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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WATER CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS

Busted! The city phoned last week to inform us we were violating Santa Rosa’s mandatory water-use restrictions – we were spotted using sprinklers during the day. After hanging up, I searched out the city’s drought web page. Sure enough, the new rules are “outdoor irrigation must occur between 8pm and 6am.” We did not know that and have adjusted watering accordingly.

The unsettling part of this incident was concern a neighbor might have snitched instead of speaking with us directly, but the water dept. staffer who called – and who undoubtedly has the only civic job more thankless than parking enforcement –  said the report came from someone “with the city.” Looking at the drought web page again, I found “water watch patrols, performed by city staff, are actively looking for water wasting behaviors.” Good Lord, it’s the return of the Water Police of yesteryear –  one of the most peculiar episodes in Santa Rosa’s history a century ago. Before getting into that topic, however, let’s look at some of the things said about our current situation.

* AVERAGE RAINFALL  Santa Rosa gets an average of about 30 inches of rain per season – give or take an inch or so, depending on where you are. Bennett Valley is different from downtown is different from Fountaingrove. While this makes “average rainfall” a bit of a fuzzy target, you can add up all the numbers claiming to represent “Santa Rosa” going back a century and come up with 30.36 inches. (Inexplicably, a search of Press Democrat articles over the last few years finds the paper variously claiming the average is between 31 and 40 inches, consistently skewed to the high side.) Historical data shows a standard deviation of 9.15, so a year with 21 inches of rain would be considered low-normal. 

* ANNUAL VS. SEASON   Not so vague is the definition of our rainy season; like most of the state, our “water year” is July through June. It makes no sense at all to discuss rainfall in terms of a calendar year, yet many resources – including Santa Rosa’s current Wikipedia page – can be found using calendar year totals. On the city web page linked above, it’s claimed “In 2013, Santa Rosa received less than 6 inches of rainfall.” That’s an alarmist statement and badly misleading; in the 2013-2014 water year, the total was nearly three times that. 

* MISSING HISTORY  Any discussion of “average” rainfall should come with the caveat that there are serious gaps in the historical record. In the Santa Rosa rain data between 1903-2010 (LINK) there are months incomplete or missing, and much of the data between 1916 and 1925 appear untrustworthy; move back to the 19th century and there are entire years either blank or have just overall county summaries. There’s a (surprisingly interesting) paper on the history of Sonoma County weather stations that discusses the various old records. The Press Democrat occasionally printed the readings going back to 1889, as seen in the illustration below. Recent measurements can be found from UC Extension and many places elsewhere.

* DROUGHT  Is Santa Rosa currently in a drought? Yes, absolutely – a drought is two or more consecutive dry water years, and this is the fourth we have floated near the bottom of the low-normal range, with 2013-2014 way down at an abnormal 17.91 inches. The situation’s not good, but not nearly as dire as many other parts of the state. Through the end of May our 2014-2015 year stands at borderline-abnormal 20.65 inches. This is probably Santa Rosa’s third worst drought since statehood (see above, re: missing history). Over the two water years of 1862-1864 there was only 29 inches combined, and about the same during the 1975-1977 pair.

Santa Rosa’s water situation was far worse at the turn of the last century, but not because of drought. I’ve written up various parts of that story in posts that can be found in the archives, and am shamelessly plagiarizing myself herewith. Links back to the original pieces appear at the end.

(RIGHT: Santa Rosa rainfall 1889-1912)

Although Santa Rosa was surrounded on all sides by fresh water (river, laguna, aquifer, even large creeks running through the center of town), the stuff that came out of the faucet more than a century ago was always somewhat foul and sometimes scarce. Part of the problem stemmed from the town having both privately owned and public water utilities with separate pipes running down all the main streets.

The water pipes for the private system belonged to the old Santa Rosa Water Works, better known as the McDonald Water Company, which had been operating since the mid-1870s. Water from the McDonald system was “soft” and considered good tasting, even though an 1891 report confirmed suspicions that its reservoir, Lake Ralphine, was contaminated with hog and human waste (maybe it was E.coli that gave the water its je ne sais quoi).

The municipal system came along in 1896 and was also plagued with problems from the start. City water was unmetered and free, but “hard” and tasted of sulphur. Still, they couldn’t keep up with demand because there weren’t enough wells and the steam engine pumps were underpowered. Even with the addition of a 1903 well that nearly doubled capacity, the city’s pipes were always at risk of running dry and a report the next year explained why: Almost a quarter of the water leaving the reservoir was lost somewhere in broken plumbing – 270,000 gallons just dribbled away every day.

