Walter Holloway probably didn’t believe his eyes that afternoon of January 3, 1905; there, in the middle of the street, was a group of men sawing away at the railroad tracks.

As a conductor on the steam-powered California Northwestern railway, Holloway would’ve known that there had been months of bickering between his company and owners of the electric trolley, who wanted to bring their own tracks into downtown Santa Rosa by crossing the steam railroad’s rails. Although California Northwestern was expecting trouble at the Sebastopol Avenue location, this rogue attack on a spur line recently built for the local brewery caught them unawares.

He alerted his bosses and a confrontation ensued. Then, as winter’s early darkness approached, the scene of the action switched to Sebastopol Avenue, where the electric line was trying to push a trolley car across the steam railroad’s double tracks. With much drama and the power of a horse and mule team, it was done just after midnight. The following day, the California Northwestern obtained a temporary injunction blocking any further attempts by the electric line to even touch any of the California Northwestern’s rails.

This was the first skirmish between the steam and electric railroads on the outskirts of downtown Santa Rosa. If you haven’t already read “The Battle of Sebastopol Avenue,” there you’ll find a summary of the big fight and other background. Also related is “The Generals of the Battle of Sebastopol Avenue,” and “The Battle(field) of Sebastopol Avenue,” which all provide further details.

The electric line — formally known as the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway — had broad support from Santa Rosa merchants and residents, and was already running trolleys to Petaluma via Sebastopol (and by the end of the year, to points beyond; see map at right). By 1905, similar electric interurban systems were operating throughout most American cosmopolitan areas, and a welcome change from the infamously erratic local public transit offered by horse-drawn cars. Santa Rosa was so eager for an electric system that city officials gave J. H. Brush, who bought out most of the town’s horse-drawn systems, a 50-year franchise on city transit. (Part of the legal fight was that California Northwestern argued that this no-bid contract was illegal.) His son, Frank Brush, was director of the P&SR electric railway, and was the middleman in the tug-of-war in the battle of Sebastopol Ave. That the trolley was running to Petaluma and points west also meant that it was competing with the California Northwestern, and if there was one certain rule in the old West, it was that the guy with the biggest pair of tracks would always win the fight.

The court order left everything in limbo. For two months, a traveler from Petaluma or Sebastopol could take the trolley up to the steam railroad tracks on Sebastopol Avenue, get out and walk across the tracks to the “Woodworth” trolley on the other side. This would shuttle passengers as far as Second Street, where it hit a dead-end at the brewery’s railroad tracks. From there it was a walk of a couple of blocks to the depot, or you could hike six blocks to the department stores and other shops around Courthouse Square. Instead of “mass transportation,” it was more of a “mass perambulation” punctuated by short streetcar rides.

Literally caught in the middle of this battle was Grace Brothers’ brewery, who simply wanted to efficiently get beer-making stuff into their plant and ship the finished brew out. Only a few months earlier, they had paid $311 to have this railroad spur installed; now, because the short stretch of track was included in the count order, some demanded the city rip out their tracks. A Jan. 10 City Council meeting briefly considered revoking their permit for the rail, but the electric line’s manager and director both came to their defense. Brewery head Joseph T. Grace — clearly not wanting to offend anyone, much less thirsty railroad workers — attested that he didn’t intend to interfere with the electric railway, or cause any trouble, any time.

Also caught in the middle was Sonoma County Sheriff Frank Grace, the brother in the name of Grace Brothers brewery. The much-respected lawman appears to have gone into hiding during the March fracas, except for posturing that he’d serve any warrants placed in his hand. That was actually probably the most politic thing for him to do; because of his personal financial and brotherly ties to the brewery and its controversial railroad spur, any action there — or even lack of action, if he were at the scene — might have been condemned as cheap self-interest.

Tying these events into Comstock House history, James Wyatt Oates was the lawyer for the electric railway. Attorney Thomas J. Geary appeared at the City Council meeting for the brewery (although he was also the local attorney for the California Northwestern) and when a speaker called for the brewery tracks to be torn up, the large audience at the Council meeting burst into applause. Geary sneered that they were no better than a mob. “Sonoma county’s Democratic boss” was ever the charmer.


Two Trains Run Across Siding — Would Not Permit Use of Rails So the Car Was Propelled Across on Planks — Telegram from President Foster

The first electric car entered the city of Santa Rosa at 12:15 o’clock this morning.

