goldengateFB

IF YOU BRIDGE IT THEY WILL COME

Imagine if the Golden Gate Bridge was never built – engineering issues couldn’t be solved, perhaps, or maybe there were insurmountable economic hurdles, or just not enough political will. What would Sonoma County be like today?

The only way to get here from San Francisco is by ferry, for starters, so Santa Rosa is a much smaller place. There was no population boom after World War Two; it’s a rural county seat somewhat like Ukiah, and the courthouse is still in Courthouse Square because they patched up the mostly cosmetic damage from the 1957 earthquake instead of tearing it down. Stony Point Road is the Highway 101 bypass, its two lanes swelling to three at the stoplights where there is cross traffic and turn lanes. Tourists clog the Redwood Highway on weekends because the winery events, resorts, spas and casinos in the countryside make this a popular getaway destination for the rest of the Bay Area, while the weekly Press Democrat is always pushing for year-round motocross and horse racing at the fairgrounds in order to draw visitors downtown. “Sonoma County? Sure, it’s a nice place to visit, but no, I…”

Building the bridge was never a sure thing, but it wasn’t because there was formidable opposition. Yes, there were efforts to slow or stop the project but it wasn’t ongoing, popping up only when the project neared a funding or construction milestone. None of those challenges posed serious threats, but were more like pesky nuisances.

Yet when the project launched in 1923 it seemed delusional to believe it would ever pass beyond the blueprint stage. Not only were there some engineers who thought it was folly to attempt constructing the longest bridge of its kind at that particular place, but its promoters had to run an incredibly complex political gauntlet, convincing Washington and Sacramento to back it enthusiastically – all before doing the basic studies which would prove the concept was viable. And even after construction began in January 1933, a retired geologist made a splash by predicting the south end could never be made stable, requiring months of further testing to prove him wrong.

All in all, it took almost 20 years to get to ribbon-cutting day. This is not the place to tell that whole story; the Golden Gate Bridge District has history pages for further details on the critical years of 1928 and 1930 (although some of the information on bridge opponents is wrong). A version of the original 1916 article proposing the idea is transcribed below.

The original 1922 design for the Golden Gate Bridge by architect Joseph B. Strauss, who said it could be built for $17,250,000 and opened by 1927. The final cost was almost exactly twice as much and took until 1937 to complete. Most of the credit for the appearance we know today goes to Charles Ellis, who was the prime designer of the bridge 1929-1931
The original 1922 design for the Golden Gate Bridge by architect Joseph B. Strauss, who said it could be built for $17,250,000 and opened by 1927. The final cost was almost exactly twice as much and took until 1937 to complete. Most of the credit for the appearance we know today goes to Charles Ellis, who was the prime designer of the bridge 1929-1931

Local folks probably know that the key part of the origin story concerns doings in Sonoma County by two men: Frank Doyle, president of the Exchange Bank as well as the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, and Press Democrat editor/publisher Ernest Finley. Although Doyle modestly said he was “just one of the hundreds who helped to put the bridge over,” he always will be remembered for kicking the project off by organizing the January 13, 1923 conference in Santa Rosa which brought together over 250 bankers, business leaders and politicians, which earned him his spot standing next to the governor and the mayor of San Francisco when the bridge was officially opened. Finley was the indefatigable champion for the cause, turning the Press Democrat into a soapbox for promoting funding and construction, cheering every nugget of good news and booing every bit of bad.

After Finley’s death in 1942, however, the story shifted; it was said the newspaper suffered by losing subscribers because of its bridge advocacy and Finley was a warrior editor battling powerful railroad, logging and farm special interests opposed to the bridge. This version has taken root over the years in the PD and elsewhere; here’s the version from the Media Museum of Northern California: “…In this particular crusade, which spanned at least two decades, Finley stood almost alone…he was opposed by nearly everyone. His business suffered as he lost advertising accounts and subscriptions. But he continued the campaign, insisting, ‘Damn the circulation! The bridge must be built!’” That’s now his legacy quote although it’s probably apocryphal.1

The problem with that narrative is it’s not really true.

The only special interest actually fighting bridge construction was (surprise!) the ferry companies, which were controlled by Southern Pacific – their astroturf citizen’s groups and 11th-hour courtroom posturings were widely viewed as transparent attempts to delay the inevitable clobbering of their businesses once cars and trucks could drive the bridge. More about that in a minute.

What irked Finley and the other boosters far more was the 1927-1928 pushback from a scattered group of Sonoma County property owners whose anger was whipped up by an anti-tax rabble-rouser.

Ladies and gents, meet Cap Ornbaun, fulltime crank.

Casper A. Ornbaun was always identified in the newspapers as a San Francisco lawyer and he indeed had an office in the landmark Spreckels Building on Market Street, although it seemed he didn’t use it much – on the rare occasions when his name appeared in the papers for doing something attorney-ish it was almost always about handling a routine probate estate, usually in the North Bay. While he lived in Oakland he told audiences he was fighting the bridge as a Sonoma County taxpayer; he owned the 18,000 acre Rockpile Ranch above Dry Creek valley which was used as a sheep ranch. (In a rare non-bridge court filing, he sued a neighboring rancher in 1937 for briefly dognapping four of his sheepdogs, demanding $6,000 for “tiring them and causing them to become footsore and unable to go through the regular shearing season.”)

Why Ornbaun so loathed the idea of a bridge across the Golden Gate is a mystery, but he turned the fight against it into a fulltime cause – maybe it was his midlife crisis, or something. Starting in 1926 it seems he was in the North Bay almost constantly, arranging small group meetings where he could bray and bark against the bridge project.

At least once Mark Lee of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce was invited to formally debate with Ornbaun, but otherwise his speaking engagements were rant-fests attacking anyone or anything connected to the project, including the Press Democrat. At one appearance in Sebastopol he came with dozens of copies of the PD which he handed out to prove the paper was “the bunk.”

