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SANTA ROSA’S DEBUT WAS A NIGHTMARE

Portrait of a bad dream: After years of dashed hopes, your greatest desire suddenly comes true. You are awarded a great honor, win the lottery jackpot, whatever. Now a thousand of your closest friends as well as VIPs (whom you’ve always hoped to meet!) are on the way to your house. Except your place is a mess, you don’t have enough food or drinks and everyone will have to hike in from a mile away because of work being done on the streets. That pretty well sums up Santa Rosa’s nightmare that came true on New Year’s Eve, 1870.

By that time, Santa Rosa had been yearning for a rail connection to the Bay Area for over five years. Several times it looked like a deal was a Sure Thing, only to have investors pull out or the developer lose interest. Some of those involved were interesting characters with wildly ambitious proposals (building a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate in 1868!) but that’s a complex story too long for today. Besides, I couldn’t tell the story any better than what’s found in “Redwood Railways” by Gilbert Kneiss – the county library has several copies available for borrowing.


HOW WE GOT TO SAN FRANCISCO BEFORE THE TRAIN
Before 1871 it usually took three or four days to make a quick roundtrip between Santa Rosa and the city. First there was the bone-rattling stagecoach to Petaluma over uncertain roads – see the transcribed articles below for complaints about the “horrible adobe flats between this place and Petaluma” where passengers sometimes had to get out and push during the rainy season when the wheels stuck in the mud. Then there was the 2½ mile trip from downtown Petaluma to the dock at Haystack Landing on a little trolley whose “speed resembles more the limpings of an old lame horse.” Or at least that was the scene up to August, 1866, when the train’s boiler exploded and killed four – after that, the trolley was even slower, pulled by actual horses. Petaluma also infuriated “up-country” travelers because steamboat schedules didn’t mesh with the stagecoach/trolley, so they usually needed to stay overnight at a Petaluma hotel. That trip down the Petaluma River ended at the Point San Quentin wharf, where passengers boarded a ferry which would make several stops in Contra Costa before (finally!) heading to San Francisco.

For purposes here, only two bits of background are important: First, the guy who finally made it happen wasn’t a banker or empire-building tycoon, but rather a San Francisco foundry owner named Peter Donahue. It didn’t hurt that his iron works made locomotives and ships.

Also, there were years of heated debate on what route the train should take from the Bay to Santa Rosa and points north. Santa Rosa pushed hard for the train to go through the town of Sonoma and terminate in Vallejo, where there were grain elevators to store Sonoma county wheat. The alternative was a straight shot north/south similar to modern Highway 101, where a ferry at “Saucelito” could take passengers into San Francisco. The route through Vallejo would not connect to Petaluma, so their town would probably wither away. There was a county vote on this in 1868 and the straight shot won.

But a referendum does not a railroad build. Nearly two years passed after vote with little to show; at the close of 1869 there was only 1½ miles of track laid north of Petaluma. Work had been suspended for the entire summer. The developer was having money troubles and a load of railroad track from England sank after the ship rounded the Horn. (There was so much railroading going on nationwide that U.S. iron foundries were at capacity.)

A popular conspiracy theory spread that Petaluma – whose high turnout of voters in the 1868 referendum settled the route question – was working behind the scenes to scuttle the railroad (or at least drag out construction as long as possible). “Cracker barrel gossip agreed the ‘earth scratching’ was just a vaccination to ward off a railroad,” author Kneiss remarked. Petaluma’s motive was supposedly to protect its monopoly on San Francisco travel via paddlewheel steamers.

Then suddenly, in August, 1870: “THE RAILROAD IS COMING! HURRAH FOR THE RAILROAD!” cheered Santa Rosa’s newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat. Voters had approved a $5,000/mile bounty for the first company to lay ten miles of Sonoma county track, and that month Peter Donahue bought the San Francisco & Northern Pacific from the developer who had made such little progress. Donahue’s operation hit the ground running with a crew of fifty Irish immigrants grading the road while schooners – with railroad ties and iron rails from his own foundry – were queued up to unload at Petaluma’s wharf.

Possibly the oldest photo of a train in Santa Rosa c.1871-1873, showing the first locomotive “San Jose” with Hewitt’s Planing Mill on Wilson street in the background. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

 

Everything now was moving fast, and there were lengthy updates almost every week in the Santa Rosa and Petaluma papers. A month after the whirlwind restart, some folks from Santa Rosa went down to check it out and beg a ride on the little construction engine on the rails. “Although there were no cars of any kind yet, when you’re building a railroad you have an itch to ride on it,” quipped Kneiss. He added that later that same week, “Petaluma’s tycoonery [was] clustered over the little engine like flies on a cook tent pie.” (Seriously, you’ll enjoy this book even if you’re not a railroad buff.) The Petaluma Argus had a full account of their September 13 trip:

After a delay of about half an hour, the engine moved out, the bell rang, and at the cry of “get aboard,” the crowd lighted on the engine like a swarm of bees, and it was with difficulty that standing room could be obtained by those anxious to make the trial trip. Convenience, however, was not particularly sought after, and no grumbling was heard as neighbor tread on his neighbor’s corns…

Crowded as they were, room was still made for a ten gallon keg of Edwards’ Cream Ale before the little engine went tootling down the track, stopping a couple of miles from town at Cinnabar Knoll where they polished off the keg with tributes and toasts to all involved.

Before another month passed the rail would be closing on Santa Rosa which was now suddenly a cause for worry – there were no firm plans about where the depot should be built. There were rumors that Donahue was planning to put it somewhere south of Santa Rosa Creek, or was negotiating with property owners to put it between the Creek and Third street. They didn’t settle on the final (current) location until just before Thanksgiving.

Sans depot and with not even a railroad bridge across the Creek, the first passenger train came up from Petaluma on October 22, 1870. “To many, it was a novel sight, as they had never seen one before,” gushed the Democrat, “and they could scarcely find words to express their admiration.” A week later they began running two trips daily, although the rail south of Petaluma – to the depot town named “Donahue” – was still under construction.

Still, the Santa Rosa paper purred with contentment: “At last the good work is accomplished… A new era has been opened in the history of our county, and its future is bright with promises of renewed life and activity.”

And then came the fiasco of December 31.


WHERE WAS DONAHUE?
From 1871 to 1884, the tiny hamlet of Donahue was the gateway to Sonoma county. About eight miles south of Petaluma on Lakeville Highway (there’s a historic marker by a turnoff on the west side) was the Petaluma River landing where paddlewheel steamers from San Francisco docked. From there, passengers boarded a train for Petaluma or Santa Rosa, with the SF&NP railroad in those years eventually reaching Cloverdale. Local produce was also usually aboard on the return trip to the city. A memoir by Mrs. Julia Gregory in the Petaluma Argus-Courier August 17, 1955, recalled Donahue as “a little town of 10 homes, a hotel, a saloon run by a man named Burdick, a stable and dance hall combined.” There was also a one-room schoolhouse with 30-40 children and two laundries. Mainly, though, it was there to offer a train depot as well as the railroad’s repair shops, roundhouse and turntable. Donahue Landing, as it’s called today, mostly disappeared in 1884 when the southern terminus of the rail line was moved to Tiburon, with the railroad buildings dismantled and barged down to their new location.

The Donahue river depot was now finished and ready to receive the first batch of visitors arriving directly from the city. And thus on the last day of the year, a steamer owned by the railroad left the Jackson Street Wharf, “loaded with passengers, among whom were some of the most noted and substantial men of the state,” according to the Argus.

Once aboard the train, they made the short hop to Petaluma, where “an immense concourse of people had gathered at the depot.” The tourists were greeted by the Hewston Guard (yes, that’s the correct spelling) and the Petaluma Brass Band. The cannon in the plaza was fired as well as rounds fired by the militia. It was a grand reception – but now on to Santa Rosa!

“Vague rumors were in circulation, during the early part of last week, that an excursion party from San Francisco was coming up to Santa Rosa on Saturday,” the Democrat explained later. “Nothing definite was known, however…On Friday, however, one point was settled, namely, that some excursionists were coming at the time mentioned, but as to the number all were in the dark.”

