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THE FALL AND RISE OF SANTA ROSA HIGH, PT. 1

Essie Vaughan woke up because someone was ringing her doorbell and would not stop. She was probably used to occasional late visitors to their home on Humboldt street because her husband Marvin was Justice of the Peace; sometimes couples cannot bear to wait another moment before being married. But this November night was different. Waiting outside were four kids with an urgent message – the towering building across the street was on fire. Santa Rosa High School.

The November 15, 1921 destruction of the high school at Humboldt and Benton street (current location of the Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts) was the worst disaster faced by the town since the 1906 earthquake. And the crisis wasn’t limited to the fire itself, although that night it posed a very real danger of burning down the town. The longer crisis was Santa Rosa’s recovery – how to educate hundreds of children without a school building and the unexpected opposition to a new school.

This is part one, which covers just the night of the fire and the following day as Santa Rosa struggled to cope, not unlike the uncertain times the town faces right now in 2017. Part two covers the three difficult years which passed before our current high school could finally open its doors, the construction delayed because of a man determined to see the school was never built at all.

Above all, this is the portrait of a resilient community.

Press Democrat, November 16, 1921

 

Back to our story: Essie told the children to rush and activate the alarm on the corner. As explained here earlier, Santa Rosa had pull boxes mounted around town which set off a loud bell at the firehouse, which would immediately begin to ring in a kind of morse code that directed the firemen to the vicinity of the fire. But the kids returned and Essie heard no ringing bell; apparently they didn’t understand it was necessary to break the glass AND pull down the lever inside.

“Hastily throwing something over her shoulders, Mrs. Vaughan ran to the corner with them and turned in the alarm,” the Press Democrat reported. Although about five minutes were lost, the PD speculated the fire was so well established it didn’t make a bit of difference.

The alarm SNAFU was just the beginning. The fireplug in front of the school did not work, so the firemen needed more hose to attach to a distant one; the SRFD’s new pumper truck was out of commission because of an accident the previous day, so they didn’t have adequate water pressure to reach the roof of the school until the old engine was brought from the firehouse.

While all this was going on, boys were breaking into the burning building to rescue school treasures: silver trophy cups, “all but two of the football team’s suits” and hundreds of the cadet corps’ army surplus rifles. There were tales later told of kids feeding the fire by throwing rocks through windows and even a cheerleader dressed in uniform leading hurrahs as particular parts of the building went up in flames, but these stories were almost certainly just stupid teenage braggadocio.

While the firefighters had no luck that night, the town was very, very fortunate. The first hour of the fire was spectacular; flames could be seen in Sebastopol and according to the PD, “at least one man who saw it from Petaluma drove here in his machine, expecting to see half of Santa Rosa on fire.”

Firebrands and bits of half-burnt paper flew as far as the public library. From the Santa Rosa Republican:

Several residences in the vicinity of the school were threatened with fire, sparks and bits of burning paper having started blazes on the roofs. It was only constant and persistent efforts which prevented the loss of at least a dozen houses. Embers, carried on a light breeze, were strewn broadcast over a radius of several blocks. Many residents living blocks away, who were not aroused by the fire, awoke yesterday morning to find ashes and charred paper on the roofs and porches of their homes.

And if all of that wasn’t enough potential disaster for one day, it turned out that the school on Fourth street (the current location of Fremont Park to Brookwood Avenue) was also at risk of burning down that Tuesday. It seems the old school – Santa Rosa’s first – still was heated by small wood stoves in each classroom. One of those old stoves fell apart that morning scattering coals over the floor; fortunately the fire was dead (or nearly so) and no damage was done.

It was well known that those old stoves were dangerous and the school “[was] really a much worse fire trap that the old high school building,” according to the Press Democrat. But all of Santa Rosa’s schools had been in pitiable condition for years.

This problem came up in a 1913 lecture series titled, “What’s the Matter With Santa Rosa?,” which was an interesting mix of gripes, vapid boosterism (Santa Rosans need to get serious about gardening because Luther Burbank) and thoughtful criticism. Two of the speakers called out our schools as firetraps, mirroring a 1904 report in the Santa Rosa Republican that some schools in town did not have electricity or plumbing and no heating beyond those old stoves.

The Humboldt street high school had different problems. It was a fine modern building when it was built in 1895, but soon was packed beyond capacity. “When the attendance increased the large attic was remodeled and equipped for class rooms adding materially to the capacity of the structure,” the PD observed in 1921. “Yet this did not provide sufficient and the basement was rearranged and numerous classrooms were added. Several of these had no daylight whatever but had to have artificial light all the time.” Probation Officer John Plover was quoted in the Santa Rosa Republican: “You will find there two classes stuffed in one corner of the basement in a place never intended for class rooms, where there would be small chance of escape in case of fire or quake.”

While the high school was still burning furiously late on that school night, the Board of Education faced tough decisions about what to do with about 1,000 students. Did I forget to mention that the building was also being used to teach junior college classes?

Decision number one: Classes would be suspended – but for only a single day.

For the time being they decided to jam everyone into the high school annex, built next door in 1913 and then being used as the junior high. In the morning it would be used by high school and junior college pupils, then the junior high would take over for the afternoon. Classes would be held in hallways and two “portable buildings,” which probably were garages. In the months and years that followed, kids would be running all over town to catch classes in lodge halls, church sunday school rooms and public buildings. Chemistry students had to shuttle to Sebastopol.

The cause of the high school fire was never settled (see update). There were explosions heard during the blaze which led some to think something might have happened in the chemistry lab. Mike Daniels, historian for the SRHS Foundation, points out there was a basketball game that evening at the annex gym, and students sneaking a smoke during half-time would have likely gathered on the other side of the school (“far from watchful adult eyes”) and where dry autumn leaves near the building could prove easy tinder. But most at the time thought it was caused by bad wiring; it was known the electrical system was “in very bad shape.” Just the night before, the Board of Education had approved a rewiring of the whole place.

The night of the fire, Board of Education Chairman Hilliard Comstock stated that steps would be taken immediately to prepare for selling bonds to build a new high school.

“It is believed that the new high school will be one of the largest and finest buildings in Northern California,” the PD promised. And indeed it would be – but it would not be built quickly. Only those who were freshmen in 1921 would step into the new school on Mendocino avenue as students. And much of that delay was because of Sonoma county’s lawsuit-loving crank, Sampson B. Wright.

 

Art and Poem by Raymond Clar. 1922 Echo
 
 
FIRE LOSS NOT LESS THAN $100,000, WITH $65,000 INSURANCE

Santa Rosa’s high school building was destroyed by fire last night. The blaze was discovered about 11 o’clock, and was still burning at an early hour this morning.

The loss, figured at original costs, when prices were very low, was estimated at $100,000 by Ben F. Ballard, county superintendent of schools. The total insurance carried amounts to $65,000.

Three theories as to the cause of the blaze have been advanced:

1. Defective electric wiring.

2. Explosion in old chemistry laboratory on second floor.

3. Incendiarism.

In support of the first theory, H. W. Jacobs, local electrician who only Monday night was awarded a contract by the Board of Education to re-wire the building, declared that he knew the wiring to be defective and “in very bad shape.”

Jacobs had inspected the wiring recently, and the Board of Education had recognized that the condition of the wiring was a constant menace to the structure.

The building was of old-style construction, two stories and high basement.

EXPLOSIONS HEARD

People living near the high school agree that there were several explosions, but some believe the explosions occurred after the building was in flames. Several said that most of the acids and chemicals had been removed in the basement laboratories some time ago. Explosions were expected momentarily from these rooms but up to an early hour this morning none had taken place.

In support of the third theory, incendiarism, several high school pupils who broke into the building to salvage trophies and other valuables, declare that when they entered the structure electric […4 lines of typesetting errors…] main hall were burning. Joe Dearing and Malcom Weeks both say they saw lights burning.

Others who arrived early after the fire was discovered, including A. R. Waters, declare that no lights were burning. Waters went to the fire on the chemical truck and declares positively that no lights were burning in the building. This was corroborated by Judge Marvin T. Vaughan, who lives across the street from the building.

LITTLE SALVAGED

Five high school pupils, Joe Dearing, Malcom Weeks, Ransom Petray, Burgess Titus and Harold Doig broke into the building by thrusting their arms through windows, and succeeded in saving nearly all the school’s silver trophy cups, and all but two of the football team’s suits.

Later others entered the building from the east side and saved most of the 250 or 300 army rifles used by the cadet corps, and some ammunition.

Practically everything else was lost. The school library, consisting of 1000 to 1500 volumes and including many volumes from the city library, was burned. Chemistry and physics equipment valued at $6000 was almost totally destroyed.

All the records of the high school, junior high school and junior college were burned, together with other equipment in the office of Principal Eugene W. Parker.