The Santa Rosa papers mentioned him as little as possible (no need to give him free publicity) but his appearances in small communities like Cloverdale were newsworthy and the local weeklies often quoted or paraphrased what he had to say. Here are a few samples:

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Only San Francisco weekenders would ever use the bridge
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Strauss is a nobody; Strauss only knows how to build drawbridges; Strauss realizes it will be impossible to actually build it and is just looking to make a name for himself
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It will cost over $125 million, or about 5x over estimates
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Safeguarding against earthquakes will cost an additional $80-100 million
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Maintenance costs would be $5,707,000 a year; it will cost $300,000/year to paint it
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It will be impossible to get enough cars across the bridge to have it pay for itself
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It would run a deficit of $4,416,230/year
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It will take too long to cross it
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Nobody knows if people would prefer driving across a bridge rather than crossing the bay by ferry
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If it collapsed during construction we would be out our money with nothing to show for it
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It would be a high profile target during a war and if it were bombed the Navy fleet would be bottled up in the Bay (that was actually a 1926 Navy objection)
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The Board of Directors are not “angels”

His main accomplice in bridge bashing was James B. Pope, a civil engineer who once worked for the Southern Pacific railroad. Ornbaun praised him as “a consulting engineer of prominence” and “the boy who knows the bridge business” (Pope was 61 years old at the time) because he had once built a 310-foot wagon bridge in San Bernadino county. The wacky cost estimates above likely all came from Pope, who finally decided the bridge would cost exactly $154,697,372 based on his analysis of geodetic survey maps. Strauss had, by the way, offered to share with him the studies prepared by his engineers, but Pope declined to look at them because he “did not need it.”

Ornbaun, Pope and a couple of others had been busy fellows in 1926-1927 and collected about 2,300 signatures of property owners who wanted to opt-out from the proposed Bridge District.2 This meant court hearings in each of the counties with sizable opposition – a process which delayed the bridge project by a full year. But hey, the hearings gave Ornbaun a chance to strut his stuff in courtrooms and cross-examine Strauss, Doyle, Finley, and other project leaders, seemingly fishing for someone to admit the whole plan was a scam or at least that true cost would be closer to Pope’s absurd estimates.

What did come out in testimony was that the booster’s motives were far less altruistic than expressed at the 1923 conference, where it was said the high-minded mission was uniting the Bay Area into “one great thriving populous community,” and bridging the Golden Gate “cannot be measured in dollars and cents.” They were very much using dollars and cents as their measuring stick; Doyle and others who testified were clear their primary objective was jacking up Sonoma and Marin real estate, and they originally wanted Strauss to build something fast and cheap.

Although the 1927 PD headline below says property values might double, some of the actual testimony on that day predicted it would shoot up to 400 percent. And even if the bridge couldn’t built for some reason, they were already ahead – speculators had been buying and selling Marin and Sonoma land on the promise of the bridge almost immediately after the 1923 conference.

1927realestateSorry, Casper – despite all your efforts, the court threw out your case at the end of 1928. That meant the Bridge District could be formed and impose a small property tax to pay for tests and studies to see if the bridge could be built at all. Ornbaun continued to rattle around for a couple of more years making threats to sue, but no one paid much attention.

Flip the calendar ahead and it’s 1930, time for the District’s six member counties (San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Del Norte, parts of Napa and Mendocino) to vote on a $35 million bond measure to pay for construction. And suddenly there are new bridge opponents: The Pacific American Steamship Association and the Shipowners’ Association of the Pacific Coast. They’re saying the bridge might be too low for safe passage, and there should be first an independent investigation by the state – never mind that the War Department had already approved it as having enough clearance for any ship in existence or under construction.

The Press Democrat and ads by the Bridge District fired back that the “Ferry Trust” was using the associations as front groups to confuse voters, but never explained the connection. Perhaps they didn’t know at the time that the two associations were essentially the same company, in the same offices and the president of both was the same man: Captain Walter J. Petersen – a man who apparently had no familiarity with steamships except as a passenger. The “Captain” in his title referred to his Army service in WWI, or maybe because he was also a captain in the Oakland Police Department in the 1920s (he was Police Chief for awhile, and always referred to as “former Chief” in print except when the reference was to the associations).

Sorry, Captain/Chief – the bond passed with overwhelming support, and nothing more would be said about those serious threats to navigation which were keeping you awake nights. To celebrate, Santa Rosa threw a “Victory Jubilee” parade which included a huge bonfire in the middle of Fourth street, with an effigy labeled “Apathy” thrown into the flames.

The last challenge to the bridge happened in 1931-1932, just months before construction was to begin. This time it was a suit in federal court charging the Bridge District was a “pretended corporation” so the bond was null and void. This time the ferry companies convinced two businesses to act as fronts for them.3 This time the ferry companies used their customary law firm to represent their proxies in court. This time it was so transparent that the ferry companies were behind this crap the American Legion and other groups demanded a boycott of the ferries as well as the Southern Pacific railroad. This time the ferry companies gave up in August, 1932, rather than pursuing their nuisance suit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What’s truly amazing about all this was the contemptuousness of the ferry companies, no matter what. Sure, our lawyers are representing those companies in the anti-bond lawsuit, but so what? We’re not actually a party to the suit! No, the bridge is not necessary – our ferries are more than capable of handling the traffic demands across the Golden Gate! Never mind that there were routinely hours-long backups on the auto ferries during peak times. At the end of the 1926 Memorial Day weekend there were eight thousand cars in Sausalito queued up for a spot on a ferry. Many gave up and parked their autos as far away as San Rafael so they could get a seat on a ferryboat and make it in to work the next day. It took three days working around the clock just to clear the line of people who were still patiently waiting with their cars.

It was because of these crazy bottlenecks that everyone, everyone, hated the ferries so much that the North Bay was ready to consider a ferry boycott, even though it would have cut us off from nearly all connection to San Francisco – we might have been forced back to the pre-1870 heyday of Petaluma riverboats.