It did not come in propelled by electric power or gliding over steel rails. It crossed the California Northwestern track, the much disputed crossing, with its wheels traveling over stout planks and it was drawn by four horses and two mules with half a hundred men assisting. When its wheels rested on the rails on this side there was much cheering and the compressed air whistle was tooted merrily. In other words it was moved across the double track of the California Northwestern, much as an ordinary house would have been.

There was all kinds of excitement at the Sebastopol avenue crossing last night lasting from nine o’clock until the time named when the good car “Woodworth” rested like Noah’s ark this side and safe within the city. There the people began to thin out and the crowd, estimated when the excitement was at its height, at five hundred strong, dwindled away.

For some time it has been urged that the electric people should have a car on the Santa Rosa side of the Sebastopol avenue crossing so that passengers could be brought into town by that means. Consequently the company recently set to work, erected their poles, strung their trolley wire and had practically everything ready, but lacked the car. Last night the officials of the railroad decided that they would get a car across the steam railroad’s tracks at all hazards and this determinated induced the exciting incidents that followed.

The C. N. W. R. people had anticipated trouble of some kind so that when a couple of rails were laid across the double track of their road, not spiked, it took very few minutes for a couple of large engines, one on each track, to back up and successfully “cover” the crossing. Chief Engineer F. K. Zook of the C. N. W. R. and Superintendent of Construction Fairchild of the electric railroad were both on hand, each one to look out for his respective company’s interests. The cars came to a standstill directly across the crossing and nothing could be done.

In the mean time a large crowd had gathered and City Marshal Severson and a number of officers were on hand to prevent a breach of the peace. A hurried message was sent by phone to the City Hall to Street Commissioner White. A Press Democrat reporter happened to answer the phone. “Tell White,” the voice came over the phone, “to come to Sebastopol avenue crossing and order an obstruction moved.” The Street Commissioner hurried to the scene and courteously asked that the cars and engines “move on.”

Finally White [2 words illegible] to Chief Engineer Zook and asked permission to haul the car across the track. He was courteously told that the Chief Engineer was not there to give permission to anybody, but was there to prevent rails being laid and to look after his company’s interests. After some more talk a telegram was sent to President A. W. Foster of the C. N. W. R. and when a reply was received, Chief Engineer Zook ordered the trains to pull up a little so as to clear the crossing. Then permission was given to take the car across the tracks on planks but no rails would be permitted.

The planks were brought. The strong aggregation of horse and mule flesh was ordered from Lee Brothers’ stables. They were connected with the car by means of a stout chain and the slow work of piloting the car across the Sebastopol avenue crossing was commenced and finally, shortly after midnight as stated, the task was completed.

Once during the exciting episodes of the evening City Marshal Severson suggested to an official of the steam railroad that the cars must not be permitted to block Sebastopol avenue. The Marshal’s words seemed to meet with the approval of some in the assembled populace and they clamored that the City Marshal should use his authority as an officer and do some arresting. He was promised all kinds of help from the crowd even to the moving of the freight cars by force.

Anyhow the car has crossed the track and it is a matter of much significance, for as an official of the electric railroad said last night, “we want to run the electric car into Santa Rosa without further delay to the present terminus at the foot of Fourth street. And it was also stated last night that just as soon as possible the car “Woodworth” will be running up the street to the Court House, at least. The “Woodworth” in other words, will take the place of the free bus now being operated by the merchants and will run either between the California Northwestern depot and the present disputed crossing or between the latter point and the Court House.

The excitement, however, commenced yesterday afternoon when some of the employees of the electric railroad swooped down on the California Northwestern switch track which runs into Grace Brothers Brewery. Then with the regulation instruments for such work they commenced to cut the steam road’s rails for the purpose of putting in a phlange-way to allow cars to cross the rails having previously laid on either side of the switch.

The cutting of the rails had been in progress several minutes when Conductor Holloway of the Sebastopol train noticed what was transpiring. Railroad Supervisor Barrows was speedily called to the scene and he notified the Superintendent of Construction Fairchild of the electric road that the cutting of the rails must stop. The work continued, however, and then Supervisor Barrows ordered Engineer Donnolly to back some freight cars across the crossing to “protect the company’s property.”