FIRE EQUIPMENT INADEQUATE

The fire occurred when the local department was least able to cope with it. Due to the partial wrecking of the city’s new motorized pumping engine in an accident Monday, this very important unit in the fire-fighting apparatus was not available, so that proper water pressure could not be directed upon the building until members of the department could return to the engine house for the old pumping engine.

Even then, shortage of hose and failure of a McDonald system fireplug in front of the burning building put the fire fighters under a severe handicap.

Four streams of water were directed upon the blaze, and these succeeded in holding it down to a large extent, but it was realized from the start that the building could not be saved.

YOUTHS DISCOVER BLAZE

The fire was discovered by two boys and two girls who were walking along Humboldt street shortly before 11 o’clock. They ran to the residence of Judge Marvin T. Vaughan, rang the bell furiously, roused the Vaughans from bed and told them of the fire.

Mrs. Vaughan directed them to the nearest fire alarm box, at Humboldt and Benton, where through ignorance of the mechanism they failed to register the alarm. When they returned to the Vaughan residence, Mrs. Vaughan told them that the alarm could not have been turned in as the bell at the fire station had not rung.

Hastily throwing something over her shoulders, Mrs. Vaughan ran to the corner with them and turned in the alarm. The delay in getting the alarm through occasioned five minutes of last time to the department, and this may have made a difference in combatting the flames, but it is conceded that even under the most favorable circumstances the building could not have been saved.

NO ONE HURT

No one was injured in fighting the blaze, although several had narrow escapes when parts of the walls collapsed and crashed to the ground.

This was particularly true when the tower of the building toppled over and fell to the lawn in a spectacular shower of sparks. There was a scurrying to cover and all who had been within reach escaped.

The only untoward incident chose as its victim Councilman Fred Oliva, who inadvertently got in front of a high-pressure hose while he was helping drag along another, and was bowled over in a complete somersault. Oliva’s coat was torn virtually off his back, his hat was sent many yards off and his trousers were torn. He suffered no physical injury.

Petray and Dearing had a narrow escape while attempting to save statues of Lincoln and Washington from the study hall, when part of the ceiling collapsed directly in front of them.

The burning girders completely burned the two statues, only a few feet ahead of the boys.

SPARKS FLY BLOCKS

During the height of the conflagration the whole city was illuminated and sparks were carried for several blocks. Many people who were roused by the excitement and the light shining in their windows put their garden hoses in operation as a precautionary measure.

There were no reports, however, of the fire being communicated to other buildings.

INSURANCE RECENTLY DOUBLED

It was only six weeks ago that the insurance on the high school building was doubled.

This was at the behest of the new city superintendent, Jerome O. Cross, and members of the board of education who realized that the old insurance policies were not in proportion to the value of the building. The insurance formerly carried amounted to $25,000 on the building and $10,000 on the equipment. This was increased to $50,000 and $15,000 respectively.

A year ago the new board of education brought an electrical expert here from San Francisco to inspect the building, and he urgently recommended new wiring, but owing to the lack of funds the recommendation could not be carried out in full.

At that time, however, some of the wiring was rearranged, and plugs were erected on the exterior of the building so that all electrical connections could be cut off from the outside at the end of each school day.

It is understood that this was taken care of as usual yesterday by the janitor, and if this is true there could have been no lights turned on in the building unless it was done deliberately before the fire was started.

OLIVIA QUESTIONED NEED

In connection with the accident to Councilman Oliva there is the interesting fact that at last night’s council meeting he interposed an objection to the purchase of more fire hose, as recommended by Fire Chief Duncan.

Duncan had asked the council for 1300 ft. additional hose. Oliva declared that the need for hose was not demonstrated by the chief’s recommendation, but that he as chairman of the fire and water committee would have to see the hose supply personally to know what the needs were.

FIRE SEEN MANY MILES

The blaze was seen for many miles during the first hour it was burning.

At least one man who saw it from Petaluma drove here in his machine, expecting to see half of Santa Rosa on fire.

Santa Rosa members of the Eastern Star who were attending a meeting in Sebastopol saw the blaze and rushed home in the belief that the whole city was on fire.

The high school building was erected in 1895 and was dedicated by the Rev. William Martin, then First Presbyterian church, who died recently in Hawaii.

State Senator Herbert W. Slater, dean of Santa Rosa’s newspapermen, remembers the dedicatory services, which he “covered” for this paper.

 

 
No School Today But Sessions Will Resume Thursday

School will not hold forth today for pupils of the high school, junior high and junior college.

Beginning tomorrow, however, classes will be reorganized in several lodge rooms and perhaps one or two churches.

This was the decision reached last night by City Superintendent Cross, Chairman Hilliard Comstock of the Board of Education, and Mrs. F. B. Hatch, a member of the Board.

It is expected that the American Legion, the Odd Fellows, Masons, Native Sons, Presbyterian church and perhaps several other organizations will be asked to lend their facilities for the accommodation of the classes.

 
Preparing to Construct New S. R. Hi School

Steps will be taken immediately to prepare for the building of a new high school, it was stated late last night by members of the Board of Education.

It is expected that a bond election will be put up to the people within a very short time.

The new building will be paid for, not by Santa Rosa alone, but by the 26 school districts which under a recent law now constitute the Santa Rosa high school district.

Territory which will be taxed for the new high school building takes in everything within a radius of ten miles.

For this reason, and because of the need for vastly increased space, it is believed that the new high school will be one of the largest and finest buildings in Northern California.

– Press Democrat, November 16, 1921
 
Defective Wiring Thought Cause of High School Fire

The exact cause of the high school blaze remains a complete mystery, although the majority of people lay the blame on defective wiring. According to statements made by Wm. Bennyhoff, head of the night school held in the junior high school building, every light was turned out of the old building Tuesday night when he left the night school. The night classes close shortly after nine o’clock and at nine-thirty when Bennyhoff left for home, there was not a gleam of light from the building.

The presence of lights in the study hall of the doomed building, however, is explained by the fact that melting connections in the switch boxes might cause a “short” and light the bulbs. Some of the spectators declare the halls were lighted while others deny the statement

SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION

Another theory advanced by some of the faculty, as well as some of the spectators of the blaze, is that of spontaneous combustion. The fire apparently started either in or very near the chemical laboratory, where a large assortment of chemicals of all sorts were stored. It is possible that some sort of chemical reaction could have caused an explosion resulting in the fire. This would explain the explosions heard by nearby residents. The explosions could have been explained in another way, however, as the fire would no doubt have caused some of the chemicals to explode. The question is, did the explosions occur before or after the fire was noticed? The statements of those who heard the explosions, conflict on this point and the matter is still uncertain.

But very few people think that the blaze could have been of incendiary origin, because of the comparatively early hour at which the flames burst forth.

[…how the building was funded by bonds in 1894…]

When the attendance increased the large attic was remodeled and equipped for class rooms adding materially to the capacity of the structure. Yet this did not provide sufficient and the basement was rearranged and numerous classrooms were added. Several of these had no daylight whatever but had to have artificial light all the time.

– Press Democrat, November 17, 1921
Three More Santa Rosa School Houses Nothing Better Than Firetraps

Only the merest chance saved several dwellings and at least one more school house from being destroyed by fire while the high school building was burning Tuesday night. Embers from the blazing building and in many cases large pieces of burning shingles and wood were carried by the breeze and the draft caused by the fire to houses within a radius of four or five blocks, and several burning embers were seen by spectators to light near the Fremont school building. Charred papers were carried as far as the public library by the breeze.

Only the fact that the wind was very light saved the Fremont school building, which is really a much worse fire trap that the old high school building from being destroyed.

Complaint has been made to the school authorities regarding the dangerous condition of the heating system of the Fourth street school. This building is heated in the same manner as it was forty years ago by small wood stoves in each room. Four of these stoves are reported as being dangerous, through being nearly worn out, and a request was made some time ago for new stoves.

A stove in one of the rooms of the school building collapsed Tuesday morning and ashes were scattered over the room. Fortunately the fire in the stove had died out, so but very few live coals were scattered, and no damage was done. What might have happened, however, if the stove had contained a fire, would have been an entirely different story. Had such been the case, no doubt two of Santa Rosa’s schools would have been in ashes today instead of one.

In the event of a fire breaking out in such a building, there would be even less chance of saving it than there was of saving the big school building. This is only one of the schools in this city that needs attention. Of the remaining three, only one, the Burbank, is in fairly good condition, and although far from being modern in every detail, might serve for several years as a school building.

The other two, the Lincoln and the South Park school, are in deplorable condition, and offer almost no protection against fire.

– Press Democrat, November 17, 1921
School Sessions Resumed In Annex And Portables: Halls Are To Be Utilized

After a day of uncertainty and excitement which followed the destruction of Santa Rosa’s high school building, and interrupted the routine of classes, students of the junior college, junior high and high school resumed their studies today, sharing the inadequate accommodations of the annex and two portable school rooms.

