1905ironbridge

A CITY OF BRIDGES

Should you find yourself in 1876 Santa Rosa, don’t expect too much. The pretty little courthouse in Courthouse Square wasn’t yet built; neither was the McDonald mansion. It was a frontier village of no particular interest except for one thing – it had the only iron bridge in the West.

I don’t usually give away the ending of an article, but bridges aren’t the most riveting topic for most, and I fear Gentle Reader might otherwise drift off to other entertainments. So here’s my Executive Summary:

Santa Rosa’s current downtown plan calls for demolishing the city hall complex and restoring Santa Rosa Creek to a natural condition. With the creek exposed the roadway will have to be rebuilt as a bridge. It would be appropriate to model its appearance after the “Iron Bridge,” Santa Rosa’s first famous landmark and early tourist attraction.

When the Iron Bridge was built the local newspaper commented that Santa Rosa was “a city of bridges.” Today there are dozens of places where city streets cross over our many creeks. If the city is serious about creek restoration, it could re-embrace that old slogan and draw better attention to the more important bridges that stretch above them.

The Iron Bridge in 1879, over a completely dry creek bed. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
The Iron Bridge in 1879, over a completely dry creek bed. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

Until the first train entered town in 1871 and stopped at today’s Railroad Square, travel to Petaluma and points south could be iffy during bad winters.

The first bridge over Santa Rosa Creek was built in 1859, after a year of twisting arms at the Board of Supervisors – they didn’t want to spend any money on “improvement” until the county was completely debt-free (oh, how things have changed).

Up to that point, there were fords on the creek where the banks were worn down enough for a wagon or stagecoach to cross the usually shallow waterway. Even after that first bridge was built, attorney T. J. Butts recalled some avoided using it:

I was in Santa Rosa when the first iron bridge in the state was built over the creek on Main Street. It had been the custom up to that time for farmers to drive down the bank and ford the creek when coming to town instead of crossing the old wooden bridge. When the matter of building the new bridge came up before the Board of Supervisors, one old gentleman, who was a well-known man in this town and was a trustee of one of the colleges here went before the Board to protest against the bridge, and in his speech he said: “We don’t need no bridge and if you put that bridge thar, whar are ye goin’ to set yer tire, and whar are you goin’ to water yer critter?”

The Santa Rosa newspaper assured readers the wooden bridge was high enough “the water can never actually rise to the bridge.” They were wrong. Two years later in 1861, a big storm took out the middle pilings causing a dangerous sag, while approaches on both sides were washed away. The same thing happened again in 1864.

A replacement was built in 1865 and the Sonoma Democrat promised it would be a “bridge that will withstand the floods, and be an ornament to the place rather than an ‘eye sore,’ such as was the old one.” But wooden bridge II had its own problems and by 1868 it was also unsafe, the deck having holes and planks worn thin.

Each round of repairs cost nearly as much as (and in one case, possibly more than) the cost of building a new bridge. And after Santa Rosa was officially incorporated in 1868 the question of who owned the bridge was first raised; neither the town nor the county wanted to pay for expensive maintenance and repairs. A judge finally decreed that it belonged to the town in 1875, after the Petaluma road was reborn as “Santa Rosa Avenue” and new additions on the other side of the creek were unofficially dubbed “South Santa Rosa.” (I swear, if there’s ever a version of Trivial Pursuit Santa Rosa, I’m gonna slap a paywall on pages like this and really clean up.)

By then the bridge was in such rough shape only pedestrians were allowed, the horse-drawn traffic going over the new (1872) bridge on Third street just west of the railroad tracks. While Santa Rosa was hand-wringing over what to do about repairs, into town came Mr. R. Higgins, a salesman with impeccable timing.

Higgins was from the King Bridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The company mass manufactured arch bridge parts that were shipped by rail and assembled on site.* Thousands of their wrought iron bridges were erected in the late 19th-early 20th century, but by 1875 none had been yet built west of the Rockies. The Santa Rosa bridge was to be their West Coast showpiece.

This caused the little town’s poobahs to flip with joy; Santa Rosa would at last have a tourist attraction (of sorts). And while they would still pay full $4,000 price for the iron bridge they would save a fortune by not having to rebuild the damn thing every few years – “it was as imperishable as time itself.”

A City of Bridges: Portion of 1876 Santa Rosa map
A City of Bridges: Portion of 1876 Santa Rosa map

Even better, “before the season is over Santa Rosa will be entitled to the name of the city of bridges,” gushed the Democrat newspaper. Counting this bridge, the Third st. bridge, the railroad bridge and the one about to be constructed at E street, Santa Rosa would have four bridges within a nine block area. So yeah, no matter where you were in 1876 Santa Rosa a bridge over the creek was only a few steps away.

