guerneville1879

NOT OUR WETTEST YEAR, NOT EVEN CLOSE

We’ve certainly gotten a lot of rain this year. Now imagine getting even more than this during just 25 days.

The Press Democrat recently (March 2, 2017) offered an article, “Santa Rosa on its way to wettest year on record.” As of that date, according to the “Press Democrat Data Center,” the city had recorded 52.07 inches of rain, “more than all other years save for two since 1904 when record keeping began.” The PD also claimed the wettest rain year was “1982-83, when 55.68 inches fell in the city.”

Well, no. For starters, weather records didn’t suddenly begin in 1904; the old county histories list rainfall totals going back to 1853-54, and the PD used to print annual tables before the turn of the last century. Although there are a few years around 1920 where summaries aren’t reliable, we’ve got a pretty good picture going back over 160 years. Going by all that data, 1889-1890 was the wettest rain year with 56.06 inches measured.

I posted a correction to their article on my OldSantaRosa Facebook page and thought it was a settled matter – until I came across an article from the January 2013 Scientific American. “California Megaflood: Lessons from a Forgotten Catastrophe.” Described there is the winter of 1861-62, when there was so much rain that the Central Valley became a giant lake up to 30 feet deep. Napa was flooded to four feet and Sacramento was under ten feet of water, remaining accessible only by boats for months. It was a disaster hard to imagine today.

Lucky Sonoma County! According to the histories, that rain year we received 46 inches – higher than our average of about 30 inches, but certainly manageable. But just for fun, I decided to see what the Santa Rosa newspaper had to say at the time.

Holy. Cow.

The items from the 1862 Sonoma County Democrat, transcribed below, documented Santa Rosa receiving 58 3/8 inches of rain over six weeks – more than the all-time record for entire season. And there were two snowstorms, with the last one leaving more than an inch in the town.

“The roads everywhere are almost impassable, and wrecks of buggies and stages are common,” reported the paper after New Years’ – and it was about to get worse. On January 9 “the town was completely submerged – the water being in several of the streets about fifteen inches deep…Almost every bridge in the county has been carried off, and for four days we were entirely deprived of communication with any section.” Again Santa Rosa Creek flooded the town on January 21 and the town was cut off from the outside. “As we write our town is just overflowed from the creek, the water reaching to our office door – a distance of quite two hundred yards. Rain has fallen heavily all day, accompanied toward night with thunder and lightning! What a time!”

All together it rained for 25 days over six weeks. No one died (as far as we know) but animals drowned and “a few houses in various parts of the county… [lost] their perpendicular ‘posish.’” It was such a mess that a wagon with a team of horses took sixteen days to travel from Petaluma to Santa Rosa.

Why did the old county histories coverup this historic flood? The reported 46 inches for that season first appeared in Robert A. Thompson’s 1877 “Historical and descriptive sketch of Sonoma county, California,” and his numbers were copied in later histories. Thompson’s booklet – which was unabashedly a promotional item to encourage people to move here – did mention Santa Rosa plain lightly flooded sometimes. But to reveal only fifteen years before there was a disaster that killed livestock and destroyed property might understandably make a few potential property buyers skittish.

So how much total rain did Santa Rosa received in 1861-62? Alas, the local newspapers never reported a total, as far as I can tell – probably also to not scare away newcomers. But we can make a guess: Normally, roughly 45 percent of our annual rainfall happens during that window, and it otherwise was an exceptionally wet year overall.

If the Santa Rosa newspaper was accurate in measuring over 58 inches during that time, it could mean the rainfall total for 1861-62 was over 130 inches. That may seem crazy, but it’s in line with other parts of the state mentioned in Scientific American where they experienced four times normal precipitation that year.

Even if you shave those numbers back, our ancestors still received around twice as much rain as we have (so far) in 2016-2017. Could we cope with a disaster of that magnitude? I don’t want to think about that – and unfortunately, I doubt our public agencies are spending any time thinking about it either. And did I mention that a flood of that magnitude apparently happens less than every 200 years?

 

1879 flood in Guerneville, the oldest known image of a Sonoma county flood. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

 

The Weather and the Roads. — During the last week much rain has fallen. Some of the rain-storms were accompanied by violent wind. No serious damage has been done, and the creeks generally have graciously kept within (under the circumstances,) reasonable boundaries. The roads everywhere are almost impassable, and wrecks of buggies and stages are common. Daily stages have become per force semiweekly, and daily mails ditto. But the heavy rains of the season, we doubt not, are now over.

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 2 1862

Wintry. — On Saturday night last the good folks of Santa Rosa and vicinity were visited by quite a snow storm. It lasted about two hours, and on Sunday morning the hills surrounding the town presented a very beautiful appearance — the tops being clad in white.