Without its monopoly, the ferry was doomed. Where they had earned a 25 percent profit a year (!!) in the mid-1920s, they lost $1,000,000 in 1937 after the Golden Gate Bridge opened. The company slashed fares. They tried to sell the franchise to the Toll Bridge Authority for $3.75M. Finally in July 1938 – 14 months after the first car drove across the bridge – Southern Pacific closed the ferries to the public.

But during the days of opening celebration, the ferries were never mentioned. On that 1937 Memorial Day weekend the public could not wait to be on their new bridge. During the preview “Pedestrian Day,” 202,000 came to walk the bridge, so many that the turnstiles couldn’t keep up; they opened the barriers and put out tin buckets for people to throw in the nickels. The Press Democrat reported bands played from the San Francisco shore as bombs burst in the clear, deep blue sky.

In Santa Rosa there was a breakfast held in honor of Frank Doyle – who insisted he was the “stepfather” of the bridge, not its father. Mark Lee – the former Chamber of Commerce guy who debated Ornbaun a decade earlier – reminded the audience that the prize was still boosting the town: “…you face great opportunity. The tourists’ dollars, as well as those of business investors and home seekers will find a place in your community, now made so accessible to the thousands who will come into northern California.” Ernest Finley spoke of the “untold advantages and development for Santa Rosa” brought by the bridge.

On the editorial page Finley also reminded that thousands of people would be driving through Santa Rosa enroute to the ceremonies, and the governor of Oregon and other officials were being given a reception in Juilliard Park that afternoon. “Never before has Santa Rosa, destined to be the focal point for population and industry after the mammoth span is opened,” he wrote, encouraging residents to greet the cavalcade by lining Mendocino and Santa Rosa Avenues, showing “a proper display of enthusiasm.” There was much to cheer with enthusiasm that day, particularly if you were a Sonoma County realtor.


1 The “Damn the circulation” story first appeared as an afterword to “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” a collection of Finley’s thumbnail descriptions published in 1942 after his death. There Press Democrat Publisher Carl R. Lehman wrote that Circulation Manager McBride Smith approached Finley at his desk and told him the paper was sometimes losing 50-100 subscribers per day. “We can’t keep going at this rate. Our circulation will be ruined if this keeps up.” Lehman continued, “without looking up from his desk, Finley replied in his quiet but determined voice: ‘Damn the circulation. The bridge must be built.'” Smith recounted the story himself in a 1949 PD tribute to Finley but added, “he pounded the desk with his fist” as he said it. While the quote certainly matches Finley’s sentiments, it seems like an odd thing to blurt out to an office employee.

2 The anti-Bridge District count was 823 property owners in Napa and 902 in Mendocino. There were originally 574 signatures from Sonoma County, knocked down to 555 by the time the hearings began in November, 1927. That’s likely close to the number of Press Democrat subscribers who cancelled.

3 The two companies in the 1932 federal suit were the Del Norte Company, Ltd. (identified in the press only as “a large Del Norte property owner” and a “lumber firm”) and the Garland Company, Ltd. real estate firm of San Francisco led by Robert E. Strahorn, one of 92 property owners who had joined a taxpayer’s anti-bridge group as part of the 1930 opposition to the bond. The president of Southern Pacific-Golden Gate Ferries, Ltd. S.P. Eastman admitted in court he had sent a letter to Del Norte Company asking them to file the suit and promising to pay all legal fees (wire service story in Press Democrat and elsewhere, Feb. 20, 1932). Their involvement, combined with a September 3, 1925 editorial in the San Francisco Examiner, “Bridge No Foe to Lumbermen”, has led modern writers to claim there was substantial bridge opposition from logging interests, but I don’t find that mentioned in any of the voluminous coverage of all things related to the bridge in the Press Democrat, Ukiah papers, or elsewhere.

1928ferry
 

sources
 

‘It’s the Bunk,’ Ornbaun Says In Discussing S.F. Bay Span

…Ornbaun was armed with many generalities, few if any figures, and an armful of Press Democrats. He spent most of his time asserting that the Press Democrat was the bunk and seeking to explain how the newspaper had sold itself to the bridge project. Incidentally, he asserted also that the bridge project was “the bunk.”

“The bridge can’t be built. I know it can’t be built. It is impossible to build it. And after it is built it will cost $300,000 a year to paint it. Such, in effect, was his reference to the proposed span from San Francisco to Marin county.

“I am interested in this fight only because I am a Sonoma county taxpayer,” he asserted. He referred to the fact that he represents 20,000 acres of Mendocino and Sonoma county land, but did not mention that it was sheep land.

“I have not been promised money by the railroads or timber interests, he continued. “When the bridge is built it will take too long to cross it.”

The speaker took occasion to flay Joseph B. Strauss of Chicago, one of the country’s foremost bridge engineers, by saying Strauss is “guessing” in his Golden Gate bridge design. He praised one Pope, who in a Humboldt county meeting admitted he was not a bridge engineer, as “the boy who knows the bridge business.”

“I hope to address more people next time I speak,” concluded Ornbaun, speaking to a crowd which had dwindled to about 50, about half of whom were from Healdsburg and points other than Sebastopol…

– Press Democrat, March 17, 1926

 

BRIDGING THE GOLDEN GATE

THERE IS AN OLD SAYING to the effect that the luxuries of today are the necessities of tomorrow. We also have the necessities of today that must be met without wailing for the tomorrows. With these must now be classed the bridge across the Golden Gate, once regarded merely as an idle dream.

San Francisco, cooped up as she is with a land outlet in only one direction, has come to realize that a bridge across the Golden Gate is necessary to her further growth and development. We of the North Bay counties know only too, well that this section of California can’ never come fully into its own until we have been brought into direct connection with the metropolis.