The sections of the bridge arrived a few weeks later, but assembly was soon halted because of a serious accident. After the first arch was raised and temporarily held in position by guy ropes, the second arch was being hoisted into place when a guy rope knot failed. The first arch tipped over onto the one being raised, and that arch fell into the creek. Higgins – who was supervising the workers – jumped into the creek to avoid being hit and struck his head, knocking him unconscious. Damage to the iron arches was repaired by a blacksmith and Higgins walked with a limp from a badly sprained ankle when work resumed about three weeks later.

Dedication ceremony for the Santa Rosa Iron Bridge, March 11, 1876 (J. H. Downing, photographer). Image courtesy Healdsburg Museum
Dedication ceremony for the Santa Rosa Iron Bridge, March 11, 1876 (J. H. Downing, photographer). Image courtesy Healdsburg Museum

There was a grand turnout for the dedication ceremony in March, where “a test of its strength with such force as could be improvised for the occasion would be made.” The description in the Democrat suggested some weren’t sure the unusual-looking bridge was safe – and given their past history of funky bridges at that location, who could blame them.

The highlight of the festivities was Jim Clark racing a team of four horses over it. Clark, who was profiled here earlier, was a key player in Santa Rosa’s early history and much admired as a horseman. “The bridge having been cleared, Mr. Clark drove his team at full speed across the bridge, but it did not effect it in the slightest degree.”

A couple of weeks later, however, there was a sign on the bridge warning anyone riding faster than a walk would be fined $20 (equivalent to about $500 today). “It is a common habit to drive across at full speed to the detriment of the bridge,” the paper reported, so maybe they still weren’t certain it was safe.

That iron bridge served Santa Rosa for about thirty years but not much about it appeared in the papers – nobody cares about bridges when they do their job. But come late 1905, it was decided to replace it. That was during a brief window when Santa Rosa was fielding all sorts of ideas to improve the town, including turning part of the creek into a water park. Alas, the 1906 earthquake knocked down all those wonderful plans (for more, see “SANTA ROSA’S FORGOTTEN FUTURE“).

Perhaps weakened further by the quake, it was deemed “dangerous” in 1907. “The old span wobbles much when a team passes over, and for some time heavy loads have been taken to the other bridges.” As it was being torn down, the Press Democrat told a charming story about how circus elephants needed to ford the creek instead, then decided they liked being in the water so much they wouldn’t budge:

A little boy remarked to another yesterday that when the circus comes the elephants will not be able to cross. The other reminded him that they hadn’t crossed there last year, either. “They didn’t try it,” he said. “If they had, I guess the fellers would a’ had to buy new elephants, ’cause the bridge wasn’t strong enough, and they’d all been killed.” Last year the elephants forded the creek at Davis street, and the drivers had a “time” in getting them to leave their wallowing in the bed of the creek.

The City Council authorized construction of a new steel bridge with a concrete deck and the iron bridge was dismantled in August, 1907. By the end of the year the new bridge was open, but not before the driver of a large touring car with four passengers ignored the warning lanterns and almost pitched the auto into the creek.

The arches from the iron bridge were stored for a couple of years, then were repurposed to be the bridge over Pierson street. That bridge has subsequently been replaced, and the arches are presumably lost.

The steel bridge built in 1907, often called the iron bridge in error. Image: Sonoma County Library
The steel bridge built in 1907, often called the iron bridge in error. Image: Sonoma County Library

Snapping back to our modern day, Santa Rosa has grand plans to transform the downtown area, outlined in the current draft of the Downtown Station Area Specific Plan. (If you’re interested at all in this topic, I suggest downloading that PDF – I had a devil of a time finding it on the city’s website, and I don’t trust staff not to move it somewhere else.)

Top priority is adding thousands of housing units “to satisfy unmet demand,” in spite of the major obstacles to constructing tall, high density buildings in the downtown area – inadequate parking, earthquake risk (an active fault line blocks away) and lack of services (no place to buy an apple or an aspirin, as there are no grocery stores or pharmacies around there). The document also calls for the city hall complex to be moved and the site developed for housing, with the portion of Santa Rosa Creek now hidden in a culvert to be daylighted and restored.

When (if) that happens, the existing roadway must be changed from a graded surface street into a bridge – and that would give Santa Rosa a unique opportunity to acknowledge our past by making it a replica of the historic Iron Bridge.

Until it was hidden in its culvert about 55 years ago, this section of Santa Rosa Creek was the most popular stretch of the waterway, being easily accessible and close to Courthouse Square. Now so long buried it’s been completely forgotten; if the city really wants to draw attention to the very existence of the creek beneath, it needs to make a dramatic statement.

LonLasOgwen1(RIGHT: The replica Lôn Las Ogwen bridge in Wales. Photo: The Happy Pontist)

My proposal is NOT to construct an actual “bowstring” bridge but to artistically add fake arches to either side. Many communities have similarly made faux arches in honor of demolished old bridges, some versions even modernist (examples here and here) if that’s what the artistic set deems appropriate.

When it comes to all things concerning the creeks, the city document defers to the “Creeks Master Plan” (another difficult to find PDF you might want to download). Although it discusses trail bridges at length – and nothing wrong with that – only a short section on pg. 19 deals with vehicular bridges, which is the way that most of us interact with the creeks on any basis.