A day or two previous, we were visited by a thunder-storm, which is also very unusual in this locality. We have heard of a very pleasing incident which occurred on that day, and which we think is worthy a place in our columns. Little Edgar C., about 4 years old, was playing in his father’s yard when the first clap of thunder came. It was probably the first he had ever heard, and he ran immediately in the house to his father and asked, —“Pa, did you hear the clouds bursting?” Shortly after, when the thunder had ceased, he went to the door and observing the clouds beginning to disperse, he turned to his mother and remarked, —“ Ma, it is not going to rain—God was only fooling you.”

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 9 1862

The Storm in Sonoma County. – During Wednesday and Thursday of last week, the rain came down in torrents, causing a great flood, which has probably done more damage than even the great flood of ’52. From every section of the State we have news of the most terrible results. In Sonoma county, though comparatively less property has been destroyed than in other portions of the State, yet we, too, have suffered. On Thursday night, about midnight, the Santa Rosa creek began to overrun its banks, and by two o’clock the town was completely submerged – the water being in several of the streets about fifteen inches deep, and flooding several buildings. It remained in this condition until about daylight, when it commenced to recede, and by 10 o’clock the streets were free of water. Our greatest sufferers this time were persons residing immediately on the banks of the creek. Mr. Wm. H. Crowell, Deputy County Clerk, sustained heavy damage by the caving and washing away of a large portion of his land, together with fences, etc.; he estimates his loss at $1,500. Mr. E. D. Colgan of the Santa Rosa House, was damaged in the neighborhood of $1,000, by loss of stock, land, fences, and a beautifully cultivated garden, that was entirely covered with sand from the creek, and all the plants destroyed. Mr. John Ingram suffered a great deal, from loss of fences and damage to his orchard. These are the principal sufferers that we have heard of, though all persons residing along the creek were damaged to some extent by loss of fences and stock. The Santa Rosa bridge still holds on, notwithstanding the foundation at each end is partly washed away. Almost every bridge in the county has been carried off, and for four days we were entirely deprived of communication with any section. We are informed that the saw-mill of Messrs. Caldwell, Levy & Witty, at the month of “the canon,” on Russian River was swept away, and a great amount of damage done all along the banks of the river.

At Sonoma, we learn the old courthouse, an adobe building, settled down and fell to pieces. The upper story of the building was occupied by the Odd Fellows and Sons of Temperance, as a lodge room, and the ground floor by Mr. N. Kavanaugh, as a saloon.

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 16 1862

The Great Storm and Freshet Rain has fallen hereabouts without material cessation, since the last issue of the Democrat — the severest storm and fresh, et ever experienced in this part of the country, since its settlement, still continues without any sign of abatement. The sensitive streams rise and fall with the capricious falling of the rain. The banks of Santa Rosa creek have been washed away to that degree, that the capacity of its bed is nearly doubled. Wo do not learn of much damage other than all may imagine in the destruction of such ordinary kind of property as fences, bridges and cattle, beyond the carrying away of the dwelling of ’Squire Spencer, situated upon a slough near Healdsburg, and the undermining of a few houses in various parts of the county, causing them to lose their perpendicular “posish.” Santa Rosa bridge was doubtless prevented from floating off, from the fact of its being secured by ropes. The roads are impassable, and not a few of our citizens have experienced some inconvenience from a want of provisions and other necessaries, as well as the utter absence of postal accommodations, in consequence. No mails have been received since Thursday of last week, no stage has reached here from Petaluma, since then, and but one from Sonoma, which got through on Sunday, bringing San Francisco papers of the 18th — our latest intelligence from the outside world. A loaded team bound for Ukiah, reached this place the other day, from Petaluma, having been sixteen days on the road, a distance of as many miles. It resumed its course, but only got a mile and a half from town, when it was obliged to “lay over.” As we write (Tuesday evening.) our town is just overflowed from the creek, the water reaching to our office door – a distance of quite two hundred yards. Rain has fallen heavily all day, accompanied toward night wit – thunder and lightning! What a time!

P. S.— Wednesday, 3 p. m. — Petaluma stage with mails, arrived at 1 p. m. Raining hard.

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 23 1862

Snow.—The second snow storm of the remarkable season, took place on Tuesday night, when it fell to the depth of quite an inch. So seldom does snow visit our inhabitants, that the oldest of them cannot remember that the valley has been thus visited before since its settlement.

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 30 1862

The Weather, etc. — since the heavy rain of Sunday, the weather has been such that our farmers have been enabled to re-commence plowing. They wisely exert themselves to the utmost to put in as large crops as they possibly can. Roads are improving every day.

