Rules to live by: Never eat anything bigger than your head. Never shoot pool at a place called Pop’s. Never eat food at a place called Mom’s. To that list let me add: Never, ever, trust a doodlebug.1

During the first half of the 20th century, pretty much everyone knew a doodlebug was a fellow who had a device that could supposedly find oil underground (it’s also been the name for a motorscooter, a go kart-type midget race car and several different insects). Sometimes it was what they called the contraption instead, making the operator a doodlebugger.

Gentle Reader has already met a doodlebug: John W. Frank, the General Manager of the 1908-1910 attempts to strike oil near Petaluma. We don’t know whether he tried to use an oil-finding gizmo here but after Frank left Sonoma County he went to Canada, where he said he had invented just such a device. A 1913 British Columbia mining newsletter described how he scammed two different groups of investors and then found himself pushed out when rival grifters made a better sales pitch:

…Failing at Vancouver Island, Frank came to Vancouver, interested W. Innes Paterson and others in his scheme, went out to Pitt Meadows and located the site for the first well. Frank and the company then had a difference, and another pair of wizards were located…who claimed to have in the “mineometer” a machine that would lick Frank’s machine hollow. These gentlemen appeared on the scene and the work done at the Paterson well has since been based on this instrument. Its record here, however, has shown it to be as big a liar as Frank’s machine.

None of these wacky devices could find oil (of course) and when asked how they worked, the operators usually begged off by mumbling it was a secret or because it was patented or patent pending. Reporters sometimes coaxed a doodlebug into spouting mumbo-jumbo about mixing a compound or discovering a stone which had an affinity with petroleum deposits hundreds or thousands of feet below, such as a guy in 1919 who explained, “all mineral substances give off certain rays which [react] when connecting with a sufficiently sensitive and ‘sympathetic’ substance'”.

Over time the detecting machines grew increasingly elaborate. Early descriptions mentioned wooden boxes concealing an “oil magnet,” or pendulums with something sloshing around inside which supposedly reacted to gravitational shifts. In the 1920s the business was modernized; the old magnets were replaced with electromagnets and the pendulums became more like clockworks, using counterweights and sometimes a proprietary German-made chemical. Bells and whistles were added to impress the gullible, and one of the best account I’ve found involved a doodlebug who popped up west of Petaluma.

Owen Durham, who was a well-known figure in Petaluma’s poultry history (the Petaluma Co-operative Hatchery started in his barn) had an earlier career as an oilfield roughneck in Texas and South America, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when neighbors wanted him to drill a test well. They didn’t find oil, but a bio written by his son described what happened:2

In the early spring of ’36 he was approached by some entrapreneurs who wanted to hire him to drill an oil well. It would go down a couple of miles further out on Bodega Avenue, close to a little settlement known as Two Rock. The financiers had been pulled into the project by a huckster with a doodle bug; a short, bald man with a bulb nose and pursed lips who wore khaki clothes. His conman paraphernalia was built into the dashboard of his model T. He’d stoked their enthusiasm up to a fever pitch. He’d lured them into taking an oil well gamble. His dashboard was lined with a bell, flashing lights, gauges, and switches. From various flashes, ringing sounds, and moving arrows inside the gauges, the huckster derived all kinds of positive information. The model T was parked over a colossal underground lake of oil.

Stroll through online newspaper archives with an eye out for doodlebugs and prepare to stumble over crazy stories like that regularly. In 1952 the Argus-Courier ran a wire service item about a couple of guys who used army surplus radio tuners worth about $3.50 to scam a Denver businessman out of $50k. (They claimed to have found it inside a flying saucer from Venus that had crashed along with the bodies of 34 child-sized aliens, which makes the story ever so much more believable.) A doodlebug in Sherman Oaks said a burglar had stolen a machine he invented; he described it to police as looking like a cash register with a row of dials on the back. Oh, and be careful, should they find it – he boobytrapped it with dynamite caps to explode if tampered with.

goldmeterDoodlebug inventors were latecomers to the fortune hunting game. Before petroleum became so sought after, conmen were saying they had gadgets that could find metals, precious or otherwise. The ad shown at right appeared in East Coast newspapers when the California Gold Rush was taking off; the “goldometer” cost $3.00. The Press Democrat in 1935 reported someone in Hayward announced he had located the buried treasure of legendary bandit Joaquin Murrieta but had yet to start digging, for reasons unexplained. Trying to find investors first?

And before he became an “oil locator” at Petaluma, John W. Frank was in the 1905 newspapers (including the Petaluma Morning Courier) for claiming to find the Pacific Mail steamer Rio de Janeiro, which sank about a mile outside the Golden Gate four years earlier. The cargo was supposedly worth $1+ million and included $80k in gold. He told reporters he had invented a water depth sounding device (the earliest crude experiments with sonar were still several years in the future) and his newly formed company, the Mineral Discovery Co. of San Francisco, had used it to locate the wreck. Before starting salvage ops, however, they would like to sell $75,000 in stock, please. Spoiler alert: Nothing more appeared about the company and the Rio de Janeiro has never been found.

Before and after all those elaborate gadgets became popularized as the “scientific” way to find stuff underground or underwater, there were legions of people who believed they could do the same things just by holding a stick or a simple pendulum. In other words: Dowsers.

The notion that some folks have a special power called “radiesthesia” goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages (this short video covers its history and also why it’s hokum) and is variously explained away as having heightened sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field, radiation, mysterious and undetectable energy patterns, “vibrational frequencies” or being a plain old Divine Gift.

There’s no bonafide survey on how many Americans believe in dowsing (at least, that I can find) but there are internet opinion polls that suggest we’re pretty equally divided as to whether or not it works. That seems plausible to me; it seems nearly everyone or a friend had an Uncle Dave who infallibly found water by walking around with a forked stick. Naturally, he was wed to Aunt Sue, who could predict the gender of a fetus by waving a pendulum over the expectant mother. Yet those family tales never seemed to include how many times Dave’s water-witching was wrong/unproven, or when Sue’s predicted boy wasn’t.

Nor is it often mentioned when dowsers make a swing and miss on a really bonkers claim, such as trying to find missing persons or diagnose diseases. There was a famed mid-century dowser named Henry Gross who boasted of being able to locate aquifers hundreds of miles away by waving his dowsing rod over a map. Likewise in 1942, the Nazis tried to detect Allied battleships in the North Atlantic by holding a pendulum over a map.

In more recent times Sonoma County has continued to embrace doodlebugging and divination. At the Santa Rosa Health and Harmony festivals during the 1990s there was always a wide selection of crystal pendulums for sale and at least one vendor would take a Polaroid photo of your aura. Government workers were also at the ready to provide inexplicable services. The County Farm Advisor dowsed for many land owners in the 1950s and according to a May 9, 1988 story in the Press Democrat, the Santa Rosa water dept. trucks still always carried L-shaped brass welding rods so the six employees designated as “water witches” could locate pipes beneath the streets.

Whether or not someone believed any of that was the Real Deal might have depended on what local newspaper you read. Over the last fifty years the Argus-Courier rarely mentioned dowsing; the exception was a 1976 column in Bill Soberanes’ wonderful series, “My Fascinating World of People,” where he profiled a dowser and “pyramidologist.” The photogenic Soberanes sat inside a little pyramid frame with his subject and learned many amazing things, such as how a lock of hair can lead a dowser to find the noggin from whence it came. And that wasn’t all: “Bill Cox also said that the human mind could be the answer to space travel. Today there is no form of energy that could transport us to other galaxies, in less than billions of years. The untapped power of the human mind could transport us through the power of disintegration and then reassemble us when we reach our destination.”

By contrast, during the same time the PD has printed many news stories on dowsing, both written locally and reprints from elsewhere. Often these were front page features, with the most recent appearing in 2021.

Dowsers could count on the credulous newspaper to accept their success stories without verification and advance their pseudoscience theories as to how it works. In a 1977 article a local dowser said, “One out of nine human bodies has enough positive charge in their bodies that it sets up a magnetic field. The rod is merely the antenna to pick up the attraction, a negative charge believed to have been generated by water moving under ground and building up static electricity.” In the same piece, geologists are criticized for being “hidebound by their theories.” (My favorite part of that story is a dowser remarking, “Say the well is 100 feet – it’ll go up and down 100 times and shiver each time before it starts again.” Apparently water is unfamiliar with the metric system.)

And while it didn’t quite rise to old-fashioned doodlebuggery, the PD reported in 1993 a Sonoma County entrepreneur had invented a chemical to inject into grape vines and kill the dreaded phylloxera. Trouble was, he refused to reveal what was in it so viticultural experts wouldn’t deal with him. A Sonoma man had better luck and was charging grape growers $30/hr to wave his dowsing rods in their vineyards and detect which vines had insufficient energy that made them susceptible to infection by the louse. If found to be poorly, he would sell them a wire “French coil” to wrap around the “invisible section of the vine where energy enters the plant.” Each one cost four or five bucks, according to the PD.

Natural Gas magazine, September 1922
Natural Gas magazine, September 1922

1 The first part comes from B. Kliban’s cartoon collection “Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head & Other Drawings” and the following two rules were added by screenwriter Stanley Weiser in his 1987 movie “Wall Street.” And yes, I, too, am surprised I felt compelled to document this.

