SOMNAMBULIST Edward Livernash tried to force an elderly man into signing over his property before killing him, but when the plot went awry Livernash claimed he was in a “somnambulistic state” at the time and believed he was the victim of a conspiracy by several reincarnated presidents. The press had a field day covering his trial where he testified while supposedly in a hypnotic trance

OUR VERY OWN PERRY MASON There’s a tale told about Gil P. Hall that’s probably apocryphal, but shows how much his cleverness was held in awe. During Prohibition he defended a man accused of bootlegging and when the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence Hall picked it up, put it to his lips and drank it dry. “That wasn’t whiskey,” he told the court. Case dismissed for lack of evidence

THOSE ANNOYING NUDISTS NEXT DOOR W. Finlaw Geary was another storied attorney famous for courtroom surprises. In 1944 he was retained by property owners seeking to shut down a road easement through their orchards outside Sonoma city limits. The road was the only way to reach the Sun-O-Ma nudist colony owned by a married couple, and Geary stunned the court by accusing the wife of being an imposter

LAWYER ARGUES AGAINST SELF IN COURT, LOSES During 1911 the same lawyer represented the plaintiff in one case and a defendant in another, with the same legal question pivotal in both cases. This crazy double-edged situation didn’t happen in different places at different times – the attorney was asking for a decision from a judge at the same hearing, simultaneously arguing for and against the same point. This was a man who could obviously walk and chew gum at the same time, and probably whistle as well



800murderMurders run like a scarlet thread through Sonoma County history. Mentioned in the article #650 list were the killings of Cowie and Fowler during the Bear Flag Revolt and the 1886 Wickersham murders, which inflamed anti-Chinese hatred on the West Coast. None in the group below were as historically significant, but had our ancestors dropping their jaws

NEARLY GOT AWAY WITH MURDER “Adam Clark is a boy who apparently never had a chance,” the Press Democrat explained to readers. “He started and looked inquiringly at the Court when he was told something about a mother’s love. He did not know what was meant.” The reporting was unusual because “sob sister” journalism rarely, if ever, appeared in the PD during that era. It was also unusual because the 15 year-old being described so sympathetically had just committed the premeditated murder of his mother

A TALE OF TWO MURDERERS “Most Atrocious Crime in History of Sonoma County” proclaimed the Press Democrat headline describing the gruesome murders of the Kendall family near Cazadero. Suspicion focused on a Japanese handyman, who disappeared after supposedly confessing to the landlord who hated the Kendalls and had been trying to evict them for years

YOU DON’T KNOW ME Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this story: A mysterious mad scientist suspected of killing a well-heeled Park avenue woman with his devious “liquid fire” invention turned out to be a con-man and former German spy. Or was it a case of mistaken identity? It’s a wild tale, complete with a Believe-it-or-not! twist at the end



800weirdWant to take the pulse of a town 100+ years ago? Just look at its theaters. The more the theaters, the greater the population; the better the theaters, the greater the investment in the community’s future. Both Santa Rosa and Petaluma had opera houses and later movie palaces plus smaller vaudeville theaters and nickelodeons. Thanks in large part to our proximity to San Francisco there were performers coming through every week until the heyday of motion pictures began

LET’S GO DOWNTOWN AND SEE SOMETHING WEIRD Ah, vaudeville! On any given Saturday you could pay a dime and watch performers do things on stage which demonstrated more self-delusion than discernible talent. There were birdcallers, “rubber girl” contortionists, midget boxers and blackface “shouters,” plus a couple of acts which were apparently just young women doing calisthenics. And then there was Roy Crone and his grizzly bear. The manager of the Columbia Theater on Third Street, Crone liked to drive around the state with his uncaged 780 lb. bear sitting in the backseat of his (presumably large and sturdy) car

LET’S ALL YELL AT THE MICKEY MOUSE MATINEE In Santa Rosa during the 1930s and under twelve? If so, then you were at the Cal Theater on B Street every Saturday for the pandemonium known as the Mickey Mouse Club. They would watch a movie and some cartoons, but mainly they would sing and yell. They would get to yell a lot; pause for a moment and imagine being in a theater with around a thousand kids, all their little volume knobs cranked up to 11. Maybe 12