– Sonoma County Democrat, February 6 1862

THE QUANTITY OF RAIN.-We have been favored with a statement of the amount rain that fell in this neighborhood, from December 22d to February 2d, inclusive. The rainy days of December, commencing with the 22d, were: the 22d, 23d, 24th, 26th, 27th, 29th, 30th, and 31st; January 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, 15th, 16th, 20th, 22d, 23d, 24th, 27th; February 2d. During these days of December, 8 5/8 inches of rain fell; of January, 48 3/8 inches; of February, 1 3/8 inches – making a fall of 58 3/8 inches of rain in the course of six weeks. Besides this, snow fell on the 30th and 31st days of January.

– Sonoma County Democrat, February 13 1862

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1905santarosacreek

THE GODAWFUL STINK OF SANTA ROSA CREEK

If you ever come across a time machine, avoid Santa Rosa in July, 1913. That month had the all-time hottest temperature (113 in the shade) as enormous wildfires blazed in Marin and Napa; it was also the second year of severe drought, causing the town’s reservoir to draw dangerously low. More about all that can be found in an earlier item, “THE AWFUL SUMMER OF 1913” but there was also something else: A terrible stench drifted up from Santa Rosa Creek.

The Press Democrat first reported PG&E was suspected as the culprit, as they operated the coal gas plant on the south side of the creek. A story in the PD the following day said the company investigated and it wasn’t them, instead suggesting it was probably “vegetation that has decayed,” causing the paper to skeptically snort, “at least that is their contention.” After weeks of complaints, Dr. Jackson Temple, the town’s Health Officer, and a reporter for the Santa Rosa Republican set off in a voyage of disgusting discovery to solve the mystery.

Ca. 1905 photo of Santa Rosa Creek, with the old Main Street bridge in the distance. Note the discharge pipe seen to the left. Photo Credit: “Santa Rosa, California in Vintage Postcards” by Bob and Kay Voliva

Dr. Temple and the reporter started behind the Levin tannery (the current location of 101 Brookwood Avenue). The tannery had a long history of polluting the creek with lime and highly toxic agents such as cyanide used in the manufacture of leather. Citizens had petitioned the City Council to get tough on the tannery and the Dept. of Fish and Game had sued over the poisoning of fish. But on the day of the creek survey, no problems were found – although cynics might wonder if the tannery had been tipped off about the creek investigation, given the business was Santa Rosa’s largest employer.

More distressing was what they found nearby: “Several piles of rotting vegetables and garbage were found at this spot and were evidently from private houses. There was plenty of evidence that many persons had used the creek for a considerable distance as an open air toilet.”

As their wagon continued bumping down the dry creek bed (drought, remember) they came to the PG&E gas plant, another source of frequent complaints about foul smells. And again, no problems were found that day, except for “a considerable deposit of lamp black” on the bottom of the creek. Dr. Temple proclaimed it harmless, but he was wrong; lampblack carbon residue was considered as toxic as petroleum tar even back then; in 1906 the Army Corps of Engineers specifically sued the Portland gas company for dumping it into the river and by 1913 PG&E had installed scrubbers at their plants in San Francisco and elsewhere to keep it out of the waterways.

So far, so good (mostly) – but as the Republican commented, “a short distance further on, however, came the worst conditions imaginable.”

This area was just south of the Davis street bridge, which was named in the earlier odor complaints. Today this section of Santa Rosa is gone, wiped out by the highway, but it was just where the southbound onramp from West Third street merges onto 101.

The main offenders were two major businesses, side-by-side: The Grace Brothers brewery (today the location of the Hyatt) and the Santa Rosa Tanning Company directly to its south. “The stench arising from this was indescribable,” the article said. “It filled the nostrils like blue smoke, filtered down into the lungs, and burned its way to the stomach, where it worked until it gave one the feeling of a bad morning after a worse night. The top of the water was covered solid with a green-black streaked scum, and the water beneath was as black as night.”

And that wasn’t all: “[A]nother sight was met which added greatly to the stench in the neighborhood. A toilet had been built of rough boards in the Mead Clark Lumber Company’s yards. The rear of the toilet was open and hung over the creek bank and its contents covered the bank for a distance of many feet.”

The next – and thankfully, last – horror was the cannery, where “two large streams of water were found pouring into the creek. The water was a wine purple in color and carried with it an orange colored scum, which was added to that from the brewery. Combined, the smell was almost overpowering” Just beyond that was a “great pile of refuse which was rotten and putrid, and which also gave off a most offensive odor.” Even though there was no further dumping downstream, the Republican said the stench from the water carried as far as where the creek passes under modern-day Dutton ave.