(RIGHT: The 1909 rates for the hated Santa Rosa municipal water system. CLICK or TAP to enlarge)

Caught in the middle between these two “just good enough” companies was the public, stuck with choosing between bad and worse. The McDonald system had no incentive to upgrade its service while the city water works had trouble raising bond money for improvements as long as there was a competitor in the private sector. And it surely did not help that at a 1906 City Council meeting Thomas J. Geary was wobbling between jobs as city attorney and lawyer for the McDonald water system, where he argued that the city water works should be shut down. Along the way, Geary also told the Council the rich were entitled to more water than Average Joe because they paid more taxes.

Santa Rosa’s water system was such a mess the town enacted severe conservation measures. Policemen, firemen and city inspectors became the Water Police, empowered to wake you in the middle of the night if someone heard water running. A city inspector was hired to examine toilets, faucets, and other fixtures for leaks, and had powers to issue a $2.50 fine  – equal to a few days’ pay for the average worker – for each violation. There was also a monthly fee for every water fixture in your home; it’ll be 25¢ per month for the pleasure of that bathtub in your house and having an indoor toilet cost another quarter (and worth every penny). Water Police assessed extra charges for nearly everything; watering your lawn cost 1/2 cent per square yard per year, irrigating strawberries and vegetables, 3¢ per square yard.

And then there was the nutty Pavlovian alert system. Lawns and gardens could be watered only at certain times and/or certain days depending whether you lived east or west of Mendocino Avenue; in the scheme used following the earthquake, the east side could use a garden hose between 4 and 8 o’clock, while westerners had the hours between 5 and 9. Starting and stopping times were announced by the Grace Brothers Brewery steam whistle which also sounded to announce lunch time and quitting time. If you’re keeping track, all that meant the brewery whistle was sounding at 12, 4, 5, 8, and 9. When that whistle blew I imagine people often just stood still for a moment with their heads cocked, like puzzled dogs, trying to figure out if they were supposed to eat, start, turn off or go home.

Santa Rosa introduced water meters in 1905 with the promise that a family of five or less still could have 350 gallons of free water a day. But old habits die hard and the town kept the Water Police around at least through 1907, when the reservoir was finally patched and covered, a new well drilled, and high powered electric pumps replaced the antique steam engines. Street repairs after the earthquake also fixed many of those leaky pipes.

But water woes continued, now because the town screwed up installation of the new meters. In one outrageous SNAFU, it was revealed that five businesses – including a bakery and one of Santa Rosa’s largest saloons – were connected through a water meter for a private residence. The homeowner understandably refused to pay the excess-use water bill so the city shut off the meter, and thus the water supply to the home and businesses alike. Two of the businesses agreed to pay the flat business rate, but the others balked, leaving the water turned off. “Without the necessary water, sinks and toilets go without flushing and the neighbors are wondering ‘how about the sanitary condition’ of the block,” commented a letter to the editor.

By 1909, downtown businessmen were flatly refusing to pay their water bills, viewing the rates as capricious – a liquor store owed $2 a month but a dentist paid only a dollar above the base rate and physicians paid nothing. When others heard their neighboring businesses were getting away without paying, they began ignoring their bills as well. Thus on a fine spring morning in 1909, Street Commissioner W. A. Nichols marched up and down the downtown streets and shut off the scofflaw’s water. A standoff began, and soon the Press Democrat reported, “For the last few days block after block on Fourth street has been without water.”

After a week without toilets or tap water, about a dozen delinquent businesses paid their bills. At least one major property owner thumbed his nose at the city system and signed with McDonald. But Santa Rosa’s intractable policies placed still other companies in a Catch-22. Most buildings had only a single water hookup, yet there could be more than one business at that address. Under city rules, all water was shut off to the building if any of the businesses there were past due. One company caught in the middle was the main downtown grocery store: Erwin Brothers, at 703-705 Fourth street. They went to city hall to pay every cent in arrears and make a deposit toward future payments but the city refused to accept their money – there was another tenant in the building who still didn’t want to pay. After nine dry days, the Erwins illegally turned the water on themselves and filed an injunction against the city to keep it on.

What happened next probably had the town buzzing. According to comments from the Erwins published in the Republican, the mayor personally asked them to drop the lawsuit, suggesting, “Why don’t you connect with the McDonald system and save all this trouble,” foolishly placing Santa Rosa in legal peril, given they were litigants against the city over this very issue. The mayor claimed none of that was true and he hadn’t even spoken with them; the Erwins countered with details of the visit, including the mayor had left his kid waiting in the buggy.

The suit was dismissed a couple of weeks later and the business hookup rules fixed, bringing to an end over a decade of various skirmishes in the Santa Rosa Water Wars. For years the city still had two water systems – the McDonald Water Company continued to operate through the Roaring Twenties. The city eventually simplified rates so residents were no longer paying different prices to water their watermelons and flowers. But city water still was hard and sulphurous, so on warm summer afternoons the sprinklers danced wild over Santa Rosa lawns with a golden spray and a faint stench of eggs gone rotten.