THE TIME MARK TWAIN CAME TO PETALUMA Mark Twain, that funny guy everyone was buzzing about, made only a few appearances in 1866 before he left for the East Coast and Europe, probably never to return out west. Reviewers had been giddy with delight over his recent appearance in San Francisco: “Taking it altogether, Mark Twain’s lecture may be pronounced one of the greatest successes of the season” gushed the Chronicle. Other SF newspapers sang with similar praise. Thus you can bet Hinshaw’s Hall in Petaluma was crowded with people expecting a jolly evening. Spoiler alert: They hated him



800dooleyThere’s no disputing some of the people you find profiled in the old papers were damned peculiar. The grand champion has to be Martin Tarwater, who at age 66 abandoned his family near Mark West Creek and set out for the Yukon Gold Rush. Another traveler from Santa Rosa wrote to the Press Democrat about coming across him sitting alone in the wilderness at night and warbling an old music hall ditty, “How the Miners Made Pancakes in ’49”

THE SHORT CRAZY SUMMER OF DAREDEVIL DOOLEY Of all the events at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds I’ve read about in the old newspapers, there’s one I’d have truly loved to have attended: On July 4, 1918, Ed Dooley and another driver slammed their massive cars together head-on at an impact speed of 100 MPH, the men jumping out at the last second. At age 39, Dooley had never done anything like this before; he was a portly ex-salesman who apparently woke up one morning and decided he was fearless

THE ABDUCTIONS OF GENEVA EAGLESON It’s an old, old story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl to another boy, boys bicker over whom girl truly loves, both boys separately abduct girl and end up in jail. This either sounds like a comic opera, with mistaken identities, deceptions, pursuits, and completely absurd plot twists or a demented episode of Archie Comics

NOT THE SAME WYATT EARP Yes, both Wyatt Earp and brother Virgil were in Santa Rosa. But, uh, not the ones you think; they were the same-named nephews of the famous lawmen. That Wyatt was a laborer in Healdsburg and Geyserville, while in 1905 Virgil convinced a married woman in Santa Rosa to briefly run off with him. More famously, Virgil became a contestant on the hit 1958 TV show, “The $64,000 Question” where he became a celebrity as a living relic of the Old West. He said he had killed three men before age 21 and was “raised right at the knee of Bat Masterson and poor old Doc Holliday.” It was all complete bullshit. (Video of one of his TV appearances in the article)



800newspaperThe original name for this blog was “I See by the Papers…” and was intended as a place to share funny, odd and otherwise interesting items from the Santa Rosa newspapers. It outgrew those short pants in about two months, starting with a critical piece on the Press Democrat’s passive racism and how it routinely portrayed the Chinese community as a troublesome, often criminal, underclass. Ever since then, newspaper accuracy and bias have remained central topics

THE TRUE ORIGINS OF THE PRESS DEMOCRAT In the first part of the 20th Century, no one had a greater impact on Santa Rosa than PD editor/publisher Ernest Finley; he was a tireless champion of anything he thought might bring lots of money and attention to the area. But he was also a relentless bully who blocked reforms and hobbled progress by sticking with 19th century attitudes. He was not the paper’s founder, however, and that man was the opposite of the avaricious Finley. Had he not died young Santa Rosa might have followed a different (and I believe, a better) path

HOW TO LOSE A NEWSPAPER The deepest problem for newspapers today is that nobody’s reading them, but as I’ve said for over 25 years: Readers did not give up on newspapers until newspapers abandoned their readers. Even mid-sized dailies such as the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier used to have a bullpen of talented writers who kept subscribers engaged. While researching the 1970s shopping center series I read about 300 PD articles and came to know those city councilmen and other players like family members; every time I finished an article I could hardly wait to find the next development in the story. And that’s the secret of great newspapering: Well-written articles always leave readers hungry to discover what happens next

ON TUESDAY THE MONSTER CAME TO TOWN Fool our readers once, shame on us, but try it again and it’s perfectly okay if you’re a paid advertiser. Examples abound of the old newspapers not hesitating to run deceptive ads disguised as fake news, but in a 1910 case involving a quack doctor some papers investigated and exposed him as a fraud, warning subscribers to stay away. It became a big story in other West Coast papers and by summer there can be no doubt the PD and Santa Rosa Republican knew it was a dangerous con game – but not one word ever appeared in either newspaper to discredit the fake healer who had set up shop here. Censoring the news for big advertisers continues to the present day. Elsewhere, in 1997 I documented how the PD completely ignored a major national news story for months. Subscribers weren’t told one of the region’s top employers (Columbia/HCA) was under federal investigation, with the FBI literally kicking down doors. Hey, could that news blackout have anything to do with the expensive full page ads the corporation was placing in the PD at the same time?