By my rough count there are at least forty bridges over Santa Rosa, Matanzas, Paulin and Spring creeks. Some are no more than culverts, of course, but I imagine there are at least 25 that are recognizable bridges, with railings and a potential overlook.

While full creek restorations and building trail footbridges are going to be expensive long-term tasks, Santa Rosa could begin by drawing more attention to its creeks without spending all that much. Larger and better signage on the bridges would be a good start; railings could be painted in a distinctive color – or even better, swapped out for more picturesque see-through guardrails, such as seen in the Welsh example.

Anyone who’s read this journal over the years knows that Santa Rosa’s great folly is its failure to define itself. Just before the 1906 earthquake it dreamed of becoming a great tourist destination, attracting state and even national conventions; after the Golden Gate Bridge was built it was hoped that it would become the northern metropolis of the Bay Area, on par with San Jose or Oakland. It has tried parasitically attaching itself to Luther Burbank and Charles Schulz; its Chamber of Commerce has called Santa Rosa the “Gateway to the Redwood Empire,” “The City Designed for Living,” and in the worst $80,000 ever spent, paid experts to come up with idiotic motto, “California Cornucopia.”

Santa Rosa’s greatest asset has always been what it has most ignored and abused – its nearly 100 miles of waterways. Let’s do something to remember the Iron Bridge and paint the other railings while we’re waiting for the city to get around to building trails around the restored creeks. And while that’s underway, let’s ditch the silly slogans and call this place what it really is: “Santa Rosa, a City of Bridges.” Works for me.


* The Democrat identified the bridge as “Z. King’s Patent Wrought Iron Tubular Arch Bridge,” technically better known as a bowstring-arch bridge. A Google search will turn up a surprising number of academic papers explaining the mechanics behind these structures and the Wikipedia page has a good overview of how they work along with photos of various examples.

Top photo credit: “Santa Rosa, California in Vintage Postcards” by Bob and Kay Voliva

 

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THE BRIDGE QUESTION.
...As neither party claims it, and neither regards it as property, then we must find some other solution of the dispute.

It — the bridge — must be treated, not as property, but as a burden to be borne by the party legally responsible for It.

The facts as shown by the submission are substantially as follows:

The bridge was built by the plaintiff before the incorporation of the defendant, out of the county funds, at a cost of $2,875, prior to the 23d day of March, 1872, and is on what was then a county road, mainly traveled, leading from Petaluma to Healdsburg. That up to the present time this road, not included within the city limits, is a public county road, and no order has ever been made abandoning any part of it. That the county has continuously repaired all that portion outside of the city limits, but has not repaired that portion inside the city limits, since the 28th of March, 1872. That the town of Santa Rosa was incorporated under the general laws for the incorporation of towns on the 23d day of February, 1867, and lay north of, and did not include Santa Rosa creek or any part of the bridge. That on the 28th day of March, 1872, the said town was reincorporated as the city of Santa Rosa by special act, which extended the limits north of the creek and bridge three quarters of a mile, and south one quarter of a mile, including said creek and bridge. That the defendant, the city of Santa Rosa, is now, and has been, fully organized since its reincorporation, with full set of officers, including a Board of Trustees. That the portion of thoroughfare from the southern limits of the city to the bridge, formerly a portion of the county road, is known now, and was designated by the trustees as “Santa Rosa Avenue,” and has been, as well as other portions of the same road, inside the city limits, continuously worked on and kept in repairs by the city since its reincorporation. That said bridge stands in the middle of, and connects “Santa Rosa Avenue” and the thoroughfare from the creek to Mendocino street. Since the reincorporation, the city has repaired the bridge under protest.

The land on both sides of the avenue, and also on both sides of the thoroughfare to Mendocino street, has been laid out into lots and streets, approaching at right angles.

Santa Rosa creek is 138 feet wide, and is not a navigable stream.

The business portion of the city is north of the creek; on the south, it is occupied by business men for residences. The bridge is the only thoroughfare across said creek, connecting the north and south portions of the city, and is constantly used by the people in traveling to and fro…

…1. My conclusions are, that the county has no control over, or connection with the bridge, and it is not its duty to repair or rebuild the same.

2. That the bridge is under the control of the City of Santa Rosa, and if the same is to be repaired or rebuilt, it must be done by it.

3. That this Court has no power to issue a mandate to the city authorities requiring it to repair or rebuild said bridge, in the absence of proof that the city has money applicable to such purposes. Let judgment be entered accordingly.
Wm. C. Wallace,
Sept 8, 1875.
District Judge.

– Daily Democrat, September 16 1875

 

Positively Unsafe.

We are informed by Mr. R. Higgins, agent for the contractors for the new iron bridge over Santa Rosa creek, that the old bridge is now positively unsafe for crossing. Mr. Higgins says he will make it so that it will be safe for pedestrians to cross in a day or two, but that no vehicle can cross it without the greatest danger. Those desiring to cross the creek in vehicles, will have to pass over the bridge on the Sebastopol road, near the depot.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 8 1875

 

Iron Bridge.