Gentle Reader is probably wondering why these companies were stinking up the town instead of discharging their waste down the sewers. As it turns out, that always might not have been an option.

Santa Rosa indeed had a sewer farm at the corner of West College and Stony Point (think Finley Community Park and the the city bus transit center) and by 1913 there were multiple septic tanks and several in-line evaporating/seepage ponds before the residual water was dumped into Santa Rosa Creek. But the system was usually teetering on the brink of collapse, according to John Cummings’ survey, “The Sewage of Santa Rosa” (which is a really fun read if you enjoy municipal screwups). In the decade before our stinky 1913 tour, town officials made a string of remarkably bad decisions. Some lowlights:

* In 1905 the city wrote to the Cameron Septic Tank Company in Chicago requesting plans and costs for a new tank. Told by the company that their system was patented and they required a deposit before providing plans, Santa Rosa ripped off the design and had locals construct it anyway. Cameron Septic sued, and Santa Rosa ended up paying back royalties plus the cost of building the copycat tank. That wooden septic tank was big enough to handle a population of 10,000, although there were already almost that many people in the greater Santa Rosa region. By 1912 the sewer committee reported the “sewage problem is in deplorable condition” as the system was beyond capacity.

 

* The original 1886 layout of the sewers called for eight-inch pipe west of Main Street/Mendocino, but only six-inch lines east of there into the main residential neighborhoods. By the early Twentieth Century, these pipes could not handle demands; every winter the sewer mains down Second and Fifth streets backed up. In 1913 the city approved a high water volume, “Wet Wash” laundry at the corner of First and A streets and every time it discharged wastewater, the Second street main line overflowed. The town’s solution was to ask the laundry to build a private cesspool but according to the Republican article, they had been dumping it into the creek.

 

* Santa Rosa failed to make incremental improvements even when it had the opportunity. After the 1906 earthquake hundreds of connections were repaired and there were new extensions of the sewer mains, all using the inadequate six-inch diameter pipe. When the city added a new line to serve the booming communities south of the Creek in 1914 they used eight-inch mains, which predictably backed up just as they did on Second and Fifth streets. Santa Rosa’s solution was to spend more on maintenance – installing new manholes allowing workers to use a sewer cleaning machine that cost the equivalent of about $24,000 today.

(RIGHT: Santa Rosa Creek at flood stage in 1925, as seen from the newer Main Street steel bridge. Photo credit: Sonoma County Library)

Compounding the odor problems of 1913 was the drought, which meant no moving water in the creek so pollutants stayed more or less where they were discharged. All that was about to dramatically change.

The winter of 1913-1914 was an El Niño storm season, and Sonoma county was hit hard; in the December 30 storm, Santa Rosa had four inches in 26 hours while Cazadero had fourteen. Many “wagon bridges” over creeks around the county were destroyed and the Russian River passed flood stage. Railroad crews and volunteers in Santa Rosa worked through the night to protect the Santa Rosa Creek bridges as “trees and timber of all kinds, fencing and all sorts of trash were being whirled along in the angry, muddy, turbulent stream,” according to the Press Democrat. In the thrilling account transcribed below, men with axes and secured by ropes chopped for hours on a tree rammed against the side of the Davis street bridge.

The creek probably smelled pretty good after that big flush, at least for a while. But nothing fundamentally changed. According to the Cummings paper, “the city’s own sanitary inspector described the condition of the creek in the spring of 1916 as being ‘worse than a septic tank’ and commented that nothing could be done about it.”

AROMA ANNOYING ON THE DAVIS STREET BRIDGE

People who have to cross the Davis street bridge are lodging complaints concerning the aroma that comes up from the stream. The befouling of the water is said to come from gas water from the gas works. It is hoped by the complaints that something will be done to relieve the present unpleasantness.

– Press Democrat July 24, 1913
SAY SEWER GAS IN FILL IS CAUSE OF STENCH

Thursday morning’s Press Democrat mentioned the annoying stench coming from the creek, supposedly caused by gas water from the gas works. It at once recalled the suggestion made long ago that there should be a commercial sewer, into which the drainage from the gas works, tanneries, etc., could be turned in. Several years ago this matter was up for discussion before the city council, and Mayor Mercier and the present council are also interested in the matter. So is Health Officer Jackson Temple, M. D. The gas people state that they made an examination, thinking that there was a leak of gas somewhere, but claim that the stench is probably caused by vegetation that has decayed since the fill was made for the Davis street bridge. At least that is their contention.