Additional multi-part articles are in the list found in article # 650.

THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID The 1920 lynching of three men at the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery hadn’t been reexamined since events happened, and many details hadn’t been revealed before. And like the twice told tales about the 1906 earthquake in Santa Rosa, too much of what was been written about it over the years turned out to be distorted or flat wrong (10 parts)

ROAD TO THE MALL In the 1960s and 1970s, cities across America dreamt of shopping malls as if they were the gateway to the paradise of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu. Malls defined popular culture; we spent more time in malls than anywhere else except for home and work/school. With that motivation, everything fell into place in the 1970s. There was funding for urban renewal – lots and lots of free government money. There was a large cadre of unelected local decision-makers who believed a whopping mall was a once-in-a-century opportunity to transform Santa Rosa into that great metropolis, along with a tax base which would pour an endless river of cash into the city treasury. Then there were enthusiastic downtown shopkeepers, who somehow convinced themselves a giant shopping center next door would bring them good fortune (12 parts)

THE UNDOING OF LUTHER BURBANK By 1915, both the Luther Burbank Company and the Luther Burbank Press were dragging his name through the mud. The best thing that can be said about them was that they were run by men who were not very competent, and the worst was that both companies exploited local trust in Burbank himself to peddle worthless stock to Sonoma County residents (4 parts)


The jolly fellow seen at the top is actor Art Van Harvey, who played Victor Gook in the classic radio comedy “Vic and Sade,” which ran from 1932-1944. Using just four characters the small fictional town of Crooper came alive as they chatted about all the goings-on of the odd people in their sphere. Critics have compared the writing of series’ creator Paul Rhymer to Mark Twain, and I’d have to agree. In many ways their world reminds me of Santa Rosa in the same period. There were washrag sales down at Yamilton’s Department Store (think Rosenberg’s) and Vic wore absurd lodge regalia from the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way (no more ridiculous than the Elks’ epaulets and feathered caps). Sade was a member of the Thimble Club (Santa Rosa had 100+ women’s clubs at the time including a Fork Club and yes, a Thimble Club). The menu served at the Little Tiny Petite Pheasant Feather Tea Shoppy included beef punkles, olive root, rutabaga shortcake and scalded cucumber. Those eats actually sound better than the offerings in a cookbook published by the Presbyterian church in Fulton, where recipes include jugged pigeons, pot roast of liver, fish chops and pork cake.

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Have cabin fever? Bored to tears? Looking for a story that might surprise and entertain you? now has a “RANDOM” option in the menu which randomly picks any of 700+ articles about Santa Rosa and Sonoma County history.

Other ways to explore the offerings include the search field (also in the menu) and the tags beneath each article headline, which function as a topic index. There are also two “best of” compilations – there’s some overlap between the lists, but not much:

650 KISSES DEEP (2018)



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“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is a flippant line tossed off in a novel by William Faulkner (don’t bother reading it; I did one college summer, when I thought Faulkner novels were something I just had to learn to appreciate, more the fool I) and that quote reflects the theme of the book, which is about the terrible prices we often pay for long-ago mistakes. In recent years it’s been misappropriated to mean history in general, particularly as an upbeat catchphrase for historic places. That meaning fits the town of Sonoma, with its adobes haunted by Vallejo’s ghosts, or Petaluma, with much of its downtown undisturbed since Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. But Santa Rosa – not so much. Here the phrase has to be used in its original intent, to express the unhappy ways we are dogged by our past.























This is the 700th article to appear in this journal, which now clocks in at over 1.5 million words (I have statistically typed the letter “e” about 190,530 times but the letter “z” merely 1,110). Normally such a milestone is an occasion for a “best of” recap but I did that not so long ago back at #650 with “650 KISSES DEEP,” so instead I’d like to step back and reflect on some of the reasons Santa Rosa came to be the way it is today.