2 From Kittyhawk to the Moon: The Life, Times and Heritage of a Texas Oilman; W. O. Durham, 2007; pg. 406

Read More



It took Santa Rosa awhile to realize it was under attack, but a no-holds-barred war was being waged against it by the man in the mansion on the grand boulevard.

You could say the conflict began in May 1893, when voters approved a bond to build a water plant. At the time Santa Rosa was getting its water from a private company owned by Mark L. McDonald; the water came from Lake Ralphine, which the Board of Health said was so fetid that his company was “criminally negligent and indifferent to our welfare as a city.” McDonald offered to sell his waterworks to the city at such a ridiculously inflated price it would be cheaper to start from scratch, even though it meant laying another set of water mains beneath every street. All of those doings were covered in “THE McDONALDS vs SANTA ROSA.”

Stepping up to buy Santa Rosa’s bonds was Robert Effey, a modest investor who happened to be mayor of Santa Cruz. While deciding whether to put the water bond on the ballot, Santa Rosa’s mayor and city attorney had visited that town’s very successful municipal water plant and met him. He offered to buy our bond for $161,000, being the lowest of only two bidders.1

A few days later, a lawsuit seeking to block Santa Rosa from making a deal with Effey was filed by a retired farmer named John D. Cooper. Most unusual about the case was that besides the city, he also sued the City Council as individuals plus the city clerk.2

Another suit to stop the city’s deal with Effey followed shortly. This time a retired rancher named John M. Jones was upset because construction plans had been updated since the bond measure passed. Mr. Jones likewise sued the city and Council members personally.

That was hardly the end of the anti-waterworks lawyering. Less than a month later, William Guisbert Skinner went after the city, the Council, the assessor, treasurer, and tax collector along with Robert Effey. His gripe was the terms of the bond had been slightly changed, and the city was increasing property taxes by 25¢ per $100 to pay for the bonds – although they hadn’t actually been yet sold. (As further explained below, the bond sale was delayed by both these lawsuits and the nation’s economic problems.)

Three different lawsuits over about six weeks is a lot of suin’ for little Santa Rosa. Who were these guys who were so upset about construction of a water plant they wanted to drag everyone into court? It appeared they must be well off, as they were represented by some of the top legal talent in the county: A. B. Ware, Calvin S. Farquar and the infamous Gil P. Hall.3

But Cooper, Jones and Skinner were hardly wealthy Sonoma County movers and shakers; one has to scour the old newspapers to find any mention of them at all, and then it was almost always for some small scale real estate transaction. There can be little doubt, however, they were acting as part of a coordinated attack on building the waterworks by the “Tax Payers’ Protective Union.”

The supposed grassroots organization was formed at the time of the Cooper suit but few members were ever named (usually just A. P. Overton, H. W. Byington and A. B. Ware). The Democrat wrote only it was “composed of well-known and reputable citizens of Santa Rosa” and “members comprise many of the heaviest taxpayers in this city.” Judging from signatures on a later petition, my guess is there were under fifty members, split between the investor class and elderly anti-tax cranks like our litigious trio. Skinner, by the way, didn’t even own property in Santa Rosa, although his suit was the one to complain about the increase in property taxes.

The Taxpayers’ placed an ad in the Democrat to trumpet their manifesto, which is a Thing to Read. It painted the City Council as recklessly draining the city treasury on “official extravagance” such as testing the safety of well water and buying a rock-crusher for street gravel, the Council meanwhile conspiring with Effey to screw over taxpayers because there was no intention to actually sell bonds or build the waterworks. Nice to know (I guess) a faction of our ancestors were just as paranoid and irrational as some wacky loudmouths today.

A later item in the Democrat reprinted a Taxpayers’ resolution revealing the group’s single real objective – demanding the city buy McDonald’s water company. Among their points was that “a water system supplied by gravitation” (meaning a higher source of surface water such as Lake Ralphine, not a water tower) is always better than using water pumped from the ground. Also, the city was to be blamed for “factional strife and expensive litigation” because they hadn’t made a deal with McDonald to take over his service and pay for long overdue upgrades and maintenance. Some brain-busting logic, there.

At this point Gentle Reader might be pondering whether Mark McDonald had something to do with the Taxpayers’ Union – and was he also paying for the lawyers in those many lawsuits?

We get a peek behind the curtain after attorney Farquar filed a lawsuit because he believed he had been shortchanged for his services. But he didn’t sue the litigant he represented: He sued Mark McDonald. The response from McDonald was that the lawyer was mistaken; legal bills were being paid by the Taxpayers’ Union, and Mark knew this because he said he had the receipts – which revealed he had control over their bank account.

This is an important (yet neglected) chapter in Santa Rosa’s history. It’s somewhat tricky to tell, in part because it sprawls over a decade. Also making research difficult: A question raised in a lawsuit sometimes wasn’t resolved until a court hearing for another suit years later; there were six different suits and some were so entangled with each other it can be unclear whether the plaintiff’s original complaint was modified, merged, minimized or dropped entirely. There’s enough material here to write a book but I advise any future scribe to keep a bottle of aspirin handy. Maybe a bottle of scotch as well. Maybe two.

Historians face a further obstacle because newspaper coverage was unusually slanted. Most of the events in and out of the courtrooms were covered only by the Democrat, and the problem wasn’t just that the paper showed heavy editorial bias (which it absolutely did, favoring the McDonald faction) but that it also selectively reported what was happening at City Council meetings. As a result, the overall picture is simply impossible to understand from reading the newspapers alone, making some key actions by the Council seem impulsive and reckless. Fortunately, we now have available thorough coverage of what was said at those meetings to fill in blanks. 4

The last big piece of the puzzle was the national recession, which is discussed in the section below. The banking world had turned upside down in the months between the bond vote and when the city was ready to actually sell those bonds. At one point the city found itself in the odd position of having to rewrite ordinances because there was no longer an agreement on what constituted “legal tender.” The economic system was in complete disarray, forcing our elected officials to navigate a volatile situation which had tripped up even professional bond traders.

For these reasons and more, few historians have even mentioned those events, and what little has been written portray it as a roadbump in the town’s otherwise steady progress towards the future. But I’ll argue the story isn’t about the lawsuits or even the water supply – the crux of it concerns the character of Mark L. McDonald.

52-page PDF file of newspaper articles related to the McDonald water lawsuits

Often during that ten year span Santa Rosa was scurrying to respond to the latest edict from a judge overseeing a particular lawsuit and sometimes there was a crisis because money was simply not to be had. And throughout it all McDonald and his cabal were in the background, hoping the turmoil would steer the city into such great financial peril they would come begging to buy his troubled company – or perhaps the goal was to have the city sell the municipal waterworks to him, cheap. Either turn of events would have proven ruinous to Santa Rosa yet he not only didn’t seem to care a whit, but it appeared that was a key part of his strategy. It was all about money, or power, or whatever else it was that motivated him to wage a dirty war against his own community.

In no way is this article intended to present the whole narrative, but should provide enough detail to follow what really happened. In the SOURCES section below a chronological index is provided, and selected newspaper transcripts can be downloaded in a separate PDF file as shown to the right.


The “Panic of 1893” was a economic crisis in the United States which became a major recession that lasted five years. As summarized on Wikipedia there were several causes behind those woes, among them the crash of overvalued railroad stocks and the collapse of crop prices. As a result there were widespread farm foreclosures, hundreds of banks failed and unemployment lingered at double-digits. The Western U.S. was hit the hardest.

What initiated the panic in April and May of 1893 was fear President Grover Cleveland, who had spoken about wanting a more “flexible currency,” might seek to resolve the growing array of problems by abandoning the gold standard. This started ongoing bank runs as people sought to cash in their paper dollars for hard money and foreign investors sold their stocks and bonds only for payment in gold.

By early 1895 the stockpile of gold held by the Treasury was nearing exhaustion. With only days (maybe hours) to spare before the nation slipped into default, President Cleveland made an emergency deal with financiers to privately buy $62 million of treasury bills at four percent.

Cleveland and his cabinet, who only had been considering the usual sort of advertised bond sale open to the public, were hesitant at first because they weren’t sure it was legal. Financier J. P. Morgan – whose banking career began during the Civil War – assured them Lincoln had signed a statue allowing private bond sales in times of emergency. The attorney general fetched a book of Revised Statutes which proved Morgan’s memory of this long-forgotten rule was accurate. (I encourage you to read the entire account of this episode, as it is a quite remarkable story.)

So far we’ve covered about a year of the story between Oct. 1894 and the following August. It had been a rough ride; aside from the usual court hearings grinding away on the three ongoing lawsuits, part of the Skinner case even reached the California Supreme Court.5

It was now September 1895 and construction was about to start on the new municipal water plant. Santa Rosa mayor Woodward and the attorney for Effey took the train to New York with the mission to resell Effey’s bonds on the bond market. With the economy still very much in a wobbly state, bond traders were not fighting a bidding war over a low-yield muni bond from a pipsqueak farmtown few could probably find on a map. Effey had to sell them for less than the $161k he had paid, losing about $21,000 on the deal.6

No sooner had work began on the new water system that autumn when a fourth aggrieved taxpayer decided he was so darn mad over the water issue that he had to file a lawsuit of his very own. Like the other guys, this fellow was elderly, a retired farmer/rancher, and didn’t seem likely to have deep enough pockets to hire top attorneys.

wesleymock(RIGHT: Wesley Mock. Drawing from Sonoma Democrat, June 19, 1897)

And here, ladies and gentlemen, we now commence the entertainment portion of our program. The Wesley Mock lawsuit and court hearings were – to use highly technical legal terminology – bonkers.