So picture this: It’s early afternoon and a “large throng of ladies and gentlemen” as well as the Santa Rosa Brass Band are waiting for the train to arrive. Until train service began a couple of months before some had never seen a train at all and since then, only an engine with a single passenger car and maybe a flat car. And now, here comes the excursion from San Francisco.

“There were, in all, eighteen cars, most of them open freight cars fitted up with temporary seats,” reported the Democrat. Over 1,200 people were on board.

And now the nightmare begins: The train got no closer than a mile from Santa Rosa – think of today’s Costco shopping center, or perhaps more accurately, the Baker avenue/101 interchange.

Making matters worse, the train would be going back in an hour. Worse still, there were only a few buggies and wagons waiting to transport the mob into town. Those who wanted to see Santa Rosa would have to run for it.

As this was suposed to be a day of bigwigs speechifying and drinking toasts, it’s safe to believe they were dressed in their finer clothes, and not prepared for a two mile sprint there and back. “The advance on the village itself was made in a disorderly manner,” reported the Alta California. From the Sonoma Democrat:

Owing to the great number of those present, it was utterly impossible to find vehicles enough to bring them all to town, and many of both sexes were compelled to walk in, a distance of nearly a mile. This was not very pleasant to begin with, particularly as but one hour was allowed to get to town and return in time for the homeward trip. Such a pushing, rushing and scampering down the road and across lots, has not been seen for many a day in these parts.

And still it became worse! Those who made it to Santa Rosa found there wasn’t enough food available. The Democrat continued:

In a short time Santa Rosa was full of people, nearly all of whom had arrived with appetites sharpened by fasting from the time of leaving the city, some six hours before. Again came disappointment, as it was utterly impossible to wine and dine such a multitude without preparation and within the brief space allowed for their stay.

According to the Alta, “…provisions were dreadfully slack in Santa Rosa. The hotel openly confessed its inability to meet the requirements of so great a host; shut up its dining room remorselessly; could not do it; could not begin to do it, but melted when besought for the sake of the Blessed Virgin a cup of tea for a suffering lady.”

“The visit was neither pleasant to our citizens nor to the excursionists,” the Santa Rosa paper admitted with admirable honesty, and “after bustling about for a few minutes in a most disagreeable and unsatisfactory manner, a grand rush was made for the cars to take them home.”

Back everyone went to Petaluma (“the down trip was remarkably jolly, under the circumstances” – Democrat) where they recovered from their Santa Rosa rout for an hour, then returned home to San Francisco on the boat where they enjoyed a banquet catered by Hendrick’s Hotel in Petaluma.

Santa Rosa probably could not have made a worst impression, nor Petaluma a better one. Looking over all that happened, you almost wonder if Santa Rosa had been punked by Petaluma and Donahue – revenge, perhaps, for pressuring the county to choose the route to Vallejo instead of the one that favored them.

 

 