SOURCES:

SANTA ROSA’S WATER SYSTEM WARS
WATCH OUT FOR THE WATER POLICE
PLENTIFUL WATER, BUT IT STILL TASTES AWFUL
HEAR THAT PAVLOVIAN WHISTLE BLOW
NOW IT’S THE WATER METER WARS
WHEN “BUSINESS FRIENDLY” SANTA ROSA NEARLY CLOSED DOWNTOWN

For further reading: Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings

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SNOWBALL FIGHT!

Kids in Sonoma County rarely had the opportunity for a snowball fight, so the little heathens (and a few adults) had a grand time after the January, 1907 snowstorm. Except when the guy tried to kill them with an ax.

If the “Jap” references in one of the items below seems offensive, see the previous post for a discussion of what was appearing in other California newspapers at this time.

The house in the postcard image below is the Belden House built in 1902, and which still stands at the corner of Cherry Street and Humboldt Avenue. (Courtesy the Larry Lapeere Collection)

BEAUTIFUL SNOW FALLS OVER COUNTY
Orange Trees Broken but the Golden Fruit Is Uninjured

Santa Rosa and Sonoma county were treated to a genuine eastern snow storm Sunday. The fall of the beautiful began shortly after 8 o’clock and continued for about two hours. It brought joy to the native Californians, who seldom see anything of that kind, and memories of home to the people from the east who have located here.

The small boy was in his element throwing snow balls while the snow lasted and was joined heartily by his elders. The exhilarating sport was indulged in by all, and many hard knocks were given and taken with the pellets of snow. Not even the policemen were exempt and Officer Ed Skaggs took his share with the rest, being compelled to seek his helmet several times after it had been knocked from his head.

Many windows were broken in this city by being struck with the balls and the fall of snow made business for the glazier.

Chinese and Japs who essayed to walk the streets were given a rousing reception, but the sport was by no means confined to these races. Everybody who ventured out got his full share of snow balls and even more. Many venturesome youths got on top of buildings and there rolled up huge balls of snow which they dropped from the roof onto unsuspecting passers by. An inebriated individual who chanced to go down the street was pelted for several blocks and furnished rare sport for the small boys and men. Women were not exempt from the general bombardment and they were pelted fully as much as were the men.

Two Japs who were trying to board the California Northwestern train were rescued with difficulty by Roadmaster J. W. Barrows. They had been caught by a crowd, who were determined to bury the little brown men beneath the white pall. The Japs did not become angry, but entered into the spirit of the occasion. They were permitted to depart in a volley of snow balls.

[..]

Snow falls so seldom in Santa Rosa or Sonoma county that it is a genuine surprise to see it here. About five years ago a slight fall of the beautiful occurred, but it vanished in a couple of hours under the warm rays of the sun. Previous to that it had been many years since any snow was seen here, and there have been few falls of snow within the memory of the oldest inhabitant.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 7, 1907
CHARGES CROWD WITH AN AXE
Hotheaded Frenchman Seeks Revenge Upon Lads Who Snowballed Him in Petaluma Sunday

Swinging an ax above his head in a threatening manner Victor Bogue, a baker, lately of France, and altogether ignorant of the playfulness of the American youth when it snows in Petaluma and in Sonoma county where it is a novelty, got his French blood up on Sunday morning and charged some of the snowballers. Each time the ax went wide of its mark, and its edge was dulled by contact with the cement sidewalk. When things were at a pitch of wild excitement Constable James Sullivan took the situation in hand. It was not until he had managed to avoid the swinging ax and poke his revolver under the Frenchman’s nose that the latter dropped his wood cleaver.

It seems that the dough-mixer’s wrath had been kindled just before the snowballs were thrown by seeing two companions roughly handled by other men. A Petaluma man in town Monday gave a very realistic description of the encounter to some friends here. Bogue was taken to jail and detained for a short time until his wrath had subsided and the snowballs were no more.

– Press Democrat, January 8, 1907
SWUNG AXE AT CROWD

Victor Bogue, a Frenchman, swung an axe at a crowd of Petalmans on Sunday when the crowd attempted to snow ball him. He had previously seen two of his countrymen pretty roughly handled and determined that he would not suffer similarly. Ignorant of the ways of the people here and having recently come from France and being unable to understand the language, he is not to be blamed for his display of wrath. The man was permitted to plead guilty to a simple assault and Recorder Lyman Green fined him ten dollars. He attempted to chop some one with the weapon, but only chopped a hole in the cement sidewalk.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 8, 1907

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