Among Mock’s many allegations, both criminal and civil: The entire city administration was engaged in “illegality and fraud” in the sale of the bonds; the bonds were never actually sold; Robert Effey was colluding with the only other bidder, who he would hire to actually construct the waterworks; the city was negligent because the bond offer only attracted two bidders; that Effey’s bid was at least $31,000 (later increased to $41,000) higher than the estimated cost to build the project, and the city knew it; Effey was actually broke, as was the city treasury. Whew!

Once in the courtroom, Mock’s case wandered even farther out into the weeds. There was a day devoted to handwriting analysis intended to show Effey had written the other bid as well as his own (the results were inconclusive). Effey’s lawyer was brow-beaten by the judge into testifying about the New York trip, quite possibly violating attorney-client privilege (he deftly seemed to have forgotten nearly all details). And Mock’s lawyer tried to get the Republican publisher Allan Lemmon held in contempt for writing a “contemptible and scurrilous” editorial which pointed out everyone trying to block the municipal waterworks curiously happened to be a member of the Democratic party, even though it was apparently (?) written tongue-in-cheek.

These were all efforts to gin up controversy and make everything about the water project appear suspicious – if not downright sinister. There was testimony about mysterious sealed envelopes and a late night meeting at a bank where documents changed hands several times. Witnesses were called to the stand but couldn’t be found in the courthouse. There was so much dirt to reveal the Democrat didn’t even attempt to write it up as a regular news article but instead just published the court reporter’s raw notes, something I have never seen in a newspaper from that era.

Representing Mock at these court hearings was a heretofore uninvolved gunslinger: Edward Lynch, a famous San Francisco criminal defense attorney. Lynch also represented Mark McDonald in related water lawsuit matters, including that dustup over whether the money to pay the local lawyers should come from the Taxpayers’ or McDonald, and would also be McDonald’s attorney in yet another lawsuit discussed below.

But never, ever, suggest that someone else was behind Mock hiring such an expensive San Francisco litigator, or the 69 year-old would give you a sound thrashing. “I am acting in my private capacity as a citizen for the good of the community and am not the tool of a corporation,” he insisted to the SF Call. Yeah, sure: Dude, you’re living in a little 10th street cottage near the railroad tracks.

The Wesley Mock hearings went on for over two months in early 1896. Besides hinting darkly at covert skullduggery by Effey et. al. his lawsuit was amended during the hearings to ask the judge to hold the City Council in contempt of court. Angering him this time was the Council passed a motion to accept the waterworks even though the project wasn’t completed.

Of all the charges made by Mock’s lawyer, this accusation seemed to deserve scrutiny. Why the devil would the city pay for unfinished work? Maybe there was something shifty going on, after all.

But it was actually a key example of the Democrat revealing its bias via omission of facts. In the City Council minutes it showed they were concerned about sabotage by “some evil disposed persons” and the construction site needed to be under city control and guarded by a policeman. (This and other cites from City Council minutes come from John Cummings’ study available under SOURCES.) Readers of the Democrat – and modern historians who rely only upon what appeared in that paper – didn’t know there were now threats of violence being made.

The general election two weeks later saw turnover of nearly half of the City Council seats.7 Mayor Woodward’s final remarks regarded “utmost vigilance” will be needed to deter “those that are trying to destroy the efficiency of the new water system.” The new Council was even more determined to fight McDonald’s shills in court and vowed to “combat every suit.”

They wouldn’t have long to wait for that combat. Soon after that the judge in the Mock case approved an injunction to block the city from taking possession of the water plant. To do that, the court required Mock to put up a $4,000 bond which he obviously couldn’t afford – so McDonald and a banker from Santa Rosa Bank put up a surety bond for him. Ironically, this was announced in the same edition of the Democrat where Mock insisted (again) he had no ties to McDonald or his water company.

The municipal waterworks had been partially operational since the start of 1896, and there were still the concerns over someone trying to monkey-wrench the operation. The Council’s end run around the injunction was to pay the guy who built the pump system $400 per month to keep the water flowing.

That was an astonishing monthly salary for then (over $13k today), particularly because it came at a time the city treasury was bleeding dry. Santa Rosa had to hire outside legal counsel to help defend itself in the four lawsuits, especially because the judge allowed Mock’s hyper-aggressive attorney Edward Lynch to turn court hearings into a ten week fishing expedition. As a result, the city found itself borrowing from Santa Rosa Bank to stay afloat.

And then there were five: The same week the Council made the deal to keep the waterworks going during the injunction, Mark L. McDonald stepped out of the shadows as his water company filed its own lawsuit against Santa Rosa. It was mostly a greatest hits rehash of the Cooper-Jones-Skinner-Mock complaints, but it ran on for 125 paragraphs. The Democrat printed every word (of course) with a full month required to dump the whole thing on its readers, the newspaper filling up most of a full page per week. New to this suit was a Donald Trump-like whine that no one respected how much money Mark had spent building his waterworks and that there were dark forces within the government conspiring to hurt him.

daingerfield(LEFT: Judge William R. Daingerfield of San Francisco presided over the Wesley Mock hearings and trial because Sonoma county Superior Court judges recused themselves for conflict of interest. Drawing from Sonoma Democrat, Dec. 19, 1896)

The Mock trial began in mid-December and took three weeks. It covered much the same ground as the March hearings with new accusations that the city’s contractors were all fumblebums and chiselers. To refresh everyone’s memory on the background of the case the Democrat published an updated version of the Taxpayers’ Union manifesto on the front page, in all its conspiratorial glory. And as before, the paper printed every detail of the plaintiff’s arguments and little to nothing from the defense – but you can, however, read their coverage and be able to stun guests at a dinner party with your comprehensive knowledge of 19th century pipefitting. The Democrat did at least share the opening statement from the recently elected City Attorney.8

In an extraordinarily forthright courtroom speech, attorney Webber said his primary obligation was to find out for the citizens of Santa Rosa whether or not there was fraud – but regardless of the verdict, all of the litigation must end. We ought to cancel any portion of the water bonds should it be possible, as it would be better to cut the losses than spending another 2-3 years fighting lawsuits.

Equally remarkable were Webber’s subtexts aimed directly at the Taxpayers’ Union: “Hey, don’t you jokers realize that taxpayers are footing the bill for the city’s legal defense in all these nonsense suits coming from your group? And do you really know what you want? For the city to be forced into bankruptcy? For Santa Rosa to abandon the nearly completed waterworks?” (Considering the Taxpayers’ had earlier demanded the city acquire McDonald’s company, their true goals certainly seemed obvious.)

edwardlynch(RIGHT: Mark McDonald attorney Edward Lynch. Drawing from Sonoma Democrat, June 26, 1897)

Judge Daingerfield spent five months musing over the case before issuing his 44-page decision, which “created a great deal of surprise and considerable excitement and comment on the streets,” according to the Democrat. And the winner was… Wesley Mock. Sort of.

By letting Effey modify the plans to hold down construction costs after they had been approved by the voters, the City Council had committed fraud. This meant that while the bonds were valid, they had been unlawfully sold. The judge ruled members of the Council were personally liable for the difference between the actual value of the waterworks and how much was due to repay the bond. The city was to keep operating the system and hold it in receivership until its worth could be determined. All of the the Taxpayers’ wild-eyed nonsense about the bonds not actually being sold, secret meetings and the like were not even given consideration.

The court’s later judgement held that Santa Rosa could keep the waterworks if the defendants coughed up what was due between actual vs. bond value. Otherwise, the sheriff was ordered to sell the water plant to the highest bidder.

And we all know who that would be.

Nearly two years passed before the California Supreme Court ruled on the city’s appeal. During that time the national economy mostly recovered yet in Santa Rosa the outlook remained cloudy.

The city was still relying on its credit line to operate, particularly during the lean weeks before property tax payments were due. Thus the City Council minutes reflects their alarm when bankers suddenly demanded payment of the city’s $5,000 note along with interest. The bank in question was Santa Rosa Bank, which you might remember was the co-signer with Mark L. McDonald of the bond for Wesley Mock.

And still, McDonald continued plowing ahead with his Ahab-like determination to kill (or own?) the municipal water system. This new round of trouble began in 1896 shortly before the Wesley Mock trial with a notice the Fountain Water Company had been formed. Yes, in addition to the McDonald waterworks and the city’s own, Santa Rosa was now to have a third water supply – supposedly.

The water for this project was to be from Peter’s Spring, which at the time was mistakenly believed to be the source of adjacent Spring Creek. (Peter Springs Park is still there.) It was so named because it was on the old Jesse Peter ranch which was now owned by Mark McDonald’s brother James, who also had several stone quarries in the area.9

All was quiet on that front for nearly two years until August 1898, when the McDonalds put up a dam across Spring Creek just upstream from one of the city’s water pumps. Even if the source was actually Peter’s Spring on private property, it was clearly illegal to obstruct such a public waterway.