We think our City Fathers have acted wisely in the adoption of a plan for an iron bridge over Santa Rosa creek. From what we can learn the cost will be but a trifle more than a wooden Howe Truss Bridge, taking all things into consideration, The plan adopted is one of the King Bridge Company’s circle arch, whose principal offices are in Cleveland, Ohio, and in Topeka, Kansas. Mr. Higgins their agent on this coast is now in the city and has already telegraphed to Mr. King to forward the bridge with all dispatch, and he says there is no unnecessary delay he will have it up ready for use within 60 or 65 days, this being their first bridge on this coast Mr. Higgins says they are going to give us a first-class Job, with a few extras thrown in, as they are going to make it their advertising bridge on the Pacific and establish an agency here…

– Sonoma Democrat, December 8 1875

 

A City of Bridges.

Before the season is over Santa Rosa will be entitled to the name of the city of bridges. A splendid iron bridge will span the creek at the crossing of Main street. It will be the first iron and the handsomest bridge of its size in the State. A wooden bridge is in course of construction at the crossing of D street to connect with Sonoma avenue. This will be a handsome structure. But the most unique and neatest bridge will be a short distance further up the creek, at the crossing of Second street, connecting with an avenue laid out on the opposite side of Santa Rosa creek, parallel with Sonoma avenue. This will be a wire suspension bridge of a light and elegant pattern. All these bridges have been contracted for and two of them are now under way. We learn that the spring beyond the reservoir, known as the Tarwater spring has been sold and the property is to be improved. The opening up of the section, on the opposite side of the creek is one of the most important improvements ever undertaken in this city. It has been here ofore [sic] unnoticed on account of its inaccessibility. The building of these bridges will put it within a few minutes walk of the centre of the town.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 15 1876

 

Accident at the Bridge.

Saturday afternoon, at about six o’clock, an accident occurred at the iron bridge from the following cause: The men engaged in its construction are inexperienced hands and one of them had tied an insecure knot in one of the guys supporting the first arch. When the second arch was being hoisted into position this knot gave way, which allowed the standing arch to fall upon the one being raised, throwing it into the creek. The first arch fell upon the trestle work. The iron used in the bridge is wrought, and the only damage it sustained was in being slightly sprung, which can be easily remedied by blacksmiths. Mr. Higgins, the Superintendent of the work, was standing upon the trestle at the time the accident occurred, and jumped into the creek. In his fall he was struck upon the head by a piece of timber and rendered senseless. His right ankle was badly sprained and his system received a severe shock, however, his internal injuries are thought not to be serious. The accident will delay the construction of the bridge about one week. Geo. E. King, General Western Agent for the bridge, had arrived in Santa Rosa a short time previous to the accident and the work is going on under his supervision during Mr. Higgins’ illness.

– Daily Democrat, February 28 1876

 

Dimensions of the Iron Bridge.

“Can the Democrat give the cost, width, span and material of the bridge now being constructed across Santa Rosa creek, with the address of the contractors? And oblige bridge and other subscribers. John Knight. Sanel, Mendocino county.”

[ln reply to the above inquiry we will state that the cost of the iron bridge being constructed across Santa Rosa creek is $4,000; the width is 16 feet; span, 125 feet: the material used is rolled and hammered iron. For further information, address Geo. E King, Santa Rosa. —Eds. Democrat.]

– Sonoma Democrat, March 3 1876

 

THE NEW BRIDGE.

The new bridge across Santa Rosa creek was completed last Saturday in the forenoon. It was the same day formally turned over to the Board of City Trustees. The plan is what is known as Z. King’s Patent Wrought Iron Tubular Arch Bridge, manufactured by the King Iron Bridge Company, at Cleveland, Ohio. It consists of the arches, lower chords, upright posts and diagonal counter braces, and the bottom and overhead lateral bracing. The material used consists entirely of wrought iron, which is erected and trussed perfect in itself without any woodwork whatever. When the frame work of iron is complete then the pine flooring is laid. The length of the bridge is 125 feet, in one span, a carriage way 16 feet wide, and a footway five feet wide, on each side of the carriage way and outside of the supporting arches. The plan of the bridge seems to combine comparative lightness of material with strength and beauty. There are over three thousand of these bridges now in use in the Atlantic States, but to Santa Rosa belongs the credit of the first iron bridge west of the Rocky Mountains. The bridge is cheap and durable. Wherever used the company have certificates recommending them in the highest degree. We think the Trustees are entitled to the thanks of the community for the excellent judgment they displayed in the matter of the bridge across Santa Rosa creek.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 8 1876

Raising the Arches.