[5 words illegible] the work did not stop. The switch is on an angle so that it was impossible to have wheels resting on both rails at once. Consequently while the car wheels was covering and protecting one rail the man with the steel cutter hacked away at the unprotected rail. When the cars were moved to and fro the electric railroad’s man plied their work as best they could. This did not last long and then the men were called off leaving one rail almost cut through and the other partially so.

Soon a small army of railroad section men arrived and at the order of Mr. Barrows they quickly filled up the holes that had been dug and the incident terminated for the time being. Section men were left to guard the place, all night, however, and at the hour of going to press were still on watch.

The news of what was transpiring spread like wildfire through the city and a large crowd quickly gathered. The movements of the men of both roads were watched with keen interest and there were many suggestions and predictions vouchsafed.

At the Council meeting last night Attorney L. E. Rankin of the Petaluma & Santa Rosa railroad addressed the Council and recalled incidents of the afternoon.

“All that we ask,” said Rankin, addressing the Council, “is that you instruct the Street Commissioner to keep the railroad from being blockaded. Under the franchise we hold this is all we ask.”


– Press Democrat, January 4, 1905


The “Woodworth” Commenced its Trips Between Second Street and Sebastopol Avenue Yesterday

The electric car “Woodworth” commenced making trips from Sebastopol avenue to Second street at noon on Saturday, and will continue to do so right along now. Today the car will run every few minutes. A motorman and conductor are in charge of the car and no fares are collected from passengers to and from the main system on the other side of Sebastopol avenue for Sebastopol and way stations to Petaluma. Thus the car is reached a little over a block from Fourth street.

The new bridge was used for the first time on Saturday afternoon when the “Woodworth” passed over on its initial trip. It is the intention of the railroad company to take off the free bus now that the cars run within a little over a block of Fourth street.

– Press Democrat, January 9, 1905

The electric trolley wire is in place at the crossing of the California Northwestern’s line, although the track for the electric road is not yet laid there. It has already been demonstrated that the California Northwestern people, from President down, are interested to see that the electric line does its work in accordance with the established rules at the place where they wish to cross the steam road; and that the inter-urban road assumes and aquires no privileges to which it is not entitled.

Actuated by this interest on behalf of his employer, the foreman of a Northwestern section gang yesterday, it is said, indertook to measure the height of the trolley wire, presumably to ascertain whether it was sufficiently elevated to let the locomotive pass under. So he threw a metal-ribbed tape-line over the trolley, and then reached out to draw it taut. But he didn’t draw.

There’s a pretty high voltage in that trolley, and the juice just slid through that metal tape, and into the foreman’s mortal part, and tied him into knots. He gave a most excellent performance of the “muscle dance” for a few brief minutes which would doubtless have lasted longer, had not his gyrations carried him so far that the tape slid from the trolley wire, and the circuit was broken.

The foreman breathed hard for a few minutes and then rolled up and pocketed his tape, refusing all calls for an encore of his dance. Doubtless he decree that if the Northwestern wants the elevation of that trolley, it will have to be taken by triangulation.

– Press Democrat, January 11, 1905

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Like all good war stories, there’s more than one way to tell this tale. You can spin it as a David and Goliath confrontation between plucky local entrepreneurs and big railroad interests, or you can see it simply as an excuse for rival rail gangs to mix it up in a good ol’ brawl (that interpretation seems to be a favorite among railroad history buffs). But there’s also the perspective that Santa Rosa and Sonoma County transportation issues were the least part of the story — that this was really a proxy war between one of the West’s oldest and most hated monopolies and early Twentieth Century economic and political progressive forces seeking to weaken its grip on the state.

A. W. Foster, president of the California Northwestern, was the railroad baron of the North Bay for over a decade, owning all or part of railroads from Sausalito to Duncans Mills to Willits. He provoked this confrontation by claiming that the electric line had no legal right to cross his tracks, even though that crossing’s location would be made on a public street, and had Santa Rosa’s enthusiastic approval. What he did next would make his name infamous. While the matter was sitting in the courts, a spectacular secret weapon was made just for the battle to come: four train engines retrofitted with nozzles on the front that could blast steam on anyone in the way. With that stunt, Foster crossed the line from an aggrieved businessman to become something like a James Bond supervillain — building siege locomotives is hardly the way to win a nice writeup in the history books. There was even an extra evil-ish twist to his doings: Foster no longer owned the railroad that it appeared he was prepared to kill or maim for — he’d sold it to Southern Pacific in 1902, and was just staying on as president in the interim. (More on Foster can be found in a 1993 Gaye LeBaron column, available in the SSU archives as a PDF.)