The newcomer Press Democrat, which did not inherit the old Democrat’s bountiful love for the McDonalds, remarked “…there has been an opinion pretty freely expressed in this city that the action of the Fountain Water company at this time was done so as to diminish the city’s water supply.” That was proven when it was discovered the McDonalds hadn’t just constructed a simple dam; they had made a deal with other property owners to let them dig a ditch to divert the creek around the city pump before rejoining its natural watercourse.

The city waterworks were not dependent upon Spring Creek water at the time so this irksome stunt had no real impact. But some on the City Council may have considered this dummy corporation as the last straw; according to their minutes, there was a discussion about suing Mark McDonald for all he and his gang had done to obstruct the city water project.

But come a year later, the city’s water supply was nearly maxed out and they needed to tap Spring Creek again.10 The mayor and city attorney went to the Fountain Water company in San Francisco (it was not mentioned who they met) to offer to buy the spring and surrounding ten acres. They were told the price would be $100,000. Back in Santa Rosa they countered with a written offer of $6k, but there was no response. So the City Council voted unanimously to pay a fair appraised price and take the land via eminent domain.

Mark McDonald’s response: Total War against Santa Rosa, and damn the expense.

The McDonald water company sued the city again, but this effort was quite unlike their suit from three years earlier (which was apparently still ongoing). This time Mark was represented by Jefferson Chandler, a famed Washington D.C. attorney who had argued and won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. And this time he was filing suit in federal court in San Francisco. There were three points in his complaint:

ENTITLED TO MONOPOLY   In 1874 Santa Rosa had signed a 50 year contract with the water company he acquired. McDonald argued that gave him the exclusive right to provide the city with water until 1924 and the city must immediately cease and desist operating its waterworks, while paying $100,000 in damages. (This part of the suit also rehashed his familiar moaning over how much he spent on construction.)
TAKING PRIVATE PROPERTY   If the city used eminent domain to buy Peter’s Spring it would violate McDonald’s company rights by losing its access to a critical resource (although the company was not yet using the spring and there was no obvious way to pipe the water over to Lake Ralphine).
UNFAIR COMPETITION   The city was unfairly providing residents with “free” water. (Santa Rosa did not have water meters at the time, but anticipated each resident used 115 gallons per day. Instead of charging directly for water, there was an assessment and monthly fee for every water fixture in your home or business, the size of your lawn and garden, etc. See this article for more.)

At the City Council the Mayor urged they file a countersuit to revoke McDonald’s water franchise, according the Cummings review of the Council minutes. “[F]ight to the bitter end,” Mayor Sweet said, “with a view of ascertaining whether the majority should rule or whether a few Capitalists should manipulate the fair City of Santa Rosa.” The Council unanimously agreed.

That moment in early October, 1899, was the nadir of McDonald’s dirty water campaign; it had been five very long years since the launch of his first proxy lawsuit and fighting back had drained the city coffers. Besides the incident when Santa Rosa Bank demanded repayment on the $5,000 credit line, there was also a period in 1897 when the city completely ran out of money and couldn’t borrow any more.

But all that was about to change. Surprisingly, our story has a happy ending – for almost everyone except Mark McDonald.

The new McDonald suit was the greatest threat yet to Santa Rosa. A protracted battle in federal courts – which Mark would probably appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, should he lose initially – could be ruinously expensive and might even force the city into bankruptcy. But whatever might happen there was of less immediate concern than the final ruling on the Wesley Mock lawsuit, as members of the City Council and administrators were to be held personally responsible to pay back any excessive debt on the water bond.

Word from the state Supreme Court came down later that October. There was bad news: The Court upheld Judge Daingerfield’s overall ruling. There was good news: The city, not the individual officials – was to be held liable for the debt. Other parts of the decision allowed the city to take control of the waterworks (which presumably meant they could stop paying that engineer $400/mo to run it) until its value could be determined. Once that was known, the city had the option of paying the difference from the bond price; otherwise, the sheriff would auction off the waterworks (with the proviso that the city couldn’t make an offer). It was considered around town as quite a fair decision.

Next was holding an advisory jury trial to set the value of the waterworks. This was to be held in Santa Rosa with Daingerfield presiding, and those who thought he showed bias against the city during the Mock trial were concerned because he said this jury could only consider the worth of the water plant itself, and not the land it used.

The trial began in January 1900 and took exactly a month. The jury wasted no time and returned with a unanimous verdict after only twenty minutes: The waterworks were not worth the $161,000 amount of the bonds – it was worth far more, valuated at $190,000.

“When the verdict was read the courtroom was crowded and the crowd applauded vociferously. The local papers issued extras and the streets were crowded until a late hour by citizens who discussed the verdict and congratulated the defendants upon the outcome,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

Now the city’s attention turned back to Peter’s Spring, and it began condemnation proceedings against the Fountain Water Company and James McDonald. Court hearings and a trial consumed the rest of the year 1900. The McDonalds again tried to claim the ten acres were worth $100k while Santa Rosa argued the market value was no more than $50/acre. The city won again, and Spring Creek water was finally being pumped into the city’s reservoir, but the case would drag on until 1904 as the McDonalds sought a new trial. It was eventually settled they were to be paid only $4,515.55.11

And also in 1904, McDonald’s last-gasp federal lawsuit was laughed out of court – a private corporation claiming it could dictate the shutdown of a public utility wasn’t even worth consideration. Sweetening the decision, McDonald was further ordered to pay Santa Rosa’s court costs.

So endeth Mark McDonald’s long and often underhanded fight against Santa Rosa’s water system. A couple of takeaways:

Aside from the scale and relentlessness of McDonald’s legal assaults, what he was trying to do was not unique in that era. In 1899 a letter writer to the SF Examiner noted Palo Alto and other cities had faced costly lawsuits from private water companies seeking to block municipal water works.

It’s worth taking a step back and looking over what had really happened here. As I wrote earlier, this story is really about the character of Mark L. McDonald. Over a quarter century, he had lurched from being Santa Rosa’s champion to becoming the town’s pariah, all in his obsessive drive to control what came out of our faucets. Why a man of such wealth and influence would throw away most of the goodwill in the town where his family lived we can only wonder.


1 Robert Effey was mayor of Santa Cruz 1884-1888 and again 1894-96. He was a watchmaker and jeweler by trade. In the 1890s he was a bidder on several California muni bonds but aside from the Santa Rosa water system, the only bonds he seemed to hold were for Stockton’s sewer. His Dec. 1930 obituaries did not identify him as an investor, but mentioned he was the last surviving member of the “Bango club,” which was a ten member hiking and drinking club that regularly walked from Santa Cruz to San Jose or Watsonville. At a prearranged location they would be met by as many as 300 of their friends to engage in “conviviality.”
2 Believe-it-or-not! There were three, maybe four John D. Coopers living in or around Santa Rosa in the late 1890s, all unrelated. This farmer died in 1917 and was buried in the Rural Cemetery; another died in 1925 and was Windsor’s Justice of the Peace; another spent his last years at the County Poor Farm and died in 1909. The most well-known J.D.C. at the time had a Fourth street wine and liquor store along with a saloon. Was he the fellow who died at the poorhouse, or individual #4?
3 In 1895, the year following these events, Gil P. Hall would be indicted for felony embezzlement over $4.6k that went missing during his term as County Recorder.
4 Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings; Prepared for the Department of Utilities, City of Santa Rosa, 2002
5 Skinner v. Santa Rosa concerned how the city was to make interest payments on the water bond. In Nov. 1894 the Council had changed the terms of the bond to make payments in gold only, semi-annually instead of annually, and payable in New York City. The California Supreme Court ruled the Council couldn’t do that unless they issued new bonds, which the city did in Sept. 1895.
6 Robert Effey had planned to use Coffin & Stanton, the New York bankers who had handled the bonds for the Santa Cruz water system. But that firm failed in Oct. 1894, so Effey approached Seligman & Company, one of the largest investment banks in New York City. After buying the bonds at a discount of $144,601.87, the bank tendered them for sale at 538 percent.
7 Two City Council members (both Republicans) lost by a narrow margin and two didn’t run for reelection, but Mock’s attorney Edward Lynch insisted the election results showed public belief of malfeasance.
8 Partial transcript of statement by City Attorney O. O. Webber at the Mock trial, December 18, 1896: “…The complaint on file in this action alleges fraud. I want to say right here if there is any fraud, or any has been committed by the Council or anyone else during all the leading up to, or the construction of the waterworks, or disposition of the bonds, I, as city attorney, representing the taxpayers of the city, want my clients to know the truth of the charge in this case. I am the attorney of the city, which I interpret to be the taxpayers and the city officials, but I believe my first duty lies to that people that had the confidence to place me in that position. I am not forsaking the officials who are the defendants in this action. I have consulted part of them and asked them to tell me if there was anything wrong done by them, or anything that should be covered. They informed me that everything is perfectly straight. I therefore have no alternative but to believe them and I therefore will do all in my power to lay this case before the taxpayers of this city as plainly as I can. The truth is the whole expense of this litigation regardless of who wins or who loses the suit must be borne by the taxpayers of Santa Rosa. The attorneys employed in this litigation must be paid by the taxpayers of Santa Rosa and I believe it is now time that we should begin to realise the true status of this whole affair. This litigation should be stopped. If the bonds can be brought back we can do it today cheaper than we can by litigating two or three years. If they cannot be recovered and the proceedings have all been legal and according to law I want the citizens to know that fact so that they may act intelligently as a community in this whole affair…”
9 The rancher was Jesse Peter Sr., not his same-named son Jesse who became an archeologist and taught at SRJC.
10 The city water works initially had an intake on Spring Creek, but it was disconnected in July 1896 because the volume of water provided by the wells was sufficient.
11 In a surprising turn of events, the city sold Peter’s Spring to McDonald’s waterworks in 1909, with his company intending to pump “water from the spring to an elevated point between it and the present reservoir of the company,” according to a 1911 Press Democrat item.