Petaluma railroad affairs seem to have gotten into a muddle. Col. Bee, the Superintendent, and all hands, were discharged last week, and work consequently suspended. We are assured, however, that it will be resumed at an early day, though the prospect is not very flattering. Under the bill, if we recollect right, the Company is compelled to have ten miles north of Petaluma graded, ironed and in running order by November next. We need not disguise the fact that many of our citizens do not believe good faith is being shown in this matter. Since the vote we have endeavored to show that it would certainly be built inside the unspecified time, and regret exceedingly the manner in which affairs have been managed.
– Sonoma Democrat, May 29 1869
September 25 1869 – railroad work resumes
“How’s Your Railroad.”
It appears from a correspondence to the Healdsburg Flag that this question excites the belligerent organa of the people of Sonoma county. If a stranger goes into that county and asks “How is your railroad?” the chances are that he will be knocked down or sadly abused. The truth of the matter is, that the people have been humbugged, and kept out of a railroad till they are far in the rear of the State in the march of improvement. The citizens of Petaluma have always had an idea that a railroad would be injurious to their interests, aud have fought manfully against the construction of one. They did this openly until they saw it was of no use to do so any longer. They then pretended to favor it, and a company was formed, the citizens of Petaluma becoming large shareholders, and thus prepared, they elected the principal officers, to have the management in their hands, and they then let the whole matter go by default. A bill was passed by the last Legislature authorizing the county to donate five thousand dollars per mile towards the construction of the road, provided the people of the county would vote in favor of it. An election was held to decide the matter. By a very clever maneuvre on the part of Petaluma, it was incorporated so that the people should at the same time decide whether the road should be built from Vallejo via Sonoma to Santa Rosa or from Petaluma to Santa Rosa. A spirited canvass was made—the subsidy granted—the Petaluma route gained the victory. It was placed in the hands of a company, that, it is now seen, never intended to build the road and Petaluma is again victorious. Provision was made in the bill that ten miles of the road should be built in a certain time, or the subsidy be forfeited. That time has now about expired, and not a mile of the road is built. Thus a small portion of the people appear to hold the destinies of the balance of the county in their hands. The people, seeing that they are to have no railroad, and have been cheated out of the great advantages they had had a right to expect, feel very sore whenever asked “how is your railroad?” Sacramento Reporter, Nov, 2.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 13 1869
The Railroad Is Coming! Hurrah for the Railroad! This is the exclamation of everybody in this section of the county who favors this most important enterprise. There has been a feeling of doubt existing in the minds of even those who were the most confident that the road would be built, that by some hook or crook the managers of the new company would get into a wrangle over the matter, among themselves, and thereby cause great delay in the completion of the road. But it is gratifying to know that these fears have all been dispelled, and that the people are now confident that the company intend to commence work immediately and push on as rapidly as possible. We are informed by a gentleman who is one of the most prominent business men in Petaluma, that several large schooners have arrived at that place within the past week, loaded with ties for the Sonoma county Railroad. He also stated that it was his impression that a force of some fifty men were now at work on the grade, and that in a few weeks the company would have some two hundred men at work on the line. This looks like business, and it is now a settled fact that Sonoma will soon be linked to the Metropolis by iron bands, and the shrill whistle of the iron horse will ring through her beautiful valleys. With the railroad Sonoma will take the lead ol all other counties in the State, for her soil cannot be excelled.
– Sonoma Democrat, August 20 1870
Railroad Matters.— Since the arrival of a portion of the rail at Petaluma, which are to be used in the construction of the Sonoma County Railroad, things generally in this vicinity have began to brighten up, and we bear no more complaints as to the possibility of our county being compelled to remain in the back ground for the want of this great enterprise. The movements of those who are managing the interest of the company within the past two or three weeks, have completely allayed the fears of even the most skeptical. It is no longer a question of doubt. The iron has arrived and workmen are now engaged on the road. Those who are in a situation to be well posted on the matter, feel perfectly confident that within three months time Santa Rosa will be connected with the Bay by rail. Instead of a man being compelled to take three or four days to go to the Metropolis and transact his business and return home, he can then make the trip in a few hours by a much more pleasant mode of conveyance than the slow and lumbering stage coach. Our citizens are rejoiced that their labors on behalf of this enterprise are now about to be crowned with success. They have waited long and patiently for it, feeling a consciousness that it would rebound to the benefit and prosperity of every section of the county, and when the shrill whistle of the Iron horse announces the approach of the cars, our people will send up a good hearty cheer as they bid goodbye to the horrible adobe flats between this place and Petaluma.
– Sonoma Democrat, August 27 1870
It is Coming —The work on the railroad is being pushed on with vigor. The tents of one of the camps is now five miles this side of Petaluma. A portion of the track has been laid, and a construction car is running. So far all the work has been done bv white men, and it is the intention, we are told, to employ no slavish Chinese labor in the completion of this enterprise the people of our county will award Mr. Donahue the praise that he is deserving of, for employing white men to work on the road instead of Chinese slaves, who contaminate everything they come in contact with.
– Sonoma Democrat, September 10 1870
The Railroad Is Coming.
If there is any skeptical individual in our community who thinks we are not now destined to have a railroad, we ask him to take a ride down the Petaluma road, and ere he reaches within five miles of that thriving little city he will become convinced that it is no longer an imaginary affair, and having an existence only on paper. On Monday last, we had occasion to pay a short visit to Petaluma, and as a matter of course was looking out for the approach of the cars and listening for the startling shriek of the locomotive. The object that attracted our attention was a number of white tents in a field some five miles this side of the city on the ranch of Mr. Ely. Here we found a large number of men busily engaged in leveling the grade preparatory to laying the ties and rails. From this point all was bustle and activity, and soon we hove in sight of that portion of the track which is now completed a distance of three miles. Upon entering Petaluma at the head of Main street, we came upon the main force of workmen employed on the road, and joyfully beheld the first locomotive which was just preparing to start on its trial trip. After a brief stay in the city and finishing up our business, we proceeded in company with Mr. Berger’s well known citizen of that place, out to where quite a number ot people had congregated, to witness the move incuts of the iron horse. In a short time after arriving upon the busy scenes, our guide introduced us to Mr. Harris, the energetic and gentlemanly superintendent of the road. He very politely invited us to get on the engine with him and take a ride. Scarcely had we stepped upon the platform before the bell began ringing and the hissing sound of the steam announced that the time for starting had arrived. We proceeded up the road a short distance and then returned to the starting point, everything seeming to work perfectly satisfactorily. Mr. Fenton, the engineer, has had great experience in railroading, and Mr. Craig makes an excellent conductor. Immense piles of ties and rails are now lying on the bank ot the slough, and more arriving daily. The Superintendent, Mr. Harris, informed us that in consequence of the great amount of carpenter work that is to be done, it will be impossible for the road to be in running order to Santa Rosa in less than six or seven weeks. The construction cars have now arrived, and the track will be completed as soon as possible, which will be one ot the best and safest in the State. The surveyors are now at work a short distance below town, and but a little time will elapse ere our people will bid good by to the lumbering stage and in its place enjoy the comforts and ease of the beautifully finished car…
– Sonoma Democrat, September 17 1870
The Railroad.— Work is being pushed ahead as rapidly as possible on the road, and it is thought by some that it will be completed to this point by the last of October. During the past week Mr. Donahue and a number of other gentlemen connected with this enterprise paid our town a visit. As yet it is impossible to tell where the depot will be, although it is rumored that the company have purchased land on the other side of the creek for depot purposes.
– Sonoma Democrat, October 1 1870
The Depot.— Now that the railroad is nearly within our town limits, much speculation is going on as to where the depot will be located. It was rumored here some weeks ago, that arrangements of a satisfactory character had been completed between Mr. Donahue and Messrs. Boyce and Clark, for the purchase of eight acres of land lying near the creek at the foot of Third street. This, however, turns out not to be the case, as do final arrangements were ever completed between the above named parties. There is a petition being circulated now, and signed by the property owners ot the town, for the purpose of having all the property taxed proportionally, and the sum so realized to go towards the buying of the land we here named, whereon the depot will be located. The chances are favorable for the location to be on the Boyce and Clark property.
– Sonoma Democrat, October 22 1870
THE RAILROAD.
The first passenger car, bearing the name of “Donahue,” arrived at this place crowded with passengers on Saturday last. Considerable rejoicing was manifested by our people over its arrival, and in the afternoon large numbers went to the terminus of the road, about a mile from town to get a sight of the first railroad car that ever made its appearance near Santa Rosa. To many, it was a novel sight, as they had never seen one before, and they could scarcely find words to express their admiration. All seemed fully conscious of its great advantages over the slow, lumbering stage, and were anxious to experience the delightful sensation of ”riding on a rail.” In the afternoon an excursion party, composed of the prominent citizens of our town, in conjunction with a number from the lower end of the county, went over the road on a pleasure trip to Petaluma. Being in charge of Captain Wright, the genial and affable Superintendent of the road, it was impossible for them to have anything less than a jolly good time. The locker was supplied with any amount of champagne, cigars, etc., and many a toast was drank to the health of Mr. Donahue and the rest of the gentlemen connected with the road. Capt, Wright is finishing up the work on the road between this place and Petaluma as rapidly as possible. On Sunday last we had the pleasure of making a trip with him, during which he generously furnished us with all the information we desired. In consequence of the amount of carpenter work to be done on the road between Petaluma and Lakeville, it will be fully a month yet ere that portion of the work will be finished. Until it is completed they will continue to run the one passenger car, in addition to an open car which can be used by those desirous of being out in the open air. The trip will be made regular each day, leaving Petaluma at eight o’clock in the morning, and returning from here at four o’clock in the afternoon. The fare will be one dollar each way. So far the track reflects great credit upon those who have had the management of its construction, and it will bear comparison with any in the State. The time consumed generally in making the trip from here to Petaluma, sixteen miles including stoppages, is aboat forty-five minutes. When the heavy, powerful engines are in operation, it is thought that thirty minutes will be the time made. All on board enjoyed the trip greatly, and returned to town in the afternoon with glowing accounts of having to encounter neither dust nor adobe mud on the way. We desire to return our thanks to Capt. Wright, also, to Mr. Craig, the conductor, for favors shown on the trip.
– Sonoma Democrat, October 29 1870
The New Locomotive.
During the past week the large and powerful locomotive “San Jose” has been put on the route between this point and Petaluma. The cars are now making two trips daily, and connect with the boats for San Francisco. Messrs. Clark & Bostwick, representing the “Fashion” and “California” stables, run their stages daily to the termini of the road, and go crowded each trip. These gentlemen stand foremost among our enterprising citizens and deserve to meet with success. Work is being prosecuted vigorously on the track between Petaluma and Lakeville, and in a few more weeks the passenger trains will be on, and the people of Santa Rosa will be within three hours ride of San Francisco. This is certainly a glorious change for the better, and will be fully appreciated by our people, who have for years in the winter time been compelled to pay a high price for walking through adobe mud and dragging a lumbering old stage to Petaluma, taking at least one day and a half to reach the Bay city. The completion of the railroad has played sad havoc with the arrangements of those who formerly mapped out the course of travel, and now the people in this vicinity can visit the metropolis much cheaper and more comfortable, besides saving a great amount of valuable time.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 5 1870
The Depot Question Settled.—The question which has been uppermost in the minds of our citizens (or the past month as to where the Railroad Company would permanently locate their depot, has at last been definitely settled to the satisfaction of all parties concerned. On last Saturday a meeting was held, and the vexed question brought to a termination. The company is to have seven acres ot land, situated half a mile from the Court House, and lying between Third and Fourth streets. This property formerly belonged to Messrs. Boyce and Clark, each of whom gave $100 toward its purchase for the use of the Railroad Company. The citizens of the town subscribe $300, and the Board of Trustees become responsible for the balance. The company have purchased the property of Henry A. Peabody, Esq., which adjoins that which has lately come into their possession. It is the opinion of Captain Wright that in thirty days the depot will be established on this side of the creek. A pile-driving machine will be brought up from the city in a few days, so that work can be commenced on bridging the creek. The value of the land to be used for depot purposes was estimated by the appraisers at $1,000. The place selected is the most advantageous one that presented itself, and will give universal satisfaction to our citizens.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 19 1870