That Southern Pacific was the actual owner of the steam railroad line may be the key to understanding the true issues behind the conflict. The electric Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway was founded a year after SP bought the steam railroad, and with money from the San Francisco-based Spreckels group. On the P&SR board was Rudolph Spreckels, who had inherited a deep hatred of the Southern Pacific from his father, “Sugar King” Claus Spreckels. Dad was instrumental in bringing Southern Pacific’s main competitor, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, to the San Francisco Bay area. Rudolph was hard to pigeonhole; less a driven businessman than a reformer and progressive activist who happened to control a great fortune. He personally underwrote the investigation and prosecution of corrupt San Francisco officials after the 1906 earthquake, and true to form, wanted prosecutors to go after Southern Pacific’s top lawyer, who was viewed at the time as the most powerful man in California because he had many state and local politicans in his pocket (a good book on the graft investigations can be downloaded from Google). Rudolph Spreckels waged many other battles against Southern Pacific in the years following, virtually making harassment of the railroad a side career.

(Here’s a Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not aside on Rudolph Spreckels: The man had the worst damned luck with his mansions. Just about a year before this, on March 19, 1904, his grand home in the Sonoma Valley burned to the ground. And just about a year after this, the San Francisco earthquake destroyed his mansion there. Behind privacy screens set up on the lawn, his wife gave birth to their daughter, even as the family was waiting for the dynamite squad to demolish their palatial digs.)

Knowing Spreckels’ combined animus of Southern Pacific and willingness to engage in confrontation invites intriguing questions over who really provoked the showdown. When earlier Foster had refused permission for the electric line to cross the tracks, he said that the trolley was welcome to build a crossing under or over Sebastopol Avenue — a proposal that was dismissed out of hand as being too expensive. But that wasn’t true, given the immense wealth that Spreckels brought to the party, not to mention his family’s record of easily raising vast amounts of investment capital for railway projects. Given the will and the city’s permission, a Sebastopol Avenue overpass probably could have been operable in a few short weeks. Or for that matter, it might have been possible find a spot to cross the steam railroad tracks that would have been agreeable to Foster; if the electric line had detoured to W. Third St. at some point further west, they could have crossed at the California Northwestern/SP branch leading to Sebastopol, and not the all-important main north/south tracks for the entire steam railroad. The trolley could have then reached the depot via a bridge over the creek at Fifth St. — see map in “The Battle(field) of Sebastopol Avenue“.

Then there was the issue of crossing the Grace Brothers’ spur. There were at least two nearby bridges over the creek that the trolley could have used and avoided this additional confrontation with Southern Pacific. But reading the accounts reprinted here, it appears that supporters of the electric railway were really looking for an excuse to destroy the brewery’s little stretch of track, despite General Manager Joseph T. Grace’s repeated insistence that the trolley folks could do whatever they wanted. Maybe the public was irrationally lashing out at anyone presenting any sort of obstacle to the electric, or maybe these were deeper political waters than are apparent today — Prohibition was right around the corner, remember. Who were the “agitators…brought on by outside interference” that Grace complained about in the item below? Perhaps the confrontation drew a mix of Spreckels’ progressive supporters from San Francisco, happy for an opportunity to needle Southern Pacific, and temperance activists, hoping to choke the supply/delivery bottleneck for a brewery.

(Photo to the right: One of two poor-quality pictures that appeared in the Press Democrat, March 4, 1905.)

But what of A. W. Foster? Has history given him a bum rap as the supervillain? Foster may well have viewed the efforts to cross “his” rail lines as a challenge to his legacy before he retired from railroading the following year, but he insisted in the run up to the battle that he was fighting for the cause of safety. That may seem like feeble excuse-peddling today, but the electric train acknowledged this really was an issue once the trolley began to cross the tracks: “When a car approaches the crossing the conductor runs ahead and if there is no steam train in sight he waves to the motorman to go ahead” (Press Democrat, Mar. 3). We learn why from a May 23 a city council item: the the rail crossing was almost three feet higher than the grade of Sebastopol Avenue, and was considered hazardous; the Street Commissioner then suggested that the town should have California Northwestern lower their tracks.