Besides contemporary newspaper articles, references to the City Council minutes are drawn from Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings. The chronology below covers most of the key events discussed in this chapter, but there are over 200 items related to this topic just in the Sonoma Democrat/Press Democrat. Transcriptions of selected newspaper articles mentioned there are available for download in a 52-page PDF file


(Dates reflect publication and may lag event by 1-6 days)


6 October 1894 Effey bid accepted

13 October 1894 Cooper suit vs city – not enough money to pay bonds

13 October 1894 Taxpayers’ Union formed
      (C. S. Farquar and Gil P. Hall, Attorneys for taxpayers)

27 October 1894 Jones suit vs council – Effey plans are different

3 November 1894 Taxpayers’ manifesto

24 November 1894 council changes terms of bond to payable in gold

1 December 1894 Cooper, Jones and others file amicus to Skinner
      (William F. Russell atty for Skinner AB Ware and Farquar for others)

8 December 1894 Skinner case only on validity of bonds

15 December 1894 Skinner not in good faith

22 December 1894 change in bond terms valid (Cooper vs. Steadman)

29 June 1895 change in bond terms invalid

6 July 1895 Taxpayers’ resolution for city to buy McDonald’s works

27 July 1895 ordinance 162 adopted: annual interest payment

5 October 1895 Effey contracts with Perkins to begin work

19 October 1895 Mock suit collusion between city and Effey
      (A. B. Ware, C. S. Farquar and Gil P. Hall attorneys)

19 October 1895 construction underway

16 November 1895 J. M Jones dropped

4 January 1896 city accepts unfinished waterworks

25 January 1896 Democrat printed entire Effey testimony

1 February 1896 Mock wants council held in contempt for accepting works

2 February 1896 Mock will thrash

22 February 1896 court hearing: council shouldn’t be held in contempt

29 February 1896 court ruling: council not in contempt

18 March 1896 Lemmon contempt threat

21 March 1896 court hearing: handwriting questions

21 March 1896 court hearing: trip to NYC for bonds – Effey lost money

28 March 1896 court hearing: bonds sold in NYC for $144.6k

4 April 1896 Mock hearing closes
      (election: Woodward, Collins out; Harris and Tupper didn’t run)

30 April 1896 Farquar sues McDonald

16 May 1896 Mock letter: I am not a shill

16 May 1896 restrain orders Perkins to stop city not to accept

20 May 1896 McDonald says Farquar was paid by taxpayer union

12 June 1896 contract with Perkins to maintain and supply water

13 June 1896 McDonald first suit against city

18 July 1896 amended to seek tax refund for illegal tax

14 November 1896 Fountain water company incorporated

28 November 1896 Democrat claims city is running a deficit of $1000-1200/mo

19 December 1896 Mock trial begins

2 January 1897 lengthy account by Taxpayers’ Union

9 January 1897 Mock trial ends

5 June 1897 Cooper v. Steadman suit thrown out

19 June 1897 Mock wins

20 June 1897 Examiner: Mock wins (includes history)

18 December 1897 judgement (city contract with Effey void, bonds were unlawfully disposed of)

17 August 1898 Fountain builds dam on Spring creek

20 August 1898 Fountain dam intended to hurt city

17 September 1898 Fountain diverts water around city pump

6 September 1899 McDonald wants $100k for Spring creek

4 October 1899 McDonald sues city to stop free water for 25 years

21 October 1899 Supreme Court: City cannot buy, Council not liable

10 January 1900 advisory jury trial begins

10 February 1900 Mock overturned – value of work proper – celebration

17 February 1900 fundraising for council defendants

17 March 1900 city sues Fountain to condemn land

13 December 1900 start of condemnation suit

11 March 1902 Fountain land only worth $4k

3 June 1904 court throws out 1899 McDonald suit

15 September 1904 city drops Fountain suit

22 July 1911 McDonald buys Fountain

Read More



Santa Rosa could not believe its great good luck in the mid-1870s: A money man of the San Francisco Stock Exchange had taken interest in our little farmtown, quickly launching public works projects and buying 130 acres for an addition to the city. Nearly every issue of the local newspapers had shoutouts to our benefactor or the mansions being built on the grand avenue bearing his name.

Now shift forward twenty years and he’s viewed as less the benevolent tycoon and more like a penny-ante robber baron. He seems bent on suing the city into bankruptcy and is using the courts to bully elected officials and anyone he views as rivals. He’s accused of bribery, coercion and conspiracy as well as being criminally negligent. Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Mark L. McDonald.

Mark L. McDonald c. 1879. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
Mark L. McDonald c. 1879. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

For someone with such a storied name, his life has remained remarkably unexamined. Today there’s a small Wikipedia page on the family and most writers lean heavily on the 1911 profile in the Tom Gregory county history, which is the sort of hagiography that results when the subject is paying for the pleasure.

His connection to Santa Rosa came via his wife Ralphine. They were married in early 1866, just a few months after her family arrived here in the wake of the Civil War. The ceremony was at the home of Thomas L. Thompson, the rabidly pro-Confederate editor of the Democrat. It was perhaps the town’s reputation as a Confederacy enclave that drew the North family here; they had a Mississippi plantation and father Ralph had been a Natchez judge. (Edited to correct: The family plantation story was probably a myth; see the following article.) The following year Ralphine was involved in the ball held on the Santa Rosa Plaza to raise money for the “Ladies’ Southern Relief Fund” which was all or in part organized by her dad.

Although Mark was likely there that evening dancing with his wife to aid the ex-slave states, we don’t know much about where he stood on almost anything. In 1877 he wanted to be appointed to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate and while much was written about his fine character, his views were never mentioned. We do know he was unwaveringly opposed to the Chinese in California; he was chair of an anti-Chinese committee that sent a lobbyist to Washington, refused to hire Chinese laborers and when he became a Santa Rosa City Councilman in 1883, the first resolution he introduced was to wipeout the tiny Chinatown on Hinton Ave.

Ralphine and Mark lived in San Francisco where he mostly made his fortune by savvy stock trading. No mention was made of him being in Santa Rosa until 1875 when he bought the water company, which had struggled to offer even minimal service for years.

During the years 1876 and 1877 he took the town by storm. He bought the big chunk of land and announced he was going to build a home there. Digging began on the pond to be used as a reservoir for his waterworks and would later become known as Lake Ralphine, but when he learned the contractor was using Chinese workers he demanded they be fired and replaced with white laborers, promising to make up the difference of their much higher wages. The next year he started laying rails for a horse-drawn streetcar system.

Those were the dawn of halcyon days. “We consider it fortunate that a gentleman of the wealth and energy of Mr. McDonald has become so largely interested in our midst,” gushed the Democrat newspaper. The water mains reached farther into the town and there was at least enough water pressure to ensure a hearty trickle up to the third story of a building. Santa Rosans so loved his streetcar that they took excursions out to the Rural Cemetery after Sunday dinners.

Besides those good works historians often credit him with establishing the town’s free public library with a donation of his private collection, along with leading efforts to have the city brighten the evening darkness with gaslights. He was a library trustee briefly but if he contributed books (or money!) it was never mentioned in the papers at the time – he was, however, open to putting up bookshelves at the City Hall to house magazine and book donations from the public. And when placement of streetlights was under discussion by the City Council in 1884 he discouraged lighting the downtown plaza but “wanted the lights scattered about where respectable people lived,” i.e. places like McDonald Avenue.

Come the 1890s, tho, the McDonalds – Mark, and to a lesser degree his brother James and son Mark Jr. – were being seen as rapacious, self-serving capitalists who were indifferent to Santa Rosa’s progress and even safety.

Mark’s street railway went from Railroad Square down Fourth street, turned on McDonald Ave. and terminated at Argyle Park (now the Presbyterian Church campus). Well and good for those who had a swank address on McDonald, but the town was mostly expanding on the north side, which we now call the Junior College neighborhood. When another streetcar company began serving that area, Mark McDonald sued them. Another company later tried offering service to Bennett Valley and he sued them too. More about those lawsuits will be discussed in a following chapter.

McDonald undoubtedly lost good will with his petty efforts to stay the streetcar czar, but far more serious were matters involving the waterworks.

Under state law, cities like Santa Rosa which relied upon a private water company had to set rates annually based on the company’s profits. Through most of the 1880s the City Council rubber-stamped McDonald’s proposed rates for the coming year after he submitted a brief summary of his financial statements, sometimes remarking on the record that his prices “were just and fair.” But come 1889, the Council rejected his summary; he resubmitted it and that too was found inadequate, but based on it the city set a lower rate for the coming year. A committee from the Council did get a look at his books, however, and discovered he was apparently trying to short-change investors – he claimed gross revenue was only $8k when it was really over $21,000.1

Two years later the town had soured on Mark McDonald, with rumors going around that he was pulling the strings at City Hall by dishing out bribes. This came up at a City Council meeting with one of the members protesting “He was tired of having it said that Colonel McDonald ran the Council: that the Council men had been wined and dined and driven about by the Colonel.” The others spoke up to declare themselves uncorrupted and incorruptible, although one admitted having “wined with Colonel McDonald, but paid for the wine.”