Railroad.
The cars are making their regular trips daily from this place to Petaluma, and considerable travel and freight are passing over the road. The travel through our county now, although much greater than what it was formerly, will be largely increased as soon as the road is completed and in running order to Lakeville. At present there is but one passenger car on the road, and in making a trip from Petaluma to this place on Monday  last, we were convinced, from the crowded condition of the passengers, that they thought the accommodations entirely too limited. However, all were willing to adapt themselves to circumstances, feeling thankful for having escaped the jolting and adobe mud which they formerly had to encounter when traveling by stage. In a few days more the lower end of the road, which is being worked under the supervision and guidance of that clever gentleman, Captain Wright, the Superintendent, will be completed. The Captain has met with many arduous difficulties in constructing the portion of the work, but his energy has overcome them all, and shortly the snort of the iron horse, accompanied by his long train of handsome and highly finished cars, will be heard at Lakeville. At that place the beautiful and fast steamer Sacramento is now waiting to be called into service. She is a fast boat, and her accommodations for the comfort and convenience of passengers are unsurpassable. The trip from the city into the very heart of old Sonoma—with her delightful climate and fertile fields, will then indeed be one of pleasure and recreation. Hundreds will visit our county then, who, until the locomotive began to traverse our valleys, would never have visited our county. The officers of the road are, with no exceptions, noted for their affability and politeness. Captain Wright, the Superintendent, has made a host of warm friends, and they continue to increase daily. To take a trip on the cars with him is a sure guarantee of a day’s pleasure. Mr. Craig, the conductor, has also become very popular with the people. He is a clever and genial gentleman, and understands the duties of his position thoroughly. The officers are all clever gentlemen, and are always found, as they should be, courteous and polite in the discharge of their respective duties.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 26 1870
two artlcles written by “Handy,” and published recently in the Crescent, in regard to dividing Sonoma County…There should not be any jealousy between our city and Santa Rosa. Petaluma only differed with Santa Rosa in claiming that the railroad must accommodate both towns, instead of passing directly from Santa Rosa to Vallejo. Petaluma has succeeded in getting it where she desired; both towns have the benefit of the road; we are within thirty minutes run of the county seat, and liberal minded men should be satisfied. Nature has given us the best point for trade, while the railroad will tend to equalize the advantages of the up-country towns, and bring them in competition with Petaluma. Santa Rosa is much nearer the centre of the county, and is, therefore, entitled to the Court House. We were in hopes that the railroad would so connect us that all ill feelings between our towns would be dispelled, and we regret to know that even “Handy” desires to disturb our harmony and dismember our grand old Democratic county.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1870
The Railroad —By the beginning of the new year the railroad will be completed and the cars running to Donahue, which will link us to the great cosmopolitan city of San Francisco, For years this has been the hope and desire of many of our enterprising citizens throughout the county. Various efforts were made by them to unite our fertile fields by bands of iron to this great commercial market but their labors signally failed through various causes. But at last the good work is accomplished, and the produce raised by the farmers of old Sonoma can now be transported speedily and cheaply to market. A new era has been opened in the history of our county, and its future is bright with promises of renewed life and activity.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1870
The Excursion on Saturday Last.
Vague rumors were in circulation, during the early part of last week, that an excursion party from San Francisco was coming up to Santa Rosa on Saturday, at which time the first train would run through from Donahue to Santa Rosa. Nothing definite was known, however, and up to Thursday evening, on going to press, we were unable to say positively that there would be an excursion, but gave the report as it came to us. On Friday, however, one point was settled, namely, that some excursionists were coming at the time mentioned, but as to the number all were in the dark.
LIGHT ON THE SUBJECT. The following day cleared up the mystery. A long train of cars came in sight of the depot, with over twelve hundred persons on board. There were, in all, eighteen cars, most of them open freight cars fitted up with temporary seats, and gaily decorated with flags and evergreens. Three bands of music, including the juveniles of the Industrial School, a bright set of little musicians, under the charge of Mr. Pelton, accompanied the party; also, two or three military companies from the city and Petaluma.
THE ARRIVAL. The scene at the depot on the arrival of the party was a sight well worth seeing. A large throng of ladies and gentlemen from our town had gone out to welcome their visitors, attended by the Santa Rosa Brass Band, and the train was greeted with music, cheers and waving of hand kerchiefs, which was returned with interest by the immense crowd of excursionists. Owing to the great number of those present, it was utterly impossible to find vehicles enough to bring them all to town, and many of both sexes were compelled to walk in, a distance of nearly a mile. This was not very pleasant to begin with, particularly as but one hour was allowed to get to town and return in time for the homeward trip. Such a pushing, rushing and scampering down the road and across lots, has not been seen for many a day in these parts.
IN TOWN. In a short time Santa Rosa was full of people, nearly all of whom had arrived with appetites sharpened by fasting from the time of leaving the city, some six hours before. Again came disappointment, as it was utterly impossible to wine and dine such a multitude without preparation and within the brief space allowed for their stay. In consequence of this the visit was neither pleasant to our citizens nor to the excursionists, who, by the way, were as jolly a crowd of good fellows and fair ladies as we have ever seen together, and after bustling about for a few minutes in a most disagreeable and unsatisfactory manner, a grand rush was made for the cars to take them home.
MORE BLUNDERING. Here again came trouble. Many of the people of Santa Rosa desired to accompany their friends on the return trip as far as Donohue, but could net ascertain definitely, until the train was about to start, whether any provision had been made to bring them back, that night. In addition, invitations had been issued with a sparing hand. Consequently, only a small number from this place went down. On whose shoulders rests the blame for all the mistakes and blunders which characterized this excursion, we are not prepared to say, but there is enough of it to go round on all concerned.
HOMEWARD BOUND. The down trip was remarkably jolly, under the circumstances. On reaching Petaluma the cars stopped one hour, giving all an opportunity for a brief visit to the metropolis of our county. At the expiration of that time the whistle sounded, and the train started for Donahue, which was reached in a very short time. At this new town the steamer “Sacramento” was lying alongside the company’s wharf, ready to carry the gay voyagers to the city. A splendid collation was spread on board the steamer, and the manner in which the good things disappeared showed that this was emphatically one of the substantial pleasures of the trip. On the way down the company had a glorious time, dancing and speech-making being, the order of the day.
PERSONAL. Among the visitors to Santa Rosa on this occasion were Peter Donahue, President of the Railroad Company, Senator Wand, Assemblymen Griswold and Homer…and a boat of others, old friends and good citizens, whom we cannot now recall by name.
– Sonoma Democrat, January 7 1871
Going to Work. —We are informed that work is to he commenced at once on the railroad bridge across Santa Rosa creek.
– Sonoma Democrat, January 7 1871
Inauguration of the S. F. & N. P. Railroad
Last Saturday was the occasion of a grand jubilee for Sonoma county. The long-hoped for railroad through her center was built, and the formal inauguration of the same gave an opportunity for a first-class “blow out.” Invitations were pretty generally issued by President Donahue for an excursion from San Francisco to Santa Rosa. Accordingly several from this city availed themselves of the opportunity and went to San Francisco in order to make the first through trip. The Company’s steamer Sacramento left Jackson Street Wharf, San Francisco, about eight and a half o’clock, loaded with passengers, among whom were some of the most noted and substantial men of the state. Two fine bands of music accompanied the excursion, as also the California Guard and Capt. Bluxome, with his celebrated battery, which did lusty service in firing salutes at different points along the route.
PETALUMA ASTIR.
Our citizens knowing that the train was expected here about eleven, kept a sharp look-out across the valley for the train, and all good observatory points contained more or less of humanity, eagerly watching to see the iron horse come up the track. Owing, however, to some detention, it did not arrive until after twelve, and was several minutes behind the time of the steamer Petaluma, whose passengers arrived in this city some minutes ahead. In the meantime an immense concourse of people had gathered at the depot in East Petaluma. Maj. Armstrong, with the Hewston Guard, headed by the Petaluma Brass Band, turned out to welcome the excursionists, and receive their brothers in arms. As the long train, consisting of three passenger and twelve platform cars, came in sight, the cannon from the Plaza fired a salute, and was soon replied to by Bluxome’s Battery. After stopping about three-quarters of an hour, on order to take aboard the excursionists from this city, the train proceeded on its way.
TO SANTA ROSA.
The day was surpassingly pleasant, and every one looked happy and seemed to enjoy the run up, which was made in fifty minutes. The beautiful appearance of our valley, that in passing farm houses, residences, or even single individuals, the enthusiasm would find vent in prolonged cheers, while ladies handkerchiefs waved in profusion. At Santa Rosa the train was met by a brass band, and many citizens in carriages and wagons, while anvils were improvised for cannon, and kept hot with echoing salutes. The people at the County Seat must certainly have fancied they were taken, as the immense numbers poured into the town, filling the streets with a life and bustle, rarely witnessed on Montgomery or Main. The excursionists passed the hour allotted to them there, by wandering around the town, admiring its locality and the many pretty and cosy residences that are observable on every hand. More particularly did the San Franciscans admire and even go into raptures over the climate, whose mildness was such a pleasant and agreeable transit from the bitter winds and cold fogs of the Bay City.
HOME AGAIN.
Stopping at Santa Rosa for about an hour, the train returned, making the down trip between Santa Rosa and Petaluma in thirty-seven minutes. After tarrying at Petaluma long enough for the military to go through with their usual courtesies, proceeded to Donahue, where they arrived about dark. On going aboard the Sacramento, the hungry excursionists were delighted to find an ample dinner spread out for them in the spacious cabin, while received ample attention, as most of the party had not broken their fast since leaving their homes in the morning. After their greedy appetites had been thoroughly satisfied at Hendricks’ well-filled tables, post prandial toasts and speeches were indulged in by the passengers, and remarks made by Mssrs. H. M. Newall, Esq., of San Francisco, Peter Donahue, and others…
– Petaluma Argus, 7 January 1871
DONAHUE’S RAILROAD.
…The crowd at Santa Rosa was hardly less than Petaluma supplied. A score or more conveyances of various descriptions carried a portion of the excursionists to the town; the remaining portion enjoying the delights of a pedestrian trip to same point of destination. Santa Rosa was taken by surprise, it having been announced only that morning that the inauguration was to come off that day consequently Santa Rosa was unprepared to receive visitors, who, after an hour spent in inspecting the streets of the pleasant little village, returned to the cars and turned homeward…
– San Francisco Chronicle, January 1 1871
Opening of the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad.
…A very pleasant ride by the train in an hour or so brought the excursionists, to the vicinity of Santa Rosa, through a pleasant country, but looking rather parched now, in much need of the life giving rains. The advance on the village itself was made in a disorderly manner — partly on foot, and partly in conveyances of every possible character. A well-known railroad man — and as jolly as he is well-known — made his entry into that smiling village with a large party of ladies and gentlemen in a truck, drawn by two very powerful, but deliberate mules. The vehicle, so far as elegance is concerned, could not be pronounced a success, but it rumbled along nevertheless with great effectiveness. There was no other conveyance on the road that could bar its progress at least. Never was such military pageant ever understood before in Santa Rosa — two whole companies of soldiers parading there in all the panoply of war, marching and countermarching on the principal street. In the distance cheerful anvils, handled by resident gunners, sent forth constant explosions as a token of greeting. But provisions were dreadfully slack in Santa Rosa. The hotel openly confessed its inability to meet the requirements of so great a host; shut up its dining room remorselessly; could not do it; could not begin to do it, but melted when besought for the sake of the Blessed Virgin a cup of tea for a suffering lady. On returning to the station, a lunch was provided for the hungry excursionists, to which we need not say that ample justice was done…
– Daily Alta California,  January 1 1871