This is also timely because right now (summer 2019) the city is working on the Downtown Station Area Specific Plan which “seeks to guide new development with a view to creating a vibrant urban center with a distinct identity and character.” The plan calls for wedging up to 7,000 more housing units into the downtown area, which will be quite a trick.

There are limits to what developers can build, in part because this is a high-risk earthquake zone (a 1 in 3 chance we will have a catastrophe within the next 26 years), but a greater obstacle is that Santa Rosa is uniquely burdened by layers of bad decisions made over several decades.

THE ORIGINAL DOWNTOWN PLAN   Santa Rosa’s prime underlying problem is (literally) underlying. Scrape off the present downtown buildings and we have the same frontier village that was platted way back in 1853, when there was only one house (Julio Carrillo’s), a store, a tavern and stray pigs. It was small enough for anyone to walk across any direction in a couple of minutes or three – 70 total acres from the creek to Fifth street, from E to A street.

Now eight score and five years since, our downtown core is virtually unchanged from that original street grid – minus the dozens of acres lopped off for the highway and mall – so there ain’t much room on the dance floor for developers to make any sort of dramatic moves.

Not that people haven’t envisioned a better downtown. In 1945 architect “Cal” Caulkins created a plan which eliminated Courthouse Square and turned almost all of the space between First and Third streets into a Civic Center. No question: This was the best of all possible Santa Rosas, as I wrote in “THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN.” The plan had universal and enthusiastic support and only needed voter approval of a $100k bond to get started. It lost by 96 votes on a ballot crowded with other bond measures. Attempts by the Chamber of Commerce to revive a modified version of the design in 1953 went nowhere.

Another big attempt to fix Santa Rosa’s design problems came in 1960-1961, when the city’s new Redevelopment Agency hired urban design experts from New Jersey. Some of their ideas were pretty good; they envisioned a pedestrian-friendly city with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek. Their objective was for the public to drive to a parking garage/lot as easily as possible and walk.

Over the following years came a succession of consultants and developers with both detailed schemes and spitballing proposals, mainly focused on revitalizing Fourth street by making it more walkable. (Most innovative was an idea to rip out the roadway and replace it with an artificial creek criss-crossed by little footbridges.) In 1981 it was rechristened the “Fourth Street Mall” and closed to autos on Friday and Saturday nights to squash the local street cruising fad, topics covered in “POSITIVELY PEDESTRIAN 4TH STREET.”

Tinkering does not a city remake, and downtown is still as it always was, an Old West village square. As I’ve joked before, the town motto should be changed from “The City Designed For Living” to “The City Designed For Living…During the Gold Rush.”

THE PRICE OF PARKING   Or maybe the motto should be, “The City Designed For Buggies.”

For a city with such a small downtown, Santa Rosa devotes a big hunk of that footprint to automobile parking, with nine lots and five garages. Yet should even half of the new residents in those 7,000 proposed apartments/condos have a car, every single parking spot will be taken – and then some.

Santa Rosa has always had a fraught relationship with autos, and it’s again because so much of the core area is unchanged from its buggywhip days. Once beyond the eight square blocks around Courthouse Square many of the old residential streets are so narrow that parking is not allowed on both sides and it’s still a squeeze when trucks or SUVs pass. Again, high-density development would be tough. (The exception is College ave. which is quite wide because they drove cattle down the street from the Southern Pacific depot on North street to the slaughterhouse near Cleveland ave.)

Complaints about downtown parking go back to 1910, when farmers coming to town in their wagons for Saturday shopping found fewer hitching posts available. In 1912 the city finally gave in and set up the vacant lot at Third and B streets as a kind of horse parking lot.

Fourth street between A and B streets c. 1922-1925. Postcard courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection
Fourth street between A and B streets c. 1922-1925. Postcard courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection

From the 1920s onward, photos of downtown show seemingly every parking spot taken. There was no shortage of articles in the Press Democrat detailing the latest plans to solve the parking problem – including 1937’s increased fines for every additional violation, which reveals a major drawback of living in a small town where the Meter Lady knows everybody.