Engineers agree that the bridge can be built. Financiers assure us that the necessary funds will be forthcoming. Under the circumstances, no time should be lost in putting the project under way. With such a spirit back of the movement as was manifested here Saturday, there seems to be no good reason why actual construction should not begin at a very early date.

Then watch us grow!

– Press Democrat, January 14, 1923

 

You Can’t Convince Him

Arguments heard from time to time against the feasibility of the Golden Gate bridge project represent for che most part a set mental attitude of those who do not want to be convinced. You cannot discuss projects of this character with men who begin by sweeping aside with one breath all the arguments in its support, and attempt to start from there-There is the man, for instance, who sets his judgment against that of the worlds foremost engineers and says the bridge cannot be built at all. We also have the man who has heard somebody opine that the cost will not be twenty-five millions as has already been carefully computed by experts, but sixty or eighty millions, and who knows it will really cost a lot more. We have also the individual so constituted that upon his mind facts already established and details actually accomplished make no impression. He does not want to take them into consideration and so ignores them or else calmly denies their existence There is also the man who is devoid of imagination. He cannot possibly see how connecting this part of the state with the rest of California and cutting out the troublesome ferries, could improve conditions, add anything to our population or increase property values The bridge cannot be built, because nobody has ever built one like it up to the present time; if possible to construct such a bridge, its cost would be many times that estimated by people engaged in the business, and therefore prohibitive; the cost would not be met by the collection of tolls, as planned by its projectors, but from the pockets of the taxpayers; it is a county matter rather than a district undertaking, as set forth in the law, and consequently if the bridge should be constructed and finally prove unsuccessful final responsibility would rest with the counties making up the district and perhaps with some one county alone, with the result that that county would be wiped off the map; there is no way one can prove that people would cross on a bridge in preference to crossing the bay by ferry, or that more people would travel up this way if they could do so more conveniently than they can at present, because that fact has not yet been demonstrated; if the bridge should be built and something should happen to it later on, or if it should collapse during time of construction, the bonding companies might net pay and we would be out our money and have nothing to show for it these are some of the arguments of the man who is against the project for reasons of his own, but does not care to come out and say so. Talking with him is a waste of time.

– Press Democrat, August 1, 1925

 

Great Engineering Feat Proposed to Connect Marin-San Francisco Counties by Bridging the Golden Gate

Mr. James H. Wilkins, one of the eldest residents of San Rafael and a man who has the best interests of the county at heart has interested himself in the great scheme of connecting Marin County with San Francisco county by the construction of a massive bridge across the Golden Gate.

Would Extend From Lime Point to Fort Point Bluffs

A lengthy article accompanied by a map was presented in last Saturday’s Bulletin. It is not a new scheme but has been talked of for a great many years. Nothing, however, as definite as the plan therein presented by Mr. Wilkins has been advocated. This great project should appeal not only to the residents of Marin County but the residents of the entire northern part of the State.

Quoting from Mr. Wilkins communication the following plan is outlined:
From Lime Point To Fort Point Bluffs

“To give a general descriptive outline, the abutments and backstays would be located, respectively, on the rocky blue of Lime Point and on the high ground above Fort Point. The breadth of the “Gate” here is 3800 feet. The towers over which the cable pass, would be so located as to give a central span of 3000 feet, and side spans of approximately 1000 feet. The catenary, or curved line formed by the suspended cable, would have a central dip of approximately 65 feet. Therefore, the elevation of the towers must be 215 feet to secure the clearance required.

“From the southern abutment the railroad line would descend by a threequarters of 1 per cent grade, bringing it precisely to the elevation of the intersection of Chestnut and Divisadero streets, a block away from the site of the Tower of Jewels, that marked the main entrance to the never-to-be-forgotten Exposition. Just a few blocks farther is the belt railroad that traverses the entire waterfront, the business heart of the city, ready to be a link of the great commercial carrier of the western world.

Pedestrian Promenade Across Strait
Novel Idea

From this plan might be omitted the upper or promenade deck, with material reduction of cost, leaving only rail and automobile roadways. The promenade is, indeed, more or less of a matter of sentiment. Crossing the Golden Gate in midair would present, perhaps, the most impressive, emotional prospect in the world. Why should not those enjoy it who are, by unkindly circumstance, still constrain travel on their own legs? Moreover, it would be best observed leisurely, not from a flying train or automobile.

“After the shock of the bare statement, the first and preliminary inquiry arises, Is the project practicable—and practical?

“Beyond cavil or question, yes—far more so than the proposed five and a half mile bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. This is not a guess. I do most things in life indifferently, I am a graduate civil engineer, know a thing or two about applied mathematics and am familiar with construction work from building pigsties to building railroads—I have built both. The proposed suspension bridge—the central span—would be longer than any other structure of its kind in the world. But that only means stronger material, extra factors of safety. And nowhere in the world has nature presented such an admirable site. Bluff shore lines and easy gradients on either side —no costly approaches and still more costly right of way.

Idea Was Old As as State’s Railroading

The idea is almost as old as railroading in our State. When the Central Pacific made its entry into California, the original route via Stockton, Livermore Pass, Niles canyon, with its long detour and heavy grades was found to be impracticable. The company, therefore surveyed a more direct low-level line, departing from the present route east of the Suisan marshes, passing through the counties of Solano, Napa, Sonoma and Marin. In 1862 I was present at a session of the Marin Supervisors when Charles Crocker explained his plans, among which was a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate. Detail plans and estimates for such a bridge were actually made by Central Pacific engineers. But, along came a man with a newer idea—the transfer of trains across Carquinez straits by steamer and the extension of the Oakland mole to tide water. And so the suspension bridge project died.

“The length of the proposed bridge from Oakland to San Francisco is approximately 27,000 feet, as against approximately 5000 feet from abutment to abutment of the suspension bridge. The former, if constructed on arches, could not fail to interfere seriously with navigation of the upper bay. One serious objection seems to be that the projectors do not know where to land it on our side of the bay. One engineer gives it a terminal on the summit of Telegraph Hill!