– Press Democrat July 25, 1913
CITY HEALTH OFFICER INVESTIGATES CONDITION
Of Santa Rosa Creek With a Republican Representative

No one need go to an auto polo game, nor to seventy mile an hour races, nor on a scenic railway for thrills. The Alps, Mt. McKinley nor any other peak can have any terrors for the person who takes a light wagon or buggy and drives down the bed of Santa Rosa creek from city limits to city limits. Apprenticeship for a deep water sailor can be gone through with in less than regulation time by taking this trip.

It is not a pleasant trip in any sense of the word. So much has been said and so much written concerning the Santa Rosa Creek that the REPUBLICAN determined to find out the conditions of the creek from an expert’s point of view, and let the people of this city know that condition, its cause and what it’s effect will be. The blame for the conditions can be placed at once. When this article is read over and nearly every condition described is noted by the reader, let him say simply, “A commercial sewer will prevent this condition.”

Blame for the condition lies entirely in this. If the city is to blame for not having such a sewer, that is another matter. But the direct blame for the conditions lies in the lack of a proper commercial sewer, or any commercial sewer for that matter, for the city is without one. There are certain factories on the creek which are creating more waste water every day than their sewer tappings are capable of carrying away. There are factories creating more waste water than the main sewer with which they are connected is capable of carrying, with no other factor or residence connected with it.

What shall these factories do? Shut down or use the creek as an outlet?

Certain it is that no more factories can be encouraged to come here until proper sewerage is provided for those already here, an epidemic will sweep this city and the cost of the sewer in dollars will be insignificant compared with the cost of an epidemic in human lives.

Now for the conditions. Dr. Jackson Temple accompanied a representative of the REPUBLICAN on the inspection of the creek. Dr. Temple is city health officer. He made the trip at the invitation of the REPUBLICAN because of the importunings of citizens who live along the creek and who have been keeping his telephones busy for the last few weeks sending in complaints of the unsanitary conditions which they claimed to be prevalent along the creek throughout the city.

The descent into the creek bottom was made in back of the tannery at the foot of F street. Several piles of rotting vegetables and garbage were found at this spot and were evidently from private houses. There was plenty of evidence that many persons had used the creek for a considerable distance as an open air toilet. This, by the way, is distinctly against the law. No waste water from the tannery was in evidence, at least not in any large streams. Had there been, the green vegetable matter noticeable in all stagnant water would not have been in evidence, as it was, through the pools at this point.

Passing from here after much violent pitching and rolling of the wagon, the back of the gas works was reached. Two large streams of water were being turned into the creek at this point from the works. A gas works sends its waste water through a long process of filteration with lamp black before it is turned into the creek or sewer, as the case may be. The water as sent into the creek is tested and passed by the Fish and Game Commission and therefore is pure enough not to cause trouble in the creek. For quite a distance below the creek, however, a considerable deposit of lamp black is noticeable on the bottome of the creek. According to Dr. Temple, this will not do any harm, nor cause any stench, and none was noticeable at this point beyond that arising from any gas works, and which is impossible to prevent.

Passing to the Wet Wash Laundry, the waste pipe which was recently broken and the water allowed to flood into the creek, was found to have been fixed, and there was no overflow, and has not been for some time as the ground where the flow had been was completely dried.

Dr. Temple, however, pointed out a white deposit left where the overflow had been and stated that this was to a great extent alkali and that turned into the domestic sewer, it would nullify the work of the septic germs in the tanks at the sewer farm. Along the creek at this point, however, there were many piles of garbage, again evidently refuse from residences. Piles were in various stages of decomposition and the stench was very strong although not spread over a very wide area.

Conditions along the creek from this point on for some distance were the best of any found. There were piles of tin cans festooned along the banks, rendering them very unsightly, but this offended civic pride more than bodily senses. Around the Davis street bridge, that is in close proximity to the bridge, everything was fairly clean.

A short distance further on, however, came the worst conditions imaginable. From the tannery came a small stream of bluish-white water, the odor of which was most unpleasant. A short distance on there was a good sized stream from the brewery, and still further on another larger stream from the same place. The stench arising from this was indescribable. It filled the nostrils like blue smoke, filtered down into the lungs, and burned its way to the stomach, where it worked until it gave one the feeling of a bad morning after a worse night. The top of the water was covered solid with a green-black streaked scum, and the water beneath was as black as night. This scum came down with the water over the banks and was traced to the brewery.

Just before reaching this another sight was met which added greatly to the stench in the neighborhood. A toilet had been built of rough boards in the Mead Clark Lumber Company’s yards. The rear of the toilet was open and hung over the creek bank and its contents covered the bank for a distance of many feet. This also is in direct violation of the law and will be attended to at once by the health authorities.

Passing on from the back of the brewery as quickly as possible, the railroad bridge was left behind and the camping grounds near the cannery were encountered. The sanitary conditions here are very commendable. Nothing had been thrown on the banks except old papers and a few cans. This is due to the persistent efforts of Dr. Temple, who insisted that the rules of sanitation be lived up to as much as possible in the camp.