The crisis came 1945-1946, when the city introduced parking meters along with Santa Rosa’s first sales tax, both to predictable taxpayer howls. The Press Democrat’s letter section saw writers interchangeably angry between the tax and the parking meters and although the tax was only one percent, there were calls for a complete boycott of the downtown as a kind of Boston Tea Party protest. On top of that, street parking was dreaded because the city insisted upon parallel parking only, even though merchants had been protesting it for many years. (Those pre-1950 land-yachts did not have power steering, so turning the wheels when the car was not in motion was a helluva workout.) For more on all this feuding see: “CITY OF ROSES AND PARKING METERS.”

2 tons of American steel
2 tons of American steel

Whilst the normally peaceable citizens of Santa Rosa were stabbing their City Councilman dolls with voodoo pins, a guy named Hugh Codding was building a new shopping center he called Montgomery Village. It opened in 1950 with an advertising blitz promoting no sales tax (because it was outside of city limits) and easy, meter-free parking. Shoppers flocked there. Thus closed the first chapter of a big book we might call, “A Series of City Hall’s Unfortunate Events.”

OUR WAY OR NO FREEWAY   City Hall alone was not to blame for all that era’s dreadful decisions; together with the Downtown Association and Chamber of Commerce they “sawed the town in half,” as a Press Democrat editor put it in the paper’s 1948 end of year wrapup.

As well known from old photos, the Redwood Highway – AKA Highway 101 – used to pass smack through downtown Santa Rosa, around Courthouse Square and up Mendocino ave. This traffic included not only your aunt Ginny running errands across town but big trucks passing through with redwood logs, cattle, farm equipment and such. It may have looked like the City of Roses, but it probably smelled like the City of Diesel.

prop2In 1938 there was a municipal bond measure to fund an alt truck route around downtown. It failed to pass but would have pushed all that heavy traffic over to Wilson street, which was the heart of our “Little Italy” community – although the ads for the bond pleaded it was urgently needed for the safety of our school children, that concern apparently didn’t extend to the Italian kids. Backers also warned this truck route was necessary because the State Highway Commission might otherwise build a bypass and turn Santa Rosa into a “ghost town.”

A couple of years passed. The city’s Grand Poobahs were still stuck on the idea of a truck route but now wanted it a block closer to downtown, on Davis st. (or rather, between Davis and Morgan streets). The state offered no firm counterproposal; maybe they would construct a bypass somewhere west of Santa Rosa or perhaps use the Davis st. route with a short five block overpass, similar to what they were currently building in San Rafael. Anyway, there was no urgency: The state estimated there were only 4,500 daily trips along this stretch of highway 101 (today there are about 100,000).

Come 1941, however, the Press Democrat front page screamed with 72-point headlines – not just about the war against Hitler, but the war against the Highway Commission.

“An insult to Santa Rosa!” raged a PD op/ed after the state announced it was going to build a 13 block overpass through the town, from Sebastopol road to Ninth st. The paper called this a “highway on stilts” and the Downtown Association lawyer said it would “create the impression that the city is nothing more or less than a ‘slough town.'”

Santa Rosa’s response came in another banner headline: “CITY TO BUILD ALTERNATE TRUCK HIGHWAY!” They quickly bought right-of-way from seven homeowners between South A and South Davis streets (moving one of the houses), paved the stub of a road, and because the Commission didn’t grunt in disapproval, the town declared victory. The next thing anyone knew was when a state engineer was found surveying for the overpass and told someone it was “absolutely necessary at this time.”

I will mercifully spare Gentle Reader the full drama of what happened between 1942 and 1948, except to say that the Press Democrat wore out its supply of lead type exclamation marks (“CITY TO FIGHT OVERHEAD HIGHWAY!”) as it breathlessly reported all the good news about how the damned “Stilt Road” was not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead. And then another surveyor showed up from Sacramento. Nope.

There were in toto six different routes under consideration by the Highway Commission; unfortunately, not all of them were detailed in any Sonoma county newspapers (as far as I can tell). There was always the threat of a complete western bypass, but it was never mentioned whether that route would have been Stony Point or Wright/Fulton, or both. Serious consideration was given an eastern route from Petaluma Hill road to North street, curving back to Redwood Highway/Mendocino ave. between Memorial Park and Lewis road – which would have brought the highway rumblings within earshot of the tony McDonald ave. neighborhood, of course.