Cost Ranging From 25 to 75 Millions

“The estimates of the cost of the San Francisco-Oakland bridge range from 25 to 75 million dollars.

From such data as I have, and by comparison with the cost of similar structures, a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate could be built for less than ten million dollars. This is an extreme estimate, accepted by several engineers to whom this article was referred.

“But as a final and fatal stumbling block, the foolish jealousy between the rival towns will never permit them to join in a great constructive enterprise till human nature has materially changed. That will not be in my time or yours.

“Of course, it will be objected to at once that both terminals of the suspension bridge would necessarily be located on military reserves of the government. But such an objection could hardly stand. Indeed, it ought to be an immense strategic advantage to have the two great defensive points of the harbor connected up. Doubtless the government would gladly grant the easement. It is in inconceivable that any government would arbitrarily block one of the greatest and most significant undertakings ever attempted by civilized men. Certainly no hostile attitude was assumed at Washington when the plan was materially considered over forty years ago.

Financing of Project a Community Investment

“Still as the intimate concern of San Francisco and the North Coast counties, the undertaking should be properly financed by these communities, as a public utility concern. Having only a sincere desire to be closely united, this ought to be simplicity itself, for the extremely simple reason that a bond issue of $10,000,000 would take care of itself and speedily retire itself. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad alone spends half a million dollars a year to maintain a line of steamboats between San Francisco and Marin county points, which is extremely wicked interest on the total cost. Very small charges for its use would soon pay interest, principal and all.

And if, from a financial standpoint, it were a total loss, still San Francisco would be far ahead. The city could well afford to pay $10,000,000 or more for the greatest advertisement in the world—for a work never before surpassed by the imagination and handiwork of man. Whether viewed from its lofty deck, commanding the contrasting prospect—to the west, the grand old tumultuous ocean; to the east, the placid bay; or from incoming ships; or from the landward hills: it would bid fair to remain forever the most stupendous, awe-inspiring monument of our modern civilization. And it could have no rival, for there is only one Golden Gate in the world.

Greatest Of World’s Harbor Improvements

“Even in remote times, long preceding the Christian era, the ancients understood the value of dignifying their harbors with impressive works. The Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos of Alexandria were counted among the seven wonders of the world. The same tendency appears in our own times, witness the cyclopean Statue of Liberty at the entrance of New York harbor. But the bridge across the Golden Gate would dwarf and overshadow all.”

This proposition has created more enthusiasm in San Rafael than any other for some time. Mayor Herzog and the City Council have all endorsed it enthusiastically. The Central Marin Chamber of Commerce is expected to act at their next meeting and the County Supervisors will also probably act at their meeting next week. While the cost of such a bridge would be enormous it is not insurmountable as pointed out in Mr. Wilkins’ article. Such a proposition if constructed would undoubtedly double the value of real estate in Marin county in a short time and no doubt in a few years the population of Marin county would increase five-fold. This proposition is not a wild-cat dream and deserves a lot of consideration.

– Marin County Tocsin, September 2 1916

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lostnewspaper

HOW TO LOSE A NEWSPAPER

It pains to write this, but the coronavirus probably will be an extinction level event for most print newspapers. This is not a shocking new development; the Nieman Journalism Lab started the death watch even before the National Emergency was declared. Go back to the 2008-2009 recession and find pundits were warning that print was unlikely to survive another economic downturn – newspapers were like a flotilla of Titanics all drifting towards the iceberg zones. And so here we are today; sans charitable bailouts from billionaires or megacorps, lots of ships are soon to sink together into the cold sea.

This is not the place to go into all the reasons why this is happening, but some are well hashed over: Printing presses can keep rolling only so long without advertisers to pay for the paper and ink. Too many newspapers were being run by the MBA-types who saw journalism as little different from selling soup – if the demand slacks off, keep the profits high via cutbacks. Many were even taken over by hedge funds and investors who saw them only as cash cows to be milked dry; a must-read is a 2018 article, “This Is How a Newspaper Dies” (the term “harvesting market position” will definitely be on the quiz).

The deeper problem for newspapers is that nobody’s reading them. U.S. circulation is the lowest it’s ever been since they began keeping records in 1940. Why is that? It’s not like we’ve become a sub-literate society; Americans are typically spending over six hours a day online and not all of it is looking at cat videos (I hope). And particularly now in the spring of 2020 we’re news-junkies, with 89% of U.S. adults following the latest about coronavirus closely – only not via newspapers. We’ve given up on newspapers, but as I’ve said for over 25 years: Readers did not give up on newspapers until newspapers abandoned their readers.

pdmay22The change is apparent simply in the paper’s heft; today’s offerings are scrawny things compared to what we used to read not all that long ago. To the right are the Press Democrat front pages from May 22, 1970 and 2020, both days being a Friday. The text content of the modern edition would have filled less than one-quarter of the earlier page (modern size not to scale – both were the same height). There’s now just not much there there. And keep in mind this is not to pick on the PD; you would see the same devolution in any mid-size U.S. daily.

It may seem surprising but once upon a time newspapers were a primary source of entertainment. Sure, some people cared most about box scores or what stores had on sale, but every edition was packed with lots of other items to amuse, astonish or inform. What’s changed today is summed up in that keyword, lots – if there was nothing to interest you on the current page, turn to the next one, or read the page after that. Today there is no “page after that” because most papers have become little more than broadsheets, and the stuff filling the pages is too often wire service synopsis. In that 1970 edition, Every. Single. News. Page. had one or more local items.

Newspapers also engaged readers with stories that carried on for more than a week. Some of my favorites are BONFIRE OF THE HOODOOS about a political stunt that got out of hand, MR. CONTEST EDITOR IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU about a subscription drive that drove the town nuts, and THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HOBOES, where the PD’s 19 year-old cub reporter wrote a memorable series on what it was like living as a tramp.