The scum on the water was deeper the further down the creek one went, and the stench correspondingly more unendurable. Reaching the back of the cannery, two large streams of water were found pouring into the creek. The water was a wine purple in color and carried with it an orange colored scum, which was added to that from the brewery. Combined, the smell was almost overpowering. Just below the cannery, on the bank was a great pile of refuse which was rotten and putrid, and which also gave off a most offensive odor. This pile was seen to be fresh on one side and badly rotted on the other.

From the cannery to the Seventh street bridge, there was nothing else added to the creek in the way of vegetable matter or waste water. But the stench from the water at the Seventh street bridge was just as strong as at the brewery.

In making a resume and comparing notes of the trip, Dr. Temple was asked what the result would be if these conditions were not attended to and speedily at that. “Sickness, much of it, and in bad forms,” was his instant reply. Therefore, while no attempt will be made to point a moral, a question is left which needs a speedy answer: “Will the citizens provide a commercial sewer, or will they invite the inevitable epidemic.”

– Santa Rosa Republican August 15, 1913
SANTA ROSA CREEK IN A WILD MAD RACE
Much Anxiety Felt for Hours for Bridges–Big Tree Lodges Against Davis Street Bridge–Care Could Not Cross Electric Railroad Trestle Last Night

For some time last night when the storm was at its height considerable anxiety was felt for the safety of the Island bridge, the Main street bridge, the Davis street bridge, the electric railroad bridge and that across the creek at West Third street, as well as the old bridge at Pierson and West Sixth street.

Scores of people braved the storm and visited the bridges and at 2 o’clock this morning when a Press Democrat representative made the rounds people were still watching the mighty torrent racing along carrying al kinds of debris with it.

About 10 o’clock last night a big willow tree swept down and lodged against the Davis street bridge. Word was at once sent to Mayor Mercier and Street Superintendent Beebe and in a short time they were on hand with men and many of the big branches were cut away. This was accomplished by men with axes who climbed down onto the tree and were held from slipping by ropes placed about their bodies. At 1 o’clock this morning the tree was anchored with stout ropes so as to prevent if possible, its going further down stream to collide with the electric bridge.

The high water washed away considerable of the fill on this side of the Davis street bridge, but so far as could be seen the retaining wall on the Ellis street side was not damaged. A portion of the fill on the Main street side where the turn is mde onto the Island bridge, was also washed away. At 2 o’clock this morning Mayor Mercier, Superintendent Beebe and George Plover went out to the old pumping station to look at the bridge across the creek there which also carried the big water main. The bridge was in good condition.

Cars Don’t Cross Bridge

The electric cars to this city stopped on the other sided of the trestle bridge across Santa Rosa creek as it was deemed dangerous, owing to the tremendous torrent to cross. A crew of men employed by the railroad were on hand endeavoring to dislodge any debris that rammed against the structure. This bridge seemed in great danger. The Northwestern Pacific railroad had crew of men watching its bridge across the creek. Santa Rosa creek was a boiling torrent and the roar of the stream could be heard for a long distance. At 2 o’clock the water had fallen considerable but it was raining and a high wind was blowing.

A portion of a bulkhead near the electric bridge was washed out. Horses were moved from stables on the bank of the creek. Many awnings and signs suffered from the force of the wind and storm. It was altogether a wild night and people living along the banks of the creeks in town and in the country adjoining were considerably worried..

…The amount of debris carried by the waters of the creek was wonderful. When the water was at its highest last night big pieces of wood and other material kept up an almost incessant banging against the Island and Main street bridges, at times somewhat alarming timorous people gathered there. Trees and timber of all kinds, fencing and all sorts of trash were being whirled along in the angry, muddy, turbulent stream.

Men employed by the city were kept patrolling the various bridges all night to give warning should occasion arise when additional help might be wanted.

– Press Democrat December 31, 1913

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1913tamalpais

HUGE WILDFIRES, DROUGHT, RECORD HEAT: THE AWFUL SUMMER OF 1913

Anyone who lived through that week probably never forgot it. Wildfires were driven by drought conditions and unbearable temperatures, with newspapers reporting some new calamity nearly every day. Thousands of acres burned in separate incidents around the Sonoma Valley and near Petaluma while a large block in downtown Napa was lost in a fast-moving blaze. And that was just the second week of July, 1913.

The most dramatic of the fires happened as that week began. “Shortly before midnight the fire on Mount Tamalpais gained great headway approaching Mill Valley,” reported the wire service story that appeared in the Press Democrat on July 9. “[T]he flames are within half a mile of the city boundary. If the wind veers, Mill Valley and Larkspur are doomed.” Evacuation orders were issued for Mill Valley, Larkspur, Corte Madera and the little community called Escalle.