The state finally relented and gave Santa Rosa what the Poobahs wanted – a ground-level freeway that mostly wiped out Davis street (it’s the same route of highway 101 today). There were eleven crossings on it between Sebastopol road and Steele lane so there were plenty of chances to turn off and do some shopping.

Building highway 101 in 1948. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Building highway 101 in 1948. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Our ancestors fought so fiercely for this layout because they believed the downtown business district would wither if there was a bypass – that Santa Rosa couldn’t survive unless shoppers were only seconds away from their favorite stores. But I suspect another reason was because they didn’t actually grasp the concept of freeways. It was the mid-1940s, remember, and the very first one in America (Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles) had been constructed just a few years before. From some of the remarks in the PD it appears they thought of an elevated freeway like a bridge, where there was no getting on or off in midspan; when road options were presented at hearings in Petaluma, state officials had to explain that a freeway included a certain number of on and off ramps.

By contrast, when Petaluma’s highway improvements came years later that town had the opposite attitude – the state could not build their downtown bypass fast enough. “Loss of the tourist trade will be more than offset by an increase in local trade,” their City Manager said before work began. Petaluma’s greatest concern was the route be chosen with care to avoid the “poultry belt” because of “the harmful effects of irregular noises, headlights and police sirens on white leghorns,” as a freeway skeptic remarked.

The grand opening of the “Santa Rosa Freeway” was May 20, 1949. Less than two months passed before the first fatality: George Dow was killed in July when a car turning onto West College crossed his southbound lane. After that someone died every ten weeks on the average until the PD wrote a 1950 editorial which began, “A state highway ‘deathway’ runs through Santa Rosa. It is mistakenly called a ‘freeway.'”

Remember the joke that a camel was a horse designed by a committee? This was a freeway designed by shopkeepers. Of the eleven crossings only seven had stoplights. The only turn lanes were on the southbound side for turning east onto Third, Fourth and Fifth streets – to make it easier to get downtown, of course – otherwise drivers shot across oncoming traffic. Crossings at Steele Lane, Fifth St. and Barham Ave. proved the most deadly and the city asked for more traffic lights; the state replied they would study the safety issues concerning the road they told us they did not want to build. Meanwhile, the speed limit was cranked down from 55 to 45 to 35 as the death toll mounted and the city discovered there was more cross-traffic than there were cars using the highway.

Then there was the community impact. The PD sent out a reporter in 1950 to talk to people living on the west side. He was told the freeway made them feel stigmatized – they were on the “wrong side of tracks.” And so they were; there were no parks around there at the time except for a single weedy lot. Their 400+ kids had to walk across the freeway to go to school (mainly Burbank Elementary), so the city built a pedestrian underpass at Ellis Street. It flooded during heavy rains.

There was no whitewashing the fact that the freeway was a disaster in every way, and no doubt about who was to blame for it being like that. But curiously, the Press Democrat no longer mentioned the names of the guys it had long praised for standing up to those smarty-pants state engineers just a few years earlier.

Santa Rosa’s City Manager Sam Hood spoke to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in 1951 and said the “selfish interests” who were to blame for forcing through the ground-level roadway had come to find the freeway had no impact on their business at all. He added that if a vote were to be held that day – less than two years after the freeway opened – not one merchant would oppose a bypass.

The PD managed to both strongly condemn the freeway (“every intersection is a death-trap”) while making its original boosters – including the paper itself – even more anonymous in a 1956 editorial: “…well-intentioned Santa Rosans, laymen who thought they knew more than highly experienced and qualified engineers, who kicked, screamed and protested until they had their way – and saddled Santa Rosa with a classic example of what happens when local pressure-groups have their way.” So forgiving.

Santa Rosa finally yielded to the state and planning began for what we have today – an elevated highway 101 directly above the old ground level version. When work began the PD printed an Aug. 24, 1966 feature on the detour plans and expressed relief that the end was nigh for our “17-year-old mistake.” The new freeway opened October 1968 and cost $3.8M.

The old Santa Rosa Freeway may be no more but its terrible legacy remains, forever splitting the city between east and west. Whatever happens to this city – a population boom, catastrophic earthquake or fire, sweeping redevelopment or no development at all – that highway will endure and shape what we can do with our future. In Santa Rosa it will always be 1949.



(Photo at top courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection)

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