At that same July 22, 1891 council meeting the main topic was the quality of water McDonald was providing. The Democrat reported one Councilman said “he was heartily tired of hearing Colonel McDonald talk about his pure and limpid streams and exhaustless supplies.” McDonald was supplying customers with untreated pond water, Councilman Tupper said: “Go and look at what passes into your street sprinklers. There is enough crawling vermin in them to fill a bushel basket.”

Mark was present at the meeting and argued he had spent lots of money on the water system and it was against the interests of the city to say it was contaminated – but if they wanted to visit Lake Ralphine and look around they were welcome to do so. He must have thought they wouldn’t call his bluff, but the Council ordered the Board of Health to investigate. There was also talk of offering a bond to either buy him out or build a municipal waterworks from scratch. Spectators at the meeting loudly stamped their feet in approval.

Lake Ralphine c. 1905. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
Lake Ralphine c. 1905. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

The inspection was made by the Board of Health and a City Council committee. Always eager to spin the news for McDonald, the Democrat asked the most sympathetic Councilman what they saw. “We found many things that, it seemed to me, were not right. There were drainages leading into the lake that should not exist, and I am surprised that the management should have allowed such things to exist.”

That was a helluva understatement. The Board of Health report (transcribed below) thought McDonald’s waterworks were “criminally negligent and indifferent to our welfare as a city.” There was no effort to block runoff from surrounding farms (“on the contrary, we saw evidence which went to show that it was rather encouraged”). The Republican newspaper went further and explained “The sides of that pond are a pasture field extending almost to the water’s edge. Every rain carries manure from the stock pasturing on the hills surrounding this pond.”

The creeks feeding the reservoir were also being contaminated by farm runoff: “We do not hesitate to say that as things existed when we visited the creek the health of this community is greatly menaced.”

Besides creating embankments to keep manure from washing into the reservoir, the Board recommended McDonald tap two large springs known as the “Shaw Springs” which fed a creek that passed near the lake. Unfortunately, the report stated, “On its way it flows through a low, marshy piece of ground, on which hogs and other animals graze, and upon which marsh dead animals are often thrown.” The property owner had built a dam to block that creek from polluting the reservoir.

So what was Mark McDonald’s first response to the Board of Health report? He sued the Shaw Springs landowner to remove the dam so the fully contaminated water could enter the lake. Gentle Reader’s jaw should now be picked off the floor.

The Democrat printed the report, but commented “The least said about the indictment of the water probably the better it will be for the city.” Even that paper – which the Republican was calling the “organ of the Water Company” – grudgingly admitted something must be done, either condemning McDonald’s company so the city could buy it or building a municipal plant. Mark told a Councilman that he would be willing to sell out for $250,000.

By the end of the year, however, the Democrat was back to being McDonald’s propagandist, to wit: Mark is making improvements which will increase Lake Raphine’s capacity and laying new water mains, people should remember how bad the situation was before he took over, the quality “is as pure and limpid as the most delicious spring water,” no “disease or prevailing sickness [has] been traced to the unwholesomeness of the water,” yadda, yadda.

To prove how wonderful the water quality was, editor Thompson said he personally took a sample directly from a hydrant and sent it to UC/Berkeley. The analysis by the esteemed Prof. Hilgard of the Agricultural Department showed it was “abundantly good enough” though harder than some people might like.2

Thompson reprinted that analysis over the following year until the Republican pointed out his water sample had obviously come from someone’s well and not the waterworks – the only aspect of McDonald’s water everyone liked was its extraordinary softness. “Soften the water of Ralphine! Ye gods!” Republican editor Allan Lemmon jeered.

In January 1893 it was pretty clear which direction the town was heading. A consultant Santa Rosa hired several months earlier finished his plans for a municipal waterworks which was estimated to cost $165k. The mayor and city attorney also made a field trip to Santa Cruz and gave the City Council a glowing report that their city-operated system was the “pride of the people” and had the lowest water rates in the state.

At the following meeting the Council ordered a special election for approval of a bond to either build a new plant or buy out McDonald. Mark said he would sell it to the city at the slightly reduced price of $210,000. His offer was immediately rejected, as it would additionally cost half again as much to fix all the problems with his water system.

Thus in May 1893 the city enthusiastically voted for a bond to build a municipal waterworks. The 74 percent approval was surely a repudiation of Mark McDonald – in the weeks before the Democrat editorialized and ran letters lamenting all the “prejudice” against him. (The Democrat’s other position before the vote was the city had no guarantee the municipal system “scheme” would find an adequate water supply and anything pumped from underground “would be absolutely dangerous.”)

Now that Santa Rosa was firmly on course to build its own system, one might presume McDonald would stop fighting over the issue. He was a very, very rich man; profits from the waterworks would have been small change to the likes of him. As he still had the control of all the water mains via the old city franchise, wouldn’t it have behooved Mark to make a deal to help ease transition into the upcoming municipal system? After all, his family were residents of the town themselves (at least part time, anyway).

Not on your life. He was also a very, very petty man; witness the lawsuits he waged over streetcar lines that didn’t even compete with his own. Everything covered here was just the prelude to years of expensive, meaningless court fights that strived to beat down and economically cripple Santa Rosa along with personally crushing his town critics.

The takeaway was that no one – no one – could be allowed to brace the wind against the force that was Mark L. McDonald.


1 Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings; fn. 3 and 4, pages 19-20
2 The water sample had about 84 mg/l calcium/magnesium carbonates and gypsum. The USGS classifies 61 to 120 mg/L as moderately hard, 121 to 180 mg/L as hard and over 180 mg/L as very hard.






The Water Company.

During the past week a controlling interest in the stock of the Santa Rosa Water Company was purchased by Mark McDonald, of San Francisco. We are informed that the supply of water will be increased and the reservoir improved. For the present there will be no increase of rates. Messrs. Hahman, Juilliard, Williams, Temple, Latapte, Clark, and others have sold their interests. We hope the gentlemen who have realized from the sale of their stock will now turn their attention to the development of some other enterprise for the benefit of Santa Rosa.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 24 1875



…Colonel McDonald asked the privilege of the chair to say a few words, and, his request granted, he went on to state that while there might be a difference of opinion as to the water system and the manner in which it is conducted, he thought it was prejudicial to the interests of the city to have the impression go abroad that the water is not pure and wholesome. The evening paper he continued, had printed an article attacking the water company, and misrepresenting the quality and quantity of water. The water company had tried to conform to the requirements of the laws made by the Council and desired to do anything and everything to improve the service furnished the citizens. He was anxious the Council should appoint a committee to visit the reservoir and investigate as to the cleanliness and purity of the water. The company had expended several thousand dollars in furnishing the citizens with an adequate supply of water, and many other improvements were in contemplation.

Mr. Tupper was opposed to having any newspaper dragged into the controversy, and he said he was heartily tired of hearing Colonel McDonald talk about his pure and limpid streams and exhaustless supplies. He knew, as all the citizens knew and as Colonel McDonald knows, that the water is impure. [“]Go and look at what passes into your street sprinklers. There is enough crawling vermin in them to fill a bushel basket. The reservoir has not been cleaned but once in ten years, and under a hot sun in an arid country like this the water in a little pond like the Colonel’s is bound to become foul and impure.[“]

Colonel McDonald said, in response to Mr. Tupper, that he had not intended to attack any paper; he was simply criticising what be deemed a misstatement. He was heartily desirous of having the Council investigate the purity of the water. He would guarantee that there was not purer water furnished in any other city of the State.

Mr. Doyle, who had seen what Mr. Tupper referred to when speaking of the crawling vermin from the sprinklers, asked Colonel McDonald if the water taken from the hydrants by the sprinklers was the same as that used by the citizens.

Colonel McDonald said it was, and explained how particles of dirt get into the pipes.

Mr. Berka moved that the Council have the water analysed as to its purity.

A suggestion was made about referring the matter to the Board of Health.

Mr. Berka’s motion was carried.

Mr. Overton thought it would be well for the Council to investigate and find out whether there were any corrals or stock kept along the creeks which supply water to the reservoir.

After some further discussion of a similar character to that quoted above, in which Colonel McDonald explained in what manner the improvements now being made would increase the supply, Mr. Tupper offered a resolution providing for the holding of an election on the question of issuing $80,000 bonds to construct a water works system and $15,000 bonds to construct a lighting plant.

Mr. Doyle did not believe in mortgaging the city or the tax payers to the tone of $95,000 for any purpose.

Mr. Overton said he would not be in favor of voting bonds if the present water company could provide adequate service. Water was needed for fire purposes and the city could not afford to wait until the citizens had been burned out before providing the necessary facilities.

Mr. Tupper went on to show that the citizens had paid the water company over $100,000, and that much of that money could be saved to them and pure and abundant water secured if the city owned its own plant.

The spectators present signified their approval of Mr. Tupper’s sentiments by loud stomping of feet.

Mr. Mailer thought the city should furnish the citizens with an abundance of pure, wholesome water.