The fire had started a day earlier and was not considered a serious threat; the cute little train that putted along the “Crookedest Railroad in the World” continued bringing guests to the hotel and the tavern near the peak of the mountain, one of the Bay Area’s top tourist attractions with panoramic views. There was little concern at first when visitors were told the train wouldn’t be running for a while because the flames were near the tracks but when the phone line went down and the fire could be seen from the porch, people began to panic. As the sun was about to set and guests were threatening to take their chances walking down the mountain, it was agreed they would try to get through on the train. With the passengers wrapped in wet sheets, the train slowly chugged down the rails with its many switchbacks, now less picturesque as trees burned on either side. The train car caught fire at least once. The engineer stopped and shouted he would no longer take responsibility for what happened and some passengers got off. “Windows cracked and broke,” according to a first-hand account that appeared in the San Francisco Call. “Sparks flew in through the broken windows and set fire to clothing. Slowly the train rolled through the banks of fire. Every minute seemed an hour.” Two women were unconscious when the train finally pulled into the Mill Valley station after dark.

All Bay Area National Guard companies were mobilized, including Santa Rosa’s Company E as shown in the Press Democrat front page to the right. They joined 8,000 soldiers, sailors and firemen from San Francisco along with volunteers. Thankfully the winds calmed, but it still took them three days to beat out the fire using only simple hand tools and wet sacks.

The Mt. Tamalpais fire wasn’t the only major disaster in the Bay Area that season. After it was well under control, Lt. Hilliard Comstock and some of the others from Company E were sent to Santa Cruz. They could well have spent weeks chasing regional fire threats. Nor was Tamalpais even the worst; in September about 80,000 acres burned in Napa County, cutting a swath from Lake Berryessa to the Delta – which at the time was the worst wildfire in California history, although now it doesn’t even rank in the top 20. It was also the summer that Jack London’s incredible Wolf House burned before he was able to sleep in it a single night.

A major cause of the high fire risk that year was California’s suffering through a second year of drought, which was particularly bad in the North Bay. The Sonoma County average rainfall – as measured in Santa Rosa – is about 30 inches per season. The 1911-1912 rain year was 18.44 inches, or about sixty percent of normal; in 1912-1913 it was a little over 24 inches, which was down in the low-normal range. (A thorough discussion of local historic rainfall can be found in an earlier item, “WATER CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS.”)

For Santa Rosans, the worst of the worst came on the afternoon of Friday, July 11. Everyone was probably breathing a sigh of relief because the morning Press Democrat reported the Tamalpais blaze was contained. Then at noon the fire bell sounded; two houses were aflame on lower Seventh street in the Italian neighborhood. The SRFD was able to save one house but the other was a complete loss. Afterwards, someone checked the city reservoir – and found that fighting those fires had drawn water levels dangerously low to just five feet.

The mayor contacted both the PD and Santa Rosa Republican, asking them to alert the public: No lawns or gardens should be watered through the weekend, and “be as sparing in the use for domestic purposes as possible.”

Nearly everyone in Santa Rosa ignored his plea.

“A trip along one of the principal resident streets of the city Friday evening showed that in fourteen blocks there were but three houses in front of which the lawn was not being sprinkled,” the Republican grumbled. Those inclined to conspiracy theories apparently thought the mayor was crying wolf because water wagons were still hosing down the streets – essential because many people still used horses – and both papers had to explain the wagons didn’t use city water, instead sprinkling what the McDonald Water Company supplied from (what’s now known as) Lake Ralphine.

But we shouldn’t judge the water wasters too harshly. July 11 was also remarkable for setting the all-time record for the hottest day in Santa Rosa history – 113 degrees at one o’clock, with 126 recorded in direct sun (see historical temperatures). It was hotter in Santa Rosa than Phoenix (110) or Fresno (108). Because of the scorching heat the Petaluma Argus reported hundreds of chickens died; any apples hanging on the south and west side of trees turned brown.

It was an age before refrigeration and air conditioning, of course, and aside from splashing on some water from the tap or garden hose, relief only came from the ice plant at the Grace Brothers’ brewery on Third street. The place was mobbed, with five men required to serve the long line of sweaty Santa Rosans. The PD noted, “Many came in autos and buggies carrying 50 to 100 pounds each, while others on bicycles and afoot took 5 to 25 pounds in sacks or wrapped in paper.”