According to arrangements for the present, made at a meeting of the board of education last night, the high school and junior college pupils use the buildings from 8:15 to 12:15 o’clock. The junior high school holds classes from 12:45 to 4:30 o’clock.

This schedule has been adopted by the board of education until the necessary equipment can be installed in several of the halls downtown, which have been offered for use as schools.

Tables and chairs are being moved into the halls today, and it is expected that within a short time they will be ready.

The many water-soaked volumes saved from the school library, which can be used in the present emergency are being dried, and will aid materially in relieving the situation in which the schools have been cast.

Short of Everything

While a portion of the equipment and materials from the laboratories or the high school building was saved, the amount is insufficient. As a result, arrangements have been made with the Analy high school at Sebastopol whereby the junior college and high school classes  in chemistry and physics will go to Sebastopol to conduct their experiments.

In the meantime, plans are being perfected as rapidly as possible to provide some kind of laboratories here.

The halls, which are to be equipped for temporary use as schools, are the Masonic, Labor temple and the Armory.

Excitement over the fire Tuesday night is still rife among the students and the mass of black and gray ruins on the high school grounds form the basis for conversation, regrets and speculation.

Valuable Records Lost

New features of the blaze have come to light during the past 24 hours, among the most unfortunate of which was the destruction of Miss Frances O’Meara’s treasured collection of books, pictures and records.

The teacher the only one who has been a member of the high school faculty since the old building was erected in 1895, had carefully preserved copies of each issue of the various school publications. Added to these was a collection of invitations to every commencement held in the school during the past 26 years, pictures of historical and literary characters and a number of biological and zoological specimens.

The entire collection was kept in the building, and its total destruction occasioned regrets and sympathy from everyone in Santa Rosa.

Property Threatened

Several residences in the vicinity of the school were threatened with fire, sparks and bits of burning paper having started blazes on the roofs. It was only constant and persistent efforts which prevented the loss of at least a dozen houses.

Embers, carried on a light breeze, were strewn broadcast over a radius of several blocks. Many residents living blocks away, who were not aroused by the fire, awoke yesterday morning to find ashes and charred paper on the roofs and porches of their homes.

In the Fremont school, one of the old stoves which forms part of the inefficient and dangerous heating system, collapsed. Although there was practically no fire in it at the time, live coals and hot ashes were scattered over the floor. Fortunately, while much excitement was created, no damage resulted.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 17, 1921

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1884firecompany

SANTA ROSA’S FIRE LADDIES AND THE BULLY CATARACT

Santa Rosa would probably burn down if they didn’t start a fire company, but many didn’t seem to care if it did in 1860.

This is the story of the origins of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, but you could easily say it’s also about the origins of Santa Rosa as a community. In 1860 the town proper had only about 500 residents and it was very much an I’ve-got-mine kind of place. There was no public school in town until the year before; why tax yourself to educate someone else’s kids? Or why worry about your house catching fire since you’re personally always careful with lamps and candles? An attempt to start a volunteer fire company flopped in 1858 because it was presumed fire-fighting equipment might cost too much. “We must have some kind of fire organization,” the Sonoma County Democrat begged. “Santa Rosa is composed almost entirely of wooden buildings, and if a fire should break out in any part of the town, in all probability the whole place would be laid in ashes.”

The paper renewed its call for something to be done after a September, 1860 house fire. Usually Santa Rosa was fighting fires with a simple bucket brigade – everyone who heard the cry of “fire!” grabbed his personal bucket and ran to the scene, where anyone brave enough would try to beat out the flames just using wet blankets or sacks. This homeowner was lucky enough to live next door to Santa Rosa House, the town’s main hotel, where owner Edward Colgan had a hose and a force pump which helped extinguish the fire without too much damage. (This incident also provides a rare glimpse of the remarkable John Richards, an African-American man of wealth who welcomed former slaves into his home and guided them to new lives.)

Not so lucky was the town of Healdsburg, where most of the business district was destroyed a few days later, even though residents tried to make a firebreak by blowing up the cigar store. “Every effort was made on the part of the citizens to suppress the flames, but owing to their having no fire organization all their efforts were of no avail,” the Democrat commented, again jabbing Santa Rosa with an editorial elbow. Still, nothing was done.

The Democrat coverage of those fires was fairly lengthy, considering they occurred in the autumn of 1860 just before the presidential election. Editor Thomas Thompson was squeezing out almost all local news to make space for tirades against for voting for Lincoln, denouncing him as a coward, fool and abolitionist who – horrors, the unthinkable! – was secretly planning to free the slaves once he sneaked into the White House. How it must have galled Thompson to waste those column inches to chide citizens over the importance of fire protection when the precious space surely would have been better used promoting Breckinridge, the candidate upholding the absolute legal right of slavery in the South.

The turning point came in the new year when Dr. Todd’s home on Third street caught fire. It burned with remarkable speed; only by good fortune was a toddler rescued from being trapped inside. The flames lept to the house next door (home to Joel Miller and family, known to readers via the Otho Hinton story) and threatened the building just beyond that, which was the office of the Sonoma County Democrat. Only the doctor’s home was lost and only thanks to an absence of wind.

Coming so soon after the devastation in Healdsburg, it was no longer a challenge to convince our penny-pinching ancestors that something must be done for the sake of the common good. In just a couple of days, Dr. Alban raised over $300 for the purchase of equipment and at the end of the week, meeting above Fen’s Saloon at the corner of Third and Main streets, 25 men signed up to form Santa Rosa’s first hook and ladder company. The date was February 2nd, 1861.

Other meetings followed and those stairs at Fen’s Saloon must have had quite a workout. It was decided that three hundred bucks might buy a very serviceable hook and ladder truck but what the town really needed was a fire engine. So on June 29th they were reorganized as Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1, despite having no engine, nor enough money to buy one, nor knowing where to find such a thing. (We know about those developments, by the way, only thanks to tidbits about the company history appearing in the papers during 1870s and 1880s. At the time editor Thompson gave them little mention, as he was now consumed with running wordy commentaries bashing the Lincoln administration and calling for California to join the southern states in seceding from the Union.)

A committee went to San Francisco and found the fire department there had a used engine made by the Hunneman company. An agreement was made: $400 down and three men in town signed a promissory note for the $900 balance. The engine arrived in mid-December. “The ‘boys’ tried her on Monday afternoon,” the Democrat reported, “and rendered a verdict in consequence in perfect accordance with her name – ‘Cataract.'” Then they apparently adjourned to the room above Fen’s Saloon.

The name “Cataract” promised to drown a fire as if it were under a waterfall. Many fire companies at the time gushed boastfully of their engine’s prowess with names such as “Torrent,” “Spouter,” “Cascade” and “Fountain.” (The firemen of Islesford, Maine, however, with their craggy down-easter exactitude, dubbed their fire engine, “Squirt.”)

(RIGHT: An 1850 Hunneman restored at Francestown, New Hampshire, probably the same as Santa Rosa’s Cataract. Photo credit: New Boston Historical Society)

Santa Rosa was lucky to find a used Hunneman engine available; there were probably fewer than a dozen in the state at the time. Today they appear to us like large and fragile toys, but they were quite rugged and considered the standard of excellence for their compact and efficient design, made by a Boston company founded by a coppersmith who apprenticed with Paul Revere. They worked like this:

The engine and a two-wheeled hose carriage arrive at the fire, drawn by horses (which in itself was an innovation in the mid 19th century). The first job is to fill up the “tub;” Santa Rosa’s engine probably held about 200 gallons so a leather hose is hooked up to a fire hydrant, if available, or dropped into a well. Copper nozzles are screwed on to one or both leather hoses attached to spigots on the sides. Firemen take positions holding the two long brass poles on either side of the engine which are called “brakes” (a 18th-19th century name for the handle of a pump) and begin seesawing them like mad. You can watch a video here. Inside the engine, those brakes are operating a two cylinder single acting piston pump. There is also a copper air chamber to produce a steady flow of water but as pressure builds up, the increased resistance makes it harder to pump. Firemen can only work for a few minutes without tiring, requiring them to work in teams. More details of the workings can be found at the New Boston Historical Society.

Note particularly the engine has no “engine” – no steam or other form of power except fireman muscle, and lots of it. It’s a tribute to Hunneman’s design and craftsmanship that the things performed so well; even the smaller model, as seen here, had enough pressure to shoot a stream nearly 200 feet in competitions held elsewhere. The company showed off the “bully Cataract” at a Sonoma mechanical fair later that year but didn’t expect to win any prizes because “our machine is of much less capacity than any engine in the district,” as commented the Democrat.