Mr. Berka took occasion to say that nothing could be done without money, and that if the city was to improve its water and light facilities it must have money. He was tired of having it said that Colonel McDonald ran the Council: that the Council men had been wined and dined and driven about by the Colonel. But he wanted to say he had not been “it it.” He further stated that he had to pay for his water.

Mr. Doyle did not like the insinuations supposed to be lurking beneath Mr. Berka’s remarks. He wanted it definitely understood that he had to pay for his water and he supposed all the other Councilman did the same. He said he had never been wined or dined by Colonel McDonald.

The Mayor desired it to be distinctly understood that he had not been wined and dined by Colonel McDonald, and if he had he would not have considered himself contaminated. He had ridden with Colonel McDonald, however, and was not injured thereby. He was owned by no one and shaped his official career to conform with his own convictions.

Mr. Overton said he had wined with Colonel McDonald, but paid for the wine.

There was some further talk of this kind and the resolution submitting to the citizens the question of bonding the city for water and light plants was put to a vote and carried, the only negative vote being cast by Mr. Doyle.

– Daily Democrat, July 22 1891



…Mr. Doyle asked how Mr. Tupper expected the $80,000 or $200,000 bonds were going to be paid. He said the bonds could not be paid in thirty years; the first bond could not be paid off where there are two systems to compete in the price of water. The competition must reduce rates, and the income from the city’s works would not equal $5,000 a year. The system would not pay running expenses.

Mr. Tupper contended that the system would pay for itself.

Mr. Berka could not see why if other towns went into debt to carry on their improvements Santa Rosa could not do the same.

As a business proposition Mr. Doyle thought it would be better to condemn the present works and buy them.

Mr. Tupper said it would cost $200,000 to improve the McDonald works after the city purchased them; he would rather construct works on Mark West creek.

Mr. Mailer said he would prefer purchasing the McDonald works, if they could be bought at a reasonable figure.

Mr. Tupper said he had made Colonel McDonald a fair proposition to buy the works and that the latter had fixed his price at $250,000.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 1 1891


…Mr. Doyle is a member of the city council of Santa Rosa, and there has been much talk there of late of that city buying and owning the water works. In all his votes on that proposition as presented, and we have noticed by the Republican that Mr. Doyle was opposed to the proposition, not because he had any interest in the Santa Rosa works, but because he was a large owner in the Petaluma water works and that he was afraid that if the people of Santa Rosa should vote to buy and control its own water, that Petaluma might “follow suit.” And so we made bold to ask him about the matter, and from memory we quote his words. He said: “There has been and is a proposition for Santa Rosa to issue bonds and construct new water works. I have opposed it because I do not know where they are going to get the water. It is all very easy to issue your bonds and get your city in debt, lay miles of pipe, and all of that, but where do the people get off? Suppose they should do so, then they would come in direct competition with the old works whose franchise is still good. And then, where are they to get the water? I will say to you that a few days ago, in company with members of the Santa Rosa Council, we visited the lake where the city gets its water. We found many things that, it seemed to me, were not right. There were drainages leading into the lake that should not exist, and I am surprised that the management should have allowed such things to exist. No, I am not opposed to the city owning its water works. If the Santa Rosa works cannot or will not give the city pure water and an abundance of it, I believe that the city should buy the works, and in failure to do that, to condemn the works under the law…

– Sonoma Democrat, August 15 1891



Every resident of Santa Rosa should read the report of the Board of Health of this city in regard to the water supplied to the people who live here. It is a document that speaks for itself. Mayor Brooks, Dr. R. P. Smith, Councilman Mailer, Marshal Charles and Newton V. V. Smythe, Secretary, consisting all the members of the Board of Health, did not prepare and sign this unanimous report until fully satisfied of its correctness and the necessity for this action. It recites a condition of affairs that calls for prompt and decisive action by the people who live here.

When the REPUBLICAN led in the agitation of this water question some weeks ago it was with sufficient facts to warrant all that was said and more too. We then spoke as mildly as circumstances would permit. Putting the health and welfare of the community above the friendship and patronage of any man or set of men, we urged investigation by a committee of representative men. That investigation has been made and the report will be convincing to every man who reads it.

Now let us have a report from the other committee appointed some weeks ago to investigate water systems and recommend what should be done under existing circumstances. Has that committee employed experts and conducted an investigation that will be of value to the community? Money was appropriated for this purpose and it is of prime importance that the people of this city be informed without delay as to the action that should be taken on the water question.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 17 1891


Report of the Board of Health on the Condition of the Water Works.

To the honorable Mayor and City Council of Santa Rosa,
Gentlemen: At your request the undersigned Board of Health of Santa Rosa visited the water works which supply the city with water, for the purpose of investigating the purity of the same and to see if due precautions were taken by the Water Company to procure as healthful and pure a supply as the circumstances would permit.

We first visited the creek at the place where the Water Company has a dam for the purpose of utilizing the supply above. We then walked for over a half mile up the stream, noting the condition of the bed of the creek and the adjacent banks. We found that with a very little outlay of money intelligently expended, the supply here might be greatly increased – at least one-half more, and possibly as much more as now flows in the pipes. This would add in the summer-time very materially to the purity of our supply as well as to the quantity; also, that owing to farming settlements and other habitations on the banks, that a state of affairs existed that was by no means creditable to the management of the Water Company. A very little care and forethought with some expenditure of money, would entirely remove the causes for complaint on our part. We do not hesitate to say that as things existed when we visited the creek the health of this community is greatly menaced.

We then visited the reservoir. Here the same negligence and indifference to the public welfare was exhibited. No effort is, or has been made to prevent surface water from running into the reservoir; on the contrary, we saw evidence which went to show that it was rather encouraged.

We then inspected the open ditch which has been dug by the company from the extreme eastern end of the reservoir toward two large springs on the Hillman ranch, best known as the “Shaw Springs.” We believe that if this water could be got in its purity at the springs, and brought down unadulterated, that it would be a valuable acquisition to the water supply of our city, but as it is now it is an abominable nuisance. On its way it flows through a low, marshy piece of ground, on which hogs and other animals graze, and upon which marsh dead animals are often thrown, and we think it is a blessing that, for reasons best known to the owner of the land through which these waters flow, dams were placed by her to prevent the Water Company from appropriating the water.

In conclusion, we would earnestly urge your honorable body to take steps to ameliorate the conditions of affairs at the fountain heads of our water supply, for we believe the Water Company to have been criminally negligent and indifferent to our welfare as a city, and to their trust and own interests.

[Board of Health]

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 17 1891



Immediately following the report of the Board of Health telling of the filth that has been permitted to find its way into the water furnished the residents of Santa Rosa, the Water Works Company appears with a statement to the effect that the things complained of have been corrected. That corporation now declares “No stagnant or impure water finds its way into the city. The water comes from a living stream and is pure and healthful.”

The REPUBLICAN doubts the truth of the above statement. It is in line with the other falsehoods that have been going out from the Water Company from time to time. The person that looks through a glass of city water knows that it is impure. Whoever smells or tastes this water that many people here are almost compelled to use, knows that the Water Company is guilty of unblushing and impudent misrepresentation. The Board of Health of this city has declared the belief of its members that the Water Company has been CRIMINALLY NEGLIGENT in permitting the befouling of the water furnished our people, and the City Council, by unanimous vote, has endorsed this sentiment.

But says the Water Company “The water comes from a living stream and is pure and healthful.” Instead, the water comes from an artificial pond into which filth has long been running. The sides of that pond are a pasture field extending almost to the water’s edge. Every rain carries manure from the stock pasturing on the hills surrounding this pond into the receptacle for the water furnished by the Water Company. Then there is the filth that has been coming from the hog pens, the water from too close proximity to dead animals, and other things that caused the Board of Health to declare that the “health of this community is greatly menaced.” All these things have long been dumped into that pond from which the supply of water from this city must come and yet this mendacious company declares the water “pure and healthful.”

How long will the people of Santa Rosa submit to this outrage? How long will they consent to this villainous condition of affairs? Will they wait until a pestilence touches hundreds of homes? Shall we consent to see our town ruined by an avaricious, grasping, soulless corporation that knows no principle but greed and that is so silly as to be continually sending out statements that many know to be false? Shall we continue the quarrel with this unenterprising and unreliable combination of capital or, as a town put in our own water system? The future of the city will largely depend on the action the people here will soon take in this matter.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 18 1891


The report of the Board of Health supplemented by the report of a sub-committee of the Council, together with the endorsement of each of these reports by the unanimous vote of the Council, settles the issue between the Water Company and the city authorities. The water, the company, and the business methods of the latter, have been condemned in language that cannot be misunderstood. It is not necessary for us to recapitulate what has been said in the reports. The least said about the indictment of the water probably the better it will be for the city. It now remains for the Council to proceed at once within the scope of its lawful authority to provide an abundant supply of pure water. This may be done either by forcing the existing company to increase its supply and the care of the water, by condemnation and purchase of the works, or by building new works and bringing in a supply from other sources. The Board of Health say that the main stream now running into the reservoir “with a very little outlay of money intelligently expended might be greatly increased — at least one-half more, and possibly as much more as now flows in the pipes.” We have no doubt that an ample supply of pure water may be obtained from the Santa Rosa, Alamos and other streams flowing from the Guilicos range of mountains, but we would not set our opinion up against the estimate of a water engineer such as should be consulted by the Council at once. We would prefer to see the people own the works, believing that by proper management they could be made to return to the city a handsome revenue besides affording the best care of the water. The Council has adopted a resolution to submit a proposition to bond the city for $80000. This sum will no doubt have to be increased and ought to be if the city is to build new works, because they should be of the most substantial character in every respect. It would be economy to make them so rather than such as the official reports show we now have. The Council have acted wisely in taking time for mature consideration of the subject. Now that it has arrived at a definite conclusion the sooner it consults a competent expert and engineer as to plans the better.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 22 1891


Water Rights.