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WHEN OUR FUTURE DERAILED

Try to imagine the West Coast criss-crossed by electric streetcars. You could hop aboard a trolley in Santa Rosa and maybe step off in Sacramento a block from Aunt Mabel’s house, or you might start the weekend early by visiting friends in Oakland so the next morning you can all take a streetcar directly to the new amusement boardwalk at Santa Cruz. A world awaits.

Advertisement from the November 26, 1911 Press Democrat

 

 

Such was the bright future that seemed inevitable between about 1905 and 1910. Probably every cosmopolitan area in the country had an electric trolley system that offered an easy way to move around a city and its outlying towns. What later became known as the Key System served every community along the East Bay shore down to Hayward; the Northern Electric connected Sacramento and Chico and all the small valley towns in between, as just a couple of examples. Locally our interurban system was the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway, which carried our great-grandparents between those towns as well as to Graton and Sebastopol and forgotten country crossroads such as Liberty (about 1.5 miles west of the Petaluma Pumpkin Patch and Corn Maze).

And it was only getting better. Everywhere existing “traction systems” (the formal name) were adding new routes and equally important, making deals to link up with other systems; Northern Electric would soon stretch down to the East Bay, sharing tracks and electricity with the Key System. There was talk about forming great interstate networks and maybe even a transcontinental route.

Thus there was excitement but no great surprise when it was reported in 1908 that plans were underway to build an electric railroad from Marin county to Lake Tahoe, with a spur stretching to Petaluma and Santa Rosa. Despite assurances by Bay Area newspapers including the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican, the deal died quickly, not least because it required $12,000,000 from investors in one of the tightest economies in the nation’s history; it was only a year past the bank panic of 1907 which saw the U.S. financial system near collapse, and no one was in the mood to gamble on risky projects. Nor did it help that the mastermind behind it was Richard M. Hotaling, a San Francisco playboy who knew nothing about railroads, or for that matter, business.*

But aside from Hotaling’s complete lack of business acumen and the wildly ambitious scope of building a Lake Tahoe road, the deal wasn’t that unusual. Typically a group of investors formed a new company to build a specific small railroad. Bonds were offered for sale, and from the newspaper announcements it seems the company claimed work would be completed with remarkable (and improbable) speed and/or the hardest phase of construction was already finished. When they inevitably ran out of money or faced some sort of serious obstacle, work stopped and didn’t resume for months, years, or maybe ever. It was pay-as-you-go railroad tycooning.

Hotaling had also fizzled in trying to start a railroad company in 1905; that time he planned an electric line from Sausalito to Lakeport via Napa. The road was projected to cost up to $15 million, even more than he would later guesstimate to reach Lake Tahoe. Today it may seem like a crummy investment, but in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, it would have had great appeal for one reason alone: It reached Clear Lake, which was the Holy Grail for railroaders. At the time there was not a single railroad track of any kind in Lake county. Everyone went in and out of the area via bumpy stagecoach until 1907, when a company started offering bumpy auto transport between Calistoga and Middletown. And everyone, it seems, wanted to go to Lake county.

Lake county was then being promoted as the “Switzerland of America” (never mind that Colorado claimed the same after the Civil War, and New Hampshire used the motto a half-century before that) and its mineral spring resorts were world famous. Tens of thousands of visitors spent weeks there every summer. You rubbed elbows with royalty and world leaders; you could watch a boxing champion train at one resort and his upcoming challenger spar at another. The most opulent of the resorts, Bartlett Springs, was virtually a small city, accommodating  up to 5,000 guests and an even larger staff. It had a casino, gourmet European chefs, a resident orchestra, five hotels and hundreds of cabins. The Lake county Chamber of Commerce wrote a history of the resorts with a vivid (if somewhat purple) description:

Turrets and towers reaching nearly to the sky, adorned the multicolored flags waving festively in the mountain breezes, loomed high above the stately evergreen forests in which they were centered. These luxury hotels or baronial castles featured every type of architecture-from the airy Swiss Chalet style, Victorian, with accommodations for 500 or more persons in the main hotel buildings. Often these resorts would have their main hotel and several secondary or smaller hotels that could accommodate from 200 to 300 persons. Also dozens of individual housekeeping cottages, annexes, dormitory type buildings and even extensive campground facilities. Posh casinos, mirrored ballrooms, brocade and satin upholstered salons, music halls redolent with gold leaf and formal dining rooms gleaming with silver and crystal were just some of the luxuries offered the clientele.

My lord, it sounded like a county full of Disneylands.

Plans to construct some type of a railroad into Lake county went back to 1869. According to county histories, companies were also founded to lay tracks in 1896, 1900, 1903, two in 1905 (not counting Hotaling’s plan) and 1907. Hey, want to lose money on a sure thing? I’ve got some Lake county railroad bonds I’d like to sell you.

(RIGHT: Proposed Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad route map that appeared several times in the Press Democrat, 1910-1911)

Then come 1908, both Santa Rosa papers herald yet another Lake train scheme. The difference this time is that the 56-mile electric line was to be built by a Santa Rosa company: The Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad, headed by William Reynolds – who was also president of the Santa Rosa Bank. Hearing Reynolds’ presentation to the Chamber of Commerce were many of Santa Rosa’s real estate and investment heavy hitters.

Little was written of the project until almost exactly a year later, when the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce heard another pitch. This time it was from a group of Lake county investors with a company called Highland Pacific that proposed their own Lakeport to Santa Rosa train. Rival Reynolds was there and didn’t seem threatened, even proposing the two could share tracks into Santa Rosa from Gwynn’s Corners (the intersection of Old Redwood Highway and Mark West). Perhaps the Lake county guys were not aware how much they were revealing their hands to the enemy camp; a few weeks later the Press Democrat reported Santa Rosa’s mayor and the Chamber Secretary had been “busy for several days securing rights of way from property owners for the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Scenic Railway” and they had “practically secured $3,000” to start work.