The provenance of Santa Rosa’s Cataract is fuzzy. There are aficionados who seek to track down the history of every “hand tub” (particularly the Hunnemans), but this one seems to have slipped through the cracks. The Sonoma County Democrat mentioned “the engine has ‘seen service’ in the East, but not enough to injure it,” and according to another paper we bought it off of San Francisco’s Howard Engine Company No. 3, but there is no further genealogy. Possibly San Francisco sold it quickly because it was not as the East Coast seller advertised; with even the smallest model weighing nearly a ton and all shipping to and from the East sailing around the Horn, returns were not as easy as sending a defective gizmo back to Amazon.

The first real challenge for the Santa Rosa company came four months later, at the end of April, 1862 when the Eureka Hotel caught fire. “The flames spread so rapidly through the building that many boarders barely escaped with their lives,” the Democrat reported, “and some made their appearance in the street minus ‘unmentionables.'” The hotel was lost along with an adjoining store, the fire being uncontrolled in part because of an unreliable water supply; their engine drained four wells and its hose was working on the fifth well at the end, the paper noting that moving the hose from well to well cost considerable time. But members of the company bonded over the experience and nearly twenty years later they were still talking about it: “…To hear the old members speak of the excitement and daring of their comrades in vying with one another for bravery and the labor of gaining control of the fiery element, recalls vividly the pioneer days of raging conflagrations in San Francisco.” Their company motto, “Faithful and Fearless” spoke to this pride.

Members of the company were all unpaid, but volunteering was not without its perks. They were exempt from jury duty and militia service – the latter being a particular draw after Congress passed the 1863 conscription act. While California was never required to send a quota to fight for the Union, the pro-Confederacy young men of Santa Rosa probably didn’t want to take chances.

Since the town contributed nothing for equipment or to help retire the amount still owed on the engine, the “ladies” – none of whom were ever named – held annual Firemen’s Balls. The first one in early 1862 was a complete bust so they hit the reset button and held another first annual ball in the summer. That one raised $35, which the company used to buy a “triangle” for sounding the alarm.

Aside from the Fourth of July festivities, these Firemen’s Balls were the only major events in town not hosted by a church. A description is transcribed below, with dancing continuing until 4AM and a break at midnight for everyone to have supper. In a town where rancor over the Civil War ran high (Lincoln received only 18 percent of the vote in Santa Rosa, by far the lowest in the county), these benefits offered a unique, nonpartisan gathering for the whole community.

A crisis came in 1863 because $600 still was due for the engine, while the volunteers were paying interest on the debt plus the rent for the firehouse out of their own pockets. Cataract was about to be sold and the company reformed as hook and ladder. “But at last we see a glimmer of light,” promised the paper. “The ladies, (Heaven bless them!) are coming to the rescue.” And somehow, they did. In July, 1864 the engine was paid off AND a new firehouse was built with the parcel owned by the company. There was a ceremony and afterwards “the ‘boys’ then entertained those present with some tall ‘playing’ from the machine,” which can be left to Gentle Reader’s imagination.

The 1864 celebration at the new firehouse neatly ends the first chapter of the Santa Rosa Fire Department’s story, albeit with large gaps. There are no photos of our “fire laddies” or the Cataract, although it’s probably safe to assume it was a twin to the engine shown in the photograph above. Maps are scarce for that era so I can’t find the whereabouts of the first firehouse nor the 1864 one – although some digging at the Recorder’s office could probably determine that location since the trustees owned the building. And we’ll probably never know how “the ladies” – with some unspecified aid from Otho Hinton – managed to quickly raise a great deal of money. The first county history stated there was “a fair and a festival” but if such events were mentioned in the newspaper they were small and easy to overlook. Afte all, space was needed to reassure Santa Rosa the war was going really great for the Confederacy.

Ten years later in 1874, the town’s firefighting force doubled with the formation of Eureka Hose Company No. 1. This was a hook & ladder company despite the misleading name (some modern historians have mistakenly thought these were two different companies). Their horse-drawn wagon carried ladders, obviously, along with the hooks, which were long wooden pikes with a cast iron hook at the end to yank down walls or roofing in order to allow water to reach hotspots. These hook & ladder trucks are best viewed as a kind of giant fireman’s toolbox; they also carried buckets, spare hose, parts for emergency engine repair and possibly some basic first aid and rescue equipment – some East Coast trucks even included stretchers. And most important of all, the new company added about two dozen fresh pairs of arms to pump away on the Cataract’s brakes.

Ten years after that in 1884, we can say SRFD’s wild ‘n’ wooly days were finally over. The firemen were still all volunteers, but the town provided them with a firehouse on Hinton Avenue, across from the soon-to-be-built courthouse in the square. The door to the north was for the engine company with a separate hook & ladder door next to it. On the second floor, better seen in the bird’s eye view below, was Santa Rosa’s city hall and first public library combined.

But the most significant change was the decision to upgrade to a modern steam pumper engine – after more than two decades of service here and goddesses know how many years elsewhere, the bully Cataract would be sold to help pay for the new gear. The Democrat announced this decision in an odd article, half promising the old engine still had years of life left in her, and half apologizing for the company still using an undersized antique:

The money received for the old engine, which is to be sold, will of course also be applied to the same use. This is a good opportunity for some other community to secure, for a moderate outlay, an engine capable of doing good service for many years to come, for although it is not of sufficient capacity to be exactly what is necessary in a town of the dimensions of Santa Rosa, it would nevertheless be just the thing in a smaller and less thickly settled place.

Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1 outside Hinton Ave. firehouse, c. 1885

 

Bird’s eye view of Hinton Ave. c. 1883 showing firehouse nearing completion at right (Photos: Sonoma County Library)

 

IT MUST BE HAD.–We must have some kind of fire organization. Santa Rosa is composed almost entirely of wooden buildings, and if a fire should break out in any part of the town, in all probability the whole place would be laid in ashes. We learn there has been an attempt made to organize a fire department here, but failed for want of the “one thing needful.” People have an exaggerated idea, as a general thing, of the cost of forming such an association. We think it would be best to have an engine, but as that would involve considerable expense–and some of our citizens would rather take the chances of losing all they have, by fire, than pay fifty or one hundred dollars toward buying an apparatus that might be the means of saving them several thousand, we propose that they organize a Hook and Ladder Company, the expense of which would be trifling, in comparison with the good that might be effected thereby. This matter must be acted upon, and promptly, too. We are not, personally, so much interested in the matter as are a great many other of our citizens, but are ready and willing to put the ball in motion, and hope all will give it a push.

– Sonoma County Democrat, July 12, 1860

 

FIRE.

On Tuesday morning last, about 10 o’clock, our citizens were suddenly called into the streets by the fearful cry of “fire.” We dropped our “stick,” seized a bucket and hurried to the place of alarm, where we found, as might naturally be supposed, the wildest excitement; for although our citizens will not need heed the old adage, “In time of peace prepare for war,” when the enemy is upon us they try to meet him to the best of their ability. The fire on Tuesday, proceeded from a frame building on the corner of Main and Second streets, owned by a colored man, named John Richards, part of which is occupied as a barber shop. The room adjoining the shop is a bedroom, and a little girl, three years old, the child of one of the occupants of the house, was alone in the room at the time the fire broke out. A box of matches had been left on a table close to the bed where the child was, and it is supposed that the little one in attempting to light a match, set fire to some articles of clothing, which were on the table, and it was soon communicated to the canvas ceiling. The child ran out of the room, screaming, which alarmed the inmates of the house–and on entering the room to see what was the matter, Richards found almost the entire ceiling in flames. He immediately commenced tearing down the canvas, and that together with the force-pump and hose, of Mr. Colgan of the Santa Rosa House, soon extinguished the flames. We could call the attention of those who have ridiculed the idea of having a Fire Engine in this place to the service rendered by the hose of Mr. Colgan, on Tuesday. No particular damage was done to the house, but Richards had his hands badly burned in tearing his hands badly burned in tearing the canvas from the ceiling.

“IN TIME OF PEACE, PREPARE FOR WAR.”–We have several times urged upon our citizens the importance of having some kind of organization to protect our town against fire, and as we have just had another narrow escape from the dangerous enemy, we make one more appeal. Give us something; if the citizens do not feel able to buy an engine, let there be a Hook and Ladder Company organized at once. The cost would be but a trifle in comparison with the good that might arise from such an organization. Almost every one we have conversed with on the subject favors it, and we sincerely hope some of our merchants will call a meeting of the citizens, and do something for the protection of their property.

– Sonoma County Democrat, September 20, 1860

 

Destructive Fire!