The main element missing isn’t QUANTITY of news, but the QUALITY. Whenever I search old newspapers for particular items about local history I also read (or skim) the rest of those editions as well and I do it for pleasure – a well-written story is always a joy, no matter where you find it.

Papers from the 1950s-1960s are particularly fun because that was the Golden Age of columnists. The San Francisco Chronicle had Stanton Delaplane and Herb Caen; the Argus-Courier offered “peopleologist” Bill Soberanes and Ed Mannion; the Press Democrat served up Gaye LeBaron and Bony Saludes. Those newspapers would do themselves a favor by reprinting selections from those columns. Here’s my personal favorite Gaye LeBaron item:

A small girl-child (eyes at desk-edge level) came into the Children’s Library yesterday and asked librarian Venus Gordon for “The Cat in the Hat, please.”

Receiving her copy she went to a small table, made her self comfortable in one of the short chairs, opened the book and smiled disarmingly up into Mrs. Gordon’s eyes.

“You know, of course,” she said, “I can’t read.” (Aug. 26, 1960)

bronsonBy reading the entire paper I also stumble across treasures. While researching the 1969 earthquake I found people were saddened because it struck just as a TV show called, “Then Came Bronson” was about to air. A guy later told LeBaron that some group should contact NBC for film of that episode and have a showing at a local theater to raise money for charity. (You can watch that episode, “A Famine Where Abundance Lies” online, but I sure don’t recommend it.)

It turned out the attraction was that the series was created by Denne Petitclerc, who started as a PD staff sports writer in 1950 and became one of the finest crime reporters and feature writers found anywhere – there’s no question in my mind he would have been awarded a Pulitzer if he hadn’t “gone Hollywood.”

Denne Bart Petitclerc wrote for the Press Democrat until 1956 when he left for the Miami Herald, and while here won several journalism awards. As a public speaker he was also in demand and seems to have been an overall popular fellow around Santa Rosa. No wonder that locals wanted to see the show he had developed.

Copyright restrictions block me from providing more than a sample of his works, but all can be read via Newspapers.Com, which is available on computers at the Sonoma County Library. There are dozens more Petitclerc articles like these.

The brown-haired man with the pleasant ruddy face wanders into a grocery store looking for all the world like a painter.

He smiles at the man behind the counter, selects a few items from the shelves, carefully including a box of pablum, “for my baby,” he explains.

He crumples a shopping list in his hand and puts it into the pocket of his paint – smeared overalls. “I guess I haven’t forgotten anything,” he says. “My wife gets plenty sore if I do.”

He chats casually with the grocer while the items are checked, telling, perhaps, of a little piece of property he’d like to buy up by the doctor’s place. “You know the spot.”

Then he calmly explains that he’s new to the community, doing painting for the doctor, “nice fella, Doc.”

He sure is, the grocer agrees, as he is handed a check signed by the doctor. “My pay,” smiles the man. “it sure don’t go far now days. No, sir.”

He endorses it, picks up the change, and the groceries, and walks out, leaving the grocer behind thinking, “there’s a nice young fella.”

And with a bad check.

That is the method of operation of 39-year-old Walter DeMeter, California’s most wanted criminal, who has passed more than $50,000 in forged checks in the state since 1947. And DeMeter may be in Sonoma County today… (Feb. 8, 1954)

 

They’ll talk about Big Jim Antone and the fight he had with the octopus for a long time.

Big Jim is a bulldozer operator in Santa Rosa for Tom McLain, and a lot of man at 265 pounds.

And his boss, Mr. McLain tells about the way he can stretch a chain around a truck-motor and lift it right off the frame, lifting with his two big arms.

So, Big Jim went abalone fishing yesterday morning at Fort Ross, and got out into the water just after daybreak. It was raining, and the sea was heavy, but that didn’t distrub Jim, who was raised at Jenner-by-the-Sea, and who’s as fine an abalone fisherman as there is anywhere.

He went out along the rocks until the water splashed above his chest – he says that the abalone are bigger out there – and was prying around with his hand for the rough shells attached to the rock.

Then suddenly something that felt like a muscled piece of wire wrapped around his left arm. He pulled back. Another tentacle attached itself to his body. And another. And another.

“I never saw so many arms,” he said later.

The tentacles were as thick as a main’s forearm, and held fast to his body by milky-white suction cups.

Big Jim found it was useless to try to tear them from his arms. There was only one thing to do… (April 6, 1954)

[He pulled the 40 lb. octopus from the rocks and walked to shore with it still wrapped around his body.]

 

Grady Hayes sat in the darkness in the back of the patrol car and talked in a high-pitched voice and winced when the car hit a bump because of the steel handcuffs that locked his two big arms behind his back.

“I could have chopped you down, easy,” he said, “but I didn’t have no intention of hurtin’ anybody.”

He had, a half hour before, been captured at the Jack Willen ranch, Hot Springs Rd., and now we were driving down the twisting ridge-line towards Highway 101, six miles away. Looking out through the windshield you could see the lights of Geyserville flickering in the distance in the darkness. Hayes was talking to Deputy Cole.

“I was in the brush last night when you came up to that culvert and shouted,” he said thickly, hardly audible, “and you was about four feet away.”

He was wearing a pink wool shirt and grey slacks that were dusty and ripped from the brush, and he had on a tan felt hat that looked as dapper as the day he left San Francisco and came to the remote cabin in the hills 15 miles west of Cloverdale and shot and wounded his estranged wife and two children… (June 2, 1955)

 

When sheriff’s deputies Fred Muenster and Joe Sweeney dragged the shivering, sad-eyed boy ashore at Bodega Bay last week, he looked for all the world a picture of youthful innocence, lost and confused.

Indeed he did. He said he was lost and hungry end had taken a skiff to a moored boat in the harbor and only taken “a little food” to sustain his life. Yes, indeed he had.

A boy to be pitied and helped. After all, weren’t we all lost boys once? Sure we were.