The Santa Rosa Water Works Company has brought suit against Mrs. James Hillman and J. Hillman for damages in the sum of $2,500 and for an order of court to compel the defendants to remove certain dams from a channel dug by the plaintiff from the springs on defendant’s property known as the Shaw springs. In the complaint the plaintiff alleges that the springs have been used by him for the last 14 years and that by the obstruction of said channel the plaintiff has been damaged in the sum of $2,500.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 26 1891


The Republican refers to this paper as the “organ of the Water Company.” We are not the organ of the Water Company, nor of any other special interest. Our mission is to build up the business interests of this community. The Democrat is a newspaper. It gives the current local news impartially, promptly and more in detail than any other paper. No one knows this fact better than our neighbor, but he could hardly be expected to proclaim it.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 3 1891


Their Magnitude and Importance to the Improvement of the City.

Residents of some time back are in a better position to realize the important part the water works have played in the development of the city and in increasing its residential attractions than those who have never known Santa Rosa except in its present state. It may be said without fear of contradiction from those who have the fairness to institute comparisons with other towns in the State that our water system both in supply and quality of water is one of the best in the State. All public institutions naturally come in for their share of criticism, much of it that is captious and less that is warantable, but when it is considered what money and labor have been and are being expended to make the works as perfect as possible, credit cannot be denied the company and its projector. Our older residents will remember what the works were in 1877 when Col. M. L. McDonald, president of the present company, purchased them from Messrs. Juilliard, Temple, Farmer and Davis. The present reservoir, which is even now undergoing extensive improvement, had not been constructed and the supply was drawn from the old reservoir farther up the canyon. The system was entirely inadequate to the needs of the city, even at that time and its rapid development made it necessary to expend a great deal of money in the improvement of the works. Soon after the purchase was consummated work began on the new reservoir, which cost over $15,000. Its capacity is 100,000,000 gallons. New pipes were laid and everything was done to render the service satisfactory to the patrons. Accordingly for years the supply was adequate and the consumers were supplied with an abundance of fresh, sweet and pure water for domestic and irrigation purposes. But with institutions of this kind the stage is never readied when it can be said the work is finished. Pipes wear out and new ones must be laid; miles of streets are opened through the city and it becomes necessary to extend the mains to meet the increasing demand, and as the town grows in size and population expenses for the company for improvement are piled up in a corresponding ratio.

The new main down Sonoma avenue extension entailed the expenditure of several thousand dollars and similar improvements go to swell the aggregate amount necessary to be expended in keeping up a plant of the kind. Not including the cost of the work now underway, the amount spent for improvements and developments by the present company since 1877 is $153,000. The work of raising the dam will cost between $10,000 and $15,000, and from 100,000,000 gallons the storage capacity will be increased to 230,000,000 gallons, a supply adequate, with the streams which are running into the reservoir all seasons of the year for the needs of a city of 50,000 inhabitants. Estimating the cost of these improvements it makes the valuation of $250,000 set upon the plant appear small. The site of the reservoir if fashioned by the hand of man could not be bettor adapted to the purpose, both as to elevation and distance from the city; and the topography of the land is such that in years hence, should it become necessary to increase the storage capacity, another reservoir could be constructed farther up the canyon. The main supply is derived from Santa Rosa and Los Alamos creeks, a dam being constructed at their junction, two miles above the main reservoir. The water as it flows over the pebbly beds of those creeks down from their fountain head in the mountains is as pure and limpid as the most delicious spring water. From the dam it is conveyed to the reservoir in closed pipes with screens at intervals to prevent impurities and foreign substances from contaminating its purity. At the reservoir the same care is taken to preserve the purity of the water, and with what success is shown by the fact that never in the history of the works has any disease or prevailing sickness been traced to the unwholesomeness of the water. And in this connection it is proper to state that the editor of the Democrat, in order to satisfy himself as to the chemical purity of the water, when the matter was under discussion several months ago, forwarded samples of it, taken by himself from a hydrant directly off one of the largest mains, to the State University for analyzation. In reply the following was received:

Berkeley, Oct. 9, 1891.
Thomas L. Thompson,
Dear Sir: —Inclosed find analysis of your well water, which proves it to be as good as any water need be for general use, and rather remarkable for the small portion of soluble salts it contains. This also shows it to be free from sewage contamination. If harder than you wish, boiling or mixing with about one-twentieth of its bulk of clean lime water will correct that; after mixing let stand a few hours, when a white sediment containing both the lime originally in the water, and that of the lime water will be at the bottom of the tank. For most uses, however, the water is abundantly good enough just as it is.

Very truly yours,
E. W. Hilgard.

Following is the analysis…

…The city owes much to Colonel McDonald, the president of the company, not only for his efficient management of the extensive works, but for the public spirit he has displayed in many other respects. The beautiful avenue bearing his name, lined on both sides with umbrogean trees and handsome residences was a grain field without a house or shrub upon it when he came to this city fourteen years ago. He bought the plot of 153 acres comprising McDonald’s addition and opened the avenue, planted the trees along its wide promenades, and soon afterwards constructed the street railway connecting the depot with the cemetery. Nothing can he fairer than judging a man by his works, and, taken on this evidence in the light of his liberality and enterprise in forwarding the interests of the city, his station is certainly among our most valuable and substantial citizens. He has ever taken a prominent part in forwarding schemes looking to the further development of the city, and many of the important measures which have been carried out during the last ten years bear the stamp of his pressing energy and rare good judgment.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 2 1892



The Democrat ends a long tirade of insinuations against the common council of the city of Santa Rosa with what it would have the people of this city believe is an analysis by Prof. Hilgard of the water of the reservoir from which this town is supplied.

But the first statement in Prof. Hilgard’s letter gives the lie to the entire proceeding. He says: “Inclosed find analysis of your WELL WATER,” etc.

Now Prof. Hilgard knows the difference between well water and that which runs or stand upon the surface of the ground. He is an exact scientist and would not call the few feet of material that stood at the bottom of Lake Ralphine in the autumn of 1891, when our people were denied the privilege of sprinkling their door yards and lawns because of the scarcity of water, we say he could have known that stuff was not WELL water and would not have applied that term to it.

Again, Prof. Hilgard referred to the hardness of the water sent to him and told how to soften it. Soften the water of Ralphine! Ye gods! We have been told time out of mind that its waters are soft and yet the corporation organ would like to have its readers believe that the only criticism Prof. Hilgard had to pass on those waters was in regard to their hardness.

Now there can be nothing clearer to anybody who knows the conditions of things here in the autumn of 1891, and who knows about Prof. Hilgard and his standing as a scientist, than that attempt was made to do a fraud.

Who furnished the Hon. Thomas L. Thompson with the water he sent to Prof. Hilgard? Out of whose WELL did it come? Let the facts come out. If Mr. Thompson was imposed on he owes it to the community to expose the imposter. It is evident that Prof. Hilgard detected the attempted imposition at once and hence his analysis of well water.

Again, if the Hon. Thos. L. Thompson was not altogether certain a fraud had been practiced on him or by him in this water, why did he not publish the analysis at the time it was made? Then the people were carrying water from wells blocks distant from their homes because they were afraid to drink the material that came from the water mains. Then an analysis of that material which would have shown that it was not charged with disease and death would have been a boon in the homes of hundreds of users. Why, we repeat, was the analysis not given to the people then?

Did Mr. Thompson discover the fraud? Has somebody dug up the report in his absence and published it without detecting the fraud on its face? Who furnished the water that was analyzed? Who paid for the analysis? There are a number of interesting questions to be answered in regard to this transaction that the Democrat will have to answer of stand before this community in most deplorable light.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 11 1893


A communication was received from the Santa Rosa Water Works Company, offering to sell their works to the city for $210,000, and the following resolution by Councilman Berka was introduced and passed declining the offer:

Whereas, The Santa Rosa Water Works Company having been requested by the special water committee to submit a proposition to the Santa Rosa City Council for the purchase of said company’s water works, and

Whereas, Said company has submitted a proposition, naming therein the sum of $210,000 as the price of said works, be it

Resolved, That the thanks of this Council are due and hereby tendered to said water company for the submission of a proposition to purchase their works, but in the judgment of this Council $210,000, the amount named as the price of said works, is far above its true value. Competent experts estimate that it will require $125,000 for a system of new and durable piping to distribute the water, that all parts of the city may have a proper service, to elevate the reservoir and properly clean, enclose and roof the same, to protect the water from continual pollution by man and beast and the festering rays of the summer suns. Therefore, be it

Resolved, That this Council could not in justice to the people they represent ask you to vote bonds to the amount of $335,000, necessary to purchase and improve said water works, and the proposition as submitted by the Santa Rosa Water Works Company is herewith respectfully declined…

– Sonoma Democrat, April 8 1893

Read More