A destructive fire occurred in our town on Monday last. About eleven o’clock A. M., we heard the thrilling cry, and on going to the street, found it was only three doors from us, on Third street, and the residence of Dr. S. S. Todd. As near as can be learned, the following are the particulars of the origin of the fire: Mrs. Todd had stepped out to a neighbors, leaving two children, one about four years and the other eighteen months old, in the house, the older of whom states, that his little brother took a piece of paper, lit it, and set a pile of newspapers on fire, that was in a corner of the room. The house being lined with canvas, the flames spread instantaneously, and in a moment the smoke was seen issuing from the windows and roof. Messrs. J. B. Caldwell and Chas. G. Ames were the first to reach the building, and on entering it, the latter found the oldest child trying to open the front door. Mr. Caldwell, supposing that there was no one in the house, was on the point of leaving it with a piece of furniture, when he discovered the younger child standing in a corner, apparently unconscious of danger. The flames spread so rapidly that it was impossible to save much of the furniture. Dr. Todd informs us that he lost, also, a quantity of silver plate, which was, however, recovered after the fire, in the shape of “nuggets.” He estimates his loss at seven or eight hundred dollars. The building, which was completely burned, was owned by J. Ridgeway, [sic] and valued at one thousand dollars. No insurance.

After the rescue of the children, our citizens turned their attention to saving the adjoining building, part of which was occupied as a residence by Joel Miller, Esq.–and the other part by the DEMOCRAT establishment. There was a space of about thirty feet between the burning house and the residence of Mr. Miller, and but for the superhuman efforts of our citizens, the whole building must have consumed. [sic] Men mounted the roof, and with the aid of blankets and buckets, succeeded in preventing the house taking fire. There was, fortunately, but little wind at the time. Mr. Miller’s furniture was all moved to the street, as well as the contents of our office.

We take this occasion to give hearty thanks to those who so ably and promptly assisted us on the occasion. Owing to the exertions of our friends, our printing material was safely and seasonably deposited on the street. Since the fire we have frequently been asked how much pi was made, and remarks have been made that we sustained considerable damage. This is a mistake. Whenever we think of the occasion we are amazed that our loss should have been so trifling in the pi line.

HOOK AND LADDER COMPANY.–We are gratified to know that since the fire on Monday, our citizens are beginning to manifest an interest in the organization of a fire company. Dr. W. G. Alban has taken the matter in hand, and has already over three hundred dollars subscribed for the purpose. We hope every citizen will lend a helping hand. Much has been said as to the policy of procuring an engine or hooks and ladders. We do not profess to be much of a fireman, and the little experience we have had was with an engine company. But in few of the great scarcity of water and the enormous cost of a fire engine and sufficient hose to answer the purpose in our case, we think it far better to organized a Hook and Ladder Company. Something must be done at once to protect us from the dangerous element, and hooks and ladders with a truck can be procured at about half the expense of an engine. We are requested to state that there will be a meeting at the Court House on Saturday night, at which time a report will be made of the money subscribed, and steps taken to effect the organization immediately. We trust every property holder will be in attendance.

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 31, 1861

 

HOOK AND LADDER COMPANY.–Pursuant to call a meeting of the citizens of Santa Rosa was held on Saturday evening, for the purpose of taking steps toward the organization of a fire company…[about $350 collected, 25 named as members of the company, no mention of Hinton in article]

– Sonoma County Democrat, February 7, 1861

 

FIRE ENGINE.–At the meeting of the Santa Rosa Fire Company, Thursday evening last, arrangements were made for the purchase of a Fire-engine. A committee was appointed, who will purchase “der masheen” as soon as possible.

– Sonoma County Democrat, November 14, 1861

 

A Hunneman Engine has been purchased of the San Francisco Howards, for Santa Rosa.

– Marysville Daily Appeal, December 17, 1861

 

FIRE MATTERS.–The fire engine just purchased by the new fire company at Santa Rosa, is expected to arrive this week or the first of next week. It was built by Hunneman, the celebrated builder of fire engines, and was purchased by Mr. Frank Whitney, ex-Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. The engine has “seen service” in the East, but not enough to injure it; indeed, it is in such good condition, that competent judges pronounce it to be “as good as new.”

The Board of Supervisors, at the request of a number of petitioners, appropriated one hundred dollars to assist in purchasing the engine. The sum thus contributed is small, but had it been greater, there can be no doubt that our citizens generally would approve such an act by the Board, though, of course, all would be better pleased if the engine had been bought with money raised exclusively by the citizens. Vigorous exertions might have accomplished this, undoubtedly had our citizens generally concurred in the importance of the end to be attained. All who have been remiss in their duty in this matter, thanks to the Supervisors and their fellow citizens, may have the satisfaction of seeing their property saved from destruction not by their own providence, but through the foresight of others. The Supervisors doubtless thought that it was their duty to do all in their power to secure the property of the county from danger by fire. One thing is certain, they could not have adopted a less costly plan than the one of assisting the fire company at the county seat to purchase an engine.

We shall publish at an early day a full list of the members and officers of the new fire company. If the two companies at Petaluma and others in the county, will forward us a list of their officers and members, together with the matters pertaining, such as the dates of organization, etc., we shall thus be enabled to publish them together, the whole presenting in a convenient form a commendable chapter of local history.

The Santa Rosa Fire Company propose giving their first Annual Ball on the 8th of January next, the proceeds to be devoted toward paying for their engine.

– Sonoma County Democrat, December 5, 1861

 

FIRE MATTERS.–Santa Rosa Engine, No. 1, received their new (in one sense) machine on–that is to say, it came–Sunday last, together with three hundred and fifty feet of hose. The “boys” tried her on Monday afternoon, and rendered a verdict in consequence in perfect accordance with her name–“Cataract.”..At a meeting of the Company, on Monday night, Andrew Ester was elected 2d Assistant Foreman..An adjourned meeting of the Company will be held in the room adjoining “Fen’s Saloon,” on Saturday evening next, at 1 o’clock, which every member is expected to attend, as very important business will be transacted.

– Sonoma County Democrat, December 19, 1861

 

RALLY, PUMPS AND HOSE!–The first Annual Ball of the Santa Rosa Engine Company, it should be remembered, will take place on Wednesday next. We bespeak for those who may attend a pleasant time, as the company have made ample preparations to secure the desirable end. The profits of the occasion are to go toward paying for the engine. Let those who delight to “trip the fantastic toe” turn out generally. The supper will be gotten up by Mr. VanDoren of the Eureka Hotel.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 5, 1862

 

NEW ENGINE HOUSE.–Santa Rosa Engine Company, No. 1, moved their engine into the new house, recently fitted up for them, on Saturday last. The company is now thoroughly organized, and will soon be in a condition to render valuable service in case of a fire…

[excerpts of by-laws, including fines and penalties. “…for bringing liquor near the engine house wile on duty, without the permission from the Foreman…one dollar”]

– Sonoma Democrat, January 9, 1862

 

FIREMEN’S ELECTION.– [annual meeting to elect officers, all named]

– Sonoma Democrat, February 20, 1862

 

GOES TO THE FAIR.–Santa Rosa Engine, No. 1–the “bully Cataract”–left town of Tuesday morning for Sonoma, to compete for a prize offered for the best working and worked engine by the Sonoma and Napa county Agricultural and Mechanical Society. Notwithstanding our machine is of much less capacity than any engine in the district, we hope she will meet some competitors, even should she not carry off the prize. But nevertheless, our boys are heavy on the muscle, and go to win.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 9, 1862

 

LET THEM CLIMB!–Our fire laddies are soon to be the recipients of an appropriate and useful present, from a citizen of Sonoma. Mr. Anthony Krippenstapel, an exceedingly ingenius [sic] workman, has spent much time in constructing for them a fireman’s ladder, which will be formally presented to the company on next Saturday evening. It is twenty feet in length, and every joint is fitted in the neatest and most exact manner; the material has been thoroughly seasoned, and while the ladder is sufficiently strong to support any weight that may ever be put upon it, yet it is so light that it can be handled with ease by one individual. We remember at the time of the burning of the Eureka hotel, such a ladder as this would have rendered material assistance to our firemen, and we doubt not this donation from Mr. Krippenstapel will be properly appreciated by the department.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 7, 1863

 

Our Fire Department.

Some time has elapsed since we reminded our citizens that our Fire Department is still encumbered with debt. In fact, we hoped that it would never be necessary for us to again make allusion to the subject. Two years ago there was purchased for this community a most excellent Hunnemann Engine, which has been the means at least on one occasion of preventing the total destruction of the town by fire. At the time the Engine was purchased a debt of $600 was necessarily incurred. As is too often the case in small towns, this Department has been mainly supported by those of our citizens who have least at stake in case of a conflagration. We have never seen in any community so little public spirit manifested in regarded to a matter of so much importance as in this. Aside from numerous endeavors to raise by benefits sufficient funds to liquidate the debt, the active members of the Department have been obliged to pay the interest on the $600, and all contingent expenses of the Company, rent, etc, from their own pockets. It is a shame and disgrace to the property holders of the town that this should be so.