The other half of Foster’s safety argument was that the trolley line was welcome to either build a bridge over the Sebastopol Ave. double track or dig an underpass beneath — again, it sounded like the old man was just being obstinate. But Foster was responsible for all north coast rail to the San Francisco Bay area, and suddenly there appeared workers of unknown skill sawing through the rails and intending to install a homemade section of train tracks on a critical section of the route. If this were your responsibility, wouldn’t you be alarmed at the danger this presented?

When Foster finally personally showed up at the March confrontation, he insisted the railroad didn’t want trouble. His appearance on stage with 150 “big husky fellows” sounds undeniably thuggish, but appears to have been a clever ruse: Only a glimpse of some men — and presumably, from just one side of the train — were seen before the windows were covered. The most detailed version appeared in the Republican: “The windows of the other coach containing the ‘fighting men’ were pulled down, and no glimpse could be gained into that coach. That it was filled with men was apparent, for before coming to a standstill and having the blinds pulled down according to orders there were heads sticking out of every window in the coach….”

Instead of a legion of thugs, Foster brought forth only a silent pair of Marin County junior sheriffs to back him up. Then he made a speech threatening to arrest everyone including the local cops and the missing Sheriff Grace, waved a telegram revealing that he had actually lost the fight the courts, ordered the trains to back off, and by the way, declared that he loved Sonoma County so much that planned to retire here. It was a remarkable surrender and anti-climax.

Analyzed together like this, Foster’s actions seem decidedly undemonic, and well-deserving of a positive historical view. That is, if it wasn’t for the Killer Locomotives.

Foster’s name is forever linked to the use of steam train engines outfitted as “war machines,” and as the contemporary reports attest, it was a remarkable Thing To See. But were the rigged-up locomotives actually deadly, or even very dangerous? Obviously not; there were no injuries reported. When the Petaluma & Santa Rosa director Frank Brush threw himself on the track, “[his] head was directly in line with this steam, and the position becoming unbearable, he finally got up from the ground.” Unfazed was the crew closest to the discharge: “…the workmen of the electric railroad were unmindful of the steam, and worked ahead in the blinding steam as if nothing had happened.”

If this had been the the high-pressure, superheated steam direct from the boiler, Director Brush would have had been killed or had the flesh of his face peeled off his skull. The workmen would have been burned horribly through their clothes. In short, whether the steam was intended to be lethal or not, it was ultimately only a deterrent to frighten and harass.

(No historic train aficionado am I, but it appears that there were at least a couple of ways that a locomotive of that era could be retrofitted to temporarily produce the stagecraft of a really menacing cloud of steam as described. The easiest way was likely to divert from the steam manifold, which heated the cabins in cold weather and also provided the toot for the whistle. Another candidate would be using some of the low-pressure steam from the cylinder exhaust. Whatever really happened, it appears that loud and scary — yet relatively safe — blasts of steam could have been produced without extensive modifications.)

And what was Southern Pacific’s role in all these doings? Telegrams were undoubtedly flying fast and frequent between them and Foster. It’s interesting that he was immediately handed a telegram as his private car arrived in Santa Rosa, when the Republican’s reporter overheard him say, “Tell them no.” (It should be noted that the Press Democrat stated that this was the telegram notifying him that the railroad had lost in court, but Foster certainly must have known that before boarding the train to Santa Rosa.)

Enhanced detail from a snapshot of “The Battle of Sebastopol Avenue,” March 1, 1905. Five workers from the California Northwestern are shown standing on a flat car and shoveling dirt and gravel on electric line workers below. The man second from right appears to be aiming a sprayer attached to a hose, which is not mentioned in either contemporary newspaper account.

Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s safe to presume that Southern Pacific wanted the crossing defended at any cost. The most hard line statement actually came not from Foster, but from California Northwestern general manager James L. Frazier. Only an overpass or tunnel would be acceptable, he told the Republican, and “…he further stated that it would be only a question of time when all states would adopt legislation compelling this in railroad circles. He stated it had already been done in some eastern states.” That may have been true or no (surely there’s a rail history buff that knows the answer to this trivia question), but it’s doubtful that a regional general manager dreamed up this claim. Far more likely he was parroting a Southern Pacific policy; interurban systems were popping up in towns across the country, and the company had much to lose when precedents were set.