Contrary to general expectation, Sunday morning dawned dark and threatening, with the promise of a heavy storm. In view of this fact, Mr. King and Mr. Higgins determined to raise the arches of the iron bridge across Santa Rosa creek, notwithstanding it was Sunday. In the forenoon it commenced to drizzle, and by 1 o’clock it had settled in a steady and continuous fall of rain. In the midst of it the work of raising the arches of the bridge progressed with dispatch, and we are glad to say with no untoward accident to delay its progress or mar the beauty of the structure. Sunday morning, in view of the inevitable rise in the creek, the arches were in a very insecure position, They lay upon a temporary framework built in the bed of the stream and liable to be carried away by the high water. In which case the arches would have been thrown into the river. Mr. King determined to raise them and succeeded in doing so and securing them before dark by braces so that there was no danger from the water. The arches are very handsomely turned, and the bridge will be when completed, the only structure of the kind in California, and it will be the most ornamental bridge of its size in the State. Mr. Higgins, though lame from a fall, stood all day in the rain and assisted by giving directions to the men, who were mostly new in that kind of work. Sure enough, Monday morning the creek was booming, but over the frail under structure the iron arches rested secure upon their stone foundation.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 11 1876

 

THE IRON BRIDGE.
Formal Dedication of the King Bridge – Grand Turnout of the Citizens — The Band — Wine and Wit — Jim Clark the First to Cross — A dashing Four-in-Hand Team.

Saturday, March 11, 1876, will long be remembered as the day of the final completion and dedication to public use of the Santa Rosa iron bridge. In the forenoon the City Trustees were advised of the fact that the finishing touch had been given and at 2 p. m., a test of its strength with such force as could be improvised for the occasion would be made and that the “popping of bottles” would intersperse the exercises.

The Santa Rosa Band, ever ready to add to occasions for Santa Rosa, was out and discoursed soul stirring music as only the Santa Rosa Band can. J. P. Clark, the prince of drivers tendered his services and with his “coach and four” dashing horses conveyed the officers of the city […and city officials…] followed by the Band and a large number of citizens of the city and county in vehicles, horseback and afoot, arrived at the scene of the festivities. Mr. Clark drove his team immediately upon the bridge and was followed in close order by the band wagon and other vehicles and the people, everybody having the utmost confidence in the capacity of the bridge to stand the pressure.

After some delay Messrs. Downing, Rea & Rauscher, photograph artists of this city, from a position on the grounds of Mr. John Ingram, photographed the bridge.

The Band played and toasts were drank and after calls for the City Attorney Campbell, he responded in a few brief remarks as follows:

He thanked the City Fathers and those present who had conferred upon him the honor of responding to the grand occasion, but that as he had not expected to be assigned the position was illy prepared to do justice to the subject. He said, “We are here to-day to witness the formal opening and dedication of the new bridge and at the suggestion of his friend, Mr. Thornton, he would name it the ‘Santa Rosa Iron Bridge’ and who could look upon it now in its finished state without admiration. It had strength and beauty, and would stand for years as a monument to the genius and industry of its builders. It was as imperishable as time itself, and would not go down and dissolve even with the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, but with the great globe itself. He said the City Fathers were here, and had witnessed the completion of this undertaking, and they could justly feel proud of what they had done. We are in the midst of a beautiful city, whose limits had recently been extended, with beautiful houses in the midst of beautiful yards filled with sweet scented flowers, and inhabited by the industrious mechanics, business and professional men, and fair and lovely women; and — God bless them! — they too were here to honor the ceremonies of this dedication. And we now have the finest bridge on the coast!

In concluding Mr. Campbell introduced Mr. George E. King, the architect and builder. Three rousing and hearty cheers were given for Mr. King, after which he responded as follows:

Mr. King thanked the people present for their manifestation of good will towards him personally; indeed he was proud to acknowledge that since his arrival in Santa Rosa he had received nothing but kindness and hospitality at the hands of the people, and he never could forget it. To-day, in looking over this assemblage of people who had come spontaneously to testify their appreciation of the bridge just completed, he could hardly find words to express his gratitude. He referred to the turnouts and fine horses here, and said they could not be excelled on this or any other coast. He gave a history of the iron bridge and the opposition it had met on Its first introduction, and said this was the first and only bridge of the kind on the coast, and that time would demonstrate that it was all that could be desired. The Band played several lively airs. Three cheers were given to Mr. Higgins, also to the City Trustees, the Santa Rosa Band and James P. Clark. The bridge having been cleared, Mr. Clark drove his team at full speed across the bridge, but it did not effect it in the slightest degree. The sparkling wine being exhausted, the merry crowd dispersed to their homes well pleased with what they had seen.

Mr. R. Higgins,the agent of the firm of King & Son, obtained the contract from the city and displayed great energy in making preparations for and in carrying on the work. Mr. George E. King, of the firm, arrived with the materials from Cleveland, and since then has superintended the work personally, and it is the universal opinion that the structure is complete in all its parts. This is the first and only iron bridge on the Pacific Coast, and Santa Rosa has reason to be proud of it.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 18 1876

 

The Iron Bridge.