But at last we see a glimmer of light. The ladies, (Heaven bless them!) are coming to the rescue. It has been stated that the Engine is to be sold, and the ladies have determined, if within their power, (and what is it they cannot accomplish?) to save our town from the disgrace attendant upon such an event. They propose by means of a series of entertainments, of their own getting up, to assist in relieving the Department of the incumberances hanging over it. If the property holders will pay the $600 due upon the Engine they will provide the Company with a house, and thereby place the Department upon a permanent footing. If it is desired that the Engine shall remain here something must be done at once. Gen. Hinton, we are pleased to see, has taken the matter in hand, and we hope soon to hear of a response on the part of our “substantial” citizens to the proposition of the ladies.

For the benefit of the Department, we re-publish below, from the Statutes of last winter, a law exempting members of this Department from “militia service and jury duty”…

– Sonoma Democrat, October 31, 1863

 

The New Engine House.

Last Saturday afternoon the new Engine House, built by the ladies of Santa Rosa, was formally presented to the Fire Department, with all the necessary title, papers to property, etc. The Company, in uniform, appeared before the house with their Engine duly decorated at 3 o’clock P. M. The house being well filled with the citizens of the town who had contributed so liberally to the enterprise. On behalf of the ladies, Gen. O. Hinton in appropriate and pleasing remarks passed over the property to the Trustees of the Department. On behalf of the Fire Department, Mr. P. B. Hood made a well termed speech in response to the General, after which cheers were given by the firemen for the ladies, the General and the citizens, and the assemblage were invited to partake of refreshments which had been prepared in the new meeting room by the firemen. The “boys” then entertained those present with some tall “playing” from the machine, and she was duly housed in her new quarters amid the cheers and applause of her members. The ladies have also ordered for the Department new leather hose, which unfortunately, did not arrive in time be presented with the house on Saturday. It will, however, be on hand in a few days, and then we can boast that we have as good Engine, house, hose, and Company, as complete in all their fixtures as may be found without the city of Frisco. Our boys are proud of their Company and well they may be.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 4, 1864

 

Letter From Santa Rosa.

Eds. Flag:–Your regular correspondent being absent I send you a short account of the Fireman’s Ball held at the Skating Rink on Friday last. I don’t often go to balls; I have only been to one about twice a week, on an average, since I first flung out my shingle to the Santa Rosa breeze. Balls are demoralizing, don’t you think, Mr. Editor? That is the reason I don’t attend more frequently. Having purchased a ticket at half price, I thought I could afford to be very indulgent on this occasion, so I took Amanda Jane along to show her a little of our Santa Rosa society–she not having been out much since we located here. I spent no end of money buying her Swiss over-skirts, paniers, hair, and such fixings, but, with all the outlay, she did not make an impression that night, unless she did it on some of her partners’ feet, and they’ll recollect her if she did, for she do come down frightful heavy. She keeps her own time when dancing, regardless of the music; shows what an independent girl she is; what a wife wouldn’t she make for some of us. Well, to proceed: The ball was a success, socially and financially, and so much encouraged are our gallant firemen with the result, that they propose again to pander to the tastes of an appreciative community next year. Had this ball not been well attended our brethren of the red shirt had concluded to make it the last, as they have been out and injured on the last three or four. Gus Kohle was here, there and everywhere, and, as a friend remarked, looked as if he and the “Cataract” could smother any fire in town if they could only screw on the hose. Jim Clark made a little speech which pleased everybody, and made another little ‘speech which displeased somebody. Wm. O. Lloyd with his “harpist,” assisted by a local violin and cornet, discoursed most pleasant music and kept every one on the hop till near 4 o’clock. At Kessing’s Hotel a fine supper was served about 12 o’clock. Riley & Brendel also had a large party at their restaurant. Had it not been for a certain unpleasantness with regard to where one should go to supper there would not have been a cloud to disturb the serenity of this ball, by far the most successful of any given by the Fire Company for many years. And Amanda reached home a perfect wreck, and wreaked her vengeance on the crockery by playfully seeing if she could hit my head for saying she did not get a partner to dance with her twice…

– Russian River Flag, February 27 1873

 

ENGINE COMPANY NO. 1–The fire which occurred on Monday night called out the fire company in full force. After the excitement was over many reminiscences were brought up by the old members, and on many points a variety of opinions existed. To refresh certain memories it may not be uninteresting to state that the first meeting for the organization of a fire company was held in the upper story of the brick building now used by Stanley & Thompson as a workshop over what was then known as Fen’s Saloon. It was held on the 2d of February, 1861, and was organized by electing W. H. Crowell President and Thos. L. Thompson Secretary. It was then determined to start as a hook and ladder company. That meeting adjourned for one week. They met again on the 19th of February, 1861, and elected permanent officers as follows…At a meeting held in March 9, 1861, a committee which had previously been appointed to inquire into the cost of apparatus reported that it would cost from $1,200 to $1,500. It was then thought advisable to change from a hook and ladder to an engine company. On the 7th of November, 1861, Thos. L. Thompson, John S. Van Doren and B. Marks, were appointed as a committee to go to San Francisco and negotiate for an engine. The engine was purchased for the sum of $1,350, $400 of which was paid down, and J.P. Clark, B. Marks and A. Bromberger became responsible for the balance, $900. It was then that the ladies of Santa Rosa came to the relief of the company and by a succession of entertainments, fairs, festivals, etc., rendered the company very efficient aid in freeing itself from debt. About this time application was made to Gen. Otho Hinton to devise some plan whereby the company could extricate itself from debt. He took a lively interest in the matter and his personal efforts in its behalf and good counsels enabled the company not only to free itself from debt but to furnish besides a good and substantial engine house, which afterwards sold for $600. On account of his efforts in their behalf his memory is today highly revered by all the old members of the company, and they still keep his portrait hanging in their hall as a mark of the esteem in which he was held. This is an accurate account of the early days of Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1, which still exists with the motto adopted in its infancy, “Faithful and Fearless” and which it carries out whenever occasion demands.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 1, 1877

 

Santa Rosa Engine Co. No. 1.

Extensive preparations are being made by the Executive Committee and the members of the Santa Rosa Engine Company for celebrating the 21st anniversary of their organization. They propose giving a grand ball at Ridgway Hall on Washington’s Birthday, and it is the purpose of those having it in charge to make it surpass any of their previous enjoyable entertainments…Apropos of the coming event, through the kindness of the efficient Secretary, Mr. J. Doychert, we are enabled to present our readers a brief sketch of their organization. The Society was formed on February 2nd, 1861, as a Hook and Ladder Company. The list of charter members numbers 30 …[living active founders named]…At a subsequent meeting a constitution was adopted and the members, subscribed the sum of $300 as the nucleus of a fund for the purchase of a hook and ladder truck. After a short time it was deemed advisable to purchase, instead, a fire engine. In accordance with this action the members on June 29th, 1861, reorganized as Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1. By the aid of money subscribed by the citizens they were able to make a partial payment on the purchase price of an engine from San Francisco, the cost of which was $1,300. Subsequently by the material assistance of the ladies and Gen. Hinton, whose portrait at present adorns the walls of the meeting room, and the recollection of whose friendship will ever remain fixed in the hearts of the firemen, the balance due was paid. On December 22nd, 1861, the uniform of the Company was adopted, and the motto, “Faithful and Fearless” chosen as their emblem of duty. The first ball was given on the evening of July 8th, 1862, and netted some $35, which was applied to the liquidation of the engine debt. Four days later a triangle was purchased and this first means of sounding an alarm in those early days on several memorable occasions brought the Company into active service. During the first year of their existence hey were called upon to extinguish a fire in the old Eureka Hotel. The inflammable material burning fiercely, had enabled the flames to gain great headway, and to hear the old members speak of the excitement and daring of their comrades in vieing [sic] with one another for bravery and the labor of gaining control of the fiery element, recalls vividly the pioneer days of raging conflagrations in San Francisco. With a few exceptions, noticeable among which are the burning of the Santa Rosa Winery upon two occasions and the destruction of the frame buildings of Mrs. Spencer, and others, at all of which they rendered material aid, in the latter case saving adjoining buildings in the face of a raging conflagration, our city of late years has been remarkably free from casualties of this nature. But when occasion demands, the Company responds in a manner creditable to themselves and to the citizens. They have paid for and now own one good engine, two fine hose carts and 1,000 feet of good hose…

– Sonoma Democrat, January 29, 1881

 

FIRE.

