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.
EXCITING SCENES AT THE SEBASTOPOL AVENUE RAILROAD CROSSING LAST NIGHT
FIRST ELECTRIC CAR ARRIVES DESPITE OBSTRUCTIONSHUNDREDS OF PEOPLE GATHER AT THE SCENE AND UNTIL AFTER MIDNIGHT THE EXCITEMENT WAS KEPT UPTwo 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
CAR NOW RUNS TO SECOND STREET
FOUR BLOCKS SAVED IN WALK FROM FOURTH STREET TO ELECTRIC RAILROAD
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
RAILWAY MAN DOES THE “MUSCLE DANCE”
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