Parties traveling over the new Iron Bridge will take notice there is a sign which calls for a fine of twenty dollars if they drive faster than a walk; and the city authorities say they are determined to carry out the law. We have been informed that it is a common habit to drive across at full speed to the detriment of the bridge.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 1 1876

 

What is the Name?

The street leading northerly from the plaza is called C or Mendocino street, at the option of the caller. The continuation of the same street on the south side of the plaza is called Main street as far as the iron bridge, and then, we believe, Santa Rosa Avenue. The two streets fronting the east and west sides of the plaza are called C street, Hinton Avenue, Commercial Row and perhaps by other names. This is calculated to bring about some confusion, and we hope the Mayor and Board of Aldermen will settle the name or names authoritatively, if it has not been done heretofore.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22 1876

 

 

Fast Driving.

We learn that some persons continue to violate the ordinance forbidding fast driving or riding ever the iron bridge, and that the penalty will hereafter be strictly enforced.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 27 1876

 

BUSINESS TRANSACTED BY THE CITY COUNCILMEN

…City Engineer Ricksecker gave a verbal report on the three styles of bridges before the Council. The iron bridge, he said, was a strong, substantial structure, but the plans and specifications failed to provide any foundation of piles, stone or concrete. The re-inforced concrete bridge he considered as good, but not as ornamental as a solid stone structure. He recommended that the foundation be four feet under the water line instead of two feet. He suggested that the approaches might be made from the timber of the old bridge for temporary use, and fill in later from the street and lot gradings. Architect Willcox explained his plans for a re-inforced concrete bridge from street to street, with a driveway and walks on each side of the road. Mr. Willcox estimated the cost of the re-inforced concrete bridge at $9,200; re-inforced concrete bridge with stone facing $10,700; all stone bridge, $12,000. After further consideration the plans were adopted with the suggestions made by Engineer Ricksecker, and the clerk was instructed to advertise for a steel bridge in addition to the three kinds of bridges already named…

– Press Democrat, November 14 1905

 

AWARD CONTRACT FOR NEW BRIDGE ON MAIN STREET
A fine steel bridge, with concrete flooring is to take the place of the old iron structure on Main street, which has been adjudged dangerous for all but light loads….

– Press Democrat, April 10 1907

 

TEARING DOWN THE OLD BRIDGE
Main Street Bridge Being Removed to Make Way for New and Modern Structure Across Creek

Not many more travelers will pass over, and not much more water will flow under, the old iron bridge across Santa Rosa creek at Main street. Yesterday the workmen began to tear it down. The footpath on either side has been removed, and pedestrians must now keep in the middle of the road. The old span wobbles much when a team passes over, and for some time heavy loads have been taken to the other bridges.

A little boy remarked to another yesterday that when the circus comes the elephants will not be able to cross. The other reminded him that they hadn’t crossed there last year, either. “They didn’t try it,” he said. “If they had, I guess the fellers would a’ had to buy new elephants, ’cause the bridge wasn’t strong enough, and they’d all been killed.” Last year the elephants forded the creek at Davis street, and the drivers had a “time” in getting them to leave their wallowing in the bed of the creek.

The old bridge was built in 1877, [sic] and was regarded as a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It was a good bridge, too. But it has severed [sic] its purpose. The new steel bridge will require sixty days or thereabouts in its construction. Meanwhile, teams will go around, and foot-travelers will have a little plank bridge for their use.

– Press Democrat, August 22 1907

 

THE MUCH WANTED BRIDGE IS ORDERED

Contractor W. L. Call was awarded the contract to erect the bridge at the end of Pierson street across Santa Rosa Creek, by the Board of Supervisors on Thursday morning….The city donated the old Iron bridge that formerly stood on Main street and this will be reconstructed and shortened and will be just the thing…

– Press Democrat, January 8 1909

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YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER (Series Index)

“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.


THE REDEVELOPMENT SERIES

HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…

…AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE

IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY

TEARING APART “THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING”

WHO OWNED COURTHOUSE SQUARE?

 

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 40 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.

NEXT: HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…
 

 

(Photo at top courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection)

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CITY OF ROSES AND PARKING METERS

Breaking news: People tend to have very strong opinions about parking meters. Also, this surprise: Those opinions are never favorable.

Yet Santa Rosa still has them, making it among the very few places in Sonoma county where the elusive meters can be spotted in the wild along with their related species, parking garages that charge money. And the reason we have them is because this is the city that time forgot – in Santa Rosa, it is always 1946.

This is the second in a series exploring the missed opportunities and regrettable decisions that have shaped Santa Rosa since World War II. Part one (“THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN“) saw voters narrowly reject a chance to develop part of the downtown core into a Civic Center, which would have kept it the county’s hub during the postwar boom years and after.