The heat wave passed but by the end of the month Santa Rosa enacted emergency water measures, as seen in the notice shown here. It was a throwback to the water rationing prior to 1907 discussed in the link above, except then the borderlines were east/west of Mendocino avenue with watering allowed every day at different times. The new edict was north/south of Fourth street on alternating days which was ever so much better because. Everyone was allowed to go nuts with their hoses on Sunday nights and a few neighbors probably even had water fights, wasteful though they be.

MAYOR MERCIER SAYS USE WATER SPARINGLY
The Supply is Too Low to Trifle With and Irrigation Should Stop For Few days

“The city water supply is too low to permit irrigation of lawns and leave sufficient for fire protection and even scant domestic uses.”

This statement was made in the office of the REPUBLICAN today by Mayor J. L. Mercier, directly after his return from the noonday blaze on Seventh street. The situation became apparent when water was needed to fight the blaze to which the department had been summoned.

“The reservoir was practically empty at the close of the day yesterday and after the pumps had worked all night there was but 5 feet of depth in our 15 foot reservoir.

“The water is simply–not there. We may as well admit the fact before loss of property–perhaps life–by fire drives the information into our hearts–or pockets.”

The mayor wished the REPUBLICAN to inform the people of the facts and beg them in their own interests–for their own protection to USE NO WATER FOR IRRIGATION PURPOSES until Monday at the earliest and to be as sparing in the use for domestic purposes as possible until a full reservoir shall give the property of the citizens the protection of a supply for possible use at fires.

Santa Rosa is not the only city thus situated. Stringent rules have been proclaimed in many California cities and in others citizens have been warned and cautioned–are continued daily.

Your home may be lost if water is squandered in careless domestic use, and, more especially if it is wasted in trying to save a few lawns.

It is up to the citizens and theirs will be the responsibility if serious trouble results from a neglect of this warning.

RECORD FLIGHTS OF MERCURY
Hot Stunts of the Local Thermometers

The “oldest resident” with his record of long ago hot spells was not around today, or if he was visible nobody met him. Thursday, July 10th, was the “hottest day,” with a maximum of 105, but this day, the 11th, at 11 A. M. the small god with the winged heels flew up to 107 degrees above zero. This is the registration of the big mercury machine of Lawson & Rinner on Fourth street, and while the peculiar position of the recording instrument may add two degrees over the government reading, this is the correct heat record on Fourth street, Santa Rosa. Today is the fourth transit of the mercury across the 100 line in this locality this year…The official maximum reported for Friday by the weather observer was 111 1-2 in the shade. In the sun 126 1-2.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican,  July 11, 1913
WATER WARNING GOES UNHEEDED
Citizens Fail to Realize the Danger of Famine

Property owners of the city who use the city water were very slow to respond to the urgent warning given out Friday by Mayor Mercier concerning the sprinkling of lawns and the general wasting of water. People in general do not seem to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. There is more water available today (Saturday) than there has been for the past two days, but the danger line is not passed by any means, and the city may face a water scarcity that will be of a lasting nature unless the citizens are willing to co-operate with the authorities in the matter of conserving the supply.

The sprinkling of the streets has been carried on an usual, and this has led to an opinion expressed many times that the warning against the waste of water is a cry of “wolf, wolf.”

This is not the truth as the city is buying water used on the streets from the McDonald company and is spending money to keep the streets in fair condition and the dust partly laid, that the comfort of the people may not be lacking.

If, on the other hand the citizens will show as much consideration for themselves in refraining from the useless waste of water at a time when danger threatens, the famine will easily be avoided. A trip along one of the principal resident streets of the city Friday evening showed that in fourteen blocks there were but three houses in front of which the lawn was not being sprinkled. As Mayor Mercier tersely expressed it, “Rather your lawn burn than your house.” A few days of rest and the thirsty lawns may drink again and in the meantime the people may sleep more securely in the knowledge that the fire pressure will defend their homes.

– Santa Rosa Republican,  July 13, 1913
WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE ICEMAN?
He’s Kept Might Busy These Days–Several Ice Men on the Job

Grace Brothers ice plant at the brewery has been having a heavy run the past week. Business has been brisk at the brewery itself. Owing in the warm weather beginning the Fourth, there has been a steady increasing demand for ice from all parts of town and the ice man has been unable to keep up with the demand.

For several days past many people have been going to the ice plant personally and securing what ice they wanted and carrying it away. Yesterday the place was fairly thronged and several men were engaged in getting out the ice and waiting on customers.

At 1 o’clock there was a long string of people lined up waiting their turn and no less than five men waiting on them. Yet the line was constantly lengthening.

Many came in autos and buggies carrying 50 to 100 pounds each, while others on bicycles and afoot took 5 to 25 pounds in sacks or wrapped in paper.

– Press Democrat,  July 12, 1913

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