Note also that while Foster threw plenty of obstacles in the way to stop or slow the electric railway, he pounded no war drums. All of his statements — the public ones, anyway — had a complete lack of bluster, along with the apologetic tone of someone who felt pressured to do something unpleasant. In his two telegrams (transcribed below) and speech in Santa Rosa, Foster declared that cutting through the railroad tracks was dangerous and illegal, the electric railway was waging a dishonorable PR war against his railway, and Santa Rosa’s reputation would suffer if anyone ended up injured or dead.

So does Mr. A. W. Foster merit a gentler historical appraisal? Probably yes, particularly if it can ever be shown that he didn’t intend for the tricked-out locomotives to be vengeful, potentially lethal payback for California Northwestern losing its monopoly (and particularly if there’s evidence that Southern Pacific, not Foster, was behind the scheme). All of his other actions were benign, even cautious. But unless a trove of original documents surface, we really can only make educated guesses as to his intent; just maybe the worst interpretation was true, and he was really headed to Santa Rosa to find out why there were no casualties from the steam weapons and/or to lead an out-and-out assault by stevedores against the locals. Or for that matter, we have no idea whether the telegram he received as he stepped off the train was sent by Southern Pacific, the court, or even related to the matter at hand; it might even have been from his nine kids back at the sprawling family manse outside of San Rafael, begging Pops to pick up some ice cream before heading home from the mayhem.

A final note of interest is the closing line of the Santa Rosa Republican’s feature: “The King of France marched his men up the hill and down again.” The writer’s intent was to mock Foster with the line from the old nursery rhyme about an ineffectual general. But the verse was more appropriate than they knew; it actually referred to a 14th century showdown between England and France, where British archers using the powerful Welsh longbow kept French calvary from advancing. It was a classic example of new technology trumping the old; a fine metaphor for the 20th century lighter, nimble, electric trains besting that old steam-belching iron horse.


The Battle of Sebastopol Avenue

Prelude to the Battle of Sebastopol Avenue

The Battle(field) of Sebastopol Avenue


The following telegram was received from President A. W. Foster at an early hour this morning:

To the Editor of the Press Democrat and the people of Santa Rosa:

I regret to learn of the unseemly and unlawful conduct of the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railway Company. I am satisfied the thinking people of your city are law-abiding citizens and will not countenance such proceedings. If any innocent party be injured as a result of their action the good name of your community will suffer. We ask nothing but fair play. Your community should know that they have invoked the aid of the court and that they have been delaying action thereon for the purpose of creating an unfair public sentiment against our company. Such action is cowardly, to say the least, and does not reflect credit on their corporation.

Apologizing for trespassing on your space, I remain sincerely yours, A. W. Foster

– Press Democrat, January 4, 1905

In view of the ill advised action of the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway Company people we cannot afford to yield to force and regret that any of the people of Santa Rosa should fail to recognize in our effort to resist vandalism that we are only protecting our property until the court passes upon question involved. Their conduct justifies us in exposing the invalidity of their franchise and consequently their lack of right to occupy the streets of Santa Rosa. They have understood our position since the first of August last and should have taken steps to legalize their own.

– A. W. Foster telegram, January 4, 1905, to general manager Frazier of the California Northwestern, reprinted in both newspapers

“If some of the outsiders who are trying so hard to run things for the new electric road will just confine their attention to their own affairs for a few days,” said General Manager Joseph T. Grace of the local brewery last night while discussing the switch proposition. “Things will straighten themselves out very nicely. Most of the new road’s troubles have been brought on by outside interference,” he added, ‘and it is about time for it to stop.”


Another well-known citizen gave expression to an opinion pretty much along the same line as Mr. Grace yesterday when he said: “Very little of the talk that has been heard on the streets recently has come from the electric people. It is all outsiders who have been stirring up all the fuss. I have noticed that whenever the electric people have wanted anything here in the way of franchises or anything else and have come up here and said so, they have got it, and simply for the asking. The street talkers who keep themselves so busy stirring up trouble and making and making people mad are only hindering the completion of the [electric railway].”