On last Wednesday morning at about one o’clock an alarm of fire roused our citizens from their slumbers. Our reporter, with his usual fiendishness, saw a large blaze in the northwestern part of the city, and tumbling rapidly into his trousers and getting downstairs in the same dignified manner, sallied forth to do honor to his record as a fireman and to his name as a member of the press. Falling over two dogs and gouging out one of his remaining teeth against a picket fence, he rapidly approached the scene of the now raging fire. The burning building was a two-story dwelling house belonging to Guy E. Grosse, situated on the northwest corner of Tenth street and the Healdsburg road. After getting out of the ditch into which he had by some means found refuge, our man took in the situation. A few small boys were gazing at the flames, which were bursting out of every room. In a short time a number of citizens arrived and before a gret while both branches of the fire department were on the grounds. Nothing could be done to stop the flames, which by this time were rapidly consuming the whole building. After some preliminary tactics, a ten-foot stream was thrown onto the porch in front of the dwelling, which in the course of twenty minutes, by the judicious maneuverings of the heads of the two companies, was so augmented that a very respectable stream of the aqueous element could be forced right and left into the crowds of lookers on. Our man succeeded as usual in spoiling a seven-dollar hand-me-down suit of clothes. During the pyrotechnic display, which by the way lasted for an hour, the ceremony was diversified by the falling of two lofty chimneys–one of which came near ending the days of a telegraphically inclined ex-secretary of one of the organizations; had it not been for the agility displayed by him in talking to the “red-shirts,” he would probably have been crushed into an unrecognizable mass of saur-kraut. Among the ludicrous scenes which transpired during the evening, there were some of another nature worthy of mention. The way in which Messrs. Ed. Nagle and Louis Keser fought the flames, after the tardy arrival of the water, was praiseworthy indeed. They did good service, and were it not for the headway gained by the flames, might have prevented a very serious conflagration. Speaking of bravery, we noticed a Republican reporter doing good work on the corner of Tenth and A streets, nobly saving his hands from the fury etc., by keeping them in his pocket. The course of an hour saw the building a mass of cinders. It was an old house, but had been lately repaired by the owner in a substantial manner; a fine outbuilding had been erected, the main structure hard-finished and painted and was about ready for occupancy. Strong suspicions of incendiarism are indulged in regarding the origin of the fire…As it was unoccupied it was undoubtly [sic] set on fire by some of the tramps who of late have invested our city to an alarming extent.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 16, 1881

 

New Fire Engine.

The citizens of Santa Rosa will be glad to hear that our firemen have definitely decided upon the purchase of a new steam fire-engine to take the place of the one now in use. The new machine, which is one of the many styles, all first-class, built by the Silsby Manufacturing Company, is a beautiful specimen of workmanship, and will cost in the neighborhood of $3,000. This amount is to be made up from contributions and the proceeds of fairs, festivals, etc. The money received for the old engine, which is to be sold, will of course also be applied to the same use. This is a good opportunity for some other community to secure, for a moderate outlay, an engine capable of doing good service for many years to come, for although it is not of sufficient capacity to be exactly what is necessary in a town of the dimensions of Santa Rosa, it would nevertheless be just the thing in a smaller and less thickly settled place. It is to be hoped that the property owners of Santa Rosa will all interest themselves in the matter of securing the new engine, as it is certainly something the importance of which cannot be overrated. The members of our fire department deserve well of their fellow citizens, and the latter should see that they do not lack for proper appliances in their faithful service of guarding property, not to say life, in our community.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 3, 1883

 

A City Hall.

It is announced on good authority that before long Santa Rosa will possess a “City Hall” with all necessary offices and departments for the accommodation of the city officials and the transaction of necessary business. Roomy and convenient quarters for the Fire Company and their engine and paraphernalia will also be provided in the building. The project has not yet been made a matter of record in the proceedings of the Common Council, the arrangement having been made somewhat informally. Col. Mark L. McDonald, not long since, purchased a lot lying east of the plaza upon which one of the China houses now stands. This he proposed to tear down and erect a building in its stead, the understanding being that the city authorities will take it off his hands as soon as sufficient money accrues from the tax levy to enable them to do so. The execution of this project will serve a double purpose, not only providing our city with fitting and needed accommodations, but also doing away with the miniature “China Town” east of the plaza, and redeeming what should be one of the choicest locations within the town limits.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 14, 1883

 

THE NEW CITY HALL.
It is Dedicated with Appropriate Ceremonies

Os Saturday afternoon the members of the Fire Department, with Fire Marshal S. I. Allen at their head, safely housed the engine hose carts and apparatus of Engine Company No. 1, and concluded their jollifications by partaking of a lunch in their new quarters, where addresses were made and toasts were drank.

In the evening a number of our citizens assembled in the new Council Chamber with the members of the Council and several other city officers, and the new edifice was appropriately dedicated amid stirring speeches and flowing wine.

[..]

– Sonoma Democrat, March 8, 1884

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1947hintonavenue

MOMMY, WHY DO WE CALL IT HINTON AVE?

When General Otho Hinton died in 1865, all of Santa Rosa mourned. Flags were lowered, courts adjourned and a “large concourse of people” attended his funeral, including the fire department in uniform. His obituary in the Sonoma Democrat cataloged the achievements of this civic leader:

…our citizens are alone indebted for all the public improvements about the place. For our beautiful plaza, the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery, and the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained…

Some years later a street was named after him – the only person so honored in the downtown core – and soon Hinton Avenue will spring back to life as part of the Courthouse Square reunification project.

THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF OTHO HINTON

Part I: CALL ME THE GENERAL
Part II: ARREST, ESCAPE, REPEAT
Part III: THE LONG ROAD TO SANTA ROSA
Endnotes for entire series at bottom of this article

Earlier parts of this series traced Hinton’s life of infamy in the 1850s: Robbing the U.S. mail, bail jumping, living as a fugitive while becoming a bigamist. Not a word about any of that ever appeared in Santa Rosa’s weekly newspaper, The Sonoma Democrat – although when he ran for county judge in 1859, papers in San Francisco and Sacramento pointed out that his background as a well-known crook was no qualification to wear a judge’s robe. Losing that election was a rare setback for him; Hinton otherwise glided over every bump he encountered and not because of luck. Otho Hinton seemingly possessed both brains and a hypnotic charm, qualities which made for a perfect con artist – which indeed he was.

But Santa Rosa didn’t bestow a street name because the City Council decided it would be jolly to honor a celebrity criminal; it was presumably because of all the good deeds listed in the obituary – the cemetery, the plaza, the fire department. Yet in the newspapers of the time there is not a speck of evidence that Hinton had a significant role in any of those accomplishments. Never before being someone who hid his light under a bushel, he surely wasn’t stricken with modesty once he actually began doing selfless acts. No, more likely he was given undue credit because he did what he always did: He looked you in the eye, oozed with sincerity and graciously allowed you to think the better of him.

(RIGHT: Detail of 1876 Santa Rosa map, showing the Plaza bordered by two unnamed streets. Hinton’s office was on the northeast corner, shown here in a red star)

Evidence of Hinton’s great good deeds should be easiest to find in regards to Courthouse Square, but before getting in to that, a quick tour of Civil War-era Santa Rosa is needed.

It wasn’t called Courthouse Square at the time because the county courthouse was across the street at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino, where Exchange Bank is now. The Plaza was simply a small park criss-crossed by footpaths and surrounded by a fence. The landscaping was haphazard; descriptions mention heritage oaks and evergreens, pampas grass and century plants plus a hedge just inside the fencing. (The complaints today about all the trees lost for the Square reunification project are nothing compared to the howls of outrage when everything was clearcut in 1884 to make way for building the courthouse in the center. “A tree and a bit of grass is worth more than a Court-house,” wrote an out-of-town attorney, “I hope every ___ _____ who has a law suit in the new Court-house will lose it.”)

Sonoma Democrat editor Thomas L. Thompson was forever boasting it was the most beautiful plaza in the state – even while lamenting it was a godawful mess. The year 1881 was particularly fun; in January a stray pig was rooting up the grass and by summer Thompson was moaning the soil was so sun-baked that grass wouldn’t grow, suggesting it would be best to plow it over in hopes that the place wouldn’t look so terrible next year. In between those items he wrote about the “beautiful lawns of blue grass” and compared it to Golden Gate Park. Another time the paper cheered the nice new benches, along with commenting the City Council was now determined to keep the Plaza “free from all objectionable persons.”

(RIGHT: Detail of 1876 bird’s eye view of Santa Rosa looking north, showing the Plaza)

The modern-day Press Democrat gives Hinton credit for all work in beautifying the original Plaza, from planting trees to installing the fencing. But is any of that true? In March of 1859 there was a big public meeting to discuss landscaping, fences and how to pay for it all; Hinton was not on any of the committees formed that night, even though his law office was directly across from the Plaza. Later that year work commenced on the fencing. Was Hinton mentioned? Nope.

All Hinton actually did, according to the 1861 -1863 newspapers, was to pay some guys to do spring cleanups. If there was anything specifically done, editor Thompson – the #1 booster of the Plaza – somehow overlooked it.