Out of their own pockets, the officers fed him. Nice boy. They brought him back to the County jail at Santa Rosa, and he warmed himself in an office. He had an uncle in Annapolis. He could go there. He was wandering from Tracy to see his uncle. He was only 18.

Poor chap. “You know,” he said, “my name is pronounced differently in England. Have you ever had anything to do with royalty? I’m it.” He confided with a bearing of dignity. “I’ve got a big inheritance in England. Someday, when I get a stake, I’m going there and claim it.”

Well, he, heh, boys, you know boys with imagination? Sure you do.

“Ever been arrested before?” he was asked.

“Oh, no, sir, never in my whole life. Honestly never…” (Oct. 20, 1955)

[The kid was burglarizing summer homes near Guerneville.]

Another serious author who worked at the Press Democrat 1949-1952 was Frank Herbert, who went on to write the DUNE sci-fi novels. He was a staff writer and photographer, so much of what he turned out was mundane (“Eagles Honor Mrs. Lingron, Mother of 8 Sons, Daughters”) but they sometimes gave him a featured column – complete with portrait! – which could be less predictable.

His strangest contribution to the PD was probably the column titled, “To One Part Verne, Add Galley of Zomb, Drop in Heathcliffe and expect Occidental,” again here excerpted for copyright:

It was a green morning and I woke up to find that my bed had three sides instead of two. The third side was a surrealist extension into the fourth dimension and the minute I stepped onto the floor over that ‘side I knew it would be one of “those” days.

In the first place, my wife found a note in the bottom of the kitchen garbage can which read:

“I can’t live without you.”

It was signed, “Verne.”

We don’t know any Verne. We puzzled over the darned thing for a while and finally decided it was a scrap from a short story one of us had written and thrown away, (with good reason.)…

[They decide to drive to Occidental before dinner.]

…At the west end of Coleman Valley the road began to climb in a series of steeply pitched switchbacks. Up, up, up, it climbed, into the mist. At the top there was wind-whipped fog, a low moaning of wind through brown grass and ghost figures of sheep only dimly seen at the limit of visibility. It looked like a cheap illustration for an Emile Bronte novel. We expected Kathy to come striding over the next rise, shrilling “Heathcliffe! Heathcliffe!”

Thus far, you will note, that since taking that inscrutable turn we had seen no human beings…

…Around us, weird rock shapes rose from the sere grass. The fog-rimmed scene became more and more Brontes-like. We expected to see a “thing” gibbering at us at any moment. And then the road started down. More switchbacks, the fog thinning. Another farmyard, dilapidated buildings and no people. (The last outpost.)

And at the bottom there was sunshine. We gloried in it. There was a car approaching us. We laughed. A human being must be driving it, we said. The car drew closer, slowed; we passed. The driver looked at us. His eyes were red-rimmed, hair straggled down over his forehead, there was a scar along his left cheek. He sped away behind us.

“In heaven’s name, who was that?” my wife asked.

“Heathcliffe,” I said. We drove back to the world of the living . . . and dinner. (Aug. 26, 1950)

In a Sept. 29, 1950 column on L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics (which Herbert thought should be required reading) he compared it to medieval jousting: “…we are still bogged down in the fifth or sixth century A. D. Meanwhile the mind in its perception of its environment plods gaily on, lance in hand, armor buckled, helmet on, visor down. We are the only creatures in the universe with helmets containing visors with built-in mirrors. Pull down the visor and Zoot! You are staring yourself in the eyes.” No, I don’t know what it means, either.

He may have gotten away with some of these things because he wrote a series on nuclear war which the PD sold separately as a popular pamphlet, “Survival and the Atom,” which the paper promised had “all of the facts ‘Mr. Average Civilian’ needs to know to survive in an atomic attack.”

After Herbert left Santa Rosa he later wrote “The Santaroga Barrier,” a novel which takes place in a small California town where residents “appear maddeningly self-satisfied with their quaint, local lifestyle” – although the town as described was actually Ukiah, where he had profiled the newly-opened Masonite plant. (It’s really a terrible book; don’t let your curiosity get the better of you.)

Herbert was never as good a writer as Petitclerc, and it’s doubtful few flipped through the paper looking for what Frank Herbert had to say. But you didn’t open the Press Democrat in the morning just in hopes of reading Petitclerc’s gems; the paper always entertained readers with well-written news stories by its stable of staff writers.

Want to know what’s missing from most papers today? It’s the staff; newsrooms are like the sad last day of the going-out-of-business sale, where only a skeleton crew is sticking around to sell the display cases and that neon “open” sign in the window. According to Pew, newsroom staffing has fallen by half since 2008. That’s why all too often your local newspaper feels like it was produced by office workers filling in a template. Here’s a rewrite of local press releases or what was on the police scanner. Here are enough summaries of national/world news to fill section one. A column by a retired sports writer. Two (three?) big color photos for the front page. Support Local Journalism.

Forget missing out on having a stellar talent such as the likes of Petitclerc; today there’s no reporter here who could match Bony Saludes’ coverage of the 1961 murder spree by a 33 year-old “self-styled hypnotist,” and who along with Dick Torkelson, kept us titillated about the sinful ruttings of Lou Gottlieb and the Morning Star Ranch.

Pete Golis is still on hand as a columnist emeritus, but he was a young go-getter on the Healdsburg beat when he told us in 1966 about three members of a family claiming they had a close encounter with a spaceship. (Too bad Frank Herbert still wasn’t around.) Otto Becker of Alexander Valley said his son and daughter-in-law also saw the 6-story tall “saucer-like” ship which had red and yellow rays pouring off the edges of the saucer “like water.” It made a rhythmic “sput… sput… sput” noise, he said, so he thought at first it might be the old pump on the property. “I’m 73 years old and I’ve seen fireballs back east, but this had motors…it was controlled by some kind of human beings.” Golis told the story as matter-of-fact as if it concerned a herd of stray cows – and you can bet it was the topic everyone talked about later that day around the water cooler.