But the project gained no traction. The PD announced in 1910 that construction would begin at the end of the year and take twenty months. Work appears to have stopped after five miles were graded.

While the Santa Rosa efforts were on hiatus, yet another team showed up to play: The newly-created Clear Lake Railroad Company stated in 1911 they would construct a standard gauge road from Hopland to Lakeport. The shortest route of all at slightly less than 25 miles, it would be a spur from the Northwestern Pacific main line. The NWP would also sell them rails at cost, finance them with discount loans and would be in no hurry to be paid back.

The Press Democrat complained this sweetest of sweetheart deals was really aimed at killing Santa Rosa’s dreams: “The Northwestern revives again this old, old proposition at a time when its revival might have a chilling influence upon the new enterprise.” The PD announced shortly after that “work on the new Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad, which has been temporarily discontinued, is to be resumed at once.” Apparently it was not.

The Hopland project broke ground in November, 1911 and quickly became entangled in a labor dispute. Work sputtered along for over five years, the company selling more bonds and making (what appear to be) questionable insider deals concerning Clear Lake frontage. All they accomplished was a few miles of graded roadbed in Mendocino County. And thus endeth this chapter on Lake county rail.

It can be argued that the failure of the Santa Rosa electric line was the biggest setback to the town’s progress since the 1906 earthquake. Not that business interests had such love to serve their Lake county brethren; the attraction was all those wealthy people passing through town. As the Press Democrat explained: “In making Santa Rosa the terminal the city becomes a railroad center of considerable importance. It is estimated that over 50,000 visitors will pass through Santa Rosa in and out annually on their way to and from the various resorts.”

Perhaps just as important, the trolley line would have extended Santa Rosa’s sphere of influence north to Healdsburg; note the 1910 full-page ad that appeared in the Republican selling property in the “new subdivision” on the yet-to-be-built route. Lacking a boost in land values from developments and lacking the draw of a major transit hub, it seemed like Santa Rosa had again missed out on boom times.

But maybe that was for the best. Those were the peak years for interurban trains, and it’s no mystery why interest began to decline thereafter; in 1907 we began to go car crazy on the West Coast and in 1910 California voted to create a state highway system. People wanted their private cars and paved roads, not efficient public transit on rails. During and after WWI electric systems increasingly shut down or switched to freight-only; in the dozen years centered on the 1929 start of the Great Depression, 8,400 miles of track were abandoned nationwide. The Petaluma & Santa Rosa trolley ended passenger service in 1932 for lack of ridership. During those years the Lake county resort scene was also vanishing; several of the resorts – including the magnificent Bartlett Springs – burned to the ground and were not rebuilt. Had it been completed, the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad would have been the train to nowhere after about two decades.

Still, those early years would have been marvelous. Imagine: Just a couple of effortless hours away from downtown Santa Rosa, there awaited “turrets and towers reaching nearly to the sky, adorned the multicolored flags waving festively in the mountain breezes.” I’d certainly buy a ticket. Maybe just one way.

* Richard (“Dick”) Hotaling (1868-1925) was a San Francisco millionaire and one of the heirs to the A. P. Hotaling whiskey fortune. Besides his short-lived railroad venture he managed the family’s 1600-acre Sleepy Hollow dairy ranch in San Anselmo for a few years. But his interest in business matters quickly wained; he was always described in the papers as a clubman and amateur actor, performing at the Bohemian Grove and with a theatrical company in Oakland which usually cast him in the leading roles. He specialized in Shakespearian roles and his interpretations would certainly raise eyebrows today – he performed Shylock with a Yiddish accent and Othello in “African dialect,” explaining to the San Francisco Call there was “no logical reason why Shylock and Othello should speak like Venetians” before laughing, “Wouldn’t it be funny to hear Othello declaim a la Uncle Tom?” Hotaling was also accused of attempting to defraud family members. He claimed his elderly mother gave him the ranch and handed over the one-quarter share in the business inherited by his brother Fred after she was embarrassed in 1913 by Fred appearing drunk after a society ball. His mother supposedly also gave him her own quarter share of stock with the understanding the deed would be recorded only after she died or in the case of a “German invasion,” meaning her fears that the widow of her eldest son was planning to marry a German nobleman seeking to occupy the San Anselmo mansion. The court returned Fred’s stock and ruled in favor of mom in 1919. Dick was also investigated by a grand jury a few months before his death regarding a murder-for-hire scheme to poison Fred and his wife, but was not indicted for lack of corroborating evidence.

 

NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD
Line Into Lake County Discussed Thursday Night

There was a good attendance at the regular meeting of the Chamber of Commerce Thursday evening and the time was largely devoted to discussion of a narrow gauge railroad from Santa Rosa into Lake county. This is a project in which W. D. Reynolds and J. W. Barrows have taken an especially deep interest for several years. Maps of the proposed line were drawn in 1906 and 1907 under direction of Mr. Barrows, and when he went east last year he gave the matter considerable investigation. At that time the REPUBLICAN gave the story of his investigations and some points in regard to such roads. The proposed road would have a width of 24 to 27 inches and such lines are declared to have proven very profitable. They go up and down grads much steeper than those of standard gauge lines and are declared to be very safe in their management. The meeting Thursday night was addressed by Judge Crawford, Rev. Peter Colvin, R. C. Moodey, Mayor Gray, A. Trembley , John Rinner, Frank Leppo, Dr. Harry Leppo, Dr. Jackson Temple, and others.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 18, 1908
MAY MEAN BIG THINGS
Proposed Electric Road May Bring Eastern Lines

The proposed electric railroad that was mentioned in the REPUBLICAN of Thursday, beginning from Belvedere, and running north through Santa Rosa and other cities to Lake Tahoe, is really to be the connecting point with a large transcontinental route.

It will mean the entrance to this city and county and state from the northeast to the bay of either the Hill system, the Rockefellers’ St. Paul system, the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific project of David M. Moffat of Denver, or the Chicago and Northwestern.

The road projected by Richard M. Hotaling is to be 178 miles in length, and can be used for steam or electric trains. It is to cost $12,000,000 and work is to begin by next March.

At Sacramento the proposed road will connect with the Butters road known as the Northern Electric, which is built as far as Chico and is in operation. It will extend to Redding and form an important link in the transcontinental route. Since the death of Henry A. Butters, interested parties have proposed a combination of the Northern Electric and the Hotaling projects, and it is certain that a merger of these two properties will be made within a year. It is these two companies which will be eventually utilized by some big eastern road to get an outlet to the Bay of San Francisco.

The late Henry A. Butters, along with Louis Sloss, E. R. Lillienthal and other wealthy San Franciscans, built the Northern Electric system between Sacramento and Yuba City, Marysville, Oroville and Chico, and projected it north to Red Bluff and Redding because he has great faith in the development of Northern California.

Hotaling and his associates say they have the same faith in the growth of this part of the State and that the three firms of engineers employed by them reported that this section of the state is a fine field for railway development.

Interested parties in both systems said yesterday the logic of the situation pointed to a close affiliation or combination of both properties. They refuse to say when and how the companies might reach an understanding.

Like the Hotaling system is to be, the Northern Electric can be used by steam or electric trains, or both. It is now being operated by electric power furnished by the transmission mountain plants of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of this city. Presumably the Hotaling road will use powere from the same company. People who are interested in a merger of the two properties say that as one system they could handle by electric power all traffic purely local. In case of some big eastern road later on became interested in the system, it could readily use steam trains for through freight and passenger traffic.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 6, 1908
TALKS ABOUT THINGS HE DOES NOT LIKE

Kinsfolk, Neighbors and Friends:

We need an electric railroad to run from Santa Rosa to Lake county and we need it badly. It is a much easier matter to tell you why we need this road than to try to tell you why the devil is in hogs, or why there should be any devil at all. We can explain this matter to your enquiring minds more satisfactorily than we can tell you why Bryan is in Lincoln, Roosevelt in France or why the thieving Sugar Trust escapes punishment so easily.

We all know that this electric road should be built. We know that it would further the welfare of the county to have it and over a question that is so clear to our minds, we arenot going to divide and quarrel.