Looking back on all the other times the city took a wrong turn, one name keeps popping up: Hugh Bishop Codding. When first planning this series I even considered naming it “How Hugh Codding Destroyed Downtown,” but that’s unfair – our city government and elected officials did the job on their own, advised by a parade of out-of-town “experts.” Yes, old Hugh monkeywrenched the town with lawsuits and sometimes jujitsued the city or county into doing something stupid, but mostly he took strategic advantage of their missteps. And sometimes he didn’t win; for example, there was his odd and long-running quest to convince the city of Santa Rosa to move out of the city.*

No, Codding’s not to blame alone; with remarkable consistency, when challenged to make a momentous decision our trusted civic leaders boldly rose to the occasion and (in my humble opinion) made the worst possible choices. The courthouse was torn down and a street plowed through courthouse square; Santa Rosa Creek was buried in a culvert; prime downtown acreage was bulldozed with most of it turned over to private developers; a shopping mall was constructed which immediately became the Great Wall of B street.

That record of stumbling mistakes began in July, 1944, while Codding was still a Seabee building quonset huts in the Pacific. That month the Chamber of Commerce held a luncheon to discuss the “parking bugbear” with a public meeting following a few weeks later. There the city manager announced he had contacted 200 colleagues in other cities; almost all said parking meters were swell. The Press Democrat thought the general attitude by the end of the meeting was that “they are at least worth a trial.”

Letters began pouring into the PD disagreeing with that. While there were a couple of correspondents who made somewhat reasoned arguments, most teetered on the edge of crackpottery. A few samples:

“Where is our freedom? What are our men fighting for? Now comes it the parking meter…” (Mrs. A. K. Larson). “Parking meters have to be placed on the sidewalks. Our sidewalks are already too narrow. You put a row of posts on the walks in addition to the present stacks of bicycles and there won’t be much room for pedestrians” (“A Taxpayer”). “If parking meters are installed here, we would have buildings going up outside the city limits after the war and the city assessor would have to reduce the taxes on the buildings downtown as there will be many vacancies” (Alfred E. Poulsen). “I believe this to be illegal. Property owners own and pay taxes to the middle of the street” (E.J.F.). “Why charge the motorist all the time? Look up all the hidden taxes he pays. Why not charge pedestrians for standing on the sidewalks? It is just as fair” (Sgt. A. R. Milligan). Bonus crankdom: The letter following Sergeant Milligan’s in that edition advocated that once WWII was over, we should sterilize all German males for the next twenty years to ensure “any children born in Germany would have to be at least half civilized.”

The city installed 510 parking meters in early 1945 and although the city printed  helpful directions on how to use them, on the first day of operation “numerous persons inserted coins ‘just to watch them work’ but in many cases failed to turn the handle far enough to set the ticking device in operation.” When the first monies were collected three days later, the take included four slugs even though the graphic in the PD showed a little window on the meter claiming “SLUGS will show here.” Yeah, no.

Press Democrat, February 11, 1945

 

A nasty squabble immediately arose between the county and city over parking spaces. Santa Rosa had installed a row of meters on the east and west of the courthouse and the county was threatening legal action unless there was free parking for designated vehicles. As neither side was blinking, the county proposed it would turn the south lawn of the courthouse into a government parking lot, requiring chopping down two mature Peruvian pine trees – which were the last survivors from the pre-1906 earthquake courthouse plaza. The PD reported on the backlash: “The number and vehemence of telephone calls coming to this office since announcement of the parking plan indicate that the removal of those trees for the purpose set forth will meet with a storm of protest, like which our county officials have never before heard.” The city caved, but it was a stupid fight to pick; what did they expect? Jurors and judges would dash outside every two hours to move their cars?

Then as Mrs. Larson poetically wrote, now comes it the crisis: the year 1946.

Thousands of soldiers and sailors were returning home to Santa Rosa where they were promised free education and cheap mortgages by the GI Bill – but found jobs scarce and nowhere to live. The housing situation was probably worse than it’s been since the 2017 fires; a special census taken that February found only 74 vacant houses or apartments in all of Santa Rosa, including places leased/sold but not yet occupied and units where residents happened to be out of town. The Press Democrat’s “Wanted to Rent” classifieds were always long, packed with veterans pleading for somewhere with a roof. Sometimes a finder’s fee was offered, including nylons.

With all those additional people on the downtown streets, the traffic situation became nigh impossible. The meters and rigorous enforcement of time limits became essential to avoid gridlock. Yet at a city council meeting the outgoing mayor conceded something had to be done besides writing lots of parking tickets (“I don’t like these wholesale citations”) and that the parking meters “have not accomplished everything wanted.” From the March 6th PD:

The mayor explained that it is “not the fault of the meters” that the parking meters have not completely solved the parking problem, but is due to the “great influx of people into Santa Rosa.” He explained that traffic has become so great that “there just isn’t room for them” in parking space now provided.

Besides sounding a bit like a Stockholm syndrome hostage to the Miller Meter Company, the mayor urged the council to acquire empty lots close to downtown for off-street parking – which would mean buying more meters, of course. (There was at least one all-day parking lot at B street and Healdsburg ave, and it was never mentioned whether the 10¢ required to park there was fed into a meter, handed to an attendant or was a purchased tag.)