A 1876 view of Fourth street looking west from the vacant lot which was the location of Otho Hinton’s office. The Plaza fence and shrubbery can be seen to the left and the cupola on the right was the top of the county courthouse, at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Hinton’s obituary also credits him for “the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery” which is surprising, as Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery did not really exist in 1865. It would be a couple of years before the Cemetery Association was organized to legally sell deeds to burial plots; when Hinton died it was presumably still just an ad hoc graveyard on a hill. (Since there were no deeds prior to the Association we can’t be completely sure he’s buried where his newly-added tombstone stands, although that’s the same place where a family friend and Otho’s wife were later buried.)

In Hinton’s lifetime the Sonoma Democrat reported there was interest in “buying a lot where the present burying ground is, and having it properly surveyed and laid off in lots, fenced, and otherwise improved” but apparently nothing was done for lack of leadership. In 1861 another small item appeared: “Efforts are making to purchase a tract of land near Santa Rosa, a part of which has been used as a burying-place by people of that town, to be set apart exclusively as a Cemetery. Those who favor this excellent project will please call at Gen. Hinton’s office.”

That terse “please call at Gen. Hinton’s office” is the only thread linking him to the cemetery at all. We don’t know what what he was doing: Forming a committee, signing up volunteer labor, or, lord help them, collecting donations – remember, there is no certainty that folks in Santa Rosa knew his history of stealing money.

There is a traditional story that Hinton did the road layout while August Kohle, a well digger, did the actual work of grading the paths. It’s possible; someone had to mark the trails out around that time, and hammering markers into the ground isn’t exactly heavy lifting. Peg this claim as a maybe.

Finally we come to the fire department, where there’s a chance that the old scoundrel actually did a little something to redeem himself. A side benefit of all this Otho Hinton research is that I’ve accumulated enough information on the origins of the Santa Rosa Fire Department to tell that story, which will appear in the following article. Covered here are only the details related to Hinton’s involvement.

Per usual, Hinton was given undue credit for good deeds. The obituary thanked him “…[for] the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained.” More recently it’s been written he bought the town’s first fire engine, which absolutely is not true.

The Fire Department dates back to 1861, three years after Hinton arrived in Santa Rosa. He was not a charter member of the Association and later that year a handful of leading citizens arranged to buy a used fire engine. Hinton was not among them. Shift forward two years and $600 is still owed for the engine; the volunteer firemen were paying interest on the debt out of pocket, as well as rent for the firehouse. There were plans to sell the engine and return to being a hook & ladder company only.

“But at least we see a glimmer of light,” the Sonoma Democrat gushed in 1863. “The ladies, (Heaven bless them!) are coming to the rescue…Gen. Hinton, we are pleased to see, has taken the matter in hand, and we hope soon to hear of a response on the part of our ‘substantial’ citizens to the proposition of the ladies.” Then on the Fourth of July, 1864, the paper announced:

Last Saturday afternoon the new Engine House, built by the ladies of Santa Rosa, was formally presented to the Fire Department…The house being well filled with the citizens of the town who have contributed so liberally to the enterprise. On behalf of the ladies, Gen. O Hinton in appropriate and pleasing remarks passed over the property to the Trustees of the Department…after which cheers were given by the firemen for the ladies, the General and the citizens…

Other accounts at the time and over the next few years tells the same story: It was “the ladies” who paid off the debt and financed the firehouse by hosting dances; the first county history in 1880 mentions also “a fair and a festival” and as above, it was broadly hinted they were strong-arming their loving husbands into making contributions. Meanwhile, General Hinton did…something. Everyone just plumb forgot to mention what.

“He took a lively interest in the matter,” it was claimed in an 1877 account of the Department’s beginnings. “On account of his efforts in their behalf his memory is today highly revered by all the old members of the company, and they still keep his portrait hanging in their hall as a mark of the esteem in which he was held.”

Along with Exchange Avenue, Hinton Avenue was born on July 3, 1872 by order of the City Council. Not that anyone noticed; for many years to come the street was unnamed on maps or sometimes called “9th Ave”, which makes no sense in the town’s street layout. Exchange and Hinton appeared in the newspapers very rarely – ads described businesses as being “east of the Plaza” or “in the Ridgway Block” or “across from the Courthouse,” or similar. It’s as if the town were populated by Missouri hayseeds who thought street names were uppity.

Santa Rosa made quite a show of his funeral in 1865 but aside from the street, Hinton’s memory faded quickly; he was not mentioned in any local history until Gaye LeBaron’s “Santa Rosa: a 19th century town.” When his widow, Rebecca, died here in 1882, the Sonoma Democrat didn’t report it and the Daily Republican ran only a one-liner when she was buried. His only lasting presence in Santa Rosa was his portrait, which was apparently destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

But now Exchange and Hinton Avenues are being resurrected – although for some reason, the one-way traffic directions around the Square have been flipped – as part of our new Old Courthouse Square. And soon people will be looking at that prominent street name and be asking: Who was Hinton? Anyone who’s read this series knows that will be an uncomfortable question to answer truthfully: “Well, he was an infamous criminal who apparently bamboozled the town’s founders.”

At the risk of being completely ahistorical, I’d like to make a modest proposal: Should we consider dropping the Hinton from Hinton Avenue?

Maybe we could name it Schulz Ave. or Doyle Avenue (although the other side is already named for his bank). The powers-that-be are itching to name something after recently deceased Santa Rosa nabob Henry Trione, so give him the honor. Or if they are willing to nod towards more appropriate history, call it Muther Avenue, after Santa Rosa Fire Chief Frank Muther who deserves it for saving the town from burning to the ground after the 1906 earthquake, yet currently lies in an unmarked grave. But for the gods’ sake, do we really need to still commemorate a con man who died more than 150 years ago?

1947 street view from the same location as the photograph above. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

THE PLAZA.–Gen. Hinton, as is his custom at this season of the year, has had a number of men at work of late, beautifying and improving our town plaza.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22, 1862

CLEANING UP.– General O. Hinton, to whom our citizens are much indebted for the very pretty plaza of Santa Rosa, has had several workmen engaged repairing the railing of the sidewalk enclosure, and cleaning and otherwise improving the grounds on the inside. The plaza will be much improved this spring.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 17, 1863

SUDDEN DEATH OF GEN O. HINTON — General Otho Hinton departed this life at his residence, in Santa Rosa, last Sunday morning, about 10 o’clock. Our citizens were somewhat startled by the announcement of his sudden demise, as he had been seen upon the streets the day preceding. General Hinton was a native of Hagerstown, Maryland, and was 65 years of age. He had resided a long time at Santa Rosa, and to him it may be said, our citizens are alone indebted for all the public improvements about the place. For our beautiful plaza, the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery, and the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained. His death cast a deep gloom over the community, flags were lowered at half mast and the County Court on Monday adjourned in respect to his memory. His funeral took place on Monday, from the M. E. Church, Rev. T. Frazier officiating, and was attended by a large concourse of people. Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1, whom the deceased had so often befriended, attended in uniform, and by them his remains were consigned to their last resting place.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 11, 1865

A GOOD PICTURE. — A life size Paintograph of Gen. O. Hinton, deceased, may be seen at the Engine House of Santa Rosa No. 1. It was drawn by Mr. W. H. Wilson, from a photograph likeness. The picture has been pronounced by all who have seen it an excellent likeness. Mr. Wilson has taken a number of pictures at this place which have given very general satisfaction. His art is a very simple one, being a drawing in indelible ink, the entire work being executed with a common pen and very small brush. He is now at Healdsburg.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 18, 1865

RURAL CEMETERY

Santa Rosa has a beautiful graveyard, and it has been properly named “Rural Cemetery”…We took a walk through its avenues last Sunday. It was in the fall of the dying day, because of its symbolic character. We were alone. There was no one to cheer us “save the low hum of vegetation,” and the music of the wind as it played Aeolean cadences in the branches above and the rens beneath. We paused before a neglected grave. A familiar name was graven on an ordinary slab. It carried us back to the days when Santa Rosa was yet in her infancy. Moss had grown upon the stone, and the name had become dim. Brambles of every description covered the spot, in which lay the body whose name we were then contemplating, and–we felt sad. The name was that of Gen. Otho Hinton. It is as familiar to the old settlers of this valley “as household words.” His very countenance and benevolent expression is, at this writing, as plainly before us as if we had seen him but yesterday. But why is his grave thus neglected? Have the people forgotten the generous and noble hearted man, who in his life, took such an active interest in the welfare of “our future little city,” (as he was wont to call it,) and who sacrificed all health, money and time, during his declining years, for our benefit? His magnanimity and public spiritedness for the public good, should never be forgotten, and his grave should, at least, be kept green as an evidence that we appreciated his many kindness which he did for our future good…

– Santa Rosa Daily Republican, November 10, 1882

ENDNOTES

(available at non-mobile version of blog)

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