We must look after the interests of our county. We must encourage the promoters of this great scheme. Santa Rosa is destined to become a great railroad center. Thousands of people are headed this way. When they arrive, we must prove to them that it will be to their interest to remain…

…But that Santa Rosa and Clear Lake electric line! We must “boost” that. We need it in our business–we need it all the time. With a station every mile or two, the farmers will be able to ship their produce into town in large or small quantities , and at almost any time of day.

[..]

WES MAYFIELD.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 6, 1910
CONTRACT AWARDED FOR GRADING OF SANTA ROSA AND CLEAR LAKE ROAD
Work Begins on December 1st and Must Be Completed in Twenty Months
GREAT INTEREST IN A BIG PROJECT
Years of Quiet But Energetic Work Has Achieved Results–Passenger Steamers on Clear Lake

…For nearly five years the gentlemen at the head of the undertaking have been quietly, yet none the less energetically working to bring about the consummation of this railroad into Lake county. Their plans were well defined at the time of the disaster of April, 1906, and but for that set back the road would doubtless have been in operation for some time….

…the electric railroad from Santa Rosa to Clear Lake will be a “scenic railroad.” Every one familiar with the route will agree as to this. Through valley and canyon and over hill it will run until its termination on the shores of Clear Lake is reached. It will be the first railroad of any kind to enter Lake county–“the Switzerland of America,” famed far and wide for its unparalleled scenery and climate, eagerly sought after each year by thousands of tourists and pleasure seekers.

Route of Proposed Road

The route of the new railroad runs from Santa Rosa to Kellogg, and thence skirting St. Helena mountain, it will go to Middletown, and then on to Clear Lake. In Santa Rosa the terminus will be on Wilson street between Fourth and Fifth streets, and consequently it will connect for passengers from both the Northwestern Pacific and Petaluma & Santa Rosa railroad depots. It will run up Fifth street to North street to the Southern Pacific depot. From the depot it will pass the Odd Fellows’ cemetery, and will proceed along the line of the Healdsburg road, and then on by Mark West to Kellogg, passing the Knight’s Valley ranch where it is expected the California Trades ^ Training School will be located.

The Lake county terminus will be at deep water on Clear Lake. The plan is to put two large passenger boats on the Lake to connect with every resort frontong on or in touch with the lake.

[..]

– Press Democrat, November 15, 1910
COMMITTEE REPORT FAVORS LAKE CO. RAILWAY PROJECT
Chamber Commerce Representatives Review the Situation

…The local directors have agreed to sell for cash 15 per cent or $528.75 per mile of this stock, thus requiring the sale of about $30,000 worth of stock in Santa Rosa, along the route and in Lake county. Nearly $5,000 worth of stock has been subscribed, we are told, by residents of Middletown. Nearly $5,000 more will be taken at Lower Lake, and nearly $5,000 has already been subscribed in Santa Rosa…

In making Santa Rosa the terminal the city becomes a railroad center of considerable importance. It is estimated that over 50,000 visitors will pass through Santa Rosa in and out annually on their way to and from the various resorts. We believe the road will be a lasting benefit for the community and will be worthy of the attempt to secure same, and should receive the support of all our people…

[..]

– Press Democrat, March 23, 1911
PROGRESS OF THE CLEAR-LAKE ROAD
Northwestern Pacific Makes an Effort to Discourage it by Offering to Expedite Another Line

Subscriptions are steadily coming in to the capital stock of the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad Company, the survey has been finished from Santa Rosa to Middletown in Lake county, and five miles of grading work has been completed in the most difficult part of the road. “The road will be finished before winter,” is the declaration of the men who are pushing the work.

The customary and expected effort to discourage and forestall the enterprise came to light with the publication in San Francisco Wednesday of the account of a conference held in San Francisco between the officers of the Northwestern Pacific and a delegation of business men who had been invited to the city for the purpose of the interview. According to this story, the Northwestern Pacific offers to expedite the building of a line from Lakeport to connect with and feed the Northwestern Pacific main line at Hopland. The road is to be twenty-two miles long, is to cost $200,000 and is to be financed by popular subscription at $100 a share. It is to be a standard-gauge gasoline motor road with a maximum grade of five percent.

The Northwestern Pacific agreed to furnish rails at cost price, and to bond the road at five per cent, to refrain from control of the line and to give ample time for redemption of the bonds. [? illegible microfilm ?] and published ever time it has appeared that the people of Santa Rosa and the people of Lakeport were doing something to connect the two towns by rail. Nothing has ever come of any of them.

Naturally, a direct and independent line from Santa Rosa to Lakeport would not bring as much business to the Northwestern Pacific as would a feeder line to tap the Northwestern at Hopland. Obviously, the direct line to Santa Rosa will bring more business to Santa Rosa than would the “feeder” line to Hopland. That explains, of course, why the Northwestern would prefer a “feeder,” and it also explains, equally of course, why Santa Rosa’s interests are with the independent line. Also, it explains why the Northwestern revives again this old, old propsition at a time when its revival might have a chilling influence upon the new enterprise.

But the new enterprise is not affected by the chill.

“We’ll have our road in operation before there is a tie laid on the feeder,” said one of the men engaged in the building of the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake road, when asked about it by a Press Democrat reporter Wednesday.

– Press Democrat, March 30, 1911
ACTUAL WORK TO BEGIN ON S. R. & CLEAR LAKE R. R.
Money Deposited in Local Banks to Start Work
J. W. Barrows Resigns Position With Western Pacific to Take Charge of Building for New Line–Will Make Headquarters in Santa Rosa

Work on the new Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad, which has been temporarily discontinued, is to be resumed at once. Milton Nathan of the Nathan, Brownscomb Construction Company was in this city yesterday and deposited $5,000 in cash with two of the local banks to start construction work and announced that there was plenty more on hand which would be forthcoming as soon as it was needed…

[..]

– Press Democrat, July 16, 1911

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camp-vacation-tl

WHEN WE SUMMERED IN LOST PLACES

In the years straddling the turn of the last century, it seemed everyone in Santa Rosa was coming and going to the Russian River during the summer months. For many of them, however, the appeal of the river area had less to do with water activities than the siren call of rocking chairs in rented cabins, croquet and bowling and billiards with friends from town, hotel service, and for some above all, eating.


View Russian River train stops and resorts c. 1900-1909 in a larger map

RIGHT: Russian River train stops and resorts c. 1900-1909. Blue markers indicate Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) passenger stops; red markers show resorts or other tourist destinations

Much has been written about the river scene from the mid-1920s onward, but info about the first decade of the river resorts is scarce, although they were a central part of Santa Rosa life in early 20th century summers. Where exactly were these places, and what were they like? Why would someone prefer to go to Camp Vacation instead of Summerhome Park? After picking through out-of-town newspaper ads, railroad timetables, maps and atlases and all those “personal mention” columns tracking local residents, I present (what I believe to be) the first cross-referenced map of the Russian River byways during that era.

My early confusion centered upon the tangled names. Some spots were known by two or more – the Olivet train stop became Woolsey and Trenton became Laguna, for instance – and making matters worse, the Santa Rosa newspapers were sometimes sloppy about accuracy. Before Eaglenest became Rionido, then later Rio Nido, it was also in the papers as Eagle Nest, Eagle’s Nest and Eagle’s Nest Camp. And don’t even ask about Camp Six.

It’s also tricky to judge the popularity of any of these places. A new get-away popped up almost every summer during those years, while the paint was still almost fresh on the oldest resort, only about a dozen years old. Time spent anywhere on the river was still a novelty, something to talk about with your neighbors and friends, and the next time you went maybe you’d try another place that you’d heard good things about.

Today it’s hard to imagine the Russian River wasn’t always a tourist destination, but most thanks for transforming a no-man’s-land of redwood stumps into a primo resort area goes to north coast railroad baron A. W. Foster, president of the Northwestern Pacific (NWP). Mr. Foster is best remembered as a heartless supervillain in the 1905 “Battle of Sebastopol Avenue” (although it’s more likely that history has given him a bum rap). As logging was winding down in the mid-1890s, Foster saw an opportunity to cash in on the growing popularity of Sunday excursion trips and vacation rentals, as best told in the often-quoted (but rarely credited) book “Redwood Railways” by Gilbert Kneiss:


To Foster, however, belongs much of the credit for opening up the Russian River country as a vacation land. Informal camping in the forests and two-week rocking-chair sojourns at American plan, pitcher, basin, and thunder-mug resort hotels had long been common. Foster was thinking in terms of summer homes and traffic for the Guereneville Branch where logged out country had left rusty rails. He bought some of the cut-over land, now green an bushy with second growth…[soon] Guerneville converted itself from a hard-drinking, bullwhacking lumber camp to a village of parasols, mandolins, and ice-cream sodas.