All that is what we’re set to lose (or in many cases, have already lost). It’s not the physical bundle of newsprint that will be missed; it’s that it represented the best work of a team of crack professionals to create and organize the story of our common selves. Snapping off the rubber band and opening the paper was always the first best part of your morning, even more so because you could always rely on it being there again tomorrow.

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THE GRAVE OF THE COLORED BOY

No tombstone in the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery attracts more attention than the one for Davis Wright, “colored boy” – or so it seems, as every few months questions or comments pop up on social media when someone discovers it and expresses amazement. What’s the story behind it? There has to be a story.

We only know four things about Davis Wright. He was 12 when he died in 1865; he was “colored,” but born in California so he was never a slave; he was buried in the Wright family plot. It’s the latter connection which intrigues.

Davis was part of the household of Sampson Wright – a wealthy farmer and horse breeder – where in the 1860 census the 8 year-old boy was listed as a servant. In itself that’s not unusual; also in the census Davis’ 5 year-old brother was likewise enumerated as a servant, as was a toddler at another house in Santa Rosa and an Indian baby in Sebastopol. It simply meant a person of color who was living under a white man’s roof.

What made the Wright situation so unusual in 1860 was that he had six other black “servants” beside Davis.1 No other home near Santa Rosa had more than a couple – and in those situations, the second servant appeared to be the baby/mother of the other.

The other curious thing about the Wright black servants was that they all had the last name “Wright:” Esther (age 50), John (25, but actually 29), Mary (18), James (13), Henry (11), David [sic] (8) and Georg [sic] (5). Except for Davis and George, all of them were born in Missouri, where Sampson Wright had lived before coming to California. Missouri was a slave state and Wright was a slaveholder there, with five slaves counted in the 1850 census.

daviswright

The slave schedules listed only gender and age of Sampson Wright’s Missouri slaves, and three had vitals which corresponded exactly to his California servants Esther, John and Henry. The other two youths on the California census, Mary and James, were almost certainly among those former slaves but the evidence isn’t quite as perfect.2

Wright seemingly had particular affection for John; when he died in 1867, Sampson’s will contained only two special bequests. One was a few acres to his five year-old grandson, Peter (who would die at the age of 9) and the other was “…to my Black man John Wright a homestead of 20 acres…so long as he continues to live on the same [after which it would be returned to the estate] …”3

At this point, Gentle Reader might be looking at the overall picture and wondering if Sampson Wright started a second family with Esther, bringing everybody along when he came here from Missouri in 1852 or 1853. This would go far to explain why a “colored” child is buried in the family plot – it’s because he was family.

Devil’s advocate – there might not be any family connections by blood between the white Wrights and the black Wrights; the five Missouri slaves could be entirely different people from the five California servants, and the matching age and gender was just a wild coincidence. Perhaps the Wrights had a compassionate concern for what would happen to their former slaves once they left Missouri and realized the blacks they owned would fare better if they stayed with them in the free state of California, albeit in a modified role as servants – although that doesn’t explain how it came to be that two more black children were born here bearing the Wright name.

Beyond their unusual number of black servants, what do we know about Sampson and Elizabeth Wright? Sadly, not much. They were both elderly; in 1860 he was 67 and she was 57 (they lied on the census and claimed she was four years younger). They had a 250 acre cattle and horse ranch where Coffey Park is today. The property and animals combined were worth about $750k in today’s dollars, putting them comfortably in Santa Rosa’s top 10 percentile. Their two children were grown and well-established in the area; her youngest child was born in 1827 (“my Black man John Wright” – the first of the black children – arrived four years later).

The Wrights were almost never mentioned in the Santa Rosa newspaper except for Sampson’s horsebreeding, which is quite unusual, considering their wealth and that his two sons with Elizabeth were prominent men. The paper ignored it when he remarried at age 74 (five weeks before his death!) and when he died Sampson was given only a seven-line obituary – which was generous considering how poorly the Democrat treated Elizabeth, who didn’t even merit a death notice. It’s almost as if the couple was blackballed by the community.

All of the different Wrights aside, there’s also the important historical context of when Davis Wright died in May, 1865 (exactly 155 years before the posting of this article). The Civil War had ended just a month before and those were white-hot emotional days in Confederacy-loving Santa Rosa. And there was Davis, the first African-American being laid to rest in Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery, which had been established only about a decade before.

Put all of these details together and I see two possible interpretations of what Davis Wright’s tombstone could mean.

Perhaps Sampson was distancing himself from the child being buried there – apologizing, if you will: “This boy shared our last name and lies in our family plot, but he wasn’t really part of the Wright family.” If that was his intent, the grave could have had a simple wooden marker or even no marker at all. But that carved granite tombstone wasn’t cheap, and Sampson certainly did not have to advertise Davis was a “colored boy.”

Instead, I believe the tombstone actually shows him taking a noble stand. Elizabeth had just died and been buried there four months earlier, seemingly having endured a dozen years of being ostracized by the town’s hoi polloi – the same people who now would be griping their nice new cemetery was being defiled by having an African-American grave. What I imagine “colored boy” really means was Sampson Wright defiantly saying to Santa Rosa: “This is my beloved son. Deal with it.”


1 In the 1860 census there were 1,637 people in the Santa Rosa township, 34 of them black. Subtract the nine people from the John Richards household plus a day laborer and a “washerwoman” and the Wright household had a third of all the black residents.

2 The 1850 Slave Schedules for Sampson Wright list Female 40; Male 20; Male 18; Female 13 and Male 1112. Mary would have been 8 and James 3, so the enumerator would have had to make two mistakes: Reversing their genders and adding a “1” in front of their ages. The 1850 census page in question is sloppy, with an unusual number of scratch-outs and overwrite corrections on other entries.

3 John David Wright (b. June 1831) lived here the rest of his life, apparently dying at the Sonoma County Poor Farm after 1900.

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