– Press Democrat, January 12, 1905

Our morning contemporary, in publishing a letter from Manager Bowen of the electric railroad to Joseph Grace, concerning the dispute over the spur track crossing on second street, takes an unseemly fling at what is pleased to term “agitators” meaning the gentlemen who appeared Tuesday night at the meeting of the council to ask that the council take some action with reference to the spur. If men who stand for legitimate public improvements, who pay taxes regularly, who wish to see the city progress, and who are earnestly striving to do what, from their point of view appears right and just are “agitators,” then let’s have a whole town full of “agitators.” Indeed, in that company of gentlemen who attended the council meeting were some of the leading business men of Santa Rosa. They are sane, sensible citizens and would not have appeared unless they believed their cause just. Sneers at such manifestations of public spirit do no good and should be rebuked. Surely this is a free country and men may possess convictions and state them, too, without being called names by newspapers.

– Santa Rosa Republican editorial, January 12, 1905

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Want to visit the scene of “The battle of Sebastopol Avenue?” Sorry — it’s completely gone. Yes, the train tracks still cross Sebastopol Ave; yes, you can stand on the exact spot where the steam locomotives equipped with special jets “shot scalding steam and hot water right into the crowd of workers,” and where men from the rival railroads engaged in a tug-of-war with the body of the electric railway’s director. But while the location remains, the place has vanished. Few other parts of turn-of-the-century Santa Rosa has been so inexorably wiped out as these four blocks directly west of Highway 101, between the Hwy. 12/Sebastopol exit and the 3rd St./Downtown exit.

(By the way: Have you already read “The Battle of Sebastopol Avenue” and “Prelude to the Battle of Sebastopol Avenue?”)

The map to the right below shows what it looked like in late 1904. Streets were laid out in a classic grid. Third Street and a few others had a “W” added in front of the name after they crossed the railroad tracks, yet the streets were nonetheless contiguous; you could walk, bike, or drive a buggy the full length of any of these streets without detour. The south side of downtown was defined by Santa Rosa Creek, shown here in bubbly blue. Three bridges crossed the broad creek and connected the shopping and business district to Sebastopol Avenue — six, if you counted the new bridge for the trolley (not shown here), the steam railroad’s bridge, and the bridge seen at far right, which joined Sonoma Ave. to S. Main Street. In sum, it was a small town with something like a modest river running through it, and everything was within easy walking distance.

Contrast that to a modern map of the same area. The impressive waterway is now a trickle of the “Santa Rosa Flood Control Channel.” Except for Third, all the east-west streets are chopped in half, both by Highway 101 and the shopping mall. Between downtown and Sebastopol Avenue, Highway 12 further wiped out two of the three bridges. Sebastopol Ave. suffered the worst, with its east and west sides split wide apart by the Hwy 101/Hwy 12 interchange.

Today, a 1905 Santa Rosan who wanted to visit the scene of the battle, wouldn’t recognize a single thing. The only possible route from downtown crosses the Railroad/Olive St. bridge, which probably wasn’t a pedestrian bridge when it was built in 1904. Someone now can walk along the new Prince Memorial Greenway for the start of the journey — wonderful it may be now, but that didn’t exist in that day, either. Our 1905 visitor likely would be uncomfortable passing under Highway 12 on Olive Street; with the two-story berm beneath the roadway blocking everything to the east, it is like being inside a tunnel. The Sebastopol Avenue that emerges on the other side is forlorn, a concrete gray no-man’s-land. Never can you imagine this grim blast zone being once a vital part of downtown, alive with comings and goings. The City of Santa Rosa owes the Roseland community reparations for what has been done at this place.

A footnote: this posting on the geography of the “battle” originated as a series of notes and map doodles intended for personal use to work out what happened where and when. But as I read modern-day retellings of the story, I found confusion abounds. Some descriptions suggest there was only one scene of confrontation, merging the crossing on Sebastopol Ave. with the crossing at the brewery spur a few blocks north. Another frequent mistake is placing the brewery close to the location of today’s Chevy’s restaurant; in truth, the brewery was exactly where the Hyatt now stands. The December, 1904 Sanborn map shown at right also has an error; no Railroad/Olive St. electric railway bridge is shown, probably because it was too new — the Oct. 25, 1904 Press Democrat mentions that workers were starting to build the bridge that week. The PD noted on Jan. 9 1905 that “the new bridge was used for the first time” when the trolley began running from Sebastopol Ave. to Second St.

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