To pay for the lots and other civic improvements (including “electric stop-and-go signal equipment for key intersections”), the city council used bond money and authorized Santa Rosa’s first sales tax, to predictable taxpayer howls. 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.

The Press Democrat’s letter section saw writers interchangeably angry between the sales tax and the parking meters, to wit: “I (Someone I know) will never shop again in Santa Rosa because I’m mad about a parking ticket (I already pay too many taxes).” But where else were they to go? Spend all that time and gas – now up to 21¢ a gallon! – driving to Petaluma for groceries or all the way to San Francisco for a fashionable hat?

Hello, Hugh Codding.

The very first real article in the Press Democrat about Montgomery Village appeared on April 30, 1950 and included this quote from Codding: “People do not like the inconvenience of looking for parking space, priming the parking meter and then walking several blocks between stores. Montgomery Village abolishes that inconvenience – all within one block of 750-car parking.” It had been a long time since Santa Rosa had heard such sweet and sensible words.

That appeared before the shopping center fully opened, and later ads would feature its other major draws: Montgomery Village was just outside city limits so there was no municipal sales tax and it had diagonal parking.

To understand why diagonal parking was such a Very Big Deal, slip into a Dacron jacket and travel with me back to 1950. Cars and pickups are classy but clunky – as large as boats and heavy as little tanks. And because they don’t have power steering (not available on any car until 1951) they require the muscles of Popeye to turn the steering wheel if the tires aren’t in motion.

Santa Rosa insisted upon parallel parking only, even though downtown merchants had been protesting it for many years. A petition for diagonal parking was presented to city council in 1940, headed by some of the top storekeepers: Lee Hardisty, Leonard Deffner, Donald Carithers and Irving Klein. Deffner, owner of the big Pershing Market between 4th and 5th streets, told the council that customers of nearby businesses were using his grocery store parking lot rather than parallel park on the street (and this is before the meters, remember). Nothing doing, said Santa Rosa – our streets are so narrow that anyone double parked would cause a traffic jam if diagonal was used. Apparently stiff fines for double parking weren’t a consideration. The city clung so hard to parallelism that in 1964 they made every third space no-parking so it would be faster to nose or back in to a spot, thus making the parking shortage 33 percent worse. Dumb decisions like that made Codding look like a genius by comparison.

Montgomery Village ad, February 6, 1955

 

While Montgomery Village was thriving, Santa Rosa seemed to go out of its way to make downtown parking ever more annoying.

In 1951 (840 meters now installed) they made a deal with a company to put frames on the meter poles which could display printed ads. Local merchants hated it, didn’t advertise and the company damaged many of the meters somehow. Two years later the city incurred more public wrath by switching parking lot meters to take dimes only, thus forcing drivers to overpay if their errands took less than two hours. Overtime parking fines doubled, then doubled again.

Other Sonoma county towns followed Santa Rosa’s lead in the 1950s and installed parking meters, then later removed them under pressure from the business community. Healdsburg uprooted its meters in 1964 and the sales tax increase more than replaced lost meter income. Twenty years later Petaluma stopped meter enforcement and their Downtown Merchants Association saw business improve.

Yet Santa Rosa’s confidence in the meters remained unshakable, even while the city continues to tinker with them; a decade ago they tore the meters off most posts because consultants insisted ticket kiosks were ever more efficient and the public really wouldn’t mind hiking from a parking spot to a kiosk and then back again. This year (2018) the city extended metered parking to 8PM while also implementing a zone system, which is able to increase the cost of parking in busy areas during the busiest times – which was done because experts told the city that trick works really well in tourist towns like San Diego.

But still the ungrateful public keeps complaining and today the resentment over paid parking in Santa Rosa is louder and more frequent than ever before – although that may be because the forum has shifted from newsprint to social media, where everything is amplified and unedited.

What’s interesting is how attitudes have not budged a whit between 1946 and now. People still say they no longer go downtown because they (or someone they know) was unfairly dinged with an expensive parking ticket. Businesses still say they don’t have enough customers because of the hassle of parking. And Santa Rosa still says there’s nothing wrong with the status quo – whatever that happens to mean right then.


* There are no shortages of Hugh Codding anecdotes, but here’s a story I’ve not read elsewhere: While Santa Rosa was mulling over where to build the new city hall in 1950, Codding offered space at Montgomery Village – although it was then outside of city limits. According to the Press Democrat: “‘I thought myself it was fantastic until I got to thinking about it,’ he told the astounded [planning] commissioners.” Then as the city still hadn’t decided in 1963, he offered free land near Coddingtown in the unincorporated area. The city council didn’t snap up the deal so a week later he came back with an offer of another place, also on county land near his shopping center. And when they still didn’t bite, he tried to broker a deal to make city hall part of the new county administration center. Did he really believe he could get Santa Rosa to move the city buildings out of the city?

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