It’s not the job of this Santa Rosa-centric blog to tell the story of railroads, but I wish more history was available on how Foster and his railway developed this area. Did the NWP plan and build the resorts, then selling or leasing them once profitable? The intriguing thread tying most of the resorts together was Santa Rosa’s industrious Cnopius family, who were apparently managing nearly all of them at different times between 1896 and 1906. Did they work for Foster? Mrs. L. C. Cnopius (no first name found, sorry) was particularly key to the progress, and her importance was even noted in San Francisco obituaries. Mrs. Cnopius is also known here for being the last direct victim of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake.

TOP: Section of the Camp Vacation dining room, 1908. Note the hungry fellow peering through the window
RIGHT: Boating at Camp Vacation, 1907
MIDDLE: NWP Locomotive No. 99, “Coffee Grinder”
BOTTOM: Boarding the eastbound passenger train at Guernewood Park, probably 1909. Note the pile of luggage at the far end

Dining room photo courtesy UC/Berkeley, all others courtesy Sonoma County Library

CLICK or TAP any image to enlarge

The first resort to open was Mirabel Park, which soon became a particularly popular spot for large groups – unions, churches, fraternal organizations – to hold day-long Sunday picnics. So great was Mirabel’s appeal that it threatened the overall success of the area. In the 1900 San Francisco papers it was reported  that “many families fear to take [Russian River trains] owing to the dread of coming in contact with Sunday picnics,” although the railway assured the public that “this road has had no trouble on this score.” Still, they promised to herd picnickers into separate train cars: “In the future, therefore, no one traveling on the California Northwestern Railway on Sundays will come in contact with Sunday picnics.”

Mirabel Park was also somewhat unusual in this era for having a “villa” offering actual boarding rooms. More common were partially-furnished bungalows for rent or sale, should you have the overwhelming urge to buy a tiny shack with no running water or electricity. And these cottages near the river did not sell cheap; ads from real estate brokers listed them for $400 up, about three times more than a place in Camp Meeker.

Bungalows were suited for anyone spending the season on the river or planning to entertain friends, as many people did. But most people vacationing for a few days or so stayed at one of the tent hotels, adults $2/day, $10 per week, children under ten half-price. An advertisement for Camp Vacation describes the accommodations: “To sleep beneath a tent, to pass the day in the open air and have nothing else to do is to camp with luxury. Camp Vacation makes this easy for all. It is a hotel under canvas. Regular hotel service is furnished, but the guests live in tents. The tents are provided with wooden floors, are well furnished and are taken care of by those in charge.”

Meals were included in the deal, and the all-you-can-eat grub seemed to be as much an attraction as the Great Outdoors. In a September, 1908, San Francisco Call how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation writing contest, 8th grader Ruth Moore told of her good times at one of the tent hotels:


My vacation was spent in the beautiful redwood groves of Sonoma county…we arrived at Montesano station about 3 p. m. and lugged our heavy baggage up hill, over stumps, rocks, brush and other obstructions to our camping grounds. Then our troubles were over. Nothing to do but eat, sleep and seek pleasure….

…When I first arrived at the camp I did not have a very big appetite, and I was surprised to see my friends eat. Their table manners seemed to have been left at home. They grabbed everything in sight with both hands. They would drink out of the bucket in preference to using a cup and wipe their mouths on the tablecloth.

But in about three days I was just as bad. I simply could not get enough to eat, and how good everything did taste. I never did get enough of hot cakes and maple syrup any morning…

For Santa Rosans and other locals, the most popular resorts – or at least, the most often mentioned in the newspaper columns – were Camp Vacation, just across the river from Bohemian Grove, and Eaglenest, location of modern-day Rio Nido. The latter included bungalows and a true resort hotel, complete with a “box ball” bowling alley (a cross between a half-length 9 pin bowling lane and and a looooong coffee table, often found in arcades at the time – photo here). Besides four miles of beaches,  Camp Vacation offered tennis courts, and it’s worth noting that tennis and box ball bowling were among the few genteel sports where women could compete against men.

But maybe the best part of those months was having the entire lower river available as your personal playground. When passenger and freight trains weren’t scheduled, the railway used the tracks to offer a kind of trolley service using an ancient steam engine and open railway car recycled from the old timber days. Meeting your friends at a particular swimming hole by catching a ride on the “Coffee Grinder” –  which looked like an oversized toy, and puffed away at less than ten miles per hour – added to summer’s delight.

Even the James Wyatt Oates family joined the river stampede, in their own way. The couple escorted a couple of girls a family friend and her daughter to a 1909 house party at the home of Charles Rule in Jenner, where they visited at least once a year every summer or autumn.

This chapter of the resorts ended in late 1909, when the NWP line finally met the narrow gauge railway that came up the coast. After that the railroad began promoting the “Triangle Trip” Sunday excursion trains from San Francisco, a 150-mile ride with a little stopover at Monte Rio. A day out of the city sitting on trains while watching some nice scenery, then home for dinner. Oh, look, there’s a beach. Those trees look tall. Gee, I wish there was only some way I could stop thinking about work.

NEXT: Big Changes on the Russian River in 1910
 

NO PICNIC CROWDS
To Interfere With Regular Sunday Travel.

The California Northwestern Railway is making heavy preparations for handling next season’s business, and among other things will give special attention to its Sunday travel. The section which this road traverses is more than attractive for short Sunday trips, but many families fear to take them owing to the dread of coming in contact with Sunday picnics. While it is true this road has had no trouble on this score, it is determined to eliminate from the minds of the public all idea of this contact. Although the picnics up the road to Mirabel Park, etc., have in the past been kept separate from the regular travel, there will be none whatever this coming year, and those attending Schuetzen Park will be run on separate boats and trains. In the future, therefore, no one traveling on the California Northwestern Railway on Sundays will come in contact with Sunday picnics.

– SF Call, November 11, 1900

 

I hear that box ball in the bowling alley at Eaglenest has been a fascinating pastime for a number of our society women who have been spending a portion of their vacation there during the past few weeks. So interested did they become, some of them, in the sport, that quite a little good-natured rivalry was aroused as to who could make the highest score. I know one lady who made a record score, but social excommunication is threatened if the newspaper divulges the name. Some of the best players, however, are members of the Irene Club and some of them have been guests of Mrs. Charles A. Wright at her bungalow at Eaglenest.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, August 9, 1909

 

Colonel and Mrs. Oates, Mrs. Dorothy Farmer and Miss Hazel Farmer were included in a house party at Rule Ranch as the guests of Charles H. Rule. Colonel Oates will return the first of the week, but the ladies will remain for several days longer. The hospitality of Rule Ranch is always very cordial.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, September 19, 1909

 

CHANGE NAME OF STATION
Camp Vacation Will be Known as Rio Campo

Camp Vacation  as the name of a railroad station on the Northwestern Pacific is a thing of the past. In future the place will be known as Rio Campo and unless the name of the popular resport which was created by Lewis C. Cnopius is maintained, the name of Camp Vacation  will disappear forever. To the efforts of Mr. Cnopius and the late Mrs. Cnopius Camp Vacation  owes its great popularity as a resort and its wide reputation over the state.

With the changes that come and go. the railroad company has determined to call the station at the place Rio Campo, and with the completion of the bridge near that place there will be no other stops on this side of the river for the trains will continue their journey across the bridge and on down to Monte Rio.

With the coming summer season the loop completed by this bridge will make the redwoods section even more popular than it has been heretofore. Annually thousands of visitors spend their vacations in this delightful section.

The rails are laid on the Monte Rio side of the river, and everything is in readiness to connect the same when the officials give orders for the same.